dry grass prickles the balls of my feet as I tread from house to hammock hungry for silence and solitude on passing the woodshed a rustle alerts my sensors too loud for a bird too soft for a cat a scaly tail slithers into the dark I halt then a head and two tiny webbed feet permission to breathe we are alike this lizard and I our skins crave the sun we run from a crowd when cornered we know better than most how to freeze and here with a full belly and safe hiding place what else must we do but take the alms of the day?
On page 83 of his magnificent book on trauma, The Body Keeps the Score, Dr Bessel van der Kolk takes the reader to a pet shop: ‘Kittens, puppies, mice and gerbils constantly play around, and when they’re tired they huddle together, skin to skin, in a pile. In contrast, the snakes and lizards lie motionless in the corners of their cages, unresponsive to their environment.’ Van der Kolk explains that when a mammal perceives a threat in their environment, their first response is to signal for help. In the absence of a response from others, the limbic brain then kicks in triggering the fight or flight response. Reptiles lack both these autonomous defence mechanisms. Their only option in the face of danger is to immobilise, to freeze. For many traumatised people, when faced with a threat, both the prefrontal cortex and the limbic system shut down, leaving the reptilian part of the brain, the brainstem, to take over.
For many trauma survivors, acceptance can be a crucial step towards recovery. This poem explores part of my own journey of acceptance and how sometimes we can find understanding where we least expect it.
Paul Fleckney lives on Dja Dja Wurrung country in central Victoria. He is a writer, poet, researcher, educator, and urban planner. Paul teaches at the University of Melbourne and is researching how adolescents’ experiences of the public realm can impact on their mental health and wellbeing.