Body As A Text
By. Joy Holt
To read the body as text, is to bear witness to its parts; scanning each part with breath to see where the breath flows freely and where it gets stuck. Wonder about the sticky parts. My way of learning to read my body as a sacred text came by way of experiencing such extended, chronic pain I had no choice but to look beneath my outward symptoms.
I was diagnosed with an underactive thyroid at age 24. I also had a Melanoma at the same age I was diagnosed with Hypothyroidism. I was fortunate that my Melanoma was caught early. While, I have an enormous scar on my back from removing both the cancer and every cell of skin around it, I was deeply grateful it was not in the realm of chemo or radiation. About three years prior to these diagnoses, I had a painful case of shingles, I began breaking out on my face with acne with which I had never before struggled, and I developed an ulcer. I was still in undergrad, age 21. I never once stopped to wonder how I was doing psychologically. I lived in the great split; where mind and body live separately. I went to the necessary Doctors to get the medications I needed to resolve these irritations that were creating pain and slowing my pace. See, I was in a hurry to graduate, get a high paying job because I had a single mother with Chronic Progressive Multiple Sclerosis for whom I was caring. I tended to her until I was able, but once a person reaches stage 4 level care, the professionals are required. She was stage 4 for five years, bed ridden; always with a smile on her face. Memory is such an interesting feature of our beings. I remember exactly what her smile looked like, how expansive and accepting, the shape of her lips, her perfect teeth, the way she smelled, her softest of hands, and the constant twinkle in her sea, blue eyes. Even MS couldn’t erase those features. At the time, I was pretty on my own with her situation; leaving work every evening to cook meals for her and do laundry. I did this for years. So, I was ready to bust my ass our of school and attend to the person who had been my biggest champion, the one who celebrated the successes I kept private, who I told my secrets to, and in who’s company I knew my heart was safe.
I graduated and went on to get a job at Microsoft in 1992. I made great money, was awarded more stock options than I deserved due to continual, high reviews, and receiving favor from my boss who had me on an upward trajectory of which he spoke to me often. The thing was, I was miserable working there. It was not representative of the world I wanted to inhabit. It was competitive. I’m collaborative. There were huge gender disparities within the corporate structure. I often heard higher ups reaming people out for their stupidity, reminding them of how lucky they were to be there. It felt like everyone there was on the spectrum of extreme type A, always needing to be right. People within the culture were very linear, rigid in thought, and there was the sense that people were desirous of outsmarting their peers. Everything was urgent. It was an uncanny receptacle of profound Egomaniacs (however in Psychology its known that the bigger a person must make themselves appear, the less developed their ego structure, meaning their insides are fragile). I knew from peers working elsewhere who had Microsoft as their sales account, that it had the reputation of extreme arrogance. Kudos to all that worked and work there and have found it to be a great fit. It just wasn’t my fit. Proof of this was that prior to getting that job along with the realization of how sick my mom was becoming (bed ridden), I had filled out paperwork to join the Peace Corps and been accepted.
But there was the money I needed to make. People in this country who need stage 4 care are enormously expensive. That is not to depersonalize them in any way, my beloved mother was one, but those are the facts. It bankrupts middle to upper class families. There wasn’t a day that went by that this was not front and center in my mind. Then there was the praise and approval from my dad. I had landed his ideal job, such a phenomenal company, and for a girl that found praise from her Dad hard won, if ever, well I found that a bit intoxicating. So, when the praise came, I took it.
Then time ebbed and flowed, and my mother passed away. To date my greatest loss. There was the week after, and the week after that week, I went to call her to tell her something I knew she would laugh about, only to remember that she was not there to answer the call. The silence and realization in moments such as these are staggering.
I became clinically depressed. I now know that my body was telling me long before, in undergrad, I wasn’t doing well. It had been speaking up for years at this point. The loss of my mom and some other enormous challenges pushed me into the clinical category. I began experiencing profound anxiety attacks that left me feeling as though I was going insane. I had never experienced any form of depression or anxiety so insanity was my only logical conclusion. Again, my body was screaming, and I couldn’t listen to the underneath parts. I was chronically tired. I didn’t recognize myself. I lost 25 pounds that I didn’t need to in one month. I was engaged to be married at the time to my partner. I frankly said, “Look we need to hold off on all of this. I’m not sure who I am going to be on the other side of this, if I get that far.” To my surprise, he never flinched and was sturdy in his yes to move forward. Somehow my new fragility didn’t scare him as I was nothing of the person he had dated for five years. He said he would want me either way.
I began therapy and started to engage the many things that led me to where I was. I began to understand that unraveling was the appropriate human reaction to trauma (much of which I have not written here). The therapy was helpful (but I have since learned that there exists tremendous difference between therapists) and after a few years I was ready to stop, with the understanding, that I would likely, from this point forward, struggle with anxiety and mild depression at times, for the rest of my life. That didn’t feel hopeful, so I pressed on in my own research. I researched this topic for years. Causes, treatments, outcomes, memoirs. Life pressed on and I began getting chronic migraine headaches 2–3 times per week that were debilitating. It felt so shameful. I didn’t want people to know when I was deep in pain, because of their pity, and just the sheer exhaustion of saying, “I have another migraine.” Such tired news.
I was laying in bed one day, wondering what is my body saying to me? I’m not sure where the question came from because as I said, I was still in the mind/body split. But I didn’t dismiss the question this time. I stayed with it and let it come and go with out judgement, only curiosity. I wanted to find a new therapist to start asking this question with someone that would engage my mind and heart. Subconsciously I became aware of the split, although it hadn’t made it up to my awareness level yet. I will never understand my good fortune of finding this incredible woman that used her profound intellect, training, skill, heart, love to breath life back into me. A year or so in with her, she said, “have you ever thought of being a therapist?” I laughed! “You’re basically suggesting to your patient that she should be a therapist!” And she didn’t laugh, she just sat there and said, “you would be revolutionary in this work for the clients you serve.” What? I remembered the personality tests I had taken always came back with either teacher or therapist as the top professions for my type. The idea did make my heart skip a few beats in that I had always been drawn to art, science, brains, neuroscience, poetry, philosophy, existentialism. I told her I would let the suggestion roam around in my mind. Meanwhile I started engaging in radical self-care; massages, taking trips by myself, painting, manis/pedis, naps, hikes, backpacking, kayaking, paddle boarding. As my psychological health improved my physical health improved. I began the habit, known in meditation as body scanning. Scanning each part of your body, noticing it, inviting breath/energy (prana) into it and being mindful of what feels off, paying attention to it and tending to it.
Years later, I became a Psychotherapist. It is absolutely what I was put on this earth to do. I cannot imagine a profession of greater privilege. My therapist was right. She saw me well and accurately. The healing of being seen well and accurately is the mother load of all gifts.
Recently I was reminded of listening to my body. My left hip had been bothering me. I brushed it off as aging. It wasn’t interfering with any of my activities, I just felt it. The last two international treks I had been on, I had felt it acting up. The most recent trek to Iona Scotland, we were at our closing circle, naming what we were leaving for the land of Iona and not taking back with us. We had to do this in a group. It was deeply vulnerable as some talked about engaging divorces, changes in orientations, regretting choices made. My stone for Iona was to be rid of any ancestral trauma that existed in my body, mind, life so I was fully free and could parent my daughters without any of that attached to me. I will never forget throwing that huge stone, named for what I was leaving and heaving it into the circle. The lightness without it, both physically and metaphorically was immediate.
I returned home. I still felt my hip acting strange. I was working on it in a Yin Yoga class I participate in. I also get massages often as a form of staying in touch with my body and self-care. My massage therapist, who is also a Reiki Master, knew nothing of my hip aches as I hadn’t remembered to tell her. She got to work during a session, and I asked her only to work my upper back, neck, jaw, pecs that day because that is where I felt pain. She went directly to my left hip. I said laughing, “Hey, I said, my upper body!” She answered, “Right, but I feel something here, its off. Its not aligned properly.” I thought how in the hell did she know that and know it so immediately. I told her it had been acting up and that I was working on it in Yin. She said, Yin is good for this type of thing, keep working on it. The thought then occurred to me, as I know she was/is an energy worker, so I asked, “What emotion do the hips or does the left hip in particular hold?” She answered, “The left hip is aligned with your Matriarchal Lineage/Ancestors. The right hip is Patriarchal Lineage.” The moment was too surreal to explain it all to her and I wanted it for myself for a time. I absorbed the message my body was speaking. In Iona and even before, I was saying goodbye to my mom still and any/all unresolved trauma from her life that she didn’t have the wherewithal to deal with. She was busy surviving until she wasn’t. Since that moment on the massage table, my left hip or hips have not ached once.
Our bodies are a sacred text. Read them carefully with time, intention and breath.
I am Joy Holt-Hilliker, a Psychotherapist in Private Practice in Seattle, WA. I am also a writer contributing monthly to the For Women Who Roar Community. I enjoy the mountains, hiking, kayaking, paddle boarding, art, music, and spending time with the ones in whom I can fully be at rest. I have a Bachelors of Business Administration with a concentration in International/Global Business, and a degree in Spanish from Pacific Lutheran University. I graduated with a Masters in Psychology and Counseling from The Seattle School of Theology & Psychology. My passion for my work is rooted in the desire to see people feeling at home and alive within their own skin in whatever shape that takes. This comes from extending greater compassion and kindness toward oneself and is what ultimately leads to a greater sense of wellbeing. I believe that we are both wounded and healed in relationship and when we have ample space to explore and develop language around our narrative, we grow in power, agency, vitality and hope. I believe that women who howl together can change the world!