There is a legend that once, when colobus monkeys were hunted for their pelts, a troop found itself surrounded by hunters and their dogs. Realizing they were defenseless and escape was impossible, the monkeys grabbed fistfuls of their long fur, pulled it out and let it rain onto the hunters. The hunters realized their prey was now valueless, and retreated. Nature gives no frivolous gifts- by ruining those long, black-and-white coats, they surely complicated their lives, but they bought themselves the opportunity to cope with the loss.
People marvel at stories of survival, but those are people who don’t realize how deeply survival is programed into every living thing. It is our most basic default setting, the setting that over-rides all others in an instant. The body and mind both have remarkable, and deeply connected, ways of coping with massive threats to safety. What we lack is a switch to kick us out of survival mode and into living-comfortably-in-a-modern-society mode.
The legend of the clever colobus monkeys stops after the monkeys outsmarted the hunters- this story was apparently documented by someone not understanding the nature of survival instincts. It doesn’t talk about what the next day of the monkeys’ lives was like. It doesn’t say if, that next day, at the first crackling of leaves on the forest floor, the first noise resembling a dog’s bark, the monkeys froze, briefly assessed the danger, and then started pulling their remaining fur out. It worked once, it should work again. Of course, it’s possible it never worked, and the hunters departed not because the monkeys made their bodies less valuable, but rather because more desirable prey crossed their path, or because they suddenly had a change of heart. But to the monkeys, it was their own self-mutilation that saved them, and that would have made the behavior one of the first ones to come to mind when they felt their lives were threatened. It would have made them feel better, whether or not it actually worked.
All of us, throughout the animal kingdom, do what we need to do to survive. When our life or safety is deeply threatened when we are young, the behaviors that seemed useful tend to become more pronounced and entrenched. And this is part of the reason I’ve heard child sex abuse survivors say they were decades into adulthood before they realized they could say “no” to someone’s sexual advances- to them, submitting to such advances in childhood was a key to survival. And if the act of harming one’s body provides one with the belief that they will be safer, that behavior persists. For me, lying in bed and feeling, exquisitely, every rib and hip bone and vertebrae poking me against the mattress was a very comforting feeling- a feeling of being encased in my body. So I did what was necessary to cultivate a body that provided me with that feeling. Being able to lay in bed and feel completely solid, no pesky bones poking at me from the mattress, was almost as good, and was something else to cultivate. Even after the danger passed.
Colobus monkeys have their long, luxurious coats so they can glide farther and stop abruptly as they leap through the forest canopy. Without them, presumably they face-plant into tree trunks and land below their intended target with every leap they take. Perhaps, at one point, after the clever colobus monkeys who had been pulling their fur to deal with all the frights of the forest, started to tire of broken fingers and bruised faces. On some level, in some way, they realized destroying their bodies wasn’t worth it- there are other ways to cope with fear and anxiety, and perhaps even danger. Perhaps one or two trend-setters first decided to re-grow their fur. Perhaps all of the plucked monkeys decided to try it together- a simian support group.
And thus, healing happens. At some point, abuse survivors realize they’re paying much more than anemic feelings of safety and calm are worth. If they haven’t done too much damage to their bodies, they get to experience what “healthy” feels like. Feeling so alive and strong and focused and energetic and capable all day is so powerfully good it over-rides the need to feel safe while lying in bed. And when life feels so good, it’s easy to forget we do indeed live in a world full of predators. Small things can jog the memory, though. It doesn’t need to be much, it can be as simple as parking your car in a parking garage at a concert and having four guys approach you, offering you drinks, the moment your door swings open. And you say no, and they insist, and you say no again, and as you say it you can’t help but notice that the big pick -ups on each side of your little car mean no one can see what’s going on unless they’re right in front of you. You can’t help but notice how each of those guys is taller than you, and you notice their musculature. You try to figure out who the leader is. You keep insisting you don’t want a drink, and finally, you crack a joke about it and dart away, wondering if there’s any chance the garage will be better lit in a few hours, after the sun goes down. And you wonder how quickly you’ll be able to make it back to your car after the concert, and you wonder exactly what kind of mood and what state of intoxication those guys will be in should you see them again. And you can’t help but realize this never used to happen when you in your years of body-mangling mode, and it certainly wouldn’t have happened if you had the good sense not to go somewhere alone in the first place.
It’s easy for me to go to a zoo, look at the monkeys on exhibit and say “you poor monkeys- you live in a cage”. But if I did, I couldn’t be sure they weren’t thinking to themselves “You poor human- the cages that keep us in keep danger out.” If I didn’t fear being transported from the zoo to the psych ward, I could tell the monkeys “I know how to use keys”. And then I’d need to pause and reflect, because you never want to be proved wrong by a monkey.