By the time my husband and I got to the local urgent care clinic, I had been in a steady state of pain for nearly four hours. I gave a nurse my personal information and insurance card. Then she asked, “What are we seeing you for today?” I didn’t know quite where to start. “Back and abdominal pain,” I replied. I was frustrated and embarrassed. She took me to a small room where she told me to undress and put on a gown before a doctor came in to talk with me.
The pain suddenly began to dissipate as I sat on the table, waiting. The doctor came in to take my vitals and I gave him a list of my recent ailments. Unexplained back and abdominal pain and extreme anxiety attacks that would come out of nowhere. My husband sat in a chair in the corner. We made eye contact and I could see the encouragement in his eyes. Tell him everything so he can help you. Looking back, it was clear my husband could see what I could not. “My dog died last month,” I said. “So I have been upset, but this just doesn’t feel normal.” The tears that came after I uttered that sentence surprised me. He said nothing at first, just patted my shoulder before asking the nurse to take a back x-ray, just to be sure. After looking over the x rays, he assured me that I was incredibly healthy physically. “You are dealing with a mixture of some extreme stress, anxiety, and I suspect some depression,” he said. Then he gave me a Xanax prescription, and recommended I start going to talk therapy.
When we got home I did some deep breathing exercises, took one of the xanax and slept. The pain still came back the next day. Even after seeing the doctor, I couldn’t wrap my mind around how my body could be causing me so much pain without anything being physically wrong. Are emotions that powerful? My mother always told me that holding onto a grudge could make you sick. But there wasn’t any grudge. I thought I was only grieving.
A few months before the pain started, I’d been keeping a close eye on what was happening in the Kavanaugh hearings. Like many other women, I was outraged that yet another man was being considered for the United States Supreme Court who had allegedly assaulted a woman. I was also assaulted in high school when I was 14, and I believed Dr. Ford completely. I also wasn’t shy about expressing that to others.
Somehow, a man who I had grown up with in an orthodox Mormon community in Northern Utah, had gotten wind of how I felt. We weren’t friends on social media and hadn’t spoken or seen one another from what I could recall in the almost 10 years since we had graduated from high school. He still did not hesitate to reach out, through a private direct message, to tell me why I was wrong.
This incident had been pushed to the back of my mind for months now. I remembered it during one of my first talk therapy sessions, and my physical reaction to it startled me.
“What do you feel in your body right now?” My therapist asked me as I recounted the event. The pain in my back was rising like a hot wave and my heart was beating faster. “But, I don’t even know him anymore,” I protested. “I don’t care about him or what he thinks.”
“I don’t think it is about what he thinks. Could it be anything else?,” she asked.
The man I grew up with who contacted me to talk about the Kavanaugh hearings had done more than want to talk. He had acted entitled to the conversation, as if I owed him an explanation for how I felt. And I had in fact felt obligated, for reasons I could not yet grasp, to give him that. So I did at first, obligingly. I opened up to him, giving him the benefit of the doubt that he would listen. I would in turn listen to him. I even told him, without details, that I had been assaulted when we were in high school. I was thinking that, at best, maybe we could at least better understand one another’s point of view on this particular issue. At first, I had assumed that he was reaching out to me in good faith, hoping for a deeper understanding as well. In the end, there is a lasting memory of three things that he said. 1 – “I’m not a woman, so you can’t expect me to understand and fully empathize.” 2 – “I like to be right and win. That is why I like having these conversations. It is like a sport.” 3 – “You have to admit I’m right.” When I wouldn’t agree to the latter, but said instead that we can agree to disagree, he lit into me. So I blocked him.
Science has proven that emotions can present physically within the body. The words and phrases we use often to explain the way something feels emotionally, including gut wrenching, tongue tied, heartbroken, butterflies in the stomach, all showcase that this is something most of us have experienced in some way or another.
In his book, The Body Keeps the Score, Dr. Bessel A. van der Kolk summarizes this connection between healing the mind to heal the body further. “As long as you keep secrets and suppress information, you are fundamentally at war with yourself. The critical issue is allowing yourself to know what you know.”
In therapy, we created a treatment plan based on getting at the root of my stress, anxiety and depression. It was clear from the beginning that the issues went a lot deeper than my dog dying. We agreed that I was dealing with and working through that at a healthy rate. She assured me that the healing would come, not merely from remembering an incident, but from identifying and naming the pain specifically.
“What do you notice in your body?” She kept asking me.
The pain would burn and throb in my back or my stomach would cramp up. I focused on a painting of flowers blooming out of a skeleton that she had hanging on the office wall while I counted my breaths.
There was one clear memory that kept coming back. Of me, sitting in a bishops office. It was just the two of us. Me as a teenager and this older man that I did not know well. He asked me personal questions about my sex life. A boy I’d been dating was getting ready to go on a mission and he had told the bishop that we had been physical. The following Sunday at church, the bishop’s assistant found me and asked for the meeting. Now there I was. He asked so many questions about things that I had previously felt no guilt for. Things I hadn’t even written in my journal. He was quick to tell me why I should be ashamed. I wasn’t strong enough to argue.
There were 21 members on the Senate Judiciary Committee during the Kavanagh hearings. 11 were Republican, and four of those Republicans were Mormon men. I still can’t seem to remove the image of former Utah Senator, Orrin Hatch, who served on the Senate Judiciary Committee during the Kavanagh hearings, commenting on Dr. Ford and her testimony. A journalist asked him on camera “Do you find Dr. Ford credible?” He responded that she was an attractive, good witness. The reporter followed up be asking what he meant by attractive. His response was “In other words, she’s pleasing.”
After several sessions, my therapist and I had a breakthrough. Four words kept coming back out of each memory that we discussed. You are not valuable. I was astounded. That wasn’t something I had been fully conscious of. Where could that have possibly started? “You definitely have some trauma that we need to work through,” she said.
Trauma? I wanted to reject it right away. “I haven’t been abused or anything,” I said to my therapist. I paused as soon as the words came out. You haven’t? I asked myself.
“We can call it lowercase trauma, if that feels better for you,” she replied. “It depends on how you look at it.”
I wasn’t sure, but my therapist was ready for us to start EMDR therapy to help me process some of the memories that were coming up. EMDR is short for Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing. She would ask me questions about one of the events we had discussed, then ask me how I felt, and say “okay, notice that.” Then she would move two of her fingers back and forth for a minute or two in front of me. I would follow them with my eyes. The process mimics REM sleep where your eyes make similar movements and your brain is able processes memories differently than it does in a waking state.
“You will probably keep processing for another day or two,” my therapist told me. “So don’t be worried if you keep making associations or having memories. That is perfectly normal.”
At home after our first EMDR session I started researching online. Trauma still felt like strong word for me to use. So I looked it up.
Trauma: 1. a deeply distressing or disturbing experience. 2. a physical injury
Another memory came to me then. I was sitting in a sociology class at Weber State University and my professor was writing down statistics on the whiteboard about Mormons in Utah. She was a small woman from China, and I remembered loving her wry sense of humor. She always had a unique perspective, as she was able to use examples from both cultures to shine light on things that are hard to recognize when you are only immersed in one.
I can’t remember the specific stats she wrote down that day, but one conclusion from the data she presented stuck with me. So I looked that up online too.
According to Jana Riess, a writer with a PhD in American Religious Studies from Columbia University, Mormon women have a problem with depression. She wrote that “It has long been conventional wisdom that Mormon women are more prone to depression than American women are generally.” This is according to data that only looked at how many Mormon women take antidepressants. Not women who suffer from depression and do not take antidepressants, or women who don’t want anyone to know about it. Who knows what the real numbers look like.
Kris Doty, a professor from Utah Valley University, has coined the term toxic perfectionism as a way of explaining where some of this epidemic might stem from. Toxic perfectionism refers to the idea that within Mormon culture there is an unrealistic expectation for individuals to obtain perfection in their day-to-day lives. I agree with her. Toxic perfectionism is part of the problem, but in my recent experience, there is something else lurking within the culture. Something no one wants to talk about.
In 1979, while the Mormon church was fighting against the Equal Rights Amendment, the Mormon feminist and activist, Sonia Johnson gave a speech to a meeting of the American Psychological Association in New York City. It has since been titled Patriarchal Panic and Sexual Politics in the Mormon Church. Johnson called the Mormon patriarchy the “The Last Unmitigated Western Patriarchy.” She went on to say, “I know you Catholics and Jews in this audience will want to argue with that, but I will put my patriarchs up against yours any day!”
There isn’t really a need to compare and it is definitely not a problem exclusive to Mormonism. But Johnson was on to something huge. In one speech, she managed to sum up how deeply rooted and damaging the norm of full and unquestioning submission to men within Mormon culture has been and still is.
Just a week ago, I got a message online from another man that I grew up with. This wasn’t the first time he had tried to contact me. He once sent me a message asking me point blank if I believed in God. This time when he sent me a message, the same things were at play. I had expressed my opinion about something. He had a sense of entitlement that I explain myself to him. It occurred to me again how interesting it was that I never had interactions like this with other women. This time, I ended the conversation. This time, I said no.
During my last session, my therapist asked me again, “What are you feeling in your body today?” The back pain is nearly gone. My first instinct was to say “nothing.” But that is never true.
Lindy Callahan is a nonfiction MFA candidate at Oregon State University-Cascades. Her writing focuses on the ways that shared culture and history shape us individually and collectively. Currently, she is working on a memoir that examines her personal experiences with being bicultural in America after growing up in an orthodox Mormon community in Northern Utah and then living in a liberal town on the Oregon Coast during her formative years as a young adult. She contributes regularly to Visit Utah and Travel Oregon and now calls both states home. www.lindycallahan.com