Bake the Damn Cake: Owning Up to and Mitigating Our Traditions’ Trauma Histories by Christy Croft


Christy at the beach

“We have learned that trauma is not just an event
that took place sometime in the past;
it is also the imprint left by that experience
on mind, brain, and body.
This imprint has ongoing consequences
for how the human organism
manages to survive in the present.”
— Bessel A. van der Kolk, The Body Keeps the Score: Brain, Mind, and Body in the Healing of Trauma

While I’m not a trauma therapist, I work in a field in which I regularly support people who have experienced trauma. Sometimes I’m accompanying a recent survivor of assault at the emergency room for a rape kit, speaking warmly, offering compassion, providing distraction. Other times, I’m holding space over the phone while a fifty-something year old survivor tearfully discloses, for the first time in her life, the things done to her during childhood. Recent or old, those experiences shape us and our responses to them, even those that might not serve our health, are efforts to protect ourselves, to avoid pain, and to seek an elusive sense of safety.

“Trauma isn’t what happened to us.
Trauma is what happened inside us as a result of what happened to us.”
— Gabor Mate, in his presentation “Addressing the Long-Term Effects of Childhood Trauma”
during the Healing Trauma Summit

Our attempts to resolve trauma, to escape it, may be labeled dysfunctional and may not, ultimately, serve our highest good. They are, however, the actions of someone who wants to feel secure, who wants to feel loved.

My desire to understand trauma and trauma recovery serves my professional development as well as my personal journey, and learning more about the how trauma relates to the body has proven helpful in both of these areas of my life. I’m not a mental health clinician — I’m a crisis advocate and consent educator. But the process, as I understand it, is something like this:

  1. Traumatic experiences happen to us, and especially when our body’s natural fight or flee instincts are impeded or are ineffective at protecting us from the experience, we freeze. Our bodies may lose the ability to effectively regulate natural responses to fearful or overwhelming stimuli, thus disordering our ability to trust our perceptions of threat or manage our responses. Our minds, brains, and bodies struggle with the after-effects of the traumatic experiences.
  2. Over time, these responses that we initially developed as crisis reactions to trauma become so normalized that we think they are part of our personality, part of who we are. We may even be unconscious of how they became imprinted onto our minds, brains, and bodies. From our place of being unconsciously driven by our trauma responses, we sometimes enact those traumas onto others without even realizing that we are becoming the abuser or that we are acting from our own unhealed trauma. We are at risk for both disconnecting from our own bodies as a way of avoiding our own feelings and for perpetuating cycles of trauma in the lives of our own loved ones.
  3. While cognitive therapy can help us understand what has happened to us and spiritual approaches can help us find meaning in our recovery processes, our body has its own memory of the experience, and until we have addressed the processes our body developed to cope with trauma — processes like dissociation, shutting down, or psychosomatic discomforts and illnesses — those processes will still occur unabated in our responses to everyday stimuli, and those responses will continue to trigger less appropriate reactions and behaviors that do not serve our healing.

My Grandmother's Hands by Resmaa MenakemResmaa Menakem explores one broader application of this somatic understanding of trauma in My Grandmother’s Hands: Racialized Trauma and the Pathway to Mending Our Hearts and Bodies. In this book, he details white supremacy as a cultural trauma response, with trauma emerging from kidnapping, enslavement, and torment of Black bodies creating intergenerational trauma in African Americans. He addresses the generations of trauma white Europeans inflicted on each other throughout the Middle Ages, and he acknowledges the harm inflicted on the nervous systems of white bodies when the compassionate and intuitive impulse that this is wrong is continually repressed and intellectualized. He also addresses a type of intergenerational trauma experienced by law enforcement officers, even Black officers, as their complex roles within cultural systems and continual witnessing of trauma impact their own regulatory systems.

His book is an excellent resource on race and trauma.

While reading it, I also started to wonder what a similar study of religion and trauma might reveal. What is the impact of trauma on adherents of marginalized religions who deal with regular oppression and fear of public practice or identification in their communities? What is the impact on religious mystics and caregivers, who frequently may find their inherent compassion and desire to serve and protect at odds with dogmatic belief and practice within their religious orders? What detriment is created in the bodies of authoritarian or judgmental religious leaders, whose own ability to regulate compassionate impulses and judicious restraint in the nervous system may be impeded by spiritual or intellectual belief in the superiority and dominance of their specific ideology? And what is the impact, in terms of grief, trauma, and restriction of emotional fluidity, in the bodies of those who have been discarded by their religious communities or families of origin due to hierarchies of the sacred that reject or denigrate based on gender, race, ethnicity, orientation, disability, class, immigration status, or any of the other innumerable factors through which we group and oppress each other?

What is the impact on the brain, mind/spirit, and body created by generations upon generations of religiously-driven violence, exclusion, and trauma?

How do we begin to heal it, to mitigate its harm?

Last week, I attended a presentation by a local nonprofit providing batterer intervention programs, anger management, and other classes to help domestic abusers recognize and repair the impacts of their unhealthy patterns. “Before they can even begin to seek compassion for and address their own past traumas that led them to cause harm,” began their Executive Director, “they need to be accountable for the harm they have done. They have to stop doing harm, stop making excuses.”

We have to look honestly at the harm our traditions have done, at those we have excluded, and at the ways in which we (collectively, as religious people) have deluded ourselves into false narratives that obscure the ways in which facets of our traditions may have emerged as dysfunctional responses and may no longer serve our highest good.

We have to heal.

And bake the damn cake.

 

Christy Croft is a writer, teacher, healer, and consent and sexuality educator whose interfaith, personal spiritual practice is inspired by nature, informed by science, and grounded in compassion. She holds a Master of Arts in Liberal Studies with a focus on religion and social justice. She has facilitated safe and sacred space for over twenty years, as a suicide hotline counselor, doula, rape crisis companion, support group facilitator, minister, mentor, mother, and friend. Her research interests are ever-evolving and include spirituality, new religious movements, religiosity and popular culture, compassion, trauma, gender, sexuality, and intimacy, and she sometimes blogs at The Sacred Loom.

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9 replies

  1. So essential to recognize the intersections of personal and collective trauma. What a traumatic history this nation has and continues to have: genocide, slavery, racism, sexism, now escalated persecution of immigrants. Then there is the trauma of environmental depredation with First Nations peoples still on the front lines. When public officials invoke about the American Dream, there is an implicit denial of the American nightmare(s). Thanks for this post, Christy.

    Liked by 3 people

    • YES! Menakem noted in his book that he was “staying in his lane” by focusing on the African American experience, but that he hoped a First Nations author would tackle it from an indigenous perspective. In mentioning that last week to my agency’s bilingual therapist, he said a Spanish-language author (Chilean?) had done so. If anyone who is bilingual in Spanish would like that reference, I could ask him. In any case, I think with religion we have to tackle both the individual trauma people experience when religion is weaponized, as well as the cultural imprints left by that weaponization on the traditions themselves.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. What a clear and profound post this is! Brava! And, Elizabeth, I think you’re right, too. There are inner and outer, personal and social trauma all around us. Currently getting worse. Where are our better angels?

    Liked by 2 people

  3. Excellent essay on the effects of trauma.

    I was struck by these words”

    “…it is also the imprint left by that experience
    on mind, brain, and body.
    This imprint has ongoing consequences
    for how the human organism
    manages to survive in the present.”

    This imprint effects every area in our lives, and it never goes away. What we learn is to deal with it as effectively as we can…. Healing from trauma just doesn’t happen and to use healing in this context can also be seen as another form of abuse for the one who doesn’t “heal” no matter what S/he does.

    Liked by 3 people

    • Sara, I love what this comment brings to the dialogue for many reasons, but two come readily to mind.

      The first is hard for me to find words for, but is gratitude for the way in which you acknowledge that where we are is okay. I often find myself reminding myself that my own judgment of my behavior is frequently more harmful than any behavior I’m doing on its own. So an example: If I find a social setting overwhelming and politely excuse myself, that’s not an example of me being dysfunctional, that’s an example of me knowing how to take care of myself. If I feel someone’s behavior is creeping me out and set the boundary to end the conversation, that’s not an example of me being “triggered,” that’s me setting boundaries to keep myself safe. We’ve constructed this concept of OPEN AND OKAY as the only acceptable way to be, which makes us lean toward pathologizing those things we’ve learned to help us be functional, safe, and healthy. So yes, we learn to deal as effectively as we can.

      The second is simply to acknowledge you’re the second person in recent months who has expressed ambivalence to me about the word “healing.” Personally, it’s a word I love, but I wonder how much that has to do with me viewing it as a process rather than a destination. In thinking of it as a destination, with full typical/able-bodied/unimpaired perfection as the goal, I recoil from it a bit myself, which is why I left and no longer feel comfortable in many New Thought/New Age or positive thinking circles. But my work in trauma, specifically, has shaped the way I look at healing. For me, healing is that process we undertake to learn our new ways of navigating the world, building new neural pathways, learning to take care of ourselves when our trauma is activated, learning to stay in our bodies and hold big feelings, and (most importantly) learning to accept ourselves where we are so that deep shame does not keep rooting in our relationships and perceptions and prevent us from living fully. Not sure if that makes sense, but the other person who recently expressed an aversion to the word “healing” was unable to express why, and I’m wondering if your comment may have just helped clarify and put words to a more common feeling about that word. Thank you.

      Liked by 1 person

  4. Thank you for posting this clear and concise essay on aspects of a very complex subject. I’ve been following the presenters on the Trauma Summit as well, and have been most impacted by the talk given by Elizabeth Rosner – probably partially because of my immersion in writing a family history book. I like how you mention the generations of people traumatized in Europe in the Middle Ages because genetic trauma inheritance is being proven as fact, which means we need to *acknowledge* this as another part of ourselves, be aware of it, so that we can help others and not repeat historical trauma. As I mentioned, I was drawn specifically to Rosner’s explorations, and I greatly appreciate her view that we also need to stop putting trauma in a competitive setting or in a hierarchy of who has been most traumatized. And, yes, religious trauma is an important area to heal into; I also see healing as a process, as in the process of becoming all we can be. I will stop here, but this is a subject near and dear to my heart, so thank you for writing this piece.

    Liked by 1 person

  5. Hello Christy

    Thank you for your perspectives and information – I particularly appreciate your insights into the way that bodies respond to trauma.

    I’ve just seen that there is a book being written on Feminism and Trauma and wondered if you’d be interested in contributing.

    Abstracts of 250 words by 7 September – details: https://feminismtraumatheologies.wordpress.com

    Thank you

    Liked by 1 person

  6. Such an enlightening post! Regarding your line “I also started to wonder what a similar study of religion and trauma might reveal” — I think a systems perspective would be the best approach to come at this. We can imagine a person in relation to their religious community — their fellow congregants and religious leader(s) — and the particular religious community to the public and other communities.

    Hypothetically, there could be certain positive and negative feedback loops at play, like a positive one between a person and the community so long as they conduct themselves in accordance with everyone else, or a negative feedback loop between a person and their religious leader where the Imam/Pastor/Granthi/Guru/etc tries to encourage certain behaviors and beliefs while at the same time trying to reduce others. Obviously someone at odds with the community or leadership — or both — would have turbulence in those relationships which may have toxic or traumatic consequences. The imprints of trauma in such close proximity to the rituals they might have participated in for most of their lives may overlap one another to make rituals of avoiding the “fearful an overwhelming stimuli” you mention in your post.

    I think this would be useful in therapeutic settings for the therapist to understand how trauma might imprint and manifest in a person so they can offer the most helpful guidance through processing its cause and effects.

    All this, not to mention the complicated relationships and power dynamics between religious communities due to race and socio-economic status.

    Great essay, thank you!

    Like

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