Embodied Heart

Centering Survivors: #WhyIDidntReport and #WhatItCostMe

I’m finding myself feeling ambivalence in response to the #WhyIDidntReport hashtag. Survivors do not owe anyone their stories, and they should not feel compelled to be trotted out as political pawns. At the same time, moronic statements such as expecting a teenage girl to alert her parents and law enforcement after a violation, as if the onus is on her, rile me up beyond belief. This is a time for allies of survivors to show their solidarity, and, for survivors who wish to engage, to be surrounded by support if and when they choose to share their experience.

I’ve been scared to talk to others about the current political controversies, unless I already have a good sense of where they stand. A part of me doesn’t want them to fail at giving space and grace to the stories of survivors, because, by default, they are revealing their heart if they do so. Even in my nascent limited discussions, one inevitable aspect of the fallout has been to de-center from survivors onto perpetrators. “Why did they act like this?” “What about his career?” “Should someone’s “antics” as a teen define them?” and so on in defense of violence. I’ve written about expectations of forgiveness toward perpetrators as well as how allies can stand in solidarity, both of which are not purely survivor-focused topics. I want to center my story as a survivor directly here, instead of only engaging the periphery. To that end, for today’s #EmbodiedHeart post, here’s why I didn’t report:

  • I was violated by family members, including my parents.
  • I was silenced by the cruelty of witnesses.
  • There was no safe place to turn.
  • I was a preschooler when it started.
  • I dissociated until I escaped.
  • Shame is powerful.

It feels like an act of grace to myself to leave the list “unexplained.” Most survivors will likely be able to resonate with the unspoken details. The main point of my ramblings here is that survivors do not need to convince anyone who doesn’t “get it;” 100 to 1 they don’t “get it” because they don’t care or can’t be bothered, not because they fail to understand on an intellectual or emotional level. If you are a survivor, you deserve to be seen, heard and held without a laundry list defending the little self or selves who did whatever they needed to do in order to make it through.

When someone wishes to disavow a survivor’s story, there seems to be a limitless buffet of “no-see” available. If the survivor didn’t tell, it doesn’t count. If they told but it didn’t make it to court, it doesn’t count. If they made it to court but lost, it doesn’t count. If they won their court case, justice has been served and there is no reason to feel like a “victim” left. There is no space or grace created, no green forest left untilled, in which a survivor’s story can take root, be witnessed and around which others can rally. Survivors are left to hold each other and ourselves up in communion.

I think we need to go far beyond attempting to justify our lack of reporting, an act which needs no justification, to defining the price of survivorship (#WhatItCostMe) (the “it” is the abuse itself, not the failure to report). I feel self-pitying to tie some of my failures to my trauma, but, in reality, they are definitely related. The impact has been so pervasive and profound that I have no sense of who I’d be without having had the trauma I endured; I feel certain my life would have been more meaningful, impactful and happier. I reject as utter nonsense the musings of anyone who tries to tell me the violations I encountered “taught me lessons” or “were my destiny” or “made me who I am (in a positive light).” Invent a time machine, get sexually assaulted by your relatives, including your biological parents, at 3 at 4 at 5 at 6 at 7 at 8 at 9 without anyone to turn to, within an oppressive family system and religion, and then come back and tell me what a “blessing” it is.

The abilities and experiences it’s cost me:

  • Seeing humans as anything other than threats unless, over a long period of time and with much evidence, they earn my trust.
  • Screening out environmental stimuli such as smells and noises.
  • Thinking clearly under any level of stress.
  • Feeling hopeful for the future or content in the present.
  • A coherent and integrated narrative of my past.
  • A healthy and joyful sex life.
  • Self-regulating my eating, sleeping and spending behaviors.
  • My family, my religion, my community and culture of origin.
  • Nearly every close friendship or romantic relationship I’ve ever made.
  • A healthy relationship with my body.
  • A clear and consistent sense of the passage of time and memory for recent event.
  • An integrated inner world.

This is a cursory list I threw together quickly. I think I’d take up many pages if I really spelled it out. The exact price of being a survivor varies based on the severity, intensity, pervasiveness, etc. of the abuse itself, as well as the background of the survivor. Any cost exacted at the expense of another is too high. If you are a survivor, what has been taken from you and what have you missed out on as a result of your experiences? We often shy away from this (at least I do) for fear of complaining or being negative, but stories of triumph and “it was all okay in the end” can be used to keep us silent rather than to help us heal. Acknowledging pain is not the same thing as dwelling it in it forever. We’ve reached the point as a society that I think the cost needs to be amplified and the burden of bearing it redistributed to everyone who perpetuates rape culture, misogyny and patriarchy, rather than only on those onto whom the debt has been cast.

© 2018 All rights reserved, Suzanne Tidewater, Goddessing From the Heart

A dead tree surrounded by green trees and a sunny sky with one cloud.
Embodied Heart

The Melodies of Trauma

What I’ve written below for today’s #EmbodiedHeart post diverges a bit from my normal style of writing in that it seems to me more raw and unpolished. I feel the need to present my experience as a trauma survivor from the inside out, as it shows up when I’m lost in a flashback, rather than solely as a metabolized completion. I most definitely do not know how or when I heal fully from my past; the last few months, in which I’ve found my sense of inner stability flitting in and out, have been a time where this has been even more evident to me.

Grinding

Life has felt full of triggers lately. I don’t think it’s solely my perception; there have been more interpersonal experiences that set off alarm bells inside of me. Whenever this occurs, I start to fantasize about moving to the woods and living off the land. No human noises. No human with whom I can have conflict. No need to maintain my composure when I feel like exploding in a fireball or dissolving into a puddle of tears.

I’ve felt for a while now that I walk right on the line of “functioning adult person.” I get up every day and go to work. I meet my financial obligations. I clean and cook and present myself according to societal norms. But the cracks are right below the surface and they start peeking out as soon as the pressure gets sufficiently high. Today, for instance, I decided I wanted to get a flu shot. The worker at the first place I went couldn’t get the computer system to cooperate. I eventually stormed off in a huff muttering about “not having the g-damn time for this.” At the second place, I had to wait a full fifteen minutes after completing the paperwork. I started talking out loud to myself and became more and more agitated. When the pharmacist finally administered the shot, she thought I was going to pass out because I was so frantic. There was at least the smallest of internal voices telling me “you look crazy right now” “no one else is losing their shit waiting for a few minutes” but it wasn’t enough to get myself in check.

My daily lived experience is that of a caged animal. I want to react from fight or flight because all I feel is flight or fight, but I believe I have to “perform.” I’ve achieved a certain state of living that I only get to keep to the extent to which I am able to act professional. It terrifies me because it is truly a charade. There is no “having it together” there, at least not internally. I have full-blown Dissociative Identity Disorder and PTSD, but the symptoms are warped by the capacity of my self-control. At most, I appear “anxious” and “high-strung” to those who with whom I interact.

I’ve become extremely burned out at my job, dissatisfied with my living situation and unhappy in many of my personal relationships. To some extent, this is a reflection of the quality of these entities, but, in another way, it is because I feel as though there isn’t anywhere safe in my life. I’m back to running without the pausing to breathe in existence.

I know that this isn’t my experience at all times. But once the levers dialing down my stress start rising, time itself vibrates and shimmers until it seems as though eternity is terror. Safety, a necessity for resting and unfurling, becomes more elusive the harder I try to clasp my hand around it. Life is unsafe. I am not safe. No pauses. Eyes open and ears up. Repeat, repeat, repeat. The quickening strain amplifies the song of battle and I cannot march much further. I’m in helplessness, and I know that what follows is hopelessness.

Headspace

I wrote everything above and felt, with an adequate sense of irony, an internal pause for the first time in weeks. I briefly became me and not her again, knowing that she/me/us has experienced overwhelming trauma and wrote from that place. The I that is me, though, is paper-thin in these moments of high-stress. I feel completely self-created, hollow and artifice only. I’m the one that gets to enjoy life, to contemplate deep thealogies and to muse over silliness. I disappear when a trigger is sprung on us.

In this case, I think it was about the end of June when I started wearing out, after my ill-fated attempt at a vacation. I also had a nasty incident a few weeks later where a random stranger started hurling obscenities at me for no reason (he allowed his dog to run free and it frightened mine by coming at us). Then things started spiraling downward with interpersonal triggers left and right; my threshold lowers once something sets me off so that each subsequent blow lands on bruised barrier.

The sound that orients me again, maybe for a moment only, is the pulsing of the heartbeat. I’m alive, whether or not I’m safe. All of me is here, despite being scattered and back-turned in anger towards myself. Goddess as rhythm, earth-sound, lower, deeper and steadier than the skirmishes I wage feels present and She gathers me together. When I go “away” into dissociation, my sense of my physical being tends to go with me. I become a collection of aches and urges rather than an embodied and centered being. In the heartbeat I start to find the breath, and then limbs and torso and the rest of me begins to feel more whole again.

If you are a trauma survivor, to what extent can you relate to going through times of triggers piling up? How in touch are you with being able to notice when dissociation is creeping in? What, if anything, helps you to re-center yourself?

Embodied Heart

Going There: Addressing Bias within Goddess Spirituality

Who’s your audience? In many contexts, knowing one’s audience allows the presenter, the spiritual leader, the writer, whomever to tailor their message and to allow those who are invited into the conversation to feel included, respected and witnessed. As a trauma survivor, I’ve been in plenty of settings where my needs and life experiences placed me “outside” of what it appeared the speaker or writer had conceptualized in presenting their material. For instance, statements such as “God is in control” or “everything happens for a reason” don’t meld well with the lived reality of the violence of childhood sexual abuse.

I’ve been repeatedly confronted with social media posts within Goddess Spirituality contexts that have irked me and caused me doubts about the extent to which my faith community is equally receptive of all people. When I first became interested in Goddess Spirituality, I unconsciously assumed it was inclusive and welcoming of everyone, no matter their personal identities. As I’ve dug deeper, I’ve learned there are factions and biases I hadn’t anticipated.

One of the most apparent controversies is in relation to the “embodied” aspect of the spiritual practice. For some, embodied Goddess Spirituality and the physicality of being in a female body from birth through death are inseparable. Specifically, menstruation and childbirth are viewed as core aspects not only of one’s womenhood, but also of one’s feminine spirituality. I accept and appreciate this viewpoint and I long for it to be extended into a more inclusive model to which anyone can relate, regardless of body composition and gender expression. My Goddess is more than a uterus.

I frequently encounter the presentation of those who seek Goddess/the Divine Feminine as being white, wealthy, educated, young, attractive, straight and capable of child-bearing, adorned with the trinkets of borrowed culture without a deeper appreciation of their context or the potential exploitation that undergirds their use. Even if the expression of Goddess that people chose to pursue is within their own culture, they may accept the historical accounts of a particular Goddess without a dissection of the misogynistic or racist roots in which Her story was likely planted. I’ve attempted to circumvent these issues by conceptualizing Goddess primarily within the context of Nature. She has spoken to me in this presentation; I also question if I am self-limiting in order to stay “safe.” My Goddess transcends human characteristics, can I also connect to Her in a way that stands in solidarity with those who are oppressed, respects the unique forms cultures have made of Her, and evolves my understanding of Her as social norms change?

Those who are indifferent to others being excluded and devalued bear a mark of responsibility for those who suffer. I balk too at people who normalize their own inaction by dehumanizing the oppressors; no human is worthless. I have struggled to even dip my toes in this topic for fear of offending people and fear of being harassed. At the same time, if we are not in a particular group who is being marginalized, I think it is our responsibility to educate ourselves as to the situation and its effects, and to “call in” at least the indifferent to a place of self-examination where we wrestle with the difficult questions. Based on where I am at right now with my healing and mental health, I do not see myself seeking out direct engagement with those who discriminate within my faith community on a frequent basis, however, I think this is needed and I anticipate it as a potential area of self-evolution.

I wish to deepen my spirituality beyond blaming and shaming to an authentic and compassionate ability to co-create spaces that do not equivocate on certain norms of inclusivity and that enable each participant to meet the Divine in all Her forms.* There are situations in which not every person will be welcome—I would not knowingly allow abuse perpetrators into a trauma survivor group, for instance. The three specific areas that I count as priorities personally are welcoming people of all gender expressions (as they self-define!), balancing a wish to present material that is accessible to people of many identities with a desire to avoid co-opting and diluting individual cultural expressions, and drawing into fuller connection with my own shadow biases and hidden prejudices within a supportive community. I toggled for hours earlier this summer as to whether to restrict my Summer Self-Compassion Camp to women; I chose the “safer” option, in part because I was unwilling to express my internal conflict to others. I want my audience, as well as all who are drawn to Goddess Spirituality–whomever they may be–to know that they are seen, heard, worthy and welcome.

If your spiritual practice takes the form of Goddess Spirituality, to what extent have you grappled with the issues I shared? Where have you felt included or excluded in your spiritual walk? To what extent do you challenge yourself to confront your own biases and to call into conversation those who are indifferent to the suffering of the marginalized? Do you directly confront those who are oppressive, and, if so, what strategies have been effective?

*I acknowledge the paradox of my discussion in that I also conceptualize Goddess using female pronouns. This, to me, is a thealogical issue that is beyond the scope of this particular post.

Embodied Heart

Questing After Validation: Refreshing an Unquenchable Need for Approval

Are my blog statistics improving? How many likes did I get on Instagram? What can I do to increase my Twitter follower count? As of late, I’ve found myself desiring more validation from other people: more likes, more followers, more engagement. Every time I get positive feedback, however, it feels like it only increases rather than slakes my thirst. As I contemplate the unmet needs I am experiencing, I perceive myself as lacking two forms of validation and compassionate witnessing. For today’s #EmbodiedHeart post, I’ll be describing how I am being called to more fully provide necessary care and attention to myself as well as to go deeper in my sharing with others.

Self-Validation

There are parts of myself with whom I struggle to empathize; I conceptualize them to be needy children and rebellious teenagers. The children have often cried as they express fear or boredom. They’ve whine for attention and clung to me in moments where my focus was elsewhere. They have desperately searched for compassion in my eyes and have often found it absent. I’ve parented them in the ways I was parented: screaming, stifling and shaming them into submission.

My interactions with my dog, more than any other experience, have taught me how to respond to the needs of my inner little selves with more kindness. On the rare occasions where I yell at him, seething with rage in my voice, he physically shakes and appears frightened. Within seconds, I am brought to my knees with tears in my eyes, able to see in his reaction the reflection of my inner children who hide from me in terror as I did when I veiled my vulnerabilities from my own parents. He and I reconcile and another layer of compassion covers and soothes the disemboweled heart I was left with as a childhood trauma survivor. I still have much to do, however, to improve my inner gaze of compassionate witnessing when life becomes overwhelming.

The teenagers are my strongest critics. They see where I am flawed and delight in reminding me of these gaps in my façade. They act as protectors, silencing me through their mocking smirks lest I attract outward derision. Their contempt for me is paper-thin; it serves to cover their own insecurities and wounds. The more I allow them to have their ridicule and carry on anyway, the less effective it becomes in blanketing them from the inner work of healing in which I am engaged. Many of my talents lie with them; they have both the passion of youth and the eagerness of young learners necessary to engage inwardly and outwardly in reforming and mending the fractures of my heart. When I praise them instead of rejecting them, I see bright faces shining in pride, their cloaks of scorn tattering as they select capes of strength and hope.

Naked Validation

One of my most finely-honed skills as an individual is being able to appear to be both deep and open in how I connect with others without genuinely risking very much. Most people who meet me would describe me as authentic and direct in my communication. These are hard-won characteristics that stand in contrast to my experience in my family of origin. Although true, they belie the shrouds with which I cloak myself to avoid true detection and validation of the weaker and more child-like parts of self whom I conceal from onlookers.

In service of shadowing my scars, I have carefully crafted my blog to be general in ways that allow me to remain relatively anonymous and have avoided topics such as sex that are particularly difficult for me to discuss. I find that parts of myself are craving being seen through and through, although most of me is aware of the potential fallout of mingling, for instance, my professional and personal lives. I strongly suspect that my drive to stack up accomplishments in terms of readers and replies is a call to go deeper, rather than to cast a wider net.

My intention in terms of how I will address this need is to begin a new project, one in which I play at the layering of garments with which I hold myself secure. I have started writing a full-length non-fiction book in which I anticipate increases in vulnerability and fewer generalities in my sharing. I have discerned a clear message from Goddess that the purpose of the book is simply to create it; in other words, it is not about scribing a tailored and easily marketable product. Rather, it is meant to be an act of gifting of myself, including contributions by the little selves from whom I typically hide, as an offering for whomever She intends as its recipients.

There is a garden growing of my spiritual leadership. Some of the shoots will inevitably die off. Others may produce flowers or fruit. A particular tree or shrub may gain a long-lasting foothold. My traditional method of care-taking the products of my soul has been to over-plan, over-weed and to stand over each plant obsessively shielding it from any potential threats; these acts unintentionally block out the sun and the rain and pluck out potential growth at the bud. My relationship with Goddess is enabling me to settle myself at garden’s edge, intervening as minimally as needed and allowing to come to full bloom all that She has seeded.

Regarding the ways in which you share of yourself publicly, how vulnerable are you, and how does the level of vulnerability you reach square with your inner needs? What are the advantages and disadvantages of withholding aspects of who you are from scrutiny? What activities are you undertaking that may require more of you to surface in ways that allow others to see through your normal shields? Lastly, how do you direct your seeking of inner and outer validation?

Embodied Heart, Surviving & Thriving

Write It, Speak It, Sing It: Why Languaging Our Suffering Matters

One morning on my way to work, my eyes locked on an electronic billboard. Displayed on it was a tearful woman’s face, a reference to #MeToo, and words to the effect of “We believe you.” I felt my breath catch in my throat and was nearly in tears. It was one of the most visible displays I’ve ever happened upon that signified that anyone in the external world actually recognize the existence of sexual trauma and the value of vocalizing it. In passing by the sign again, I saw that it was for a local women’s domestic violence center. The intersection of catching a moment to remember the pain I carry everywhere I go and of realizing the message was evident to everyone driving by impressed upon me again the power of our collective stories as trauma survivors. For today’s #SurvivingnThriving and #EmbodiedHeart post, we’ll explore the difficulties as well as the positive outcomes associated with giving voice to our nightmares and grief.

Unspoken Trauma Harms

The harm done by traumatic events, at least for children, is not based solely on their intensity or frequency. A crucial factor in distinguishing trauma which lingers and scars the mind are those events that are experienced without the compassion of a loved one to help restore the child’s sense of safety and belonging. This experience of violation and danger followed by abandonment creates a hormone stew in the brain known as toxic stress. Toxic stress is linked not only with negative mental health outcomes; it is also linked with an increased likelihood of developing physical disease and even early death. Experiencing horrors, coupled with a lack of a loving witness, crushes body and soul.

Social isolation is a natural outcome of experiencing traumatic events which lack a spoken account. If we are unable to state what has happened to us, our perspective is lost in any retelling of the experience that might happen. In the case of childhood abuse, perpetrators are often more than happy to alter the fundamental facts of the event in order to protect themselves. So, not only are we silenced, we may be made out to be the “crazy one” or the one with “issues.” We may then carry these internalized rejections into new social encounters, always on edge that others will turn against us.

By Body If Not By Word

Traumatic events that are not articulated or held in a supportive environment do not go away. Instead, we may find that we live out that which we cannot voice. Of the many forms this unconscious repetition may take, behaviors rooted in relationship are often the primary expression. For instance, we may enter into and maintain connections with abusive individuals or mistreat our own bodies. In either case, when we are unable to speak our truth, our bodies become the tapestry on which the story of our horror is displayed.

Some of my deepest shame wells up when I can see my little self wanting to be seen by another but also feeling terrified that the other person will treat me as I was treated in the past. In a few key situations where I’ve been “seen” as an adult, the other person has actually acted in a way that re-traumatized me. Past and present blurred into a haze in these moments and I walked away vowing the story must be completely hidden from sight. Mustering the cognitive skills as well as the courage to put impulse to language when my body wants instead to dissociate it is extremely challenging for me.

The relationships reenactments I’ve experienced can sometimes be subtle. For instance, I may find myself repeatedly opening up to someone I know will act in a judgmental or dismissive way towards me. It can take quite a while before I realize I’m stuck in a “trauma trap” and that I need to adjust my expectations and/or behaviors in order to better honor my own needs.

In Story, Healing

Trauma therapies frequently involve narrating what has occurred. Some newer forms of trauma therapy such as EMDR do not include a requirement of the person going into great detail about the story, but they do include both internal and external witnessing. Complementary therapies such as art or movement may enable survivors to make manifest the dark threads through skilled weaving and loosening. I will soon be participating in a trauma-focused yoga class and am eager to see what manifests.

Each character in my story of my childhood trauma has become an internalized entity. The past external event is fixed; the motions and menace existed as is. I feel as though the characters in my head are playing non-stop improv theater, hoping that this time through something will shift and the narrative will no longer hold. That maybe it all didn’t really happen and wasn’t really so bad. On the other hand, some parts of me stand as frozen effigies to the specific trauma that formed them. The past feels full of ghosts and actors.

Although I’ve been in an ebb lately, through #EmbodiedHeart as well as my individual therapeutic work, I’ve made progress in giving voice to who I was and what happened to me. Something in me has decided that speaking publicly in some form may stripe another layer from the façade of “nothing to see here” that I’ve been able to maintain in much of my life. Ultimately, though, what heals is being witnessed in a supportive environment, and, on a personal level, bearing witness to who we were and what happened to us.

Where are you at in your healing journey as a trauma survivor? To what extent does being witnessed promote healing for you? What has helped you to integrate your past experiences?