My Body Kept Score: What Purity Culture Didn’t Know about Trauma

by Becca De Souza | January 27, 2021

Editor’s Note: This is one of the Top 15 2020 CBE Writing Contest winners. Enjoy!

Growing up female in American Christian purity culture in the late 1990s, I absorbed messages of disregard for my body, that the desires and needs my body communicated were to be subdued. I was taught specifically to not trust my skin and muscles and neurotransmitters and hormones. I was told not to move my body in a way that drew attention to it; I needed to keep everyone around me comfortable. When I was fourteen I projectile vomited in a room full of youth group kids because, even though I felt sick, I didn’t want people to notice me leave for the restroom during a prayer. I never learned to dance; I wasn’t given the space and time and music needed to explore that form of self-expression. Although it wasn’t my innate disposition, I tried hard to be quiet and cooperative because that was what I was taught.

This worked for quite a while. I did all the evangelical teenage girl things: made purity pledges, attended True Love Waits banquets in exchange for my senior prom, and spent Friday nights writing love letters to my future husband. I focused on grades and sports and abstained from alcohol and especially dancing. I wore long skirts and baggy t-shirts and I distinctly remember telling a male friend not to touch my hair because I didn’t like the way it made me feel. (Except I did like the way it made me feel, and what I didn’t like was that I had felt something.)

Once I reached adulthood, a semester abroad in the Middle East soon after 9/11 and learning about racism and white supremacy in my own country helped begin a rapid deconstruction of the version of Christianity I’d inherited. So much of how I saw God and understood the Bible changed. I worked in mother and child healthcare and met God as midwife and mother, absorbing our pain into her body, hands covered with the blood of new life. I studied Anabaptist theology, justice, and nonviolence, and my understanding of God’s final plan for humankind became rooted in “all things new.” I had so much hope for the world and that one day we would follow in the footsteps of Jesus and inhabit our resurrected bodies in a resurrected universe. But I never let go of purity culture’s view of my body. I could never hear the good news that I was created to fully inhabit my own skin, to befriend my desires, and truly trust my body to take care of me.

Purity culture’s negative effect on the relationship between women and men has been well documented. The most blatant effect has been the denigration of women and girls as sexual objects and the protection of men who are predators. While I’ve read many accounts of purity culture negatively affecting men’s and women’s experiences of marriage, I’m not one of those people. The mark purity culture left on my life was more insidious. The tentacles of purity culture quietly suffocated my ability to trust my body. Being a good Christian woman, my goal was to ignore my body’s voice in order to stay “pure.” But I had no idea how much I would need my body to show me the way to wholeness. Because of what purity culture taught me at a young age, I would not be able to recognize the trauma I would experience in adulthood. 

My body kept me alive through two terrible events that happened within five years: a fatal car accident and a traumatic birth. In both experiences my body protected me from the initial impact by “freezing.” We often think of “fight” and “flight” being the responses that happen naturally in the face of a threat, but ‘freezing’ is also common and strategic. We don’t have a choice in how we respond; whatever response helps us survive is the right response.

Freezing is a fascinating response to observe in nature. When an animal freezes rather than runs away from a threat, they “play dead.” After the threat passes, their breathing becomes deeper and more noticeable and then their body begins to shake and shake until they stand up able to run off and return to their life with no lingering trauma symptoms.1 Humans also shake after intense experiences, whether it’s the shivering that happens after childbirth or deep sobs in the wake of shocking news. Often though, we suppress those urges to move our bodies because of how it might look to others or that we may feel out of control. We work hard to stay quiet and cooperative. Our highly developed pre-frontal cortex has many benefits but it will often stop us from following our body’s natural healing pathway.

I was unconscious during the car accident which horrifically killed eight of my friends and injured eight others. When I awoke, I didn’t feel any pain. The world felt dream-like, my mind was alert but my body shut down, and I was going in and out of consciousness. I was quiet and cooperative just like I had tried to be as a child. As I recovered over the next months, I was disconnected from my body, frustrated by my aches and immobility because it stopped me from doing what really mattered. I wanted my body to heal so I could get on with God’s will for my life.

Five years later another experience in my body brought the sense of powerlessness and overwhelming fear common to a trauma response. My uneventful pregnancy became a challenging labor and an emergency birth. The room filled with doctors and midwives, and even though it seemed like my baby was going to die I was quiet and cooperative. I couldn’t tell if I was even pushing hard enough because I stopped being able to feel my body. Memories of those moments have me floating somewhere off to the side, watching. My son was born oxygen-deprived and transferred to a bigger hospital while I was left alone, heart-broken that my own post-partum hemorrhage and need for medical care stopped me from going with my child.

My son recovered fully from his birth and we thanked God, the midwives, and ICU nurses. We were so grateful and we still are. Just like I’d survived the car accident years before, again my body had kept me alive through suffering, hemorrhage, and infection. I was handed a fussy baby, all the attachment parenting ideals, and some meals from church friends. My body was a whole new world that I didn’t recognize. With milk leaking and stretch marks everywhere, I cared most about fitting back into my jeans and acting like I knew what I was doing, that I was happy to be a mum.

My body had kept me alive through these traumas, but I found out the hard way that it had been keeping score the whole time. Six years and two babies later, I crashed hard into a Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) diagnosis. But before my diagnosis, the only tools I had to engage my mental illness were spiritual. I prayed. I repented of my fear. I asked Jesus where he was during the accident, and at my son’s birth. I exorcised the spirit of death that was hovering over me, broke off generational curses, had a quiet time daily, and soaked in the Word. I tried so hard to think happy thoughts.

None of those things worked for me. None. The more I spiritualized my symptoms, the more ashamed I felt, and the more power the illness had in my life. The more I prayed anxious prayers, the more anxious I became. I felt trapped in a body that had betrayed me, that I couldn’t trust. Hypervigilance created a deep mistrust of strangers around me when I was out; catastrophizing and traumatic anxiety left me frequently expecting the demise of those I loved and myself.

Twenty years of purity culture had left me with no tools to understand my bodily experience. It was not good news. I had no language to understand how trauma is stored in my body, no way to prioritize my body’s healing, no way to see the connection between my body, my thought patterns, my sense of safety, and my emotions. My Christian faith taught me that my body was just this thing that housed what was more important—my spirit, soul, and mind. I had been discouraged from dancing or moving my body in ways that could disrupt trauma and offer a natural release of traumatic energy. Yoga and meditation were called new age and dangerous, and anything that was body-focused could be potentially demonic. And of course, taking medication meant I wasn’t trusting God for healing.

The first psychologist I saw diagnosed me with PTSD. I cried with hope because with a diagnosis was a path forward, and one that others had traveled. She explained to me that I was having a normal response to abnormal experiences, that my body was doing its best to cope with perpetual overwhelm and keep me safe. The first step was learning about trauma and how it was stored in my body. The second step was committing to listen to and nurture my body with kindness—through gentle daily exercise, grounding practices, and breathing and relaxation strategies. My body wasn’t trying to stop my healing, it was the vessel through which the rest of me could become new. My body had been so faithful through the years, keeping me alive despite the odds. Now she deserved me to pursue safety, stability, and self-compassion on her behalf.

I am a survivor, not only of physical trauma to my body, but I am also a survivor of my own post-traumatic response. And this is where I have met Jesus, again and again. Jesus hasn’t rescued me from my body in exchange for a spirit—Jesus has shown me what it means to be at home in a body that bears the scars of a crucified world. Jesus is also a trauma survivor who comes to us with his own scars of body and heart and invites us to survive in him.2 God is not distantly orchestrating all that happens on earth, waiting for the right time to whisk us off to our spiritual home. Instead, I see God as the great midwife: resourceful and wise, present with us in our pain, giving words of courage, and using counter-pressure to relieve our lower back. God is vulnerable, taking great risks to bring new life from all the world’s grief and pain. She is with us in our suffering, carrying our trauma as her own.

It’s been four years since my diagnosis and I still do the hard work of healing every day. I do this work for my ancestors and my children, alongside my neighbors, with the pregnant mums I support, with my church. Trauma is now a gentle lens through which I see myself, those I love, and those who would consider me their enemy. The greater the understanding we collectively hold of the goodness inherent in our bodies, the more committed we can be to healing together. Our own trauma given careful attention and opportunity to heal will grow our compassion, for ourselves and others. Trauma healing will affect everything we do: how we center women and other historically silenced voices, commit to dismantle systemic racism, parent our children, even how we see our global neighbors. Our healing, when it comes, is all tangled up together.

We are not spirits living inside bodies that will soon be abandoned.  We are our bodies. Let them lead us into healing, dancing, shaking, and laughing, all the way into the new heavens and new earth.

Notes:

  1. Dr. Peter Levine, a psychologist specializing in stress and trauma, has done incredible work around the trauma healing potential for humans through body-centered work and movement.
  2. Shelley Rambo explores this idea profoundly in her book, Spirit and Trauma: A Theology of Remaining.

 

Photo by Karolina Grabowska from Pexels.


 

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