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?

 

Embodied Heart, Surviving & Thriving

Resolving Expectations of Compassion Toward Abuse Perpetrators

A fellow blogger, Alexis Rose, shared an excellent post about her feelings on the word forgiveness.  As I read her post as well as the replies, I felt like the veil finally lifted on what I felt I had been accused of lacking in relation to my abusers by the various people with whom I’ve shared my story. It wasn’t forgiveness as no request had made to do so. Rather, it was compassion. Those of us who have been subjected to the most heinous acts humans can perpetrate are expected to feel empathy and to practice understanding for those who harmed us. In today’s #EmbodiedHeart and #SurvivingnThriving post, I will explore why this expectation may exist and outline best practices in responsiveness for those who wish to support trauma survivors in relation to this topic.

*Please note that I do dichotomize the condition of survivors and perpetrators in this post. I am aware that an individual could fall into both categories; I will not be fully addressing that complication.

But They Had a Rough Life Too…

To me, the function of pushing compassion towards abusers on trauma survivors is that it serves to dismiss any grappling with grief, pain, horror and estrangement by the commenter. If victims and perpetrators can reconcile, what need is there to fully acknowledge the awfulness of the actions and the destruction they cause for their victims? Within this mindset, the discomfort can be wrapped up quickly to move on to a world with less injustice.

As strange as it may sound, those who view abusers with complete hatred and malice—for instance, those who hope they get raped in prison—are simply the other side of the same coin. If the abuser is either monster or another form of victim, we are spared the gut-wrenching realization that all of us have the potential for evil within us as well as the difficult work of having to make meaning out of the actions of those who succumb to it.

Sex offenders (and, to a lesser extent, parents who physically abuse their children) are one of the few true pariahs of our society. The main impulse people seem to have towards them is that they should be banned from everywhere and imprisoned for life, if not outright killed. The hypocrisy, though, is mountainous when it comes to survivors, who are expected to be the ones to redeem them through their acts of forgiveness and compassion. I see value in restorative justice models; however, it is not my job as a survivor to fix the system or the situation for those who violated my being. I view it as an act of cowardess to extend an expectation of reconciliation to those who have been most wronged while absolving one’s self of any need to struggle with issues of evil or to create pathways to restoration. I suspect many such expectations are coated with a little bit of soot-shame: sure, it was the perpetrator’s fault, but isn’t the victim a little defective as well? And, if so, I (speaking here as if I were a non-sexually abused human) can leave the whole messy bunch to figure it out amongst themselves.

The current movement to rehabilitate the men rooted out by #metoo will, I suspect, fall victim to the “fix it yourself” crowd. If such an ill-conceived project as Charlie Roses’ talk show occurs, I fully anticipate a woman who has been sexually harassed in the past will be paraded out to make nice with her former boss or co-worker. I do not have any answers for the place at which the fallen (mostly) men who harm others sexually should arrive, and it isn’t my calling in this lifetime to grapple with this burden. Every time someone tells a survivor they should forgive their perpetrator, or wonders to the survivor what awful things must have happened to the perpetrator to lead them to their behaviors, they thrust some of the most challenging moral questions a person may face: Why do some people defile others? Does evil deserve compassion? Is everyone able to be redeemed socially, and, if so, how do we make it happen? at the people least deserving of pondering them.

To take this one step further, I think again about calling. If there is any justice in this world, I feel there needs to be a 50-1 network of supporters of trauma survivors to supporters of perpetrators. I do genuinely believe some people’s mission in life is to work with perpetrators and I support them in their efforts. At the same time, numbers and substance matter. I was deeply disappointed earlier this year when I learned a Pagan conference I wanted to attend regularly welcomes sex offenders and holds specific meetings for them, while paying little attention to the needs of trauma survivors. I am not saying these programs shouldn’t happen, but the fact that one group’s needs were clearly more valued than another’s turned me off to the whole enterprise. Trauma survivors themselves are not overrun with resources and educated supporters, that much I can ensure you.

Best Practices in Supporting Trauma Survivors in Regards to Abusers

I cannot recall another blog I’ve written where I’ve spoken to those who might be support people to trauma survivors; nearly all of my work is directed at trauma survivors themselves. If you read a hint of anger in this post, it’s there. I’ve been hurt far more than I’ve been helped by others when I share my story. The ones who get it, though, are invaluable.

  1. If you feel compelled to mention forgiveness or compassion for an abuser to a survivor, ask yourself the following questions: Have you yourself volunteered or worked with perpetrators of violent crime? Have you supported restorative justice efforts? How many sex offenders or parents who have had their children removed from them do you care for in your daily life? Perhaps you can exercise your compassion muscle towards the individuals you so strongly feel are in need of it directly, rather than expecting the victim of a crime to do the work for you. We are not your tools of healing; it is up to you to create the changes you think society needs.
  2. Respect the survivor’s boundaries. Do not act as an intermediary between the survivor and the abuser unless it is at the survivor’s request and with their permission. Even then, examine your motives and be prepared to set your own boundaries if you feel compelled to do so. I was betrayed by an individual who knew both my parents and me after I started to come to terms with the abuse. This person gave away my new address to my parents which resulted in them stalking me and me having to go to the police. We don’t need heroes like this; those who know when to say “I’m not comfortable talking to so-and-so for you” may do much more to help us heal.
  3. Know that healing is a process. Part of the recovery from childhood abuse often involves long periods of depression and anger. Feelings of helplessness and hopeless may crop up in you. To some extent, these may be projections onto you by the survivor as they relive and digest their experience. As weird as it sounds, it could be a sign that they really trust you, enough to let you see them “messy.” It is completely understandable that you will need your own support system during this time. With attention to confidentiality, it is vital for you to have others to whom you can turn to help you through your reactions and emotions. We cannot heal ourselves and you at the same time; you doing your own inner work is one of the most compassionate acts you can undertake.

Cultivating compassion towards an abuser is largely irrelevant to the work of being a supporter of a trauma survivor. People may be able to operate in both spheres (one of my most helpful therapists did so), but these types of callings are exceedingly rare. If you are someone who wishes to help trauma survivors, expect them to raise their own questions of forgiveness and reconciliation, and offer them the unfailing belief that they are capable to navigating these waters themselves with you as a steady hand to their shoulder. Do not, under any circumstances, believe yourself more able to paddle through these silt-filled bogs yourself. If you instead believe it is your task in life to support the rehabilitation of those who have harmed others, have at it.

I have varying degrees of compassion for those who harmed me most. As my spiritual journey has evolved, my feelings have grown as an outcropping of the inner work I’ve done, not as an intentional shift in direction. To trauma survivors, my main message is that self-compassion is vital to healing (ironically, it is also the topic on which my free Goddess Spirituality circle this summer will focus). The ways in which you work out your feelings towards those who harmed you are sacred waters; the only people with you there should be those you invite.

Embodied Heart

The Mind of Trauma: Everything’s Preventable?

“This is painful, therefore, there was more I could have done to make sure it didn’t happen.” My constant mantra whenever something—unexpectedly or expectedly—goes wrong in my life, especially if it’s a repeated stressor. I’ve been processing my trauma history directly as of late, and have come away with the knowledge of a core belief around which I have centered much of my interaction with the world. For today’s #EmbodiedHeart post, I will be delving into the ways in which this belief has colored my life as well as acknowledging the falsity it contains and tracing the evolution of my self-talk in relation to it.

By Chance but Not by Choice

For much of my adult life, I’ve conceptualized fate as the lazy person’s excuse for poor choices. This judgment has been aimed both at myself and at others. I’ve held tightly to the idea that it is possible to avoid negative experiences through a three-step process, which I repeat dozens of times a day in relation to current stressors: 1) Contingency plan—If this happens, then this could happen. If that occurs, then what? Continue the decision-tree until all possible events and outcomes are contained; 2) Check on the progress of events frequently to determine how far along the contingency plan has progressed and which possible outcomes can be discarded; 3) As soon as one of the outcomes on the decision-tree is activated, move to the next step. Do not consider alternatives, do not wait for confirmation, do not breathe. Act immediately, as if your life depended on it.

Processing events through this lens contributes greatly to my struggles with anxiety and degrades my physical health by pumping stress hormones through my body. Waves of visceral intensity hit me as the internal cursor blinks, waiting for a line of code in order to move the plan to the next step. Imagine overlapping screens of these scenarios running simultaneously, all with alarm bells going off intermittently and a giant clock (counting down to what?) beeping. That’s how I handle interfacing with daily life.

The entire apparatus I’ve constructed seems aimed at one goal—to keep bad things from happening. What if, though, the seeds of all that terrifies us were planted in the garden of our lives before we were born? What if there are fixed experiences through which we must walk on our individual timelines no matter how much we try to avoid or disavow them? What if I was always going to suffer some amount of abuse and trauma in my childhood, whether I told someone outside of my family of origin immediately, or (as it actually happened), not until I was a fully-grown adult? I have no proof that the answers to any of these questions is “Yes, that’s how it works.” I do realize, though, that conceptualizing at least some of my most difficult experiences through the prism of fate rather than as the result of my own failure to plan is a less shaming and constricting way of approaching life.

Belief So Centrally Flawed

With unlimited resources of time, physical strength, emotional maturity, money, social support and foreknowledge, perhaps almost all negative events in our lives could be prevented. We do not, of course, live in such an environment. As a child being sexually abused in my own house, I did not have any of the beneficial supports listed above on my side. With the limitations I faced, I could not have prevented what happened to me. I had no choice but to endure what occurred until I got myself to a place of safety and freedom where I was able psychologically and emotionally to start to unpack the horror I had faced. It isn’t so much that I struggle with it being my fault as in thinking I caused or elicited it, instead, it seems like it should have only happened once if it was going to happen, because I should have then been able to problem-solve my way out of it happening again. I was genuinely helpless and trapped. All the problem-solving in the world doesn’t work if you are six years old, without a single adult who is “on your side,” trained to see outsiders as corrupt and evil, and extremely socially anxious. My fate was unavoidable at that time.

Where Choice Abounds but Fail-Safes Falters

Thankfully, childhood trauma survivors rarely remain helpless once we are adults. I felt a surge of fire go straight through me when I listened to Kyle Stephens, one of the first survivors to speak out against Larry Nassar, state the following at his trial, “Perhaps you have figured it out by now, but little girls don’t stay little forever. They grow into strong women that return to destroy your world.” The ferocity of this statement for me is a woman standing in her own power with whom no one dare trifle. By and large, as adults, we get to make our own decisions. We can grow our resources to a place where certain kinds of terror are unable to stalk us. I choose, for instance, not to be in communication with my abusers. In doing so, I’ve removed their ability to dictate how I speak my truth. Layers and layers of shame and self-restriction have fallen from me as I’ve grown in my awareness of just how much freedom adulthood can hold.

There is though, unanswered in me, the question of fate. What if, even as a person who owns my mistakes and takes responsibility for my actions, things are going to happen to me that are beyond my control to prevent? Or even experiences that are my destiny to transit? For me personally, the rebuttal to “everything’s preventable” being a statement in need of many caveats is not “God is in control.” Rather, I’ve settled for now on “life is absurd.” Life is absurd when a person does everything possible to be healthy and ends up with a life-threatening disease. Life is absurd when callous and conniving graduates of privilege abscond with profits torn from the soiled palms of those who toil for their bread. Life is absurd and the world is not just.

My conceptualization of Goddess does not extend to believing She is in charge of everything, that it will all “work out in the end.” Does an entity exist that has my best interest in mind and the ability to bring good to fruition? The child in me, the one that thought it was her job to keep bad things from happening, desperately wants to surrender control of her fate to this belief. The adult in me, however, believes that even if there is no grand contingency plan, no clock in the sky winding down, there may be moments of trouble from which none of my scheming will have saved me, and through which I can endure and even thrive. Life is absurd and I break myself open to its whims, releasing myself from the need to stack the bizarre shapes in which it comes into a semblance of order. I desire to smile at the hand of Fate, whatever She brings me.

 

Embodied Heart

Self-Nurturance as an Antidote to Shame

I was poisoned early and often with shameful encounters through the abuse I suffered as a child. The most devastating experience, the one that completely shattered my sense of self as an individual, was when both of my parents simultaneously sexually abused me. To the best of my recollection, this type of traumatic event involving both of them as active participants only happened one time, but it was enough to set in motion a coping strategy that has brought ruin to many of my personal relationships. If any aspect of the experience is sufficiently recreated, the sole solution to the internal distress I feel is to end the relationship immediately. For today’s #EmbodiedHeart post, I will reflect on how this experience affected me as well as how caring for myself can potentially help to heal me.

The involvement of my mother in this event feels almost like a twisted form of ceremony, one in which her necessity to see me as a physical extension of her being met its completion. I believe that at least some part of her thought she fully and totally “owned” me as a result of her actions. I was branded psychically with the message “you’re mine and you exist only when and how I see fit for you to do so.” It has taken every ounce of spiritual and mental strength I have to resist the shame and guilt that her treatment of me instilled in me whenever I take autonomous action or stand up for myself.

Shame separates me from others. It leads me directly to thoughts of suicide, whispering in my ear that I don’t deserve to live and that the only way to make bad things not happen to me is to end it all. Shame silences me, my tongue paralyzed by visions of horror and the underlying script of “it’s your fault this happened” and “this didn’t happen and it’s your fault for thinking it did.” Shame traps me in a seemingly never-ending cycle of enactment of the same scenes, unconsciously and desperately searching for a solution to the impossible paradoxes of the memory.

Knowing that I am my own person—that no one owns me—feels like a starting place in putting the memory where it belongs, which is in the past as a lived experience, rather than in the present as a maze from which there is no exit. I’m left, though, if all I have is myself, with a feeling of broken and jagged pieces which are uncoordinated towards life experiences that are not threatening or dangerous. I have almost no idea how to react to sweet libations of warmth, tenderness, care and affection. In those moments, I’m forever awaiting the bitter draught at the bottom of the glass, certain that the story of what happened to me is doomed to repeat itself.

To move beyond existing, I know I need to nurture myself. I need to give myself refreshment and comfort, holding space for the parts of me who want to resist it as well as the parts of me who are too scared to hope it could exist. The venom of the memory courses through me at times because I give it power and strength through acts of self-neglect or self-abuse. Only through consistent and careful attention towards my own needs can I provide an environment where every trace of the residue of undeserved shame can be drawn out and burned in the fire of my righteous anger or drown in the well of my necessary grief.

To this end, I am committing myself to three concrete actions of self-nurturance:

  • Checking in with myself on a daily basis to see what parts of me may need as well as to work to resolve any internal conflicts.
  • Keeping a regular record of things for which I am grateful.
  • Developing a mantra of self-nurturance, creating a visual expression of the mantra (a painting, drawing, etc.) and displaying it in order to remind myself of it.

What effects does the experience of shame have on your life? To what extent does the practice of self-nurturance assist you in caring for parts of you that hold shame? What concrete actions can you take to engage in self-nurturance?