Where's the Poop, Robin?
Where My Healing Was Hiding
Part 5: The Dung Gate
Trigger Warning: This series discusses controversial and critical views of Chronic Lyme disease, chronic illness, mental illness, trauma, health, medicine, religion, politics, and just about everything. It is intended to express my personal perspective, for exploring the many facets of physical and mental well-being that I found conducive to healing. Some ideas may cause discomfort if one has not experienced a similar stage in their journey, and/or one has not found the resources to understand them in their intended context. I explore paradigms that I myself at one time considered offensive, but in my healing journey have found the capacity to inquire and even embrace. I am not a medical professional and this is not medical advice. Please engage with these thoughts only relative to your individual capacity to receive them, and allow yourself safe distance if you find them overwhelming. Personally, I believe our triggers are our greatest teachers if we learn to converse with them gently, but one must first come to a place of internal safety.
This is Part 5. In Part 1, I discussed my paradigm shift from germ theory to terrain theory, and highlighted the role the Sympathetic Nervous System plays in susceptibility to chronic illness when dysregulated by chronic fear and stress. In Part 2, I began to question my narratives of Chronic Lyme, and shared my journey beyond pathogens as root cause, particularly stress. In Part 3, I had to face the fact that my own Lyme journey began after a hellish 9-month withdrawal from 16 years of prescription antidepressants, and my triggers made it clear my body was still holding onto that trauma and causing symptoms, even though the pathogens were gone. In Part 4, I discovered the link between my “hereditary” Major Depressive Disorder, antidepressant medication, and my worst neurological Lyme Disease symptoms: the Anterior Cingulate Cortex (ACC) region of the brain.
(I will finally get to the poop in this post, I swear!)
I was sitting in my sauna trying to think of a happy memory that I could smile about, trying to strengthen my ACC – the part of the brain that serves as a junction between the physical state, mental interpretation, and physical and emotional response. And despite all the wonderful things I’d experienced in my life, I couldn’t conjure up a single memory that wasn’t stained with guilt and shame. Not my hobbies, not my awards, not my travels, not even my marriage.
I recognized, cognitively and viscerally, that there was something wrong with this picture. So I asked myself, “When did you first feel this way?” I’d read about EMDR, a therapy that helps process trauma through memory recall aided by eye movement, and will often use this technique when I feel like something is on the edge of my consciousness, but I’m not quite remembering what. I closed my eyes and rhythmically moved them side to side while tapping my knees in time. (Disclaimer: I am not a medical professional and this is not medical advice; do not attempt psychotherapy without the guidance of a licensed professional.) I remembered an incident when I was about 4 years old, a moment I recalled so many times as the paragon of my innate “huge conscience” (which, until now I’d always thought was the virtue of extreme honesty. Perhaps it was actually the burden of toxic guilt. Both/and?)
And thus I started my massive volumes of therapeutic journaling. I wrote out all the details I could remember about this memory, focused on my feelings then, and the physical sensations it was causing me even now, 30 years later. What did I believe? What was my motive? I always saw myself in this situation as a sneaky, ignorant, too-sensitive child. Suddenly, when I laid out the facts, I realized I was completely innocent; particularly, since learning how brain development works, I was actually impressed with the level of cognition I possessed at that age. I think for the first time in my life I saw myself as a brilliant, creative, precocious 4-year-old, rather than a conniving brat.
What a wonderful gift, to step outside my ingrained thought (and emotional) patterns that accused, belittled, and shamed myself, and suddenly realize they weren’t even true. This is how mental health works.
Where’s the poop, Robin?
Well, then I went deeper. Seeing that I was completely rational and innocent during this incident as a 4-year-old, I had to ask the uncomfortable question: why on earth would I have felt guilt over something so benign in the first place? The answer was that I feared punishment. Why on earth would that be a punishable offense? It seemed that, though this was one of my earliest concrete memories, there was obviously more behind it that built up to that moment. Something in me already knew fear. Something in me already knew punishment. Something in me was already in survival mode. By age 4.
I have a 6-inch stack of notebooks filled with this inquiry into 30 years of guilt and shame, which is not suitable for public consumption. But I do want to testify to the power of inner-child work, compassionate inquiry, somatic experiencing, re-parenting, and trauma-informed therapy in healing clinical depression, anxiety, and even chronic illness. That big goofy smile I couldn’t conjure up from my memories? I can’t get it OFF my face now. Life. Is. Amazing. (It’s been almost 3 years. I’m not saying it’s quick or easy.)
But I still have dissociation and pain. Where’s the poop, Robin?
The real turning point happened about 5 months into my intense self-therapy. Digging to the root of my guilt and shame, I went back and read my diaries from more than 10 years earlier. And I was blown away. My memories of this time were only of being berated, shamed, humiliated, punished, and royally failing. I knew that I had done my best, but it was “obvious” that my best was misguided and distorted by immaturity, pride, and probably that wretched “incurable hereditary disease” of depression and medication side effects. What joys I had in my life since “I screwed up” were merely God’s gracious “consolation prize” for my utter foolishness and sin (and thus, I had no happy memories.)
However, now, being months into healing my brain with new thought patterns, I read my own story like I never had before. I only saw my innocence. I only saw my sincerity, my hard work, my innovation, my curiosity, my love. These weren’t lies I was telling myself to feel better, it was there, all right there, from my own heart: my true thoughts and motivations and confusions, even my struggle with the roller coaster of antidepressants, for which I was given no other options. The real lies were what I let other people interpret about myself. I had done my best with what I was given, and my best was incredible. My best was blessed. My best, through the twists and turns and utter shit-show of life, got me everything I ever asked for, and my life was the fruit of love, not the droppings of failure.
That night changed my life. Literally. The narrative of my life went from being a failing descent into chronic illness to being a massive victory of never giving up. It gave me strength for some challenging circumstances that were about to arise. It changed my view of insomnia, from this terrifying fear of panic attacks and dying, to a wonderful opportunity to talk to the God within myself. (I wrote in my diary: “Now I know why God’s prophets were all crazy – baking bread on poop fires, rolling around in dirt, wearing funny costumes, marrying hookers – BECAUSE THEY NEVER GOT ANY SLEEP!”) In all honesty, I do still ask God why They can’t just speak during the day and let me rest at night!
Five nights later, I woke up in the middle of the night to a bright flash and explosion in my brain. It wasn’t painful; it was ecstasy. Eyes still closed, I saw this energy rush up my spine and fan out into my cerebellum. I saw a fireworks show of light bursting throughout my head, and was filled with this indescribable awe. Then I went back to sleep.
I woke up in the morning light-headed with a weird headache. Then I was scared. Did I just have a spiritual encounter or a stroke? Should I be going to a church or a hospital? I confided in a few friends who encouraged me to embrace the “spiritual growth” option. I was also comforted by remembering a similar (but less intense) phenomenon had happened when I completed my first SNRI detox and a new experience was laid into my brain. I was now one year off all pharmaceuticals.
I was healing my brain without drugs, doctors, or any medical intervention besides Chinese Medicine. The trauma work was all being done by myself, having gathered the resources available to me in books (mostly found in random places!), podcasts, research, and educators posting their work on social media. (Disclaimer: I am not a medical professional and this is not medical advice; do not attempt psychotherapy without the guidance of a licensed professional. Social media is not an appropriate single source of information and can be very damaging to mental health.) Changing your thoughts can truly, literally, physically change the structure of your brain, including traumatic brain injury. (I’m not saying always, but it’s possible.)
So why am I still dissociated?!
Where’s the poop, Robin?
Why was my Anterior Cingulate Cortex dysfunctional in the first place, leading to a diagnosis of depression and two decades of prescription drugs? Why did my brain still need to dissociate most of my reality?
Dr. Timothy Jennings writes: “[The ACC] is damaged by excessive limbic system activity, such as addictions, unremitting fear and anxiety, and is strengthened by meditating on God’s character of love…” ("The God-Shaped Brain")
Dr. Daniel Amen writes: “I did my research on children and grandchildren of alcoholics (I was married to a child of an alcoholic and... had two children who were grandchildren of alcoholics). I found a very high incidence of ADD, obsessiveness, and oppositional behavior…
… Both [my wife and daughter with ADD] had excessive activity in the anterior cingulate gyrus…” ("Healing ADD")
Dr. Bessel van der Kolk writes: “The contrast with the scans of the eighteen chronic PTSD patients with severe early-life trauma was startling. There was almost no activation of any of the self-sensing areas of the brain: The MPFC, the anterior cingulate, the parietal cortex, and the insula did not light up at all…” ("The Body Keeps the Score")
The Anterior Cingulate Cortex –the structure implicated in all the mental diagnoses I’ve had in my life, including depression, anxiety, ADD, C-PTSD, the Lyme symptoms of brain fog/dissociation, poor emotional control, indecisiveness, and a lack of a sense of self – is damaged by unremitting fear, trauma, and lack of emotional processing mechanisms (thus the need for substances like alcohol or drugs, or SSRI’s). Being involved in decision-making, it becomes overactive and stressed when it becomes confused about the proper moral, ethical, or practical option. (The character of Chidi in “The Good Place” is the absolute perfect embodiment of a walking talking ACC damaged by ethical paradox.) (And yes, I know the brain is much more complicated and integrated than single structures for single processes - I'm not claiming to be neurobiologist, I'm just telling my story the way it unfolded.)
None of this brain damage, or the resulting symptoms, require a genetic disorder, brain injury, spirochetal infection, or heavy metal toxicity to explain. Enough damage can be done by trauma and toxic thinking patterns. By 14 years old, in a white middle-class American Evangelical suburban nuclear family, what causes enough unremitting fear and trauma in a girl to cause brain damage and the need to be put on psychiatric medication?
It took me so long to get here, because this is the place we simply do. not. go.
Dr. Jennings writes: “Beliefs – such as God being a great policeman in the sky, a cosmic inquisitor, a being who watches to mete out proper punishment – incite fear and activate the amygdala (fear circuit). The constantly active amygdala activates the body’s immune system… fear-inducing beliefs really do damage us…” ("The God-Shaped Brain)
Are you getting this yet… because I still didn’t!
It took me a little longer, but you’ll forgive me, because as we’ve seen, the area of my brain responsible for morality, decision-making, and cognitive flexibility was damaged, and I’d been taught my entire life, in no uncertain terms, that we do not change our beliefs, nor do we insinuate that hereditary conditions can be cured by changing our beliefs. Both mean hell, either in eternity or on Earth.
This is why I believe true healing is in the journey. New information can’t heal anyone. Only believing in, integrating, and living by new information heals. And that takes at least 63 days. To rewire 35 years of information? I’m going to be a little slow.
Someone on Instagram posted a quote by Deepak Chopra: “Every cell in your body is eavesdropping on your thoughts.”
Various people are credited with saying, “You are what you think.”
Gabor Maté writes about autoimmunity:
“When our psychological capacity to distinguish the self from non-self is disabled, the impairment is bound to extend to our physiology as well. Repressed anger [when what should be a fight-or-flight response against an outside danger is redirected, or kept inside, toward the self] will lead to disordered immunity. The inability to process and express feelings effectively [a function of the ACC!], and the tendency to serve the needs of others before even considering one’s own, are common patterns in people who develop chronic illness. These coping styles represent a blurring of boundaries, a confusion of self and non-self on the psychological level. The same confusion will follow on the level of cells, tissues and body organs. The immune system becomes too confused to know self from other or too disabled to defend against danger… if immune cells that turn against the self are not destroyed or made harmless, they will attack the body tissues they were meant to guard. Allergic reactions or autoimmune diseases may result.” [emphasis and commentary mine] ("When the Body Says, 'No!'")
In this soup of practical neuroscience, I began turning over my depression, suicidal thoughts, fear of Lyme disease, faith, emerging allergies and constant threat of autoimmunity in my head. Was my overall condition a type of mind-to-body autoimmunity? Was I attacking myself? I wondered, After so many years of being suicidal, particularly in the worst stages of depression and withdrawal, did my body finally start listening to my thoughts? Did I think, ‘I want to die’ so often that my cells finally said, ‘Okay!’? But suicide was a sin. Did a random tick give me a Lyme-Bart-Babs cocktail, and my body said, Finally! A sword to fall on, that we won’t be blamed for! Was Lyme my ticket to a guiltless suicide?
Did my body want to die?
Now, this is certainly understandable after one is in such pain and distress as chronic illness and severe depression. But I remember being 6 or 7 years old, before the diagnoses, before the medications, when I barely had a prefrontal cortex, and wishing I would die. Wondering if I could kill myself when I was just so angry I didn’t know what to do, fantasizing about how “I’ll show them!” if I just died one day, then they’d miss me. A child!
Why did every cell in my body think the best solution was to die?!?
I’d been struggling with the guilt, shame, and dissonance of my Church membership for almost a year at that point, and still didn’t get it. I think, not coincidentally, that I really put it together right before Easter that year.
My religion glorified the death and destruction of the physical body.
You know what, come to think of it…
My religion glorified the rejecting of one’s entire sense of self (spiritual autoimmunity!).*
My religion glorified corporal punishment.
My religion glorified suffering.
My religion glorified self-sacrifice.
My religion glorified the after-life more than actual life.
Yet my religion made me feel guilty for wanting to end my suffering before “God’s time,” be it through healing or death. And the more this unraveled, the more I saw the utter trauma "Christianity" had been inflicting on me my entire life, as a PK (pastor’s kid), missionary, worship leader, church member, overwhelming me with moral dilemmas, indecision, fear of corruption, spiritual bypassing, and brain damage:
Religion was forming my genetic expression, since my parents’ parents’ parents’ beliefs.
My religion taught me I was born totally depraved and incapable of being good.
My religion taught me I was an evil sinner.
My religion taught me all I deserved was to burn in hell forever.
My religion taught me all my heart, mind, thoughts, and emotions were inherently evil.
My religion taught me that true love beats, whips, and crucifies the children of God.
My religion taught me that following my own path would send me to hell.
My religion taught me that salvation comes from losing my self.
My religion taught me that salvation comes from being someone else – Jesus.
My religion taught me that salvation requires being in a community.
My religion taught me that salvation requires staying in that community.
My religion taught me that salvation requires recruiting new members to the community.
My religion taught me that children are morally responsible for "witnessing" to their friends and saving them from eternal damnation.
My religion taught me that correct living requires persecution.
My religion taught me that correct living requires humiliation.
My religion taught me that correct living requires putting others’ needs before my own.
My religion taught me that correct living requires denial of my self, my boundaries, my fears, and my emotions.
My religion taught me to hate and fear myself to the very core.
My religion killed my body.
And in glorifying suffering and martyrdom as the highest calling, my religion was killing the possibility of healing.
Everything that Lyme and chronic illness required of me – self-care, self-advocacy, going against the status quo, desire to live on earth, desire to heal, spending money on my own needs rather than the poor, asking for accommodations, saying “no” when I’m depleted, missing church when I’m neurologically overloaded – looked like a “falling away” from the Christian life, and a threat to my soul’s eternal salvation.
Healing meant opposing the will of God.
Healing meant selfishness.
Healing meant faithlessness.
The Anterior Cingulate Cortex decides whether something is a threat to our survival or necessary for life. It decides good and bad. It decides right and wrong. It decides what physical or emotional reaction is appropriate for discharging fear for survival.
Tell me, what’s a poor ACC to do when, since before it even had a reasoning center, before it was physically possible to understand good and bad, it was told to choose good, or go to hell? And being afraid is not good. Crying is not good. Exploring is not good. Being angry is not good. Having a different opinion is not good. Wanting stuff is not good. Making a mistake is not good. Practicing your new four-letter vocabulary is not good. Being friends with people who think differently is not good. Being sick is not good. Being too happy is not good either – that’s bragging. Loving your body is not good – it’s dirty. Being proud of who you are is not good – that’s selfishness.
What’s good? Doing things you don’t want to do. Obedience. Bottling up emotions. Being a doormat. "Suffering for Christ’s sake." Dying and going to heaven.
You know what’s necessary to stay out of hell? Killing your "self "and being Jesus instead.
If every single thought and action in my life, since I was old enough to hear the words “God is watching,” carried the weight of eternal damnation, how was I EVER to develop an unstressed decision-making center? How could my body have EVER rested from fight-or-flight? To turn off that conscience and just live in the moment, as would have healed me, I was told was in itself a sin. Only a mind and body continuously focused on God and pleasing Him was acceptable. Healing my self? Nonsense! Die to self!
With a mind like that, how could I NOT have gotten a chronic illness that attacks every system of the body and leaves every cell to die?*
Looking back through my diary, I can see this struggle so obviously controlling my symptom flare-ups. I was full of guilt over what I felt I ought to do with my Lyme journey, what I was told God expected of me, and the visceral gut feeling of knowing something just wasn’t right, that the Church was missing something, but I wasn’t allowed to contradict Its authority. I so desperately wanted to be free.
Thankfully, the same scripture that was drilled into my brain to scare the living poop out of me, Robin, has a lot to say about those who live in fear. They’re doing it wrong.
It says a lot of things we don’t hear in Church about what is good: Being like a child – wholly innocent, rather than ignorant. Healing. Love. Joy. Peace. Freedom. Leaving your father and mother. Calling no one on earth “teacher.” Leaving the fold and going out to pasture. Flipping tables. Pissing off the religious authority. Befriending sinners. Loving the enemy. Resurrection (on earth!). Being incorruptible and unkillable and unstoppable.
That’s not a false prosperity gospel. That’s a promise. It may come through suffering and poverty, but suffering isn’t the purpose! Suffering is the means. We’re not supposed to desire the means, we’re supposed to strive for the purpose: LIFE. ABUNDANTLY. WITH JOY.
I left the Church, I deconstructed my faith, I nursed my crushed and wounded spirit with unconditional love, and for the last year, I have been healing exponentially.
Religion – through it’s self-hatred, chronic fear, and stress – almost killed me. It got me diagnosed with a dozen different disorders and had me on 5 different lifetime medications.
Divinity – through self-care as an image of God, unconditional love, and peace – resurrected me. It got me off all medications and put “incurable diseases” into remission.
"You are what you think."
The poop was in my brain, Robin.
I learned that I was allowed to stop calling it ME and start calling it what it was: A LIE. I learned that I was allowed to investigate who put it there, and I was allowed to clean it out and remove from my life the dogs that would only come back and dump it in again.
Part 6 will have my summary and concluding thoughts.
*Note / Update: Gábor Máté speaks a lot about the battle of authenticity vs. attachment. I see this Parent/Child dynamic perfectly reflected in the God/Human relationship. We are often conditioned since birth to choose between the authentic expression of our personal needs and the attachment to a judgmental/disapproving/dysregulated parent on whom we are dependent. I consider the possibility that either/both - conflicted parental attachment and conflicted God/religious attachment - would cause the same disorder of the ACC or various parts of the brain, leading to various mental health diagnoses / coping mechanisms. Please see "The Myth of Normal" and other works by Dr. Gábor Máté. In other words, you don't have to be raised in a religious cult for this chronic disorder and illness to happen.