Dinner was served on hand-me-down plates from my late grandparents. Our everyday dinnerware was loaded into the dishwasher, hence the need for the ‘fancier’ plates. It worked out nicely since we were having a fancier meal: strip loin steak, baked potatoes and grilled asparagus.
Whenever I plate food or pour a drink into their antique dinnerware, I think back to memories I’ve shared with them. An odd but timely memory was activated during our steak and potato meal. I remember when I was a teenager my grandmother having to leave the kitchen anytime my grandfather ran the dish water. She couldn’t handle the violent sound the rushing water made as it filled up the sink. I thought that this was so peculiar and the reaction was just her being fussy.
Fast forward to many years later, I have a more educated and personal understanding of what may have caused my grandmother’s aversion to running water. Wanting to better understand my own mental health, I read The Body Keeps The Score by Dr. Bessel Van Der Kolk (I read this book slowly, paired it with therapy and a feel-good tv show or activity. It is not an easy read). Half way through the book Dr. Bessel references a documentary on Shell Shock entitled Let There Be Light (1946) which interested me. This documentary investigated the treatment that was given to WWII veterans who suffered from Shell Shock. I was absolutely fascinated by the entire documentary, but one soldier’s story especially stood out to me. This soldier had developed a debilitating stutter. Medication and talk therapy was used to deactivate the trauma responses and to understand why and where the stutter came from. We find out that the stutter developed after a conversation he had with his comrades while on a ship. He was unable to say the word “fish” and the fellows laughed at him. The ‘S’ sound in the word fish was the same sound of a highly explosive shell – a sound that meant life or death in the trenches. Hearing ‘S’ ignited a trauma response: “protect yourself.”
So why did the story of a soldier’s Shell Shock remind me of grandma’s aversion to running water? Grandma was a child during WWII and experienced the horrors of war. She shared some stories with us but I’m sure many were left untold. Her aversion to running water later in life could have very well been a way her body was trying to protect itself from a painful memory. Although I will never know, I have learned that things are not always as they seem. What might appear to be odd, fussy or even ‘selfish’ behaviour might be a way someone is trying to protect him/herself from past trauma. I have been on both sides of the story now, questioning why something might be so difficult for someone and being the person needing to protect herself from experiencing panic.
A steak and potato meal served on antique dinnerware was an opportunity to take a fresh and more compassionate look at human behaviour, understanding that there is more to someone’s story.