My Body and Trauma

This is my story of the physical symptoms I have experienced during and after my abusive relationship. This is in no way meant to be prescriptive to others or taken as advice. This is my personal story and journey and while I hope it provides some clarity, hope, and inspiration, it is not meant to be taken as advice for YOUR body. If you need assistance with your healing journey I recommend researching naturopathic physicians or holistic health coaches in your area.

Trigger warnings: Abuse (sexual, verbal, emotional), disordered eating (orthorexia, restriction, self-harm reference, photos of eczema (blood).

Abusive Relationship:  2010-2013

From 2010 to 2013, I was in an abusive relationship that was characterized by a constant feeling of fear, shame, and entrapment. Feel free to read the whole story over at this post where I cover much more details of the emotional and mental tolls of the abuse. Today I’m just going to be covering certain aspects of the abuse that pertain to me developing the physical imbalances I’ve experienced in the wake of the abuse.

Throughout the relationship, I learned to clench. To tighten. To hold my breath. It felt like any time things were “good” or uneventful, I was holding my breath and preparing for what would come next. I had the constant feeling of walking on eggshells to try to avoid the explosion of rage that I was constantly afraid of setting off. I had to be available to my abuser at any time of the day or night, or he would think I was cheating on him. Because of this, I always had to have my phone available, even if I was in school, with friends, family, taking a shower or sleeping. So I always had this fear and anxiety around situations I was in where I might not be able to pick up the phone and would have to face the verbal abuse that would result in if I didn’t answer. My body learned to clench up, to hold tension, to be afraid all the time, even when I wasn’t actively being harmed.

When I would be actively enduring abuse, such as violent verbal altercations, vicious name calling and psychological torment, my stomach would be clenched in knots. The feeling of when your “stomach drops” was extremely frequent. The pain inside me would become so extreme as the violence went on that it would be explosive, my whole body reacting, while my mind tried to get me to be quiet so no one would notice. I would cry and cry and cry, rock back and forth, curled into a tight ball. These attacks would also result in self-harm frequently, as the pain was too strong to endure and had to be released in some way. These are only the few ways my body experienced the harm of trauma from the inside out.

In addition, our sexual interactions were filled with pain, dread, and fear from my perspective. I knew if I deprived him of the sex he believed he was owed, he’d make my life worse by getting mad at me, taunting me, or simply trying to manipulate me into giving in. It was easier just to give in, even though I hated it.  I especially hated it because we were usually sneaking around to avoid his parents and were never really alone, which was terrifying to me and completely UNsexy- resulting in even more distress and anxiety around sex. The sex itself was also very painful, rough, and long- like 45 minutes + long. How to survive this? I learned quickly how to dissociate from my body. It was too difficult to live in my body, so I’d involuntarily become numb and mentally “leave it”. It was like being in a trance, focusing on nothing, waiting for it to be over. Praying for it to be over. I dissociated from feeling as much of the experience as possible, so whatever pleasure I could have derived  from it was impossible to access. In an effort to feel less pain, mental and physical, I did my best cut myself off from my emotions and physical sensations entirely, submitting mentally to the objectification. I know that because of this, my pelvic region and sacral chakra holds a lot of tension to this day.

On that note, a good way to tell if you’re dating a narcissist is that when you give them cues that you aren’t in the mood or interested in sex, they actively coerce or manipulate you to have sex with them, and when you give in and are dissociated, stiff, or generally not into it, they don’t seem to mind at all that you’re not present in the moment at all. They want to use you, not love you. In a supportive relationship, your partner WILL care if you are not participating in sex or if you have reservations to starting it in the first place. It’s easy to see the difference looking back. Hindsight is 20/20.

Another way I coped with the abuse is by looking for things I could control because the pain from my relationship was clearly something I could not. One of the ways I found control was through my body. I leaned into over-exercise and intense dieting to have a way I could directly alter and “improve” my body. I wanted happiness so desperately, and diet culture promised that a perfect body would give me that. It didn’t, it only reinforced my unworthiness and launched me into the addictive cycles of dieting that I’ve done years of work to heal from.

2013-2016 – Post-Abuse: The rise of symptoms and physical imbalance

When I left the abusive relationship, I rebounded in a BIG way. All of the restriction, contraction and fear exploded into the wildest and most reckless time of my life, which I desperately needed. A part of this was an uptick of drinking and doing drugs in order to have the most “fun” as possible. My tender, traumatized body was suddenly flung into situations of little to no sleep, toxic substances being ingested, and a constant running away from any pain that lingered within. Essentially, running from my body, which harbored my pain.

Post abuse, pre eczema: young wild and free Emmy

I went to college and these habits only accelerated. Suddenly I was surrounded by what seemed like an infinite amount of people who wanted to drink with me at any time of the day or night. My diet of grilled cheeses and ramen certainly wasn’t nourishing my gut either. I don’t shame myself for any of this. It was what I needed at the time, and I did the best I could. But while all of these strategies were keeping me afloat mentally, they were distancing me from the connection with my body I sorely needed.

In Fall of 2013 I started developing eczema. It was an itchy rash on the insides on my elbows and knees that quickly spread up and down my arms, shoulders, and face. I had no idea what was happening. I was itchy 24/7 and none of the lotions I tried could relieve it. I did my best to ignore it at first, but that became impossible. The itchy bumps turned into weeping wounds that would struggle to heal until I ripped them open again.

From 2013 – 2016 I had sleepless nights from the itchiness, bloody sheets and clothes, bandages I would tape over my elbows during work, hours of FORCING myself not to itch, only to inevitably fail, stinging pain every time i touched water (even showers), constant itching, classmates and professors asking me if everything was okay, looking at me like I was taking hard drugs or being abused, because the dark circles under my eyes looked that way.

The eczema on my inner elbows was like this nearly constantly: open wounds, redness, and oozing.

Eczema Treatment by Medical Specialists

I went to my primary care doctor, who put me on steroid creams but said I could only use them for 2 weeks, then take a break. They helped a bit, but the eczema never went away, and when I’d try to take a break, it would weep and itch like never before. So I started using them everyday.

I kept going back to my doctor, finally getting a referral for an allergist in 2015. The steroid creams kept getting stronger, but all my eczema did was get worse. In addition, I started developing worse allergies than ever before. When I was tested at the allergist office, I was allergic to 70 out of the 80 allergens they tested me for including every tree pollen, dust, every pet dander, every grass, nearly every food (nuts/shellfish/soy,etc, which I already knew from childhood). The only thing I wasn’t allergic to was mold, which was nice. To be clear, I had always had mild seasonal allergies, but never to this extent where I had chronic sinus infections and was struggling to function around the year from my allergy symptoms.

I started making huge changes to my lifestyle to accommodate these new allergies. I could barely hike outside, let alone run, which would leave me having my first asthma attacks at age 20. I started taking daily allergy medications, nasal sprays, and once again upping the intensity of my steroid eczema creams. I got air filters, bed allergy coverings, the whole nine yards. I took an oral steroid, prednisone, which cleared up my skin for a few weeks at the cost of making it unable for me to sit still in class or calm down at night. 

Eczema on my underarms – NOT FUN

I begged and pleaded for it to stop. I felt completely out of control, deeply ashamed at my appearance and constant itching. It defined me. I wasn’t yet aware of the fact that I was suffering from PTSD from my abusive relationship, and my body was screaming at me to notice. I was not aware of the connection between brain and body, and had no idea my physical symptoms could be related to my trauma I was harboring. 

I stopped looking in the mirror because of how sad it made me. Before all this, in high school, I wore a full face of makeup every day, had my ears pierced and loved accessorizing with jewelry. Because of eczema, I could wear NO makeup, all my ear piercings became infected, and my skin would react to ANY form of metal on my neck, wrists, or ears. My eyes were sunken in and crusty, the eczema left weeping sores on my neck, arms, and legs, my face had dry patches, and my lips would tolerate nothing but Aquaphor, which I had to apply every hour to soothe my chronically cracked lips. I learned to stop looking in the mirror, stop paying attention to my appearance, because I didn’t see how it could ever get better.

I’m not wearing makeup in this photo from 2015, my eyes were that dark and sunken in from eczema.

Awakening: Healing process from 2016 onward

I got a big scare when in 2016, my primary care doctor warned me that if I used the steroid creams every day, I had a risk of developing skin cancer. I had been using them daily for YEARS. I had to figure out a different way.

After extensive internet research I started to learn about Topical Steroid Withdrawal Syndrome and people speaking out against the topical steroids prescribed for eczema. It turns out, the creams are helpful because they make cortisol for the skin, but when used over a long period of time the skin stops being able to make its own, and can no longer heal wounds. I knew this was me. Every time I tried to stop the creams, it would get worse, because my skin was unable to heal itself.

Me on my 21st birthday, my eyes are still sunken in and there’s eczema on my neck (somewhat hidden.)

In June 2016 I did my first elimination diet using this book (amazon affiliate link). I cut out all inflammatory foods including: gluten, dairy, eggs, soy, corn, nightshades, caffeine, and alcohol. It was the first time I didn’t drink nearly daily for 3 years, and I had just turned 21. But I did it, and after 21 days I had my very first day of not being itchy in nearly 3 years. It was a miracle. It’s so hard to describe if you haven’t experienced this, and I forget even now how amazing it was. I had been ripping my arms apart until they bleed for YEARS because the itchiness never stopped, and now it had. It was incredible. But it didn’t last.

I kept trying to follow the elimination diet, but it wasn’t sustainable. I couldn’t live with that many restrictions, and I needed support. So I started working with a naturopath. In our 4 sessions together, she got me on a supplement regime to help assist my skin and gut healing, because as it turns out my gut health was not great. Eczema doesn’t have any proven source, and many believe it is a result of allergies. But treating my allergies with medication wasn’t working. My naturopath introduced me to healing my skin from the inside out, starting with my gut.

I took a blood test to see what foods I was intolerant to. My naturopath conducted the test in her office, which involved pricking my finger and putting a drop of blood on little labels squares that would be sent to a lab to see if I was intolerant to a huge variety of foods.  These tests are controversial and many people have different opinions on them. This is my story and what happened to me. Everyone is entitled to their own opinions. 

When I got my results back, I was astonished. Some of the elimination diet foods were on there, but some of the foods were completely different. I was more intolerant to bananas, beans, eggs, and dairy than I was to gluten, which shocked me because of all the hype around gluten intolerance. The test was set up to show levels of intolerance, with high, medium and low categories. My plan was to not eat any of the  high or medium ones, and see how that went. Over time, we could add foods back in as my body healed.

It was a rollercoaster from there, but over time, things DID improve. My skin was healing! There were moments of relapse when it would break out again, but slowly over time it got better. And it took a long time. In addition, I started seeing a therapist to heal from my trauma, which had begun to emerge in my life in a way I could no longer ignore. So I was working on implementing these new dietary and supplemental regimes while also starting the process of healing my trauma.

Eczema on the first day of the elimination diet (June 2016) to 4 months into special diet and supplement protocol (March 2017)

Striking a Balance

Since 2017, I’ve been learning to navigate the lifestyle of having a restricted diet for my skin and gut health without falling into patterns of restriction and control that felt like an eating disorder. I often felt stress about my dietary choices because although they were helping me heal, it was hard for me to go out to eat at restaurants or friend’s houses, and I constantly has the mindset blocks of “I can’t eat anything” and “I wish I was normal”. This mindset made some foods “safe” and “good”, and some “unsafe” and “bad”. I had a history of orthorexia when I was younger, and this new regime definitely flared it up. But at the same time, the dietary changes DID help. So I’ve learned over time to strike a balance.

I’ve been able to add many of the foods I once couldn’t eat back to my diet. But sometimes I overestimate my digestive system’s ability to process food and alcohol. I over do it. It’s really hard sometimes to maintain a balance, especially when so many of the foods I love I struggle to digest. It causes a lot of grief and sadness. But when I eat them in abundance, I suffer, my gut becomes inflamed and causes a wide variety of symptoms including eczema flares. 

Another thing I’ve learned is that my stress levels are directly reflected on my skin. When I’m in alignment with my purpose, practicing self-care, going slow and nurturing my body, my skin and gut both do better, and I’m able to eat most foods with little to no symptoms. But when I push myself to the limit physically or mentally, trying to do everything at once, not resting or advocating for my needs, my skin breaks out and my gut inflammation worsens. It can be frustrating, but I realize this all points me back to the relationship I need to have with my body, one full of respect, trust, and acceptance.

An eczema flare up on my neck in Summer 2019 when I was incredibly stressed and not following my diet and supplement protocol

I believe over time, with nurturing and gentleness, my gut will heal and hopefully one day I’ll be able to successfully digest and feel great while eating all the foods. But for now, I have to be real with where I’m at and accept that my system is fragile. And looking back, it’s pretty clear to me why.

Although there isn’t a lot to look to in the scientific realm about this, I focus on my own intuitive knowledge and from what I’ve read about trauma and gut health. Trauma has been a HUGE source of stress on my body. Those years of clenching, tightening, and restricting caused profound inflammation. All the dissociation kept me disconnected from my body. When we’re constantly in fight/flight mode, we aren’t in rest/digest mode, which we need to be in for our bodies to- you guessed it- digest. I’ve spent so much time in fight/flight mode, whether I was trying to cope with anxiety, run away from my past, or fight through the abuse. It takes time to settle back in, to feel safe enough to allow rest, and therefore digest. My mission now is to give my body all the time it needs to rest, so my gut can heal fully and digest all the amazing foods I love to eat. 

The result of overwhelming my digestive system instead of nurturing it- extreme, painful bloating. April 2020

I seek to look at my body with respect and acceptance, to not push it harder than it can go, to listen when it speaks, and to give it soft, warm foods that make it feel amazing. My diet and choices are by no means for everyone; I think the main thing we can all practice is being in supportive relationships with our bodies to improve our overall well-being. This looks different for everyone. Some people are vegan, some are paleo, some are gluten-free, some eat everything under the sun. I don’t shame anyone for their dietary choices, because all bodies are different. It’s liberating to realize this.

I used to think I could use the “perfect” dietary and lifestyle plan that worked for someone else, and it would heal me. The lesson I’m learning is I won’t find healing “out there” by copying what’s right for someone else. I will find it by tapping in to what’s here in my body now, and asking for help and support from trained professionals who understand what I’m going through.

Gut health issues, skin disorders and other chronic physical imbalances can be a lot like mental health issues. When we feel like we’re alone with them, it gets worse. Shame LOVES isolation. When we see other people dealing with the same things, we feel less alone, and might even feel better. Having mental and physical imbalances can be incredibly isolating, scary, and depressing. My intention is that by talking about my experiences I can help you and everyone else reading this to feel seen, validated and ultimately less alone. You aren’t alone. There are people out there who understand what you’re going through. And healing is possible.

Happy in Kauai February 2020

That’s my story of trauma, eczema, and food intolerances. I hope it gives you some hope and clarity!

If you have any additional questions about my journey, feel free to email me or DM me on instagram. I plan on doing another post or IGTV video to answer your questions. 

I hope this leaves you feeling hopeful. Healing both our mental and physical wounds from trauma is possible, and I whole-heartedly believe that. 

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