“There is no greater agony than bearing an untold story inside you.” ~ Maya Angelou.
Jamaicans (and maybe many other people), tend to blame many of their symptoms on gas. Shoulder pain? Gas. Chest pain? Gas. Of course, the obvious ones like bloating and cramping, also gas. In England the term for passing gas (flatulence, if we are going to be correct) is far more gentile: breaking wind. Sounds soft, like a puff of air! My father-in-law had his own remedy for dealing with gas (which as he knew was the cause of gas-tritis), he would take a shot of white rum to ‘cut the gas’. My grandmother, before she went to bed each night would take a cup of hot water with a pinch of salt – helped her with the gass. English was her third language after Welsh and Spanish, so her spelling remained delightful and original all her life. She ended all of her letters to us with ‘huggs and kisses’.
But the father of GAS was a French-Canadian named Hans Selye – he was the one who did all the research on stress, who coined the term ‘stressors’, and identified the three stages of response to severe stress (General Adaptation Syndrome). When faced with a stressful situation, the body first responds with alarm – the Sympathetic Nervous System starts the fight or flight response, those feelings of fear that we all have experienced: the rapid heart rate, the dry mouth; our pupils become enlarged (all the better to see you with, my dear), the blood supply to our big muscles increases while less essential services get a reduced supply. During the alarm phase our heightened awareness, energy and adrenaline (sorry, epinephrine and norepinephrine are the correct and current names) give us superhuman strength and focus, making us able to fight like Ali, or run like Bolt. But that can only be sustained for so long. The next phase is the stage of resistance. The body is still trying to withstand the threat, but in a more controlled way. The stress hormone Cortisol kicks in, which keeps your blood sugar up, your blood pressure up, and your inflammatory response down (saving energy). And for a while, you can manage whatever attacked you, although you may find you are using up all of your reserves and become irritable, tired, unable to concentrate.
If that which caused this response (the stressor, the aggressor) is not removed or vanquished, eventually the last stage of GAS is exhaustion. It is during this stage that you are susceptible to diseases (sometimes that which does not kill you leaves you with chronic illness and ill-health). One of the most interesting things that I read about the body’s reaction to stress, is that the response is the same whether the stress is actual or perceived. In other words, to your body, stress is whatever the brain (mind, emotion, feelings) tells you it is. Is it possible therefore to reprogram the brain to interpret what we thought were stressful situations as something far less threatening, far more delightful?
This week I have been thinking about all of the people who have had to revisit some of the darkest places of their life, a time when they were overwhelmed and overpowered by brutal forces that altered their trajectory. I have tried to imagine what it must be like to have suffered such a trauma and then had to sit in front of an unfriendly panel of (mostly) men, and cameras, and the world, to relive a memory that has haunted me, but that I have tried to keep buried in order to function. I observed a woman who managed to maintain her composure, even though she was having to do that which she most feared doing. And imagined what a toll it took on her health (physical and emotional) to do so.
We do not know what we are capable of if we do not push ourselves to do that which we fear the most. It is when we are able to confront those demons and push back that we find the extent of our strength. There is a quote attributed to Eleanor Roosevelt (sometimes I wonder about quotes and the internet, how accurate are they?) that I love: “A woman is like a tea bag – you don’t know how strong she is until you put her in hot water”. By the way, I just googled to see when tea bags were invented, to see if Mrs. Roosevelt actually lived in the age of tea bags, and sure enough, they’ve been around since 1908!
This week I am sending out loving, healing thoughts to all of those who may have been triggered by the news reports over the past few weeks. We can only hope that the discussions have empowered some to share their stories, perhaps for the first time. There may be mothers who have never told their daughters their truths, which may have explained many of their strange reactions over the years. There may be wives who have hidden stories from their spouses, their significant others. There may be men, who were damaged as little boys, who have buried the shame with alcohol, or promiscuity. Who we are today is a result of the experiences we had as children. But we may have learned unhealthy ways of coping, of expressing, of resisting.
On this Friday morning, I hope you will be gentle with yourselves, forgiving yourself first, for many of us blame ourselves for the evil acts perpetrated by others. I hope you will try to retell your story in a way that casts you as hero/heroine, not victim; as conqueror, not merely survivor. For to live a full life, and to raise healthy loving children is proof that you have vanquished the oppressor. And be careful as you go: “It sipple out deh!” (Sipple is a beautiful Jamaican word, a blending of supple and slippery that describes an accident waiting to happen!). Have a wonderful weekend, Family!