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The Pursuit of Healing: Can Our Traumas Be Transcended Through Time?

June 18, 2021


A couple of years ago, a British Heart Foundation–funded study followed fifty-two patients over four months, aged between twenty-eight and eighty-seven, who suffered with what is officially known as takotsubo cardiomyopathy. An article in the UK Telegraph reports: 

The little-known condition was first coined in Japan in 1990 and named after the native word for an octopus pot, which has a unique shape that resembles a broken left ventricle. It is provoked when the heart muscle is suddenly “stunned,” causing the left ventricle to change shape, and is typically prompted by “intense emotional or physical stress.” It affects the heart’s ability to pump blood and, according to the BHF, there remains no known medical cure. . . . Figures show that between three percent and 17 percent of sufferers die within five years of diagnosis.

The notion of dying of a broken heart may seem poetic in the West, but in Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM), it has always been understood that emotional, spiritual, or psychological shocks can “break” the heart by adversely affecting the tonality of shen energies—the energies of the heart, which are at the center of the body.

I bring this up not to advocate for TCM but because after reading the symptoms and developments of takotsubo syndrome and re-familiarizing myself with the shen ideas, it all brought to mind another piece I’d kept on my desktop for a while: “Childhood Trauma Leads To Lifelong Chronic Illness.”

It wasn’t until I was fifty-one-years old that a physician sat me down and asked me the most important question of my life—one that would lead me to better health than I’d had for decades: “Were there any childhood traumas or stressors that might have contributed to the extreme level of inflammation you’re experiencing as an adult?”

My physician explained that ongoing adversity in childhood leads to a chronic state of “fight, flight, or freeze.” Researchers at Yale had recently shown that when inflammatory stress hormones flood a child’s body and brain, they alter the genes that oversee our stress reactivity, resetting the stress response to “high” for life. This increases the risk of inflammation, which manifests later in cancer, heart disease, and autoimmune diseases like mine.

This week, another study came out that examined the lasting impact of poor childhood nutrition on adult obesity issues. As a woman whose childhood was fraught with both bad nutrition (an open-faced sandwich of mayonnaise and salt served as lunch more than once) and sexual abuse, and who is struggling with autoimmune and inflammatory diseases in adulthood, the idea that juvenile trauma and nutritional deprivation can so ferociously harm our immune systems as to negatively impact our health in adulthood rings true to me, as does the notion of one’s heart literally becoming “broken” beyond repair.

I am grey-haired now, and more and more, I wonder why I am still carrying the weight—literally and figuratively—of that devilish, two-pronged piercing of neglect and suffering that was beyond my control and (unlike too much of my adult miseries) personally unearned. I chastise myself daily and deeply for not simply eating better, on the one hand, and for not simply “moving on” and letting the abuse go, on the other.

I did both better, I think, when I was younger.

Perhaps, as we get older, the need for resolution and closure becomes more urgent—we need to find ways to understand things more comprehensively before time runs out. But we never really manage it, it seems. What lies deepest is usually the most difficult to get at, after all.

Still, it seems to me, I haven’t brought all of this enough into prayer, which is powerful and real and supernatural. Pondering childhood trauma and the many adult health problems that are being traced to it, I suspect there might be a spiritual route to addressing some of this physicality while also gaining, if not closure, then at least wisdom.

We know that God is outside of time and that prayer is too. I wonder if I can pray for God’s active grace and the action of the Holy Spirit to become inserted into all that occurred fifty or more years ago—way back in my past—and in that way, help the stress responses to reset away from “high,” away from all the inflammation, the damaging rising of stressors that can only break a body down. Stunt the stressors even just a little bit, so that if Little Lizzie must go through all that, for whatever purpose is meant by it—and I do believe all things are permitted for a purpose beyond my understanding—then at least she gets to be a little more comfortable in the present time.

But what prayer shall I use? The Rosary? A Litany to the Sacred Heart? Or, maybe, in this Year of St. Joseph, a Litany directed toward the great foster father who taught our Lord, perhaps with the intention of asking him to foster father and teach that needy little girl? Perhaps I need to attend the Mass—that most perfect and veil-penetrating, time-transcendent prayer—every day?

Maybe I need some of these. Or all of these. I’ll have to pray about how to pray about it… 

And perhaps I should start now.

O God, by whose command the sands of our lives run fast or slow, clean or clotted, your Psalmist sang, “Create in me a clean heart, O God; and a right spirit renew within me.” Today, I join this song, humbly asking that in your mercy you may will for me a clean heart, a fresh heart, a heart renewed. By your will, I beg that the heart of my youth be rendered spiritually strong in the ethos of compassion, even in the midst of the strains of its suffering; a heart made faithfully strong in a spirit of complete trust in you, even though I do not understand; a heart made physically strong in an enfleshment away from my stoniness, even through the enforced exercise of anguish and confusion.

You who are without beginning or ending, look with compassion upon my finite years and infinite foolishness, and touch me through time, that I might gain wisdom enough in a terrible moment so as not to surrender the rest of my life, or my health, in captivity to it.

As you touched the hearts of St. Philip Neri and St. Teresa of Avila, touch my heart with your presence and thereby render me whole by the force of your holiness. I pray this in the name of Christ Jesus, your Son, who suffered for my salvation. Amen.

If you, in your charity, feel inclined to whisper up a prayer for me, too, my gratitude would be boundless.