“You Broke My DNA”
You broke my DNA. You changed me at the molecular level. You reached in and squeezed and twisted until the double helix broke. You wrecked me.
Many people think that DNA is immutable, something that’s formed in the womb and reliably maps out our hair and eye color throughout life. Rather, DNA is, as Captain Barbossa would say, more like “guidelines.” Not only does DNA not always follow the rules, it occasionally changes the playbook.
Epigenetic effects refer to the methylation of DNA; essentially, enzymes attach methyl groups to the DNA molecule, affecting their transcription. Genes are then not expressed. Methylation may sound bad — and cancer development is due to methylation — but it’s also part of natural processes. For example, the effects of aging are due to methylation. It all depends on the body’s clockwork and what needs to be turned on or off when.
However, the clock does not exist in a vacuum; environmental stresses can have powerful epigenetic effects. The stresses can include environmental toxins (e.g. carcinogens), but also can include literal stress.
You drowned me in a bath of constant cortisol, making me claw for the surface every day. And then you comforted me and dried me off and promised to never do it again. You doused me with love and got me addicted to the good times, enough that I always believed it would be the last drowning.
Essentially, constant stress decreases methylation, which in turn inhibits expression of genes. Genes are turning off that shouldn’t be: they should be coding for proteins that are involved with metabolism, aging, and the “fight or flight process.” The stop signals they errantly put out allow the changed genes seen in cancer. In addition, the hormones that course through the body in times of stress affect the genes that code for a protein, Fkbp5, that is crucial to the neurological axis that regulates stress. With decreased methylation of Fkbp5 comes decreased regulation of glucocorticoids. In other words, chronic stress decreases your ability to respond to stress and thus increases your likelihood of developing a stress disorder.
People ask, Why didn’t you leave? Well, how could I leave when I could barely handle the daily stress, let alone process what was happening? You not only hurt me, you removed my ability to heal. It took months before I could even stop reeling from the daily attacks.
Epigenetic effects have been shown in many studies to affect one’s offspring. Sons of POWs were more likely to die young. The offspring of mice who learned to fear a certain smell also feared the smell despite having never smelled it before. Those born during the 1944 Netherlands famine were more likely to have heart disease.
Survivors of any extreme stress are susceptible to the development of PTSD, mood disorders, heart disease, and shortened life spans. When the stress is chronic, however, it can be just as devastating. Many survivors of abuse will experience permanent health effects — as will their children.
Your violence had a ripple effect. You didn’t just do this to me, you did this to my future children. And their children. To the species in general.
You broke my DNA.
If you are experiencing abuse or violence in need of assistance, please contact the National Domestic Violence Hotline at 1–800–799–7233 or chat with them on their website.
Rachel Wayne is a writer based in Orlando, FL. She earned her master’s in visual anthropology from the University of Florida. A survivor of domestic violence whose thesis surrounded the topic, she works to advocate for survivors and educate the public about these issues.