The middle toe on my right foot really hurt, so I pulled off my sock and shoe to investigate. It was sensitive to the touch and had accumulated a protective layer of skin over the tender area. Beneath the excess skin, I noticed a black dot. Unable to explain the origin of the dot or the extra skin, I started digging. I tore through the top layers of skin until I reached the sweet spot. Then I squeezed the outside of the toe to see what would happen. A small pool of liquid seeped out followed by a surprisingly large splinter. Once the splinter was removed, there was no more extra skin, no more liquid and most importantly, no more pain.
What intrigues me about the middle toe incident is that I never knew I had a splinter in my foot. I only knew there was pain. My body, however, knew there was a foreign substance that needed to be removed. When the proper treatment didn’t come, the body was forced to accommodate the foreign invader. It insulated the unwanted particle by building a protective coating around it. If the body could talk, it might say, “The splinter needs to go; but if you’re not going to remove it, I need to protect your foot by building a wall around the splinter. In that way, your foot will still be functional.”
I believe the mind works the same way to protect us from pain. In fact, I believe the mind and body are one.
Elizabeth was only twenty-four when the affair she was having with John, a married man, culminated in an unwanted pregnancy. When he learned she was pregnant, he disappeared from her life leaving her with a difficult decision. Since this was pre Roe vs. Wade and Elizabeth was petrified she would lose the approval/love of her family, she made a desperate solo flight to Puerto Rico to have an abortion.
Fast forward 44 years. Having lost her husband four years ago, a widowed Elizabeth is ready to meet a new man so she registers with a computer dating service. At the same time, she is paralyzed with fear because if she were to date, “it might become sexual.” She realizes that there is something holding her back that she has never talked about to anyone—the abortion.
Elizabeth needed to talk about the loneliness, the fear and the shame of having kept this secret her entire life. As she talked to me, the tears came unexpectedly. Elizabeth had never had a child, something else she’d never allowed herself to feel or discuss. The one time in her life she’d had the opportunity to become a mother, she wasn’t ready and the situation wasn’t right. She didn’t know she carried this kind of pain and sadness, nor was she aware how the pregnancy and abortion had impacted her sexuality. Ever since that experience, Elizabeth had not felt comfortable with her sexuality. Unbeknownst to her, Elizabeth associated sex with these early traumas so sexual intimacy was always a source of tension and anxiety. Because she had married later in life to a man who wasn’t very sexual himself, it wasn’t an issue in her marriage.
Elizabeth had never connected her lack of sexual interest to what had happened to her in her twenties--until now. She had insulated herself from this realization in order to survive. She protected herself from the pain related to the abortion by focusing on her career and her marriage and becoming numb to other aspects of her life. She also used alcohol to medicate herself. Even with the drinking, the distractions and the passing of more than four decades, Elizabeth still had the pain. And it was that pain that contributed to her fear of meeting a new man who might want sex.
So how did removing her splinter affect Elizabeth? In therapy she was finally able to let go of the pain and the shame of the abortion. She fell in love with and took home her first child, an adorable Maltese puppy, to satisfy her maternal longings. While a dog may not be a perfect substitute for a child, you’d be hard pressed to find a mother who adores her child as much as Elizabeth does her Katie.
And the men? Elizabeth has had dates with three different men and is bravely bracing herself for the potential of love and sex.
Is this how the mind typically works to protect us from traumatic material so we can function? Actually, yes it does.
I have seen scores of people in therapy who needed to return to something old and painful—rape, betrayal, abandonment, sexual abuse, you name it—in order to get unstuck. Only in finding closure on the past traumatic experience could they move forward. More often than not in these cases, my clients never knew the splinter was in the toe in the first place. The mind had protected them from the pain.
And so the mind and body are one.