It was a bit of a ‘fluke’ how well this month’s recommended read has fit with the last Bellbird Book Club book, What Happened to You. The Body Keeps the Score serves as a ‘prequel’ to our first book, allowing us to dive that bit deeper into the concept of trauma.
I find with many books that I don’t have to go back and re-read entire chapters, nor would I ever look to read a book I’ve already read once again entirely. I hate to say it, but this book is the absolute exception to the rule. Buy a copy, highlight it, read it ten times. In fact, get your workplaces to buy a copy and have it sitting on the table in the staff room. Each time you read a passage of The Body Keeps the Score, I guarantee you that something new will stand out. The information in this book is rich!!! In saying that, I will try my absolute best to condense the most relevant information from The Body Keeps the Score into a two-page summary, but I do recommend you buy this book and have a copy for yourself (and gift it to everyone you know, but I am a bit obsessed if you can’t tell already……).
The enormity of information within The Body Keeps the Score really highlights the knowledge that the author, Bessel Van der Kolk, gathered across his thirty-year career as a psychiatrist, working closely with individuals suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). The book is a mix of anecdotes about casework Van der Kolk has personally been involved in; personal stories; and more scientific information pertaining to trauma. I personally enjoyed reading Van der Kolk’s case studies and relating it back to my own professional career and the people I have had the privilege of supporting.
The title of the book relates to our physical bodies holding on to the trauma and ultimately ‘keeping the score’. The imprint of trauma on our bodies is often so entrenched, we aren’t even conscious of It. The book truly promotes the importance of being simply mindful of our bodies and the way in which situations make us feel and where these feelings are ‘located’ within us . It is not until our bodies feel safe and can release the trauma, that we can really move forward as people.
We often discuss the importance of relationships as buffers against stress and as a healing tool in resolving trauma. What we don’t talk about is the trauma relationships leave when they do not fulfil us or abuse us. As discussed in our last book club, trauma is often understood as an extreme adverse life event. A car crash, a cancer diagnosis, a loved-one dying. However, trauma exists in any facet where our needs aren’t met, and we feel let down. The most common trauma we experience as humans is within our relationships as children. The emotionally distant mother, the father with high expectations we can never meet, the parent that leaves and never returns, this is all trauma too. Van der Kolk even argues that relational trauma is the hardest to treat as it affects us most profoundly. We are innately optimistic, whether we know it or not, and when we look to primary caregivers to protect us and love us as children, when this fails to happen, it is the ultimate betrayal.
The only way to move forward, is in fact to look back. There is vital importance in supporting and revealing the inner child of traumatised people, which is often protected by maladaptive coping mechanisms. Exposing our inner child requires an immense amount of vulnerability, and to be vulnerable we must first feel safe. Self-reflection is key in supporting our inner children, to be able to really hear what they are trying to tell us and how they are trying to keep safe. Then we can support them in providing them with the love and care that they need and may have missed out on.
The biggest takeaway for me personally in the Body Keeps the Score is around how we as helping professionals support traumatised individuals towards safety. Van der Kolk states that “if we are working to provide safety and nurturing that people missed out in during our work with them, we are in the wrong profession”. What I interpret this to mean is that it is not our role to fill the emotional void left by trauma for others. We must understand individuals as the experts of their own lives. The only person that can make an individual feel safe, is themselves and we must aspire to provide individuals the space and opportunity to uncover how best they can achieve this.
Here at Bellbird, we recognise the amazing work our social service practitioners are already doing mitigating the impacts of trauma. Whether you are working in care and protection, reducing the impacts of trauma for children, working to support families shift out of a cycle of violence or working in mental health helping people unpack the trauma they have experienced, we see you and you are incredibly valuable.
What we are hoping to promote, is a greater culture of collective vulnerability across different services and between individuals. We believe our Book Club is so much more than just meeting once every few months to discuss a ‘book’, but a catalyst to achieve this goal. Our Bellbird Book Club serves as a safe and powerful space that encourages this concept of collective vulnerability. People come, connect and relate and feel safe enough in the company of like-minded people to “take their mask off” for a minute, or for the full hour and be fully present with themselves and with others. Please join us.