Family Trauma Numbed Me, but Self-Care Gave Me the Chance to Feel Again

Alicia Bella
Alicia Bella

"Alicia, just look at me so I know you can hear me." I had been sitting on the couch staring at the wall for about 30 minutes when my best friend, Veronica, started getting desperate to coax any kind of response out of me. My entire body felt like a boulder: impenetrable. I had a history of falling into a state of numbness. I wouldn't know how to express what I was feeling, because the truth was I felt nothing.

I can't remember a specific aha moment when I realized familial trauma lived in my body. But, after reading The Body Keeps the Score by Bessel van der Kolk, MD, I can now string together experiences from my early 20s and recognize that trauma wasn't only living in my body, but controlling it and the way I moved through the world. Unknowingly, I cycled through modes I now recognize as fight, flight, and freeze.

Let me back up a bit. I've felt like the black sheep in my families for a long time, but I can remember a time when I didn't. Growing up, I lived with my mom and maternal grandma. We were three generations of women navigating womanhood under one roof; it was an environment full of warmth and care. My dad was in and out of the picture, but my paternal grandparents made certain I was equally part of the family. I'd spend weekends at their house playing with my cousins.

Things changed when I turned 12. Simultaneously my two support systems transformed into something unfamiliar and dangerous. One night, after a friend's birthday party, I was sexually assaulted by a family member. My family minimized the situation until it was normalized. I stopped seeing my grandparents, and things at home became toxic. My mom, the silliest person I knew and my best friend, became a stranger seemingly overnight. She met my soon-to-be stepdad and consequently our home was stripped of feminine power as he asserted control. I refused to mold to his ways, resulting in a serious divide.

It became ingrained in me that when things are too intense or need too much care, we bury it and go on with our lives.

My families weren't able to face the traumas affecting all of us, and through example I learned to stay silent. It became ingrained in me that when things are too intense or need too much care, we bury it and go on with our lives. This led to years of dissociation. By the time I moved to Manhattan for acting school at age 21, my body had become completely numb. Being absolved of physical feeling was its way of protecting me from ever experiencing danger again.

In the moments I wasn't in freeze mode, numb and staring at a wall, I'd be cycling between fight and flight. Freeze operated from a depression standpoint and the latter two from anxiety. I'd move through the world in a frenzy, never slowing down to feel. My speech was stunted — I'd speak rapidly in fear of taking up too much time, or not at all in fear of being too needy — both extremes stemming from the belief that my needs weren't important.

Things began to shift when I started making real friendships. Countless times, Veronica would sit with me on the couch waiting for me to say anything. The care she exemplified made everything in my body tighten; guilt washed over me. Over time, the pattern shifted. Through practice, I learned to accept her care. As the cycles of fight, flight, and freeze subtly continued, I thought the trauma no longer controlled me. Then I signed up for a movement class that focused on connecting your mind and body.

"Release the weight of your head," the movement instructor would say as we laid our heads into the hands of another acting student. Every time, I couldn't do it; I couldn't release it. Embarrassed, I'd spend the rest of class in a mental frenzy. Class would end with free movement and while others twirled around the room and made their bodies jello-like, I found myself curled in fetal position, my back tightening every time I took a breath. The instructor would place his hand on my shoulder, inadvertently causing me to release some tension. Through consistent attendance I slowly learned to not fear what would happen if I allowed myself to be held.

Between new friendships and movement class, I created space for my emotions. As Dr. van der Kolk said in The Body Keeps the Score, "As long as you keep secrets and suppress information, you are fundamentally at war with yourself. . . . The critical issue is allowing yourself to know what you know. That takes an enormous amount of courage." As I slowly replaced my numbing tendencies with acknowledgement of the trauma I faced, it challenged me from falling back into my familial patterns of avoidance.

Whenever I was home for the holidays, my back would tighten the same way it did in movement class. I'd massage myself and fight the urge to bring up the past. It felt like I had a gigantic mirror superglued to my chest, a physical reminder of family secrets that they desperately wanted me to help bury. Even though everyone was aware of the trauma they'd still say, "But that's still your mom," or, "So, what, you're just going to not talk to your dad?" Exhausted by the gaslighting, I took ample space from them, yet the chronic back pain didn't go away.

"Neuroscience research shows that the only way we can change the way we feel is by becoming aware of our inner experience and learning to befriend what is going on inside ourselves."

I decided to invest in my chosen family, but noticed how often I felt afraid of disappointing my friends. I'd crack my back incessantly, anxiously wondering if they were annoyed with my new sense of belonging. My back pain was a constant reminder that although I may have physically removed myself from my family, I was still operating from a place of conditionality and trauma. So, I went on the hunt for a therapist, started acupuncture, and often reread sections of The Body Keeps the Score as reminders to be more mindful. I'd remind myself of a line from it, "Neuroscience research shows that the only way we can change the way we feel is by becoming aware of our inner experience and learning to befriend what is going on inside ourselves," as I'd ask my body, "How do you feel? How's my breathing?" Each time, my back relaxed a bit more.

In recent months I've discovered that my worth doesn't come from the way my family responds to trauma. My worth doesn't depend on the trauma I've experienced. Now, my body doesn't automatically hold tension or numb itself.

I haven't spoken with my mom or dad in about four consecutive months. But this is the first time I have stopped communication with intention behind it. I'm not avoiding them out of malice, but rather out of self-love. My family will always be my family but I will always be my healer; my body can't heal if my family trauma isn't accounted for.

I want to create a new standard that puts my physical and mental health above allegiance to family trauma. I remind myself: I am not a black sheep; I am a cycle breaker. The journey of healing and unpacking family patterns is messy but invigorating work. It's like a second job — but one where I get paid in self-worth.