Slow-Cooked Sentences

A postscript to
“I am not a rolling stone”

Rachael Conlin Levy

This weekend I listened to an On Being podcast that placed my personal experience with pain into cultural context. My family history is a patchwork of strangers’ stories and forgotten names. I come from the Irish, English, Scottish, French and Belgian — northern European immigrants whose babies sipped from their grandparents’ beer steins.

In the podcast, host Krista Trippet interviews Dr. Bessel van der Kolk about how human memory, particularly a traumatic event, becomes a sensory experience. Van der Kolk, a longtime researcher known for his innovation in trauma treatment, argued that we suffer from a profound disconnection with our bodies because our elders self-medicated with alcohol and drugs. As part of his treatment, he includes bodywork like yoga.

This was of particular interest given that I’d just written about my own coping mechanisms (or lack thereof) when it came to pain. I’m sharing the portion I found relevant, but if you’re curious, I urge you to listen to the entire interview. It’s worth it.

DR. VAN DER KOLK: … I have to give a little bit of background here. Um, way back already in 1872, Charles Darwin wrote a book about emotions in which he talks about how emotions are expressed in things like heartbreak and gut-wrenching experience. So you feel things in your body. And then it became obvious that, if people are in a constant state of heartbreak and gut-wrench, they do everything to shut down those feelings to their body.

One way of doing it is taking drugs and alcohol, and the other thing is that you can just shut down your emotional awareness of your body.

DR. VAN DER KOLK: Western culture is astoundingly disembodied and uniquely so. You see that we are much more disembodied. And the way I like to say is that we basically come from a post-alcoholic culture. People whose origins are in Northern Europe had only one way of treating distress. That’s namely with a bottle of alcohol.

North American culture continues to continue that notion. If you feel bad, just take a swig or take a pill. And the notion that you can do things to change the harmony inside of yourself is just not something that we teach in schools and in our culture, in our churches, in our religious practices. And of course, if you look at religions around the world, they always start with dancing, moving, singing…

MS. TIPPETT: Yeah. Crying, laughing.

DR. VAN DER KOLK: Physical experiences. And then the more respectable people become, the more stiff they become somehow. …

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