Autobiographical writing / Psychology / Torture / Trauma / Understanding evil

Stress Positions are Torture

Strappado at BuchenwaldSome days, my whole body hurts. Sometimes it’s just my legs that hurt. They hurt at the thighs most intensely, but also along the arches of my feet. I’ve described the sensation to my doctors as a burning sensation, the kind of pain you feel from muscular exhaustion.

There is no medical explanation for my pain. And yet there is.

Growing up, I was placed in what are euphemistically referred to as “stress positions”–positions in which a disproportionate amount of stress is place on a small number of muscles, at first causing discomfort and eventually leading to intense pain.

At Guantanamo, detainees are frequently subjected to stress positions during interrogation–“short-chaining” so that they are restrained in uncomfortable positions throughout the course of the interrogation. Seated detainees cannot sit up straight. Standing detainees cannot stand up. Enough of this, and you start finding yourself wanting to tell the interrogator whatever he wants to hear, just to get out of the short-chaining.

It is referred to as an “enhanced interrogation technique,” and justified as necessary for reasons of safety and security. But stress positions are a form of torture. And it is well-documented that torture is neither humane nor effective: the desire to end the torture motivates the victim to please the perpetrator, rather than to tell the truth.

Detainees are also placed in other stress positions as well, including what is sometimes referred to as strappado which places terrible stress on the shoulders, causing unbearable pain, dislocation, and sometimes nerve and ligament damage.

The most effective stress positions in torture are those that provide the prisoner with a choice of death or pain, or a choice of two kinds of pain. This causes the prisoner to falsely feel he is in control of the pain, and he will often unwittingly blame himself.

In my case, my father suspended me by the neck from the ceiling of the garage with my feet barely touching the ground, so that as long as I stood on tip-toes I could continue to breathe. If I relaxed my legs, I would asphyxiate.

This is why my legs continue to hurt. My automatic response to stress is to create tension in my legs, as I unconsciously associate danger with a need to stand on tip-toe and to maintain tension in my legs.

There are two take-aways from this in my mind. One, the use of stress positions in American detention facilities needs to end completely. And, two, rehabilitation of torture victims must include the collaboration of medical professionals on mental health and physical issues, as they are inter-related. The torture survivor who feels physical pain is not merely reliving the pain in his own mind. He is sometimes feeling the affects of ongoing damage to nerves, joints, and tissues. At other times, he is unwittingly recreating it, by returning to positions that kept him alive.

Further reading:

Amnesty International. Torture and Accountability. http://www.amnesty.org/en/campaigns/counter-terror-with-justice/issues/torture-and-accountability

The Green Light. (2008, May) Vanity Fair. http://www.vanityfair.com/politics/features/2008/05/guantanamo200805

Reydt, P. (2004, 25 August). Former Detainees Detail Abuses at Guantanamo Bay. World Socialist Website. http://www.wsws.org/en/articles/2004/08/tipt-a25.html

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14 thoughts on “Stress Positions are Torture

  1. Ashana – firstly, thanks so much for sharing this and I’m so sorry you’ve been through such terrible things. Secondly, I too get this kind of pain – it often feels like someone is pouring hot liquid into my muscles – and it’s usually worst in my thighs. What you’ve said about it being due to carrying stress there makes a lot of sense. Thanks.

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  5. I know this is an old post of yours, but I remembered it today and wanted to read it again as I’m having some more psychosomatic (I suspect) symptoms and I’m pretty sure they are a kind of physical memory of a traumatic incident. They do seem to crop up when I’m tired or stressed, so it makes a lot of sense. Thanks for writing this – I had no idea this could happen until I read your post and it’s helped me make sense of things.

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