By 2008, I was being treated by a department at California Pacific Medical Center that specializes in complex cases. One of the first things they did was a neurotransmitter test and their reaction to my test results clued me in to the connection between trauma and Chronic Fatigue Syndrome.
I looked back at my life. What could equal the Holocaust combined with a mother’s suicide? It was obvious to me that as a young child, I had experienced my parents’ divorce in a traumatic way. It wasn’t the fact that they divorced; it was the way they didn’t appear to hold anything back in using me against each other. I imagine that when I continued to do well at school (albeit a little less so), the effects of their behavior on me were too subtle to get their attention.
But big events like a badly handled divorce, the death of my mother, and major surgery were not necessarily the worst hits to my system. The books I’ve read in the last few years have taught me that in some ways, these things are easier because there is at least some acknowledgement around you that something traumatic has happened.
Dealing with a traumatic event as a child without anybody checking to see how I was affected internally, creates its own trauma. But most insidious of all, is the kind of ongoing daily trauma that never even gets recognized as such. It just becomes part of how you are. When I read about this in one of Brian Weiss‘ books, I recognized my childhood.
One notable example of what I now understand as the insidious kind of trauma was the period of my life, from about twelve to fifteen years of age, when I lived alone with my mother. My typical routine was going to school in the morning, returning home to an empty flat, and then being on my own until about midnight. I responded to this by not doing my homework and not eating. My mother said there were people who go to school or work and make their own meals, and I should be able to do the same. I still didn’t eat. Eventually she began leaving Jollof Rice in a flask for me to eat when I came home from school.
I remember trying to explain how I felt about my living situation to my half-brother Olu. We were sitting by the Lagos Lagoon during one of his visits from Sweden. I felt guilty about my feelings but he said they were understandable given my experience. I was so shocked. Nobody had ever given me permission to feel whatever I was feeling before.
I’ve already written about feeling abandoned when I was in school in England from fifteen years of age and onwards. Years later, I ended up in graduate school in America and adored my little apartment. It felt like my first true home! When my parents tried to pressure me into visiting Nigeria, I couldn’t explain why I just couldn’t do it. Then I had a dream that I’d flown to Lagos. Still in the dream, I woke up to find myself lying on the ground with two suitcases in my hands. When I sat up, there were bodies around me, packed like sardines, all the way to the horizon. I stood up, suitcase in each hand, and began running. “Let me out! Let me out!” I yelled. “I have to get back to the States!!”
I woke up again, for real this time, and my decision was clear. I was not visiting my parents.
My first experience of paralyzing, sudden-onset CFS/FMS was when my mother, grandmother and Olu died within a month of each other. I was diagnosed with Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, treated with EMDR, and improved sufficiently to return to work over a year later. Nobody understood that I had CFS at the time. But I note now that I responded to a treatment for trauma. More recently, another trauma treatment has also been helpful. It involved a brain assessment which showed that I have unusually high levels of alpha waves. This apparently indicated that my system would be more sensitive to traumatic events.
Most revolutions fail at the second part – building a new order. This is where the American revolution successfully distinguished itself. The first part, i.e. tearing down the old order, is relatively easy. I feel like I completed the first part of my personal revolution when I chose to stay in the States. Perhaps now, Chronic Fatigue offers me the opportunity to successfully complete the building of my new order.
It’s been a long time since I’ve cried whilst writing. I think I’ve had a new healing with this post.