It Is Not In Your Head

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Earlier this week, we woke up to another morning of tragic news: Jacob Blake was shot and tasered several times by police on Sunday in Kenosha, Wisconsin, leaving him in serious condition as of Tuesday. He was trying to break up a dispute. His father reported that his son is now paralyzed from the waist down but doctors do not know if it is permanent.

It’s been nearly three months since the deaths of George Floyd and Tony McDade; five months since the death of Breonna Taylor and six months since the death of Ahmaud Arbery. It’s disheartening that our conversations about racism and trauma continue to be relevant every single day. We know there are lifelong impacts to this trauma. And we continue to turn to the power of healing together.

This week we have asked Wise One, Resmaa Menakem, for help. He’s a healer, trauma specialist and author of the book “My Grandmother’s Hands.” In conversation, Menakem asked Tonya: “Have you noticed that since George Floyd got killed, all of the practices that used to give you relief, no longer do?” He continued, “That’s because we’re trying to do individual things to deal with communal grief.” The same could be said this week, and every time a Black person and their families’ lives are forever changed as a result of racism.

Trauma is a response to anything that’s overwhelming that happens too much, too fast, too soon or too long, Menakem says, coupled with a lack of protection or support. It lives in the body stored as sensation: pain or tension — or lack of sensation, like numbness.

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Menakem says these lifelong effects also impact our psyche, our bodies and our DNA. How well do you listen to your body? How do we tune in to the alarm bells our bodies are ringing? Wise One Menakem helps people listen and act on the messages our bodies are giving us. And during the course of our conversation, we got into another related subject — inherited trauma.

Our question this week comes from Nia Ita Thomas. Thomas identifies as a proud Afro-latina/Afro-indigina woman by way of the Dominican Republic. She is a New York City-based educator, storyteller and mental health advocate. Thomas is a survivor of childhood sexual assault, the daughter of immigrants and grew up with a parent who was emotionally abusive and sometimes physically abusive. When Thomas read the book “The Body Keeps the Score,” she connected her clumsiness to trauma and said she had no idea she was disassociating from her body.

I've always been known as that kid that was clumsy, and I never thought to connect it to my trauma or to the ways that I was actually disassociating from my body. And so that's a way that definitely shows up. I'm not the most graceful person. I'm dropping things a lot. I’m not the most observant person. I'm book smart, but if it's in my environment, what's happening around me, I don't always see everything. And I've learned now that those are symptoms from body disassociation — the ways that we dissociate from reality and from our body in order to protect ourselves because we had to do. It wants to survive. I never realized how not present I am in my body at times.

Thomas says she's found helpful practices such as journaling and yoga to keep her present with her body. But when she can't do those things, Thomas asks: "What are other practices that I can engage in to continue to kind of heal and realign my body with myself?"

Menakem says we have to account for the impact of white body supremacy — a structural rule that says the white body is the supreme standard by which all bodies' humanity shall be measured. He says, “if you don't start with white body supremacy as a notion for what is happening to our bodies, then whatever you come up with is going to be skewed. And there were two groups that were the antithesis to this standard: the Black body and the Indigenous body. The Indigenous body was rendered invisible and the Black body was rendered nonhuman, juxtaposed to the humanity of the white body.”

With this in mind, Menakem dove into his advice reframing our chosen healing practices and how the trauma transcends our own individual bodies.

A lot of times we come up with these individual strategies like I do yoga or I've started paleo, but what happened to our people, Sis, did not happen to us individually. What happened to our people, happened to us communally. And we've lost some of those communal ways of moving through it. Race has energy to it. It's one of the reasons why we don't want to talk about it; because when we begin to talk about it, all of the grief, all of the historical, intergenerational, institutional trauma and personal grief also show up at the same time.

Menakem is also a survivor of childhood sexual assault and he understands the body disassociation as a protective mechanism. He consistently tells Black and brown people embarking on this health journey “trauma is not an indicator that you are defective. It is an indicator that things have happened and continue to happen so your body starts to protect itself, whether your brain thinks it should or not.”

One example Menakem offers is of inherited trauma. He says there is trauma in our bodies that has been passed down to us. So, when we feel something is “off” it may not actually be ours. Menakem highlights the trauma might actually be a trauma passed down that never got resolved in our ancestors.

What happens if you're my child and you didn't know what happened to me 20 years ago? But now I'm raising you and leaning into things that feel a little bit off. Now it looks like daddy is just crazy. Then over time, the family lore is, “Leave that boy alone, that boy a little off.” In the culture, it looks like these people is just running wild. No. Something happened and continues to happen. Trauma in a person decontextualized can look like personality. Trauma in a family decontextualized can look like family traits. Trauma in a people can look like culture.

To begin, Menakem has these suggestions for people looking for practices to heal trauma in the body:

Soul Scribing
1. Think about the experience that caused you trauma. Even if you don't remember what happened, still answer this question: What are the vibratory sensations that come up?
2. Answer slowly and then step away from your writing.
3. Revisit it and read it. Write some more. Repeat until the story starts to unfold and you're able to metabolize pieces.

Reclaiming the Hum
1. Focus your attention on the center of your belly, behind your navel.
2. Breathe in and out, deeply and slowly a few times. Feel your belly pull the air all the way down into it.
3. On the fourth or fifth exhalation, hum a low, even tone.
4. Inhale naturally and repeat this a few times, varying your pitch with each new exhalation.
5. Do this for 2-3 minutes.
6. Then stop and ask: What has changed from before you started humming? What has stayed the same? What does your body want to do now? Just take notice.

Slow Rocking
1. Get comfortable. Take a few deep breaths. Slowly rock your upper body from side to side or forward and back.
2. If you like, play or hum a slow soothing tune and rock to its beat.
3. You can stand or sit, rock side to side or forward and back at different speeds (always slow). Discover what feels best. Do this for 2- 5 minutes a day.
4. When you're done, stop and notice what your body is experiencing.
Alternative: Keep your body still, but let your head and neck rock slowly from side to side.

Reclaiming the Touch
1. Remove any heavy clothes. Get comfortable and take a few deep breaths. Let your shoulders relax.
2. Place your palm on the center of your belly, just above your navel. Press in gently. Hold your hand in place for a moment or two.
3. Then, slowly rub your belly for 3-4 minutes, in whatever way feels good to your body.
4. When you're done pay attention to all the sensations in your body.
Alternative 1: Rub the center of your breastbone
Alternative 2: Rub your solar plexus — your center of gravity, halfway between your breastbone and navel.

His book, “My Grandmother’s Hands”, includes practices for healing white body supremacy and should not be read in a month or even a year. Menakem recommends reading and practicing slowly for the duration of about two years. He also offers a free online course on racialized trauma that can be accessed below.

While this journey can feel overwhelming it is a lifelong journey. “The beauty in it," Resmaa says, “is that you learn so much about yourself in the process of transforming. In order to do so, you have to get to suffering's edge. You have to get to the level of temporarily conditioning your body to be able to withstand the charge that it takes to transform.”

Episode transcript can be found here.

Episode Guests:
Nia Ita Thomas, a bilingual, NYC school-based speech-language pathologist
Resmaa Menakem, Healer, Trauma Specialist and author of “My Grandmother’s Hands

Free Racialized Trauma E-Course led by Resmaa Menakem can be accessed here.

Resources provided by Resmaa for your healing journey can be found here.

Recommended Reading:
"My Grandmother’s Hands" by Resmaa Menakem
"Making Space for Grief in Our Bodies" by Alicia Forneret
"The Body Keeps the Score: Brain, Mind, and Body in the Healing of Trauma" by Bessel van der Kolk M.D.*
*Note: the author was fired in 2018 for reports of his bullying and mistreatment of employees at his renowned, The Trauma Center.
"It Didn't Start with You: How Inherited Family Trauma Shapes Who We Are and How to End the Cycle" by Mark Wolynn
"The Deepest Well: Healing The Long-Term Effects Of Childhood Adversity" by Nadine Burke Harris
"Pleasure Activism: The Politics of Feeling Good" by adrienne maree brown
"Mindful of Race: Transforming Racism from the Inside Out" by Ruth King

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Recommended Listening:
Race and Healing: A Body Practice” episode from “On Being” with Krista Tippett podcast
Irresistible” ("fka Healing Justice Podcast”*)
*Note: the podcast has come to an end this year after an employee highlighted the harm done to Black and brown people caused by the show's co-director