There is a nerve that runs from the brain, through the back of the throat, down the trachea, past the stomach, and stops at the colon. This is called the vagus nerve. When under extreme distress, anxiety, fear, or depression this nerve can cause gut-wrenching pains, a dry throat, alter a person’s voice so much so that they sound like a different person (or with an accent). It can also increase a person’s heart rate, cause respiration problems, and increase perspiration. Because this nerve connects the primal brain to many of the major parts of the body, when faced with feelings that cause the primal brain to engage, it can cause a host of other problems throughout the body.
This is what caused the gut wrenching pains in my stomach my first week of college. This may have also been the cause of my viral heart infection (which felt and registered as a heart attack in blood tests) a little over a year ago.
Stress, pain, panic, and anxiety can cause the human body to react in unpredictable (and at the time unexplainable) ways.
So why did I go to live with my sister?
Why do battered women return to their husbands?
When sexual abuse occurs at such a young age (I was eight) wires in the brain become crossed. Actually, a better way to explain it is by stating the wires become connected in the wrong order. This means, therapy is not really an attempt to heal the brain, but rewire it entirely.
In the beginnings of therapy I would ask myself, “Self, if it was rape, why did I have an erection.” Susan would tell me, “At age eight, and even later in life, the body reacts to stimulus. At that age you had very little control over your body. It’s why kids pee the bed, or teenage boys suddenly get an erection in the middle of class. Their body is stimulated to do what it was made to do, not to know the difference between right and wrong. It’s not until much later you begin to control these parts of your body.”
This is the same reason survivors (whether male or female) have been known to ejaculate when being raped. It is not because they enjoyed being sexually assaulted, but because their body received stimulation and their body reacted in one of the few ways it knew how. When this occurs it can create feelings and thoughts of shame in the survivor. It can also be used against the survivor to prove that they were not raped, but consensual.
So, to return to the previously mentioned questions; why did I live with my sister when I withdrew from college?
In some ways it’s about returning to the chaos you know. This is part of the reason battered wives return to their husbands. Rather than leave and face a life of uncertainty, they return to the chaos they know. It’s a chaos they have learned to mange, and may be too afraid to leave.
It’s also because of the way my brain became wired after the sexual assault by my sister.
Sometimes, I find myself joking with my wife in the same way I used to joke with my sister. Once or twice I even caught myself calling my wife by my sister’s name. When this first happened I felt sick and confused. Why was I doing this? Part of the reason is because there is a thin line between sex, intimacy, and love. In many cases they overlap. At eight-years-old, I had no idea it was rape. I had been groomed to not tell about the secrets that occurred in our home (whether the domestic abuse of my father, or me and my siblings breaking the rules of my parents out of fear of getting in trouble or a “whoopin”) so that is what I did. I kept the secret for over twenty years (telling a few girlfriends along the way out of hopes to not feel ashamed about having sex). It was also an activity that my eight-year-old body eventually grew accustomed to. It was an activity that pleased my sister, pleasing my sister was good, and so the activity was good. I did not want her mad at me, and I did not want to get yelled at, or “get in trouble” so I kept the secret. Then, it seemed rape = intimacy. As I grew older I came to realize that sex = intimacy for most other people (in the romantic comedies I so desperately loved to watch and wished to be a part of). However, the crisscrossed wires of my brain replaced rape with sex to create the complex equation sex(rape) = intimacy. It became impossible to separate sex from rape which meant that intimacy also meant pleasing the person you love even if it meant sacrificing your happiness. This means, many times the equation that runs through my head when I get my wires crossed is sex(rape) = intimacy(self-sacrifice). To break it down this means joking with my sister was a sign of love. Love is a form of intimacy. Being intimate with my wife sometimes means having sex with my wife, who I love. Sex is rape. My sister raped me, but I love her. Joking with my wife is a sign of love.
Then, when I withdrew from college, I had been homeless for two years after my parents went through a tough divorce. Our home was foreclosed on, and my mother and I lived in the basement of a few different relatives. The idea of home, safety, love, and intimacy were a mass of tangled webs I am just now beginning to understand. Living with my sister was what my brain equated to safety at the time. I cannot look back on the past and apply the knowledge I have with my former self in same way I cannot hold my eight-year-old accountable for having an erection when it was simply responding to a source of stimulus. After high school, I attempted to survive the only way my brain was able to interpret the trauma it had suffered over the course of my entire life at that point.
As with the vagus nerve, when under stress, pain, panic, and anxiety for years at a time the human body and brain can react in unpredictable (and at the time unexplainable) ways.