[Book] The Body Keeps the Score by Bessel van der Kolk

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First of all, what a great title. Second of all, thank you Dr. van der Kolk for writing this book.

When I came across The Body Keeps the Score a few years ago, I stayed up into the wee hours every night until I had read it cover to cover. I had never heard the term “complex PTSD” until this book, when I realized that I had been living with this pattern most of my life. (Ah! That intolerable and “persistent sense of heartbreak and gutwrench”, you have a name? you even have an acronym?!  Well, nice to finally meet you.)  

Dr. Bessel van der Kolk, has spent over three decades studying how children and adults adapt to traumatic experiences and this book alchemizes his deep professional observations with the emerging research in neuroscience and attachment theory, resulting in—believe it or not—an engaging page-turner. He documents how “complex trauma” can profoundly interfere with our capacity for pleasure, engagement, self-control, and trust. One of his most important findings—and what particularly resonated for me about why my Circlekeeping work is so meaningful—was this: “Being able to feel safe with other people is probably the single most important aspect of mental health; safe connections are fundamental to meaningful and satisfying lives.”

I knew that the sexual abuse I had experienced throughout my childhood had harmed me (which only took about 36 years to admit), but at the time this book came out, I was only just starting to truly “get” something else. I was starting to understand that what had harmed me the most wasn’t necessarily what had happened to me sexually or physically, but rather what had happened to my ability to know and practice love, respect, and trust — including, self-love, self-respect, and self-trust. I was also coming to understand that this confusion was recorded in my body, and that real healing (inconveniently) didn’t obey my decisions or demands. 

When this book landed in my hands, I was 40 years old and in the midst of grieving yet another “failed” relationship. The pain and terrible bewilderment of that time galvanized me into facing the highly uncomfortable truth that if I really wanted to be “free”, I would have to learn how to stop running away from intimacy and relationship and find a way to lean in. This book helped me to understand, as one reviewer put it, “the tremendous power of our relationships both to hurt and to heal”.  

Thank you Dr. van der Kolk and for the other rare and visionary birds out there (including my beloved Hidden Water family), for being so deeply ardent in your care and intelligence … about something that most people would rather not even think about.  —Felise Nguyen