The #MeToo Movement In Action
Since the Hollywood scandal involving Harvey Weinstein it seems that society is on a bit of a course correct. Feminism has long been a bit of a dirty word, but the #MeToo campaign refreshed the drive to pursue female rights and gender equality – equal pay, certainly, but also equal social standing. Women wanted to point out the abuses leveraged against them – in the workplace, in public places, in private places.
And then #MeToo became not just about women – it became about abuse, and about anyone who felt that their progression or place in society had been challenged by (or contingent upon) the agenda of someone in authority.
I personally found the prevalence of the #MeToo hashtag utterly un-surprising. In fact, I was surprised at how many people were surprised. Working in my industry I know that #MeToo moments – instances where boundaries were crossed and unwelcome advances were made – are practically ubiquitous. In my work it is more rare to find someone without a story than one with.
The world was shocked more than it should have been by the fact that the #MeToo hashtag seemed to crop up everywhere. Abuses of power and the breaching of boundaries IS everywhere – it is part of modern life, and I see it every single day in practice.
I am trained in Functional Medicine – and this means that I assess biochemistry and the details of physiology. I understand blood panels, science and the ins and outs of how bodies function – and the way things go awry, biochemically, when bodies cease to function.
The more I contemplate these biochemical pathways, however, the more I realise that the details of each individual’s physiological malfunction is always important – but much less relevant than the why. Yes, I can offer dietary, supplemental and lifestyle tweaks to instigate biological changes… but I always try to also offer understanding to my clients.
Grasping why our biochemistry goes ‘wrong’ isn’t just about helping us get better – it offers a fundamental observation about the reality of the interrelationship between bodies and the experiences they go through. Our bodies are not isolated islands. So many of the biochemical patterns (and flaws) they express are direct responses to something that has come towards the body within the course of the lifetime.
This is why #MeToo influences so many of my patients… they arrive at my doorstep manifesting the biochemical transformation that has occurred as a direct result of their bodies, space and identity being taken advantage of and abused by another human being. Abuse creates biochemical shifts. Over time, these manifest as illness.
What #MeToo Abuse Entails
It may seem obvious, but any person who has their space, body and boundaries abused has been the victim of an infringement, an encroachment upon territory that should not have been allowed. There are, of course, differing extremes of this – and many, many #MeToo incidents were clumsy, inappropriate (possibly even drunken) advances which involved someone taking a liberty that was unappreciated.
However, the depth of the scarring of each #MeToo incident has very little to do with the intention of the abuser, the severity of the abuse or the situation in which that abuse was metred. Instead, it has everything to do with the way the nervous system of the person who was abused dealt with it.
When your boundaries and body are infringed upon, you are being overpowered by someone else who is taking advantage. This power play (I was tempted to say ‘struggle’, but so often there is no struggle involved, just utter shock) is archetypal and ancient. But the result of it is always the same: the victim recoils away from the advances – they freeze, they flee, they shut down or they fight.
Whilst we all know that we do this outwardly, we have to respect that this response emanates from (and radiates down into) a deeply primal place in our bodies. It is not just a reflex on the surface, it is a deep and all-consuming response that arises from our core and affects our nervous system, immune system, digestive system and endocrine (hormonal) systems.
We cannot just ‘fight’ or ‘flee’ or ‘freeze’ in the body. These responses come from the nervous system and so affect our whole being. This means that when an abuse is exacted on someone, the nervous system responds wholly – and takes all other body systems with it. We fight, flee or freeze in every bodily system. And sometimes this reflex reaction is one from which we never recover.
Above all else, our bodies are primed to keep us safe. Survival is our genetic prerogative and we are hardwired to remember, and avoid, situations which have previously been stressful or dangerous. When it comes to #MeToo experiences, it is very easy to become hardwired to recoil from society, fight society and the people we perceive to be abusers within it… the pattern of avoidance and fear becomes constant, the recoil just a pattern.
Holding ourselves braced against impending advances becomes a default – and deep beneath the conscious awareness our biochemistry alters accordingly. Nervous systems tense, draining our energy and keeping us stressed. Immune systems go on alert, making antibodies to anything deemed threatening. Our bodies do everything that they would do when they interpret and feel threatened. In a state of ‘un-safety’ we slip into a state of hyper-alertness and protective overdrive.
Abuse is the ultimate signal that we are unsafe.
#MeToo and the Immune System
Perhaps the most obvious impact of this is on the immune system. Our immune system is entirely unconscious and it is there to keep us safe, to fight our enemies and to rid our body of those things which may cause us harm. It is necessarily over-cautious and will consume an enormous amount of nutrients in patrolling, identifying and killing enemies.
The branch of the immune system labelled ‘acquired immunity’ is trained (immunity is ‘acquired’) through exposure. You learn how to perfectly fight an enemy by witnessing and experiencing it. When you are exposed to threats from someone outside you, you have taught your immune system something pretty profound… people are dangerous, stay on alert.
The majority of my clients are dealing with immune dysregulation. I use the term dysregulation (or occasionally dysfunction) to cover a whole spectrum of issues which includes autoimmunity (where the immune system is attacking its own host) to excessive hyper-immunity (not a medical term, but a description of a state wherein the body is fighting absolutely everything).
The universal background to immune dysregulation is that somewhere along the line the immune system has become UP-regulated and also confused. The most common cause for this excessive activity – and for the confusion which causes the immune system to fight things that aren’t really a threat – is an excess of stressors which have triggered the body into feeling as if it is in mortal danger.
In the modern world the excess stress triggers don’t actually have to be ‘mortal dangers’ – instead, overt abuse by other people can be a stress trigger. Moreover, the permanent and insidious microaggressions that are, if the #MeToo hashtag is anything to go by, daily and inescapable for many individuals, are enough to trigger the immune hyperalertness which leads to dysregulation.
In light of the fact that the immune system fights threats, and the reality that in the infringements of personal space we are experiencing ever-present threats, it is easy to see how abuse can directly and overtly influence biochemistry.
When I am searching in my clients’ histories for their ‘triggers’ there are always a handful of physical illnesses, infections, vaccines, toxin exposures. But there are also, more often than not, moments in my clients’ lives where they learned for the first time that the world was a threatening place. These tend to be experiential, rather than single-toxin-invasion-related.
I talk about this ALL THE TIME, because the whole point of healing immune dysfunction revolves specifically around the re-calibration of what ‘safety’ is for the human body. To alter what (and how hard and how often) the immune system fights we must reassure the immune system that there is no active threat. This is about training ourselves to understand that whilst life might be utterly overwhelming, it does not actually represent a real and present danger that we must defend against at all costs.
Convincing our bodies that we are safe is impossible to do in an environment which does not reflect safety. And if #MeToo is to be taken literally, people do NOT feel safe in the world we live in today because we are constantly having to defend ourselves against the predatory abuses of others.
#MeToo, therefore, is the first step in making the environment around us a safer place. This helps because the threat of being outed changes the behaviour of the abusers. Moreover, the ability to reveal abuse stories is the first step towards empowerment. Self-empowerment is the main counteraction to feeling unsafe. In this way, training the immune system that you are safe begins with feeling, at least in part, in control of your body and your life.
But Is All Chronic Illness or Immune Dysfunction an Abuse Story?
The answer to this question is, I believe, yes – though the word ‘abuse’ must be qualified. Abuse is any situation in which our body is taken control of by something or someone else and our physiology is challenged against our will.
Watch the endless online summits in the healthcare sphere and you will not get very far before someone has accused something of being ‘the reason’ behind the modern epidemic of chronic illness. Anything can be labelled the culprit: from gluten to vaccines, glyphosate and other biotoxins, toxic oestrogens, medications, folic acid, water toxins, pollutants, EMFs, moulds, dairy hormones, impure meats, non-organic veggies … and probably a whole host of other things I can’t even remember.
I don’t think any of these people are actually *fully* right. I don’t think there is just one cause, and I don’t think that, even if you add all of them together and state it is a ‘sum total of toxicity’ effect, these external pollutants/toxins are solely to blame for the illness epidemic that we see today.
I strongly believe that the dysregulation seen in the chronic illness prevalent in humanity today emanates from the erosion of the sovereignty over our own bodies and the abuse metred against us on a minute-by-minute basis – on MULTIPLE levels.
Yes, I class all of the above-mentioned ‘toxins’ within the abusive category – our toxic world is no doubt a part of this over-burdening and over-stressing of our biochemistry.
But I also watch the interaction we have on a human level – the expectations we put on ourselves socially, financially and in terms of careers. I watch the way we are made to become aware of the behaviours of others – whether being force-fed a diet of Instagram and celebrity culture which breeds a lack of self-esteem or whether that’s the news showing us terrorist activity which breeds fear and reinforces the concept that we are inherently unsafe.
And I watch the way humans interact: our insecurity, our lack of awareness of when we can be honest and when we have to keep up an act – to ensure our place in a job, in life, in a friendship circle, in society. Life is so utterly loud, and navigating it often complex and tricky, that we all carry not just toxins within us but also a whole host of agendas, pressures, roles, obligations, hopes, dreams, challenges and demons.
A body that doesn’t feel safe, irrespective of the cause, will defend. Yes, our bodies might start their defense based on a vaccine, food or toxin. But this sense of a lack of safety is corroborated and reinforced by the world in which we live and the atmosphere of stress, competition, overwhelm and neurologically-stimulating saturation which we experience continually.
The world isn’t an easy place to be – there’s just so much coming towards us at all times. I personally don’t think that humans were designed to be so continuously stimulated, challenged and approached. And yet, here we are… in a situation where we pay inordinate sums of money to find silence, digital detoxes and ‘space’.
In this world, abuses and #MeToo experiences are often the nail in the coffin – a final confirmation that we are open to abuse, liable to infringements of our bodies and profoundly unsafe in our own lives. When the abuse is at the hands of an authority to whom we have to answer, our obligations become twisted and our sense of our place in the world is completely eroded.
#MeToo matters in chronic illness because it pushes the biology – already contending with the modern onslaught of ‘stuff’ – with another invasion, another intrusion, another thing that devalues our own sovereignty whilst upholding the authority of someone else over us. This violation – of our space, of our rights, of our authority and of our body – is often a signal to our body that we are deeply unsafe, deeply at threat – and that we must fight.
And yet, these fights have not typically been outward or public. This is why #MeToo is a departure from the norm. Historically the fights have been repressed, inner battles – deep conflicts which directly change the direction of the fight that starts up in the immune system. This is what gives rise to the silent and damaging autoimmunity. Fighting ourselves and our own tissue is highly and deeply linked to the way our own sovereignty is challenged by abuses (from toxins OR toxic people).
This turning inward of fight can also breed hyper-immunity towards everything we take in. In a world where we cannot profess to be allergic to other people, being allergic to every food we eat is common – the immune system knows something external is threatening, it just doesn’t know what, and better safe than sorry.
This is one of the reasons I am pleased that #MeToo has happened. Not because we need to publicly lambast the perpetrators of abuse (for more on this, see the following paragraphs – as I don’t actually think the biggest part of this is to do with correcting the behaviours of others).
Instead, #MeToo is empowering because it stops the notion of abuse being a dirty secret. It starts a dialogue – it opens a doorway to expression. I have long believed that the deepest trauma of abuse is not the incident or incidences. Instead it is the shame, the internal wranglings, the guilt, the fear and the inner demons that it unleashes which perpetuate long after the abuse has passed. These inner demons affect every decision, thought, action and emotion – but they also transform the biology in the ways laid out above.
#MeToo is a liberation from the torment of this unspoken, silent anguish. And that is beautiful. Feelings going unexpressed and pain that is unspoken will ALWAYS take its toll somewhere. My practice is filled with people who are now physically feeling the emotional pain that they have been hiding (from others and from themselves) for years (…decades).
But Can We Blame The #MeToo Perpetrators?
The negative side of the #MeToo campaign was that it didn’t just open up a doorway to dialogue, it also opened up the doorway to fight and to anger, to hatred and to the outward expression of the feelings that had previously been repressed. I am sure that this has been a necessary part of the process, but I would also argue that this level of anger isn’t healthy – whether held within OR fired outwards.
I strongly believe that the secret to human interaction lies in the magic of the question, “why?” If we can ask this question of ourselves, and come up with half-way plausible (and at least compassionate) answers then I think we do ourselves a great service.
Off the back of the Harvey Weinstein furore there was a whole conversation about how we should ‘teach’ society the behaviour that was acceptable and what wasn’t, the implication being that perpetrators overstepped boundaries because they didn’t know where they were. The ‘why’ in this argument would have been ignorance and lack of awareness of ‘wrong’.
Rightfully, however, many scoffed at this suggestion and suggested that any grownup knows right from wrong and if they needed teaching then they shouldn’t be in a position of power in the first place. I agree with this. Nobody forces themselves on anyone without consciously knowing that it is an abuse.
However, whilst I don’t think it is education of right and wrong that is lacking, I still extend complete understanding to those who perpetrate abuses – even if they do these things fully knowing that they are wrong.
Why? Well in the society we live in, imbalances of power are everywhere. Equality doesn’t really exist, and this has nothing to do with gender or pay. We are made to feel less-than, inferior and as if we are failing on a daily basis – and no-one is excluded from the onslaught described above. We are forced to observe the world around us constantly, through ever-present media streams that make avoiding comparisons with the outside world impossible. And this comparative self-evaluation occurs for both the victims of abuse AND the perpetrators.
In this atmosphere, where everyone feels overwhelmed and disempowered, power-plays and attempts to exert power are to be expected. The ‘why’ that I arrive at when I contemplate abusers is that for some the response to overwhelm is inner withdrawal. For others, i.e. for the abusers, is it outer expressions of power as an attempt to regain some sense of control – over themselves, and over life.
Rarely is an abuser perpetrating abuse because they feel innately strong. They are perpetrating abuse because they are trying to overtly assert a strength that they do NOT feel inwardly. First and foremost, they are trying to prove something to themselves. The secondary aim may be to impress authority over another. Underlying all of this, however, is an innate vulnerability to the wilderness that is modern life.
So what does this have to do with illness and the victims of abuse? Possibly nothing – because one can only look after one’s own response to life experiences, we can’t control others’ feelings. But if part of modifying the immune system requires re-calibrating the interpretation of threat then seeing an abuser as a victim too might help to alter the way the abuser is perceived.
This is tricky territory – forgiveness. But just as I have witnessed fear, depression and emotional pain exact catastrophic effects throughout the physiology, I have also seen anger and resentment do much the same thing. Forgiving, rationalising and attempting to understand the actions of others is, therefore, a fundamental part of healing and turning down the threat level. You cannot create internal peace if you are holding internal anger. And if you are angry, the immune system will continue to create inflammation believing that you require defending.
#MeToo – Chronic Illness Beyond Immunity
Today I have just discussed immune function – but abuse doesn’t just change immune alertness, it also alters cellular function, digestive function and mental health (perhaps obviously, though in ways you may not realise that involve biochemistry, addiction and sensation-seeking).
Because I believe that this is such an important part of the chronic illness epidemic, I am – for the next few weeks at least – going to continue this discussion of how experiences shape biology, and how to transform our emotional responses to life to alter the biochemical distress in which we find ourselves.
Do sign up to my blog (the top bar of this page) to be alerted when I publish my next articles which will cover the full range of topics (and illness) around this issue. And if you, or someone you know, has experienced anything within this article – from the side of the victim or the abuser – please do not be afraid to reach out and ask for support.
Illness is always a consequence of something – and repressing feelings around experiences need not contribute to the development of an illness in you.