• Heather Austin

The Flight of Restless Leg Syndrome


Posted on Wednesday, October 25, 2017 1:16 PM I can barely remember what it was like to not have Restless Leg Syndrome. I think I was 8 when I first noticed the feelings of not being able to sit still when I was supposed to, because my legs felt like they had surges of electricity running through their nerves. If you're unfamiliar with the delights of this condition, I'll explain a little further. No, it's not the same as cramps. Those people who constantly bounce a leg up and down as they sit otherwise still generally don't have RLS. Some describe it like ants traveling through their legs. Others say it's like a cross between tickles and pain. It usually happens most at night, and in situations where it'd be socially unacceptable to move, like a classical concert, a church service, or a long meeting. But a foundational quality of it is that until you give in to the sensation and move, the tension grows and consumes your focus. And shortly after you move, the sensation begins to build again. Doing some mind/body work has shown me that personally, mine feels like my legs want to run a marathon, while my body may completely exhausted and just wants to go to sleep.

An a-ha moment came to me last week through reading a book on trauma called Childhood Disrupted, and meditating on the perspectives presented there. My RLS leading me to want to run is linked to my trauma response. It's Flight thwarted. When I was 8, about the time my RLS started, my family adopted my brother, and my dad's method of disciplining him for the acting out that came from his attachment wounds was to spank him, often and lengthily. It was also the year that my religious trauma started taking effect. I have always been energetically sensitive to what's going on with people around me, only I didn't have words for that until I was 30 or so. So, on more than the basic level of sensory witnessing of the abuse in my house, I felt the effects of what dad was doing with my brother. Of course as a child, I had no way to escape that. Dad was a pastor at the church we were attending, and prevailing doctrine said that physical punishment was the way to guide a child properly. So there was no way I could protest him, even if I'd wanted to. Apparently God approved of what he was doing. As much as I wanted to flee, and my nervous system was begging me to, I could not.

A further a-ha showed me another layer of why I inherited RLS from my dad. Yes, there is a genetic component to it, but that can be best understood through the lens of epigenetics. The gene may be present, but it doesn't express until life stressors or situations get involved and turn it on. I know from my grandmother more than my dad that he experienced significant attachment wounding as well. She was of the opinion that babies were not supposed to interfere with the lives of their parents. They were to be trained to fit into the routines and expectations of their parents from the start. So in her words, "he spent a lot of time in his crib as a baby." Now imagine that infant being all alone in their crib, unable to escape and unable to speak to get their needs met in any meaningful way, with an emotionally distant caregiver. He also lived his life with Restless Leg Syndrome as a companion, and for a while took up competitive running and race-walking as a sport. I feel a strange mixture of relief and grief at realizing this. There is an explanation for something that can be quite problematic on a regular basis, but it means that my dad and I share a bond through trauma. I feel more empathy for him now knowing this. He eventually became an alcoholic, and died of alcohol related organ failure. My own RLS flares extra bad when I drink more than one serving of any alcoholic beverage. My hope is that through recognizing the background of Restless Leg Syndrome in my family, and trauma releasing techniques like mindfulness and listening to the messages my body sends me, I can find lasting relief from it and perhaps do some generational healing along the way. 

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