Illustrated by Jasmina El Bouamraoui and Karabo Poppy Moletsane, CC0, via Wikimedia Commons

A Trinity of Trauma-Healing: Science, Spirituality, and the Self

illustrated drop cap for the letter AAs a child, I was passed between hands, hearths, hospitals, and houses of God for healing. Since before I can remember, physicians, priests, parents, and my own persistence gathered separately in conversation to discuss my potential salvation. They were tasked to find creative solutions to the enigma of my health, the capacity of myself, and the fate of my future. My job was simply to survive.

Before the age of five, my body shook, my brain kindled, and my being left me behind numerous times. Idiopathic epilepsy: The doctors knew I had seizures, they just didn’t know why. A digestive surgery and sexual violence also contributed to a catastrophic childhood — a blocked gut, a dysregulated brain, and the exploitation of my body at the hands of a few men in my family. The monsters of patriarchal violence and chronic illness forced me into a suspended state of consciousness either through drug administration, dysregulation, or dissociation.

Science served me. The nonfunctional part of my colon was cut out at six months old. Valium was used regularly to help slow my brain down, ceasing the seizures by the age of five.

Spirituality supported me. Raised in a Catholic family, I created an ethereal reality where Jesus of Nazareth was a compassionate friend, Mary another mother, the angels my guardians, and the communion of saints my cheerleaders. My imagination created a safe space for my being to rest from the integrations of myths, mysticism, and memories from stories preached at the pulpit. The Catholic congregation left meals on the doorstep while my parents focused on caring for me.

The strength of myself saved me. My brain did its best to learn to regulate in an unsafe environment, while my body bore the weight of the consequences. My being sat suspended in the present always pretending in a state of prayer or imagining a future safe for me. During a seizure, a surgery, or sexual violence, I would leave my body and rest within the creativity of this sacred place. Within it, I had a way to make a part of myself free even in the complex reality of what it meant to be me as a child. It’s common for those with epilepsy to have extraordinary experiences in this suspended space.

The stories of the seizures and surgeries were passed down from my mother’s memory to me verbally when I inquired about the scars on my belly or the hands over my eyes when I passed flashing lights, while the instances of incest were buried deep within my body: my own history forgotten.

At 18, I moved away from my family to attend university. Almost instantly I started shaking as if suddenly my subconscious was slowly setting itself free. By 22, I could hardly function from the weight of unprocessed memory. My body, brain, and being all nearly shut down. At 24, I remembered. The memories of incest and the consequences of illness returned, forcing me to feel everything all over again in order to survive.

I confronted my family with the instances of incest. They doubted my truth, claiming my memory was the myth and the monsters were blameless. The police responded similarly. The Catholic Church had its own childhood sexual abuse problem. So, I left all three, these systems that were supposed to support me. I was burdened to heal alone, to explore the mystery of me, while the monsters remained free. 

I took responsibility for my own salvation. I passed myself between physicians, preachers, and people who could re-parent me, leaning on my own persistence to recover from the impacts of incest and illness. Sadly, I was too often met with incredulity, incompetence, and indolence. 

My reality during my crucial developmental years was shaped by experiences many would claim were unreal or untrue. The taboo of incest, the polarity of belief between science and spirituality, the assumption that the family base is the safest place for a child to be raised, all contributed to the dubious responses I received from members of my community.

The patriarchal violence that served as the root reason for the incest abuse was also the foundation of scientific methodologies and religious modalities. Ideologies devoted to science and spirit both have practiced misogyny, heteronormativity, white supremacy, exploitative capitalism, ableism, and ecological exploitation throughout history. Both have sought to define reality by reducing it to a set of systemic thoughts and then gaslit or marginalized those who don’t fit within the confines of their worldviews. Both have repressed the resurfacing of adult memories of childhood sexual abuse survivors through the proclamation of False Memory Syndrome or lies — making survivor stories myths, robbing us of justice and the next generation of safety, while transforming our perpetrators into mythical or mystical beings immune to accountability.

And yet, this trinity of healing — science, spirituality, and self — was still absolutely necessary in the salvation and restoration of my life. Just like in childhood, the same hands that fed me hurt me, the solutions that helped me to heal were laden with oppression. I had to separate the weeds from the wheat. Eventually, I found people who could help me: those who had a unique capacity to hold the complexity of spiritual imagination, scientific exploration, and self-appreciation. Specific psychological and physiological therapists helped me to rewire my brain and recover my body, while my being was enlivened through the recreation of a new family system through friends.

I recreated my spiritual imagination by integrating Eastern and Western traditions and clung to sources of love beyond family, church, or congregation that gave this painful process of healing a promise, a purpose. Spirituality offered a prescience, a clairvoyance, a lens into a felt future that kept me striving through the struggle to heal. It gave structure to mystery, hope to a future I couldn’t yet see. Eventually, I found my way to a safer space internally and externally.

I’m 35 years old now and finally surviving less and living more. I offer my story to help those who share my history navigate healing more easily, as well as advocate for systems of support to improve for survivors. We need an integrated Trinity of Healing: scientific methodologies, spiritual modalities, and self-care models that support us, stand with us, believe us. I yearn for an integrated spiritual and scientific approach that honors the complexity of the selves of incest survivors.

Recently, I happened upon Neurotheology, a discipline that explores how the brain and its composing parts might create, correlate with, or inform our understanding of spiritual experience. It also investigates how spiritual experience might be an effective tool in improving brain and body functioning. Those who study neurotheology, like Andrew B. Newberg, use a multidisciplinary approach from sectors like psychology, neuroscience, theology, and anthropology to achieve four primary goals:

(1) To improve our understanding of the human mind and brain.

(2) To improve our understanding of religion and theology.

(3) To improve the human condition, particularly in the context of health and well-being.

(4) To improve the human condition, particularly in the context of religion and spirituality.

The combination of these methodologies gives me hope, as it seeks to better understand and communicate the complexity of realities like mine so that I’m not doing so alone. It desires to offer a spirituality of scientific embodiment and a scientific system to support the solutions of spirituality– all so that humans can better hold ourselves in harmony.

I would love to experience more curiosity within contexts of recovery. I hope that we can create a culture not of division but of integration, of specialization to ensure competency and curiosity to affirm empathy. I wish for us to offer each other a methodology of trauma-healing through ethical and ethereal practices of science, spirituality, and self to hold the complexities of our brains, bodies, and beings within interconnected intimacy. A trinity that serves, supports, and saves us. Finally.