For 13 1/2 years I have sat down to this computer and put my left hand down to pet Jessy. My other dog Molly occasionally would stick her head under my right hand so I had to stop typing and pet her. I am so used to sitting in this chair and putting my left hand down to pet Jess that I automatically do it. Last night I finished my dinner and put my plate down for him to lick. But he wasn’t there. I reached to put the plate down anyway because my body was so used to the repetition without me even thinking. I have a bench in my kitchen. Every night I lay on that bench and watch a movie holding my Ipad up with my right hand and petting Jess with my left. My left hand went down to pet him last night but he wasn’t there. My left hand still did it though. I let him out every night at 1 am. I got up to let him out two nights ago and it wasn’t until I got all the way in the kitchen last night that I realized he was not there. My body just got up and walked in the kitchen, on it’s own, with a purpose, that was no longer even there.
I had a roommate back in my early 20’s that was a double leg amputee. He told me he would wake up in the middle of the night and get out of bed forgetting he had no legs and fall!. He had walked on those legs for half his life and been without them for the other half yet his body still thought they were there.
Whether it is muscle memory, repetition, or our brain’s programing our body remembers and acts without us thinking. Molly has been gone for a year now and I still catch myself looking over my shoulder in the front yard to see her hiding in the bushes. Of Course she isn’t there but I looked over my shoulder at her every day for almost 14 years.
My neighbor took my husband to drop the car off at the shop. She called and told me she was so used to dropping her husband off in the car that she leaned over to kiss her husband, stopped, realizing it was my husband, and laughed at the fact that it was such a habit she did without thinking. Her body was so used to the routine of dropping off her husband and leaning in to him before he got out of the car that she just did it without even thinking.
If our bodies do tasks almost robotically on a daily basis for simple life experiences, just imagine what happens in our minds. Just imagine what our mind and body do for the huge life experiences. How long will it take for me to stop putting my left hand out to pet Jessy? Molly has been gone a year and I still think she will be standing around the corner! At what point does my brain tell my body that it can stop the behavior? These are simple things. These are happy things. These things my body out of habit gave me joy. On the other end of my hand was a dog to love me. What about the hard, painful, dreadful things that our body did out of habit? What about the way our body robotically responded to those bad moments and what our brain then did to cope? How do we stop that memory? How do we stop those bad habits and repetitions?
This is not simple. It is extremely complex. It is many faceted.
When I was being abused my body cringed with touch. I would smile when I was hurting inside. I would freeze and become rigid. My mind was programed. I did things out of habit. I reacted out of habit. I allowed scenarios similar to what happened to me in the abuse moments to then happen with other men because it was all I knew. Every time I was abused by every different man I felt exactly the same way in my mind and on my body. My body and my mind knew the drill and responded with the same repetition… it went on auto drive again and again.
Whether it is a wonderful feeling, or a painful feeling, if something happens over and over again, muscle memory reacts. Eventually, I will walk to the sink with my plate and not lower it for my dog. Eventually, I will fall asleep before 1 am because there will be no need for me to be awake to let the dog out. I will create a new routine. My body and my mind will adapt. There is a mindfulness, awareness, and conscious thought process that we have to do to reprogram the old ways. I don’t think there is a right or wrong way but being in control of it instead of coasting through it numbly seems a valuable choice. We could easily just adopt new habits and not acknowledge why we did what we did. It would seem simpler that way. But doing that doesn’t honor who we are or how far we have come. I could have continued dating abusive men. I could have let my body be used since it knew how that felt. Being aware of these habits makes us able to then change them. I wish all repetition could be because of the good things! I wish there was always a loving dog at the other end of a muscle memory behavior. Instead we have faced monsters at the other end of our hands that we’ve had to overcome.
It has not been easy. My life has not been easy. I said last night outloud, ” I’m walking into the kitchen and I know Jessy is gone but I am doing it anyway…I love you Jess…maybe tomorrow I will just choose to fall asleep instead…we will see.” I wanted to do something out of choice not just automatic muscle memory. I have chosen to do the same in dealing with the complex issues of abuse. I will say outloud if my husband touches me and my body reacts in the old abused way, ” This is your husband. He is safe. He loves you. You are okay.” I caught myself smiling when I was scared of a plumber I had let come in the house who was making feel uncomfortable. I was aware. I knew I smiled when something scared me from 25 years of doing it. I consciously told myself that I did not need to do this out of habit. I needed to reprogram this and react in THIS moment in THIS situation and create a new response.
Our bodies remember the good and the bad. Our responses, movements, and reactions are often times part of a system in our brain that is so complex I have barely scratched the surface of the topic. I want you to cut yourself some slack. I want you to give yourself a break. I want you to know that the task of overcoming the pain and memory of abuse is possible, it just takes time. I push myself. I expect so much out of myself.I get frustrated at setbacks. I know others do the same. But putting it into perspective with something as simple as petting my dogs, compared to the enormous task of abuse, allows me to give myself as much time as I need to change my muscle memory. To change the way I react. To change old habits that do not benefit me anymore. Allow yourself the time it takes to process, to be aware, to recognize where you are and how far you have come. I am not numb anymore. I am acutely aware of everything. I am acutely perceptive. I will continue to alter my muscle memory, brain response, habits, to the here and now. This place where I am no longer being abused. This space where I can allow myself peace.