I have a client who’s been coming to see me for about a year. When we started working together, he seemed to be carrying a lot of shock in his body. If I touched a particular part of him; his belly, for example, it seemed to set off quite violent shaking. As we continued working, this gradually got less. He seemed able to be much more present in his body, and able to tell me where he would like me to touch him, and how he would like to be touched.
When we had our checking in after a recent session, he told me that while he’d enjoyed our sessions a lot, he’d enjoyed that one a lot less. He had an odd sense of being touched, and not knowing if he liked it or not, and feeling a bit strange. Nonetheless, he remained able to direct me to where he wanted me to touch him.
Rightly or wrongly, I thought this was a pivotal moment in our work together. I surmised that the shock in his body when he came to me was because he had lost his power to choose. He hadn’t been able to say no to contact, or to determine what that contact would be, and in consequence, had become dissociated from his body. His body then held onto the memory of the undesired contact in the form of shock. Because our work was safe and collaborative, his body had felt it could go back to that point, that fork in the road, where you either exercise sovereignty over your own body, or disassociate. This time he could choose to take the other fork in the road by exercising his autonomy in directing how and where he wanted to be touched.
I think this shows the absolute centrality of consent in healing the body from past trauma. Consent is being able to choose but that choice is based on what you feel, not what you think you ought to do, or allow someone to do to you. Because we are not telepathic, that means we need to be able to communicate what we want to the other person. Consent isn’t a once and for all thing. You’re always in choice, because consenting is always in the present moment. You can always change your mind.
I hope that as part of the MeToo campaign, we can re-think our understanding of what consent is. Too often, there’s an idea that it’s like inviting an army into your castle. Once you lift up the drawbridge, you’ve somehow agreed to everything that can happen after that. But, apart from narcissists and psychopaths, that doesn’t work for anybody.
The whole body dissociation that my client experienced is one response to unwanted touch, but there’s also a more specific form. Sometimes part of the body just goes numb, or becomes painful, or closed off. If the person is unable to protest the lack of consent, the body will. Except that once the body does protest in this way it will continue doing it, unless the original transgression is processed somehow.
How do we do we process the original transgression? Through consensual touch, through dialogue, through giving voice to the feelings which come up. Sometimes, underneath the numbness, a physical discomfort emerges. Then with that discomfort an emotion, often anger or irritation, arises. After this that body part seems to reintegrate with the rest of the body and rejoin the whole body in feeling and responsiveness. The critical thing is the active, moment to moment consent. It changes everything.