My Body Knows How to Survive

by Jack Bragen

The human organism is designed to survive as long as it can, to procreate when possible, and to contribute to the success, the survival, and the prestige of the group.

Human consciousness could be a product of the human body. It serves us by allowing us to think, to reason, to ponder and to be better. Consciousness, while normally it thinks itself in charge, takes a back seat to other creations of the body in some crisis situations. I’d like to illustrate some examples of how my body reacts in times of crisis.

When I face danger or a threat, my body brings about more resources, allowing me to better withstand what I’m dealing with. For example, in times when I was psychotic, my body warned me if I was about to do something potentially deadly, in some cases with a commanding voice—taking away voluntary control. In one dangerous location, my legs moved of their own accord and got me out of there. 

I have been in many life-threatening situations in my life, not just when psychotic. And invariably, my body helped me get through. Much of the time, it felt as though there was a deeper instinct that would not allow me to ignore what was needed. Fear is a facet of this.

Yet, when something external, such as my housing or livelihood, are in jeopardy, my body generates a horrible weight in the gut. This is an alert, and my body probably creates it so that I won’t ignore what is in front of me. This is a sensation called terror,  one of the worst sensations I’ve felt. When terror takes over, there is no room for anything else. Terror can feel queasy and dizzying. It can feel like I’m at the door of impending doom. 

I’m not going to lie and tell you that I’ve been homeless. I have been incarcerated in Santa Rita and I have been in tough psych wards, such as Highland and Gladman. I could survive this when young, but I could not live it through now as a 58-year-old. 

I have health issues and I’m not young; if I were to become homeless now, I would not last more than a few days. 

Thus, when a threat to my housing or to my public benefits arises, my body assigns great importance to the problem, and this forces me to act to get the threat resolved. As I said, you can’t ignore terror. There is such a thing as appropriate fear, and you use it as a guide. It is the basic gut feeling that powers actions. 

The Contra Costa Section 8 Housing Authority, in my past, was a substantial, chronic source of anxiety. This was like a continual butterfly in the stomach. Employees often did not follow through with their jobs, making errors or creating other problems for me. When the government isn’t doing its job, it is I who suffers, and not the government. 

In some emergency situations, I have been very confident. I’ve been unafraid when, in some instances, other people would not know what to do to get through a scenario. I’m not the biggest man, but I have stood up to bigger men, and sometimes it is they who have backed off. A physical threat in the moment goes away the next day unless I’m injured and need medical care. 

At one time, I was very afraid of physical threats. But I acquired bravery, by necessity. But when it comes to housing, to keeping fed, to keeping the utilities going, I don’t mess with any of that. I have a strong commitment to make certain the basics are dealt with. 

When you are dirt poor like I am, you must heed certain things. You need to keep your body fed and medicated. You need your coffee. If you are a hardcore smoker, you can’t just stop and pretend that you don’t need it. That’s too hard. Of course, smoking is something we should all be rid of—but how? 

If you don’t at the very least keep your body fed and hydrated, you will soon become defunct. Going hungry doesn’t work if you need to function. On an empty stomach, everything is impossible.  

None of this should imply to you that I’m enough of a fool to take unnecessary, careless risks. Where I live, I’m not going to go outside and smoke when it is too late in the day. I have nicotine gum. 

There is a big difference between being confident in the presence of a would-be attacker versus facing homelessness, incarceration, starvation, or becoming mentally ill. Men I’ve met who have been incarcerated really, really don’t want to go back to that, and some are willing to kill so that they won’t. 

At 19, when I was a janitor, I worked in a store in East Oakland. In that store, I was threatened by two gunmen for ten hours overnight. They wanted to wait for the store management to show up so that they could rob the store. They spared my life because I was young and an innocent bystander. But they wanted to be certain that I could not identify them. That was very clear. My terrified reaction was suspended during the incident and made itself known later. 

Soon after that, I became unable to work graveyard. Trauma, even if not the most efficient of emotions, seems to serve a purpose. My body didn’t want me to work nights anymore. It wasn’t good for me.

Anyone who has been incarcerated does not want to go back. And the same probably applies to someone who has been homeless. Homelessness must be hell, and I’m very glad I have not been homeless. I could have been, but my family has protected me from that. 

Now that I’m older and know how to think more clearly, I’m attempting to put together a good career. This is not easily accomplished. But if I can succeed at consistently earning money, it will serve to give some sense of security, even if that security is all in my mind. 

Jack Bragen lives and writes in Martinez, California.