Connecting Childhood Trauma and Chronic Pain with Prinita Thevarajah

Hi Prinita <3

Hi Fa, how are you feeling?

I’m so excited to talk to you for real. I’m OK! I think today’s conversation will probably be helpful to the both of us. In a lot of ways we are cyclical to each other, our healing paths have intertwined not only because of proximity, friendship and collaboration, but also because our traumas mirror in some ways (and not in others) and those somatic repercussions have a similar resonance across folks who’ve experienced similar things to us, what I’m talking about is CSA. 

Earlier when we were talking on the phone we discussed how (a lot) of abusive people follow a certain script and I’ve found with trauma, especially after reading works like When The Body Says No, for example, you begin to see patterns in how abuse lands in the body and how it surfaces. I’m interested in hearing about where you are with your body and with what’s been surfacing. 

I feel so warmed by you this morning, always, but particularly today after I’ve really spent time completely alone which has been rare for me over the past year. It’s really affirming and comforting that despite our physical distance we’re always on the same page of resonance.

What I am coming to understand about my body is that it is really a never ending journey, it’s like a well with no bottom. I keep unearthing more and more about how I’ve repressed so much within me, and am now experiencing that in one way through chronic pain, endometriosis. 

I’ve been living at my parent’s house for the past two months which inevitably resurfaced so much in terms of hypervigilance within my body. Because the trauma I faced was sexual in nature, and because I grew up in a culture where sexuality is so repressed, expressing my sexuality and sensuality is part of the shadow integration I am now working through. Repressing sexuality is repressing life force energy. It’s like moving through life with a numbed sense and for me that looked like ebbing and flowing through depression and dissociation throughout the past two months. I am still doing a lot of work to cognitively detach from voices that swim in the undercurrents of guilt and shame so, being in a space like my childhood home makes my spirit leave my body. I operate in survival mode. It takes a lot for me to self soothe because the vibration of conditioning that I feel physically in that place is so strong. The past week has been pivotal for me in understanding how my endometriosis flares when I am in boundaryless and unintentional environments. So the choice becomes mine to recognize that pattern and actively detach and cut the cord – which is hard because it’s so counterintuitive for me. 

I really relate, and I know that feeling acutely. In terms of chronic pain and endometriosis I know that these are still evolving parts in your life, things that are perhaps still landing in your body, with my own reckoning of chronic pain and my own chronic illness, I’ve been pretty surprised and saddened by my own ableist attitudes towards my own body and illness. I’ve spent so much of my life coding these things, hiding these things, hiding my constant pain that didn’t just arrive in my body… all these things as to why I forever wanted a massage, why my body is always in knots, makes so much sense now that I’m finally decompressing and seeing the evidence and lining it up. It’s wild to actually begin to witness yourself, which means all the parts. I wonder how your process has felt accepting this new state of your body when you’re giving language (or even finding language) that finally fits. I take so much solace in the acceptance, even if there is grief and anger, as well. How about you?

Yes, internalized ableism is a lot to confront and hold. We’re taking on the voice of those that perpetrate harm and spitting it back out at our own selves. That’s what’s been the most heartbreaking thing for me. It took me so long to get a diagnosis for my condition because I myself initially took on the narrative that I’m probably just “too sensitive”. I didn’t want to take up more space. I didn’t want to play more into a victim narrative that is often attached to people who have chronic illness and disability, and my own dismissal was inherently ableist. 

I’ve become very blunt. I’ve reflected a lot on failed relationships, misunderstandings and miscommunications in spaces that are supposedly meant for care. One thing I can say is, people who experience chronic illness and disability – there’s a different type of consciousness we’re operating with. We experience the world a lot differently. We notice things differently. Like, when I was a child I was acutely aware of when people were racially microaggressive with my parents. I could tell when someone was trying to cause harm.  Our experiences of pain have made us hypersensitive to feeling – whether we choose to engage or disengage is our choice, but there’s no denying it’s presence. I think what I’m speaking to is the intellectualization of care rather than the actual experience of it, is what I became very aware of. 

For most people who did not live through violent and adverse childhood experiences and consequently matured into adulthood in a normative body, they simply do not get it. And I find myself getting more sick trying to explain it to them. So I tell the truth. When people ask me why I can’t be in loud crowds anymore or, ‘it’s just one beer!’, or, just aren’t willing to see me when I say I live my life differently to minimize pain in my body, I literally tell them I lived with childhood sexual abuse and inherited trauma which has consequently resulted in the tissue of my uterus lining to grow outside my uterus because she is so inflamed!

It’s a bit intense but…. I am learning how to embrace my intensity.

Yes I’ve seen you bloom, love. I’m so moved by how you are evolving and accepting these parts of yourself and taking up space in your own life. One thing my friend Tayyeb has recently been asking me a lot is, “Babe, are you taking up space?” It’s so antithetical to the ways in which I assume both of us have been socialized — to minimize our pain but also, and even more so, our presence. Those things are such revealing signals when you start engaging with pain that’s in the body. Recently, just thinking about how spatially I exist, and how that interconnects with how I spatially do (or don’t) exist in my body has been really confronting. Do I participate in my disassociation and if so, how can I advocate for myself (even to myself) when I’m not even fully engaged? I think when you’re in highly traumatic moments, like being in proximity to the very space where you were abused, those things are even more top of mind… So, how do you advocate for yourself, for your pain, for your illness now? Or at the very least, how do you negotiate things with yourself? 

I’ve stopped apologising for needing space and taking space and time to accomplish things – whether that’s my daily routine or my goals for my practice as an artist. Patience was only ever modeled as self sacrifice to me. Martyrdom has always been revered. Fuck martyrdom. I am really attempting to embody a fierce protector for my inner child, the child me who sacrificed her own body for the sake, reputation, ‘legacy’ of my heteronormative family. 

Advocating for myself looks like responding to text messages only when I have responded to my own needs first. Putting myself first in all ways and not having guilt for that. As a Libra who was raised by two Librans, codependency is a real issue for me. Codependency and community has been conflated through trauma bonding in the culture I was raised in. So really knowing deeply that I can only surround myself with people who are equally committed to their own liberation, instead of being saved by structures, authorities, institutions, is a way I advocate for myself. I’m learning how to detach from toxic and abusive people emotionally, cognitively and behaviorally. 

And then very simply, if I want to experience something that will make me feel safer with myself, and hear a voice of self deprecation and self harm lurk up to dissuade me from making that choice of safety, advocating for myself means calmly quietening that dismissive voice. 

What has been clarifying about your endometriosis diagnosis? I imagine it’s been helpful to have answers… 

Honestly, the endometriosis diagnosis initially felt like I was being finally backed up. For once my pain wasn’t being dismissed. And having the diagnosis means that if anyone does dismiss me, I have an institutional diagnosis to challenge them with, lol. It was more about being valid for me before it was a framework of how I could heal. 

Endometriosis is essentially chronic inflammation. I think about that holistically. Emotional inflammation means avoiding emotionally volatile environments. Mental inflammation is having a clear boundary with work and labor. Spiritually, I know that if I’m not responsible with cleansing and protecting my energy, I’m going to flare up. Engaging my base chakras has been really healing during flares. So bodily, if I don’t stretch to release tension, sleep and eat well, I’ll trigger a flare. 

It’s interesting though because this time last year I began my journey with Ayurveda because of my skin issues (which I now know is an endo issue), and that was the entry point to healing my body. My diet according to ayurveda and my endometriosis cross over completely. That’s been pretty transformative in the faith I have in seeking out healing that is more aligned with my values. It’s been wholly intuitive for me, the science coming later to validate what I’ve been feeling all along. 

Does that resonate for you? Being led by your body first?

Absolutely. Yeah the ayurveda + diagnosis connection is pretty wild. Or how ayurveda often intersects with TCM as well and that’s usually connected to the blockages of the chakras… it’s always moving (and affirming) to see how holistic this work is. 

I think the only way is to have really clear boundaries with yourself and others. Recognizing why I eat the way I do, use the ingredients I use and acknowledging that this attention to detail wasn’t just a quirk, but an intuitive connection I had with food and thus my body (inherently understanding what I could/couldn’t eat) has been suchhhhhhhhh an illuminating as well as FRUSTRATING saga. I guess the hardest thing is that this path is not linear. After figuring out these things in my early 20s, in my early 30s there’s still such a stop and start motion of implementing things full time and not getting cocky about my own health… I guess that’s an integral thing about this path, how uncomfortable it is and how it’ll throw you out into the deep end sometimes. But I guess I’d rather be here—with all this clarity—even if it’s uncomfortable, than to be in the dark. 

What’s advice you’d give folks that are wanting tenderness with themselves? How do you find tenderness on this never ending journey to healing?

The non linearity humbles me. Like being back at square one now that I am physically closer to my the site of trauma, being back in that place where I am a child again and now knowing I can use the skills I’ve learnt to protect myself, but this time I am more aware of the danger that exists more hidden below the surface, in the patterns. 

Tenderness to me has become synonymous with slowness and quiet. If you are craving tenderness due to a heightened sensitivity, chances are, you are taking on energies that don’t belong to you. The only way for me to really know what I want is to stop and be still. Even if I am fighting the stillness, that is an indicator for me that I am distracting myself from something. 

Stillness and moving slowly allows me to come back to my breath which in turn allows me to come back to my body and that’s where I am able to tap into the abundance of tenderness I have for myself. 

Tell me five things that you’ve been doing to nurture softness

1. Combing my hair in the morning with neem oil & giving myself scalp massages
2. Sleeping in 
3. Going for long walks in areas I do not know and connecting with the trees along the way
4. Turning notifications off my phone
5. Dancing, every day 

Coming To Terms With An Invisible Disability with Eugenie Lee

Thinking of the context of us being in Sydney and lockdown being over, being back out and about, if you could choose just five words to describe the state of your spirit, what would they be?

Inquisitive, hesitant, excited, explorative and resilient.

When we were speaking earlier, you were describing the research you were doing around pelvic pain, and you labeled the factors contributing to it as biopsychosocial. I’ve never heard anyone use that term before. I’ve always heard factors referred to as biological or psychological or social but never the three together, and it makes sense to me. For some in the community who might not understand what it means, what are the biopsychosocial factors of pelvic chronic pain? 

I learnt the terminology through a neuroscientist who specialises in persistent pain in Australia, specifically a body and mind team based at the University of South Australia. And also Neuroscience Research Australia, Randwick in Sydney. Basically what they’re saying is body and mind are not separate, we are holistic beings. Although we live in the physical body (bio) we cannot separate psychosocial components from our own experiences. Our perception of experiencing pain (because pain itself is a perception) cannot be separated from physical biological experience or away from psychosocial experience. So in a sense, neuroscience recognises that we are holistic beings. 

What we experience through social interactions or emotional wellbeing or disturbances can manifest itself through our own body. If, for instance, you feel pelvic pain on the left side of your body, that doesn’t necessarily mean that there is tissue damage on the left side of your body. There is a psychosocial component that contributes to that perception of pain. It’s expressed sometimes through physical sensations.

In your work, McGill Pain Questionnaire, you incorporate milk as a representation of the hereditary component of pelvic pain. I’ve been really interested in understanding the ancestral component of pelvic pain. In that piece you make reference to the female link and it reminded me of Gabor Maté who wrote the book When The Body Says No. He talks about endometriosis as stemming from childhood issues of repression and repressing femininity. The day after I was diagnosed with endometriosis, my grandmother passed. She always had pelvic pain but undiagnosed, she would often voice the pain. What do you think about the ancestral quality of pelvic pain, specifically relating to women?

I can only go by evidenced based research where a lot of scientists say a few things that validate my own experience. Having said that, I can never dismiss my own lived experience that has not really been researched, one’s subjective experience, from the perspective of science. 

If you ask me, there are hereditary experiences through female lines that definitely exist in my condition. My mother always had some sort of pelvic pain. She talks about how she used to have huge clots when she was having her period. Or she used to miss work or school because of pelvic pain. But never diagnosed, of course, in that generation. I don’t know about her mother because she passed away when I was very little. 

Scientists do say that there is some sort of genetic hereditary issue when it comes to endometriosis. But they rarely did any research on “women’s issues”. They call it women’s issues when it comes to pelvic pain although there are many men who also live with pelvic pain. Endometriosis is considered specifically a women’s issue. Science is very heavily male dominated so it just never pulled on their attention to do more research. Even though pelvic pain has existed for hundreds of years.

Going back to using milk as a material expression for my artwork; endometriosis generally occurs during the childbearing years for women. I thought milk was an adequate metaphor to talk about endometriosis. From a cultural perspective, I think it’s an all women thing, not specific to my Korean-Australian heritage. Milk is something all women, even mammals can relate to. Talking about more of a cultural reference to endometriosis, I would point to using seaweed in McGill Pain Questionnaire. When you see the video about pulsing, that is specifically seaweed mixed with water. That pulsing movement is based on thick, mucus like clots that gather together and pulse away. This pulsing sensation is quite common in the endometriosis experience. The reason I used seaweed is because they talk about, if you were exposed to dioxins and a lot of chemical exposures when you were young, you may develop endometriosis. It could trigger the genetic components that start the endometriosis process. I was exposed to a fair bit of dioxins growing up in Korea. Eating whale, and a lot of pesticides that had a huge amount of dioxins. 

This is all, even scientifically, based on conjecture. A lot of research in endometriosis is so sparse. There isn’t a lot of solid evidence on what may cause endometriosis, what triggers the genetic components. We just don’t know. Because there’s hardly any funding within medical industries to support endometriosis research. Even though it is quite a common experience. A lot of the time I’m just going by my own experience and even the not so evidenced based research that floats around on the internet. Which is a kind of commentary in itself. We just don’t know.

One thing that really struck me when I first saw your work was how the artist really becomes the vehicle of filling the gaps, so often where policy and research lacks. I was mind blown because I learned so much more when engaging with your work than I did with any type of interaction with any medical practitioner. It was initially frustrating but also so comforting and affirming. So, I’m very grateful for your practice because as artists we could choose to make art about anything and you’re choosing to fill that void that exists all around the world. 

I want to know if you think that there is an emotional component to pelvic pain and endometriosis. Based on the understanding of the psoas muscle as the region that holds trauma and emotional pain. Do you think there is a link between a woman’s emotional experience and how they experience chronic pelvic pain? 

If I’m going by medical science again, there is no evidence. Although a lot of people say there may be links. ‘May be’ in that sense, it’s almost rude that they’re not validating a lot of women’s experiences and hearing their voices as part of research. 

Personally, and by speaking to a lot of other women who experience pelvic pain, yes there is a strong link. I only recently came out as someone who was sexually abused, possibly from when I was born, by my brother. The abuse only ended when he left for America when he was fourteen. Until then, I was his available toy and subject for his sick curiosity, perhaps. That continued with the indifference of my parent’s towards my wellbeing and almost like, he was protected and I was not. So I had to find my own way to protect myself since I was born. Even though I was brought up in a middle class, well off family. When it comes to abuse, there is no boundary. In a way, my emotional expression that seeps through my paintings and sometimes installations are partially a form of me to make sense of my emotional pain and confusion and shame. Although, it is unwarranted. My shame is not because of what I’ve done, but because of society’s stigma that has been placed on the victims of sexual abuse. 

Some of that, I’m sure, physically manifested as pelvic pain. There is a lot of evidence out there that childhood trauma can significantly affect that person’s autoimmune functions, and it changes the brain functions and it literally changes the cell structure. But they’ve never actually done further research on how women are affected by sexual abuse that consequently is effected through pelvic pain. 

Thank you for sharing that with me and I’m so sorry for what you’ve experienced. My sister took out incest on me and I was sexually abused for eight years. Only as an adult did I really process that, and when I began to process that is when I began to process the pain. And I didn’t have words to articulate it, of course, but only when I began to assert boundaries for myself could I really understand what was going on in my body. 

So many of the women that I’ve spoken to who have severe endometriosis have had some sort of violence occur to them as children. To make that link and then see how these systems not only disregard women by looking past this, but also, overlook care for children. It’s heartbreaking and disappointing. 

I wonder how connecting those dots help you, if at all, be with your family and resolve any past traumas. I moved back home after three years of living out of home and had an endo flair last week. My parents are only starting to understand it and they know that I was abused as a child. And when my mother came to check on me, my instant reaction was to get mad and be frustrated which was coming from my inner child who was really hurting. 

How have you moved through that yourself?

That’s a big question. I’ve been through a lot of treatment options, I’ve explored a lot.

Before I answer your questions, I just want to clarify that one of the reasons that never spoke about my childhood sexual abuse and physical, emotional, verbal and everything else that came with it, regarding my pelvic pain issues with my GP or gynaecologist was because, once I mentioned that, it would almost give them a reason to wash their hands about caring for me. And send me off to a psychologist, ‘we’re not qualified, you need a psychiatrist, don’t talk to me about your pain.’ 

The medical system is so heavily based on biomechanical perspectives that, anyone, especially women, who come up with links to pain and emotions and childhood experiences, they just don’t want to know. In medical schools, they only learn about persistent pelvic pain for about two and a half hours compared to all of the years of curriculum. They don’t really get a chance to learn much about pelvic pain. So, I don’t blame them. It’s the system. They’re part of the system and come out to care for patients with very complex histories, stories and narratives. They’re simply not equipped. The textbook teaches them about acute pain so they just give us medication and hope for the best. When somebody presents them with a biopsychosocial pelvic pain related issue, within that twenty minutes of consultation, naturally, they don’t know how to deal with it. The easiest option is to send them to a psychologist. Childhood abuse particularly, is just not a helpful clue for medical practitioners to help us along with our pain. I just wanted to put that aside.

I had a similar experience of moving back home with my parents, cos I just couldn’t look after myself for a while. So I definitely understand what you’re going through. Going to people who never protected me, never had the skills to protect me, that concept just doesn’t exist but I had to move back to that environment. That in itself made my pain worse. I would be going through extreme pain and my mother would see how much pain I was under. By looking at my body language, my behaviour, unable to articulate or even speak simple sentences, unable to eat, vomiting, not sleeping and literally crawling around the house. She could see that I was under a lot of pain, but at the same time the burden was on me, to explain to people, including my family who were supposed to care for me, to explain and educate them about pain. I didn’t have a lot of answers myself. I was waiting for my clinicians to explain my experience, but they couldn’t, cos they didn’t know. 

Pain is an incommunicable issue. Socially, I am stuck, as a sole person, to explain and make sense to other people what I was going through. But at the same time, I was going through so much trouble understanding what I was experiencing. Naturally a lot of people go to Dr Google to explain their experience. Or go through a lot of other alternative therapies which have even less evidence based experiences. Being a woman with pelvic pain is a very difficult position to be in. As a carer, for parents or friends who witness your experience of pain, it only highlights their helplessness. You’re a walking definition for their helplessness. When people are forced into situations where they feel helpless, their default mode is to look away. They don’t want to deal with it. They want to help but they don’t know how to. And we can’t tell them how to either. There are so many dimensions and barriers in communication when it comes to pain. 

Cycles of taboo. If you were to look at it from the beginning of our lives and whatever the childhood developmental experience is not spoken about, and then we age into the consequences of those experiences and there’s no language for that either. It’s such a sticky thing to navigate. After I got my diagnosis, just so many relationships in my life began to make sense where the missing link was empathy. The deep connection that I felt with people was usually that they had suffered under violence or lived with chronic pain. So even having to explain myself to friends and family who would say passive, insensitive remarks, I didn’t understand why they were so hurtful to me. After the diagnosis it started to make a lot of sense. Which is also why your work is so amazing because it really does help to create some sort of understanding and empathy for people who wouldn’t usually be able to navigate this experience.

What’s it been like to see how people process this understanding of chronic pain? Do you think there’s more of an understanding now about pelvic pain as a disability? Is that becoming more present to the general population?

To be honest, I don’t know what the general population thinks anymore because I’m so surrounded by people who care for me and other people with disabilities. In a sense, I would say yes. More people are starting to be aware of pain or chronic illness.

We are disabled. Personally, it took me a really long time for me to be able to see myself as a disabled person. When I was studying at uni years ago, there was a disability benefit that allowed a week extra of study times and pushed back deadlines. I had to see my GP to see if he could write me a letter to qualify for the disability benefits. And he said, “Oh! Oh yeah, I guess your pain is sort of like a disability.” He had never thought about it before. That was about twelve years ago.

I was struggling to see myself as a disabled person too. Even though my life has been so debilitating and each of my daily functions have been affected, no body told me I was disabled. I thought disability was an obvious thing, that you were in a wheelchair or legally blind – that’s it. My knowledge of disability was so minimal, just like anybody else really. I still saw everything as an ableist person. My worldview was ableist. So, it took a while. 

After a few years of living as if I’m an imposter, I felt like I didn’t deserve to be a disabled person for some reason. I didn’t know anybody who called themselves disabled with a chronic illness. So I was very isolated and felt very alone. The crucial thing is, if you’re disabled, you need to be visible so that it helps other people come out and see themselves as they are, right now. Not five years ago, who you are now. Everything is a work in progress. Our symptoms change, our experience changes. You can’t compare the person who you were two or five years ago. You are who you are now. You need to stay open minded and accept who you are as you go, with the fact that your symptoms and experience will change in six months time or one years time. 

It was only a few months ago that I told my step daughters, teenagers. I just broke down. The reason I told them is because they just didn’t understand. They had this expectation of me to get up early and do things for them and do this and that. I just struggled so much. I couldn’t do the things that they expected me to do, because they expected them from an ableist perspective, even at that young age. They internalized what people ‘should’ be able to do. They had this assumption. I just didn’t need that expectation, it put so much pressure on my body, my psyche, my wellbeing. So I had to come out. I was nervous, they’ve been living with us for so many years and I was only able to say that a few months ago. 

What a powerful example though, for them who will inevitably be surrounded by women with endometriosis and chronic pain. I still find it difficult to think about myself as disabled. It’s frustrating that the onus is put on us and we become the only resource.

Do you have hopes for how the conversation is integrating chronic pain in Australia?

In a small space yes. One of my collaborators, Dr Susan Evans, is a founder of pelvic pain in Australia. Susan and a few other strong women got together and made an endometriosis task force and convinced the health minister Greg Hunt to give funding to endometriosis in medical research. Although things are happening very slowly, they started educating high school kids in South Australia and Victoria. More media is paying attention to women’s pain, especially endometriosis. There are books coming out. So yes, yes it is hopeful.

In general, disability justice is starting to gain traction. A lot of arts organizations and institutions are taking it seriously, looking into accessibility. Really educating themselves. 

I have been speaking through medical circles around the globe as somebody with lived experience. People who are interested in persistent pain are paying attention to lived experiences. People are starting to incorporate lived experiences in their pilot studies.

How are you taking care of yourself lately?


Several years ago I had to look at my social surroundings for my own wellbeing. I had to be brutally blunt to toxic people around me. It was hard because a lot were my family members. It took many years of psychotherapy for me to deal with guilt. For me to stop them from coming into my life. That was painful but I’ve accepted it finally. I have my own family now. Most of the time I only surround myself with people who care for me and I care for them as well. As much as I care for them, I expect the same level of care in return. If that’s not mutual, I don’t give up. It’s just not worth my well being because it directly affects my health. That’s a strong biopsychosocial cycle.

I exercise everyday as part of my pain management. Exercise is an evidence based pain management that all of my neuroscience colleagues advocate for. Any kind of movement, your brain just loves it. It’s your brain that makes the decisions whether you should be in pain, not your body but your brain. It’s your brain that makes the final decision of ‘yes, you’re under threat’ or ‘no you’re not’. 

I follow a terminology called DIM SUM. Danger In Me, Safety In Me. It was invented by the neuroscientist who trained me about pain. His name is Professor Lorimer Mosely. He’s an amazing science communicator. He and David Butler wrote this tiny little book called Protectometor. What they say is the brain is your best ally so the brain can also be the worst ally when it comes to pain. So how to look after your brain if you live with consistent pain, do everything to make yourself safe so your brain can conclude that you are safe. What you experience is 100% true and should be validated. Everything is subjective so what you experience won’t necessarily be what I experience, but we acknowledge everyone’s pain. We openly embrace diversity. What is safe goes back to our childhood experience, where you didn’t know what safety meant. You didn’t have your safe space so you have to relearn the perception of safety. For me, safety means having a bath. Hanging out with people who don’t judge me, who encourage me and support me. That’s my safety. Having good food, there’s a dietary issue when it comes to pelvic pain. So eating really good quality food is safety for me. I’ve become a food snob, I’m a foodie. Sleep, you need to have good sleep each day. Find good integrative doctors. Finding good clinicians – find your own team. It’s multidisciplinary care. 

Danger In Me is, understand what makes you feel threatened. Toxic people who have abused you, eating bad food, get rid of it. 

Everybody’s DIM SIM’s different. What the protectormetor says is, each day, pay attention to where your DIM is according to your SIM. As long as your SIM is higher than DIM, there’s no way that your body wants to produce pain. If DIM is higher, the protective mechanism will kick in. Pain is necessary to protect you but make sure that you protect yourself rather than allowing pain to kick in.

As long as your own ecosystem is operating in a healthy way, pain is manageable. 

When it comes to long term pelvic pain, you need to adapt your language with your experience. How you view your own pain. Because pain is a protective mechanism, your brain can be your best ally. It sometimes might overreact and think you’re in so much danger, bang, pain. If you can, for instance, change your wording, to see your pain experience, to see your best friend as trying to do everything to protect me right now, you can train your own brain. How do you word your experience? Ask yourself, is this extreme discomfort or extreme pain? If it’s discomfort, acknowledge it as discomfort. Don’t say ‘I’m in pain’. Cos if you do, you’re telling your brain, ‘keep sending me protective mechanisms’. Detach from your experience and observe it. Have a conversation with your brain in a very nice, nurturing way. Bring down that DIM. Be loving towards yourself with gratitude and compassion. Your brain is doing the best to protect you. With that attitude you can up your SIM, even in one day. It’s your attitude. Accept who you are and treat yourself with care and a lot of love. Your pelvic pain experience will become almost like the best thing that has happened to you. 

Understanding Disability Justice and Harm Reduction with Chiara Francesca

I’m so excited to speak with you, Chiara. How have you been feeling over the past few days? Can you describe your energy?

Yes! I have been trying to show up for community, and for loved ones close to me. While trying not to leave myself behind. Chicago has been a bubbling of activity, of frayed nerves, of hopeful heartfelt moments, and much heartbreak too. I am learning to set boundaries everyday, and to both be present, and not soak up everyone’s feelings, or feel like it’s on me to meet everyone’s needs or asks. There is so much more to it, just finding slowness when the spinning gets faster and faster has been where I try and find myself today

Wow, yes. I’ve been dipping in and out to what is happening in Chicago right now. I can imagine that as someone whose work is so integral to community bonds, creating those boundaries are so necessary to rejuvenate yourself, filling up your cup so that you can provide adequately to both others and yourself. Can you tell me a little bit about what your healing practice has looked like since the uprising? 

I don’t know if I feel like my work is integral to the community. I am just a speck. I’ve seen the work of generations of Black and Brown organizers in the city going on for days and weeks and months on end. I want to uplift the work of Chi-Nations Youth Council, BYP100, Black Live Matters Chicago, OCAD, Let Us Breathe Collective and so many others who have been on the frontlines of all of this

I am not sure how I feel about filling the cup. Like how do we move through having cups that have been empty or chronically unfilled for generations? How do we move from a place of trauma and chronic divestment and still find abundance? Still build without using the same tools as racial capitalism and white supremacy? That has been the work.

Since the uprising, and the pandemic I have moved through many different iterations of work. At first it was supporting folks remotely, then I organized wider resources to be used for home care, like the Acupressure for all doc in English and Spanish. In May, I transitioned to seeing patients in person. I have been doing treatments with COVID safety in mind while trying to wrap my mind around what it looks like to ethically prioritize folks on the frontlines, since I cannot see everyone who is asking for/wanting treatments. 

Two other things have been happening: 

1.  Is the organizing-in-progress of a healing justice space with other practitioners to support folks on the frontline with COVID-safe community care.

2. Trying to figure out what to do with using social media platforms as an organizing tool. The explosion of interest that this moment has sparked ideas that are actually long-standing that the wider society is finally shining a light on. I’m trying not to get sucked into lengthy back and forths with folks online that are asking for a lot of labor.

I really admire your humility in articulating that you are merely a vessel for the insight and knowledge that has been passed to you through your practice. I do want to recognize that, as someone with CPTSD, the work that you’re doing has been so transformative for me. The acupressure for all doc especially has been a resource that I’ve been coming back to weekly, I really thank you for all your offerings.

Coming back to this notion of navigating cups that have been chronically unfilled for generations, violence against people like us is not a coincidence nor a byproduct, but a necessity for the systems we occupy to thrive. Healing justice and harm reductionist work holds keys in mitigating centuries of effects of intergenerational trauma, structural oppression and violence. As you have been seeing more and more interest being sparked in these practices, what are some ways long term impacts and healing of intergenerational collective trauma is being centered within these conversations and movement building spaces? 

I am so glad to hear the doc is useful! so much work is born out of hope and not knowing how it will land, so it fills my heart to hear that <3

I see that we are coming to terms with the fact that there is no arrival point. Not in healing and not in filling cups. That awareness doesn’t mean that we accept oppression or scarcity, instead we let go of the anxiety of perfectionism, of being “fixed” or “healed.” We let go of the notion that there is a set arrival point. I see us personally and collectively moving like waves. There is always growth, and always death and decay, and they interplay and intermingle. We can use death and decay for growth. We can use our tired or disabled bodies, and the experience they bring, to create new paradigms. In many ways the “perfect” able-body is what white supremacy and capitalism wants us to be so that we can be efficient laborers. The sick body, the disabled body, the traumatized body, is a body that cannot play into racial capitalism. It is a body that refuses collaboration with systems of oppression. It is a revolutionary state on its own.

In terms of how healing is being centered now vs in the past – I have been involved in social justice work for like almost twenty years, it used to be all martyrdom and self-sacrifice. The “stay up all night” and  “the revolution doesn’t sleep.” Shaming comrades for needing time off or even to step away for illness was the norm. We are ways away from that. Healing is being talked about and spaces for healing are being consciously built-in social justice and movement spaces now across the board. Here I want to uplift the work of Cara Page, Tanuja Jagernauth, Adela Nieves Marinez, Charity Hicks, the 2010 US Social forum in Detroit as a place where the architecture of Healing Justice came together (and Healing By Choice is active in Detroit today and part of that legacy) 

Having that intentionally grounded point of no particular arrival point or end goal is something I have been wrestling with. There is something so radical in being open to what comes and trusting that we are equipped with the tools that will allow us to address whatever that is. 

This concept of the “perfect” able-body as the most efficient, productive body in the capitalist and white supremacist system is one I want to stick with. The binaries imposed by the imperialist, casteist, white supremacist modernized world brings with it an ableism that really does render anyone less than fully able, incapable. What does it mean to ‘be well’ and be sick, be disabled, be traumatized? What are some challenges and some successes you’ve seen in the ways that healing spaces have been opened to those who live in differently abled bodies?

The first feeling that comes up in my gut is a big old sigh. We are ways away on this one. We are in the baby-stages of disability justice being a framework that is visible to folks. The short answer is that healing spaces, as society as a whole, have not been accessible, and it feels like very slow work. I have been trying to think really hard on this one. To understand why disability justice seems to operate so differently than other movements for justice (although it’s all connected). The best way I can make sense of it is that the continuum and wide difference in experience of what being disabled means—building community, changing policy, and even relating across differences is very difficult. Add to that the fact that for most disabled folks isolation and community-building is already challenging. I want to uplift the work of Leah Lakshmi Piepzna-Samarasinha and the anthology “Care Work,” which comes to disability justice from a radical anti-capitalist perspective. Crip Camp is getting a lot of traction right now, and there is a online series of workshops that are up right now, and a really excellent starting point for able-bodied folks to learn about disability justice and for disabled folks to be in community.

Making those lines of connection across struggle are crucial in order for us all to come together in community and solidarity. Can you tell me a little bit about your work in harm reduction? Recently, I’ve been thinking a lot about harm reduction and narcissism as incompatible. Although, we live in an ego state. Collective healing can occur when we put our differences aside long enough to realize we are on the same side. Being gentle and compassionate with ourselves and each other, how do you move through this when the systems above us maintain an individualistic, narcissistic conditioning? 

There is so much to say about harm reduction

1. It is how I approach my practice and every relationship as an acupuncturist, in terms of honoring where someone is at when they come into the clinic. Honor that they are the expert on their wellbeing and experience and that the tools they are using are valid.

2. I also feel that the experience of growing up/being poor and disabled and a teen mother, makes everything harm reduction at a basic level. In the sense that oftentimes you have to make do with what you have. The tools you have are often imperfect, messy, cobbled together, and the best you can do at that given moment.

3. As a political framework I came to it through doing domestic violence prevention work and on screen advocacy at the hospital. This meant showing up at the ER  to support folks after DV or sexual assault incidences. I was lucky enough to be trained by folks who believed and practiced harm reduction as a framework for supporting people through domestic and intimate partner violence. Right now Just Practice, Shira Hassan’s organization, has a beautiful offering on Transformative Justice coming from a harm reductionist framework.

I think that we need to build up a tolerance for discomfort and conflict, and to build awareness around the differences between unsafe and uncomfortable. I am not sure collective healing can only occur “when we put our differences aside long enough to realize we are on the same side.” I think one of the most important aspects of healing, collectively, as a society, is to be very clear about who we are centering. The idea of “putting differences aside” has been weaponized too many times by white supremacy and whoever already holds power. I am more interested in: Who are we centering? Are we centering the needs, experience and asks of folks most impacted by oppression?

And also, can we have generative friction? What does that look like? Conflict is not bad unto itself, rather it is necessary. The internal work of self-awareness, of healing our personal and intergenerational hurts is vital.

Eek yes, thank you for pointing that out, the constant need to center and recenter instead of pushing aside & homogenizing/monotonization. Generative friction and the need to sit in uncomfortability is really where transformative action and healing begins. The need to embrace and see both individual and collective trauma in order to move from it. Thank you, Chiara.

Before we end, I just want to ask, what are three (or more!) things you are either reading, making, listening to, watching, eating that are helping you ‘be well’ over the past few weeks?

I May Destroy You. It’s really intense and deals with painful stuff. It feeds me to see those experiences represented, I feel seen as a survivor and an immigrant (although the show centers British-African diasporic folks, there are so many parallels. The way trauma is depicted feels accurate in a way I have not yet seen).
Reading “Rust Belt Femme” by Raechel Anne Jolie. 

Again, it feeds me in the way I feel seen by what is written about poverty and single parenthood, although it is also painful at the same time. I guess the moral of the story is that nothing is simple, and nuance is where it is at.

Dancing to: I have dance parties in the kitchen with my kids very regularly and we just blast music and dance to Ghali, The Weeknd, Santigold, Caterina Caselli, M.I.A., La Tigre 

Originally from Italy, and currently residing in Chicago, Chiara is an acupuncturist, organizer, artist, immigrant, and former teen mother living with a disability. She completed a 3 year Master in Acupuncture at the Pacific College of Oriental Medicine, earned an MA in Italian Studies from NYU in 2015, and an MFA in Painting and Drawing from the School of the Art Institute of Chicago in 2012, where she was a Soros New American Fellow. Her clinical focus is on mental health, trauma, CPTSD and queer/trans health. She is committed to making healthcare accessible and in building collaborative healing spaces. Chiara is involved in the Chicago Healing Justice Network, which aims to promote healing justice from an anti-oppression framework.