CW rape, sexual violence
Hi, this is the first time I’ve ever written publicly about my experiences with childhood sexual abuse, rape, and trauma. I’ve talked about it with people – therapists, friends, family – I even gave a speech at Take Back the Night. I’ve never written about it before though. I’m all about being brave, and if you’re a survivor – I know you are too. Six years ago I started litigation against the man who sexually abused me as a child. This April, that process is finally complete; And now this post. I want to talk about dissociation. I want to talk about how my trauma profoundly impacted my relationship with my self – my spirit, my body, my mind. Before trauma, before rape, before childhood sexual abuse, I was a happy kid. My family loved me, and I loved them. I felt totally at home in my body and in the world. The man who abused me interfered with these relationships. He spent a long time grooming me, confusing me, until it was all so overwhelming that my nervous system responded by completely shutting down.
In this shut down state, my body, once a source of joy, was a place of pain. My mind could block out any painful memories of trauma by busying itself. My spirit hovered outside, sometimes nearby, but more often far away – safe. My body remembered though. Trauma lived in my body. For a long time it felt like I had a foreign presence, some kind of poison running through my veins, taking up space. My body no longer felt like my own. There were a lot of different ways during this time that I hurt my body; Because I was angry, and because it wouldn’t let me erase what happened. I coped in different ways that hurt my body: an eating disorder, self-harm, and outright neglect, among others. But my body endured, my body was still with me.
As time passed I started to see my body differently. I had help in the form of therapy, friends, family, loving animal companions, forests and lakes. I started to see my body differently. I saw my body as a protector, the part of me that had to endure the horror of abuse. I saw the part of me that was left behind, so that my psyche could survive. This was a sad time. I realized the damage that had been done to me, by a world that didn’t seem quite troubled enough that scads of children, of women, men too, people really, are being hurt daily by sexual violence. I wanted to repair my relationship with my body, and re-unite all the parts of myself I sent away. “Never Again!’ was my battle cry. I started writing letters to my body, thankful, apologetic and promising I’d never leave it alone again. I had a lot of guilt about my level of dissociation. Questions about why I didn’t protect my body, why I left it so completely vulnerable and alone. Later, when I felt at home in my body my body memories were able to surface. I understood the level of terror I felt and it was incapacitating, it was easy to forgive myself for this protective fracture.
Throughout this time, I’d experience violent flashbacks. I’d fight them with every ounce of my being to suppress. Needless to say, I was not receptive to these experiences. A wonderful therapist, who I’ll call Ingrid K, helped me tremendously by introducing the concept of safety. Ingrid was the first therapist who actively helped me to cultivate a sense of safety, so I could begin to heal and not just survive the effects of trauma. Before this, when a flashback would loom, and there were nearly always warning signs, I thought I would die. Now instead of complete overwhelm I had some tools to help me cope in the face of tremendous panic and anxiety.
When my heart started to race, and I had that ‘I’m about to die’ feeling, I’d use the 5-4-3-2-1 technique Ingrid taught me. I practiced a lot when I was calm, this way I was prepared for times of distress. Start by naming five things you see, five things you hear, and five things you feel. Then four things you see, four things you hear, and four things you feel. Continue on-3-2-1. For example, I see a tree, I see a bird, I see a window, I see a flower, I see grass, I hear the wind, I hear cars, I hear a lawnmower, I hear my breath, I feel the wind on my skin, I feel the warmth of the sun, I feel my feet on the ground, I feel the prickly grass, I feel my breath on my lip. You can repeat the same things over and over, but go through the practice of naming what you see, hear, and feel. If you’re alone you can do it out-loud, or if you feel self-conscious about talking to yourself, quietly, or in your head. It seemed so silly, but I trusted Ingrid, so I practiced. I don’t think I ever made it to one, my heart rate calmed and there was a sense of safety by two or three. This exercise helped me orient myself in the present moment, where I was safe. It took me out of my head, and back to my surroundings.
With Ingrid’s help, and armed with my safety plan, I started to reclaim my body. This was no small feat. There are a lot of parts of my body that felt really scary to me. And a lot of parts that I really hated. My hips were the place that housed the memory of his hands, wrapping around me from behind, whispering in my ear. His hands in my hair. My body housed all these memories, and these were the parts I remembered. My vulva was completely foreign, totally devoid of sensation and life. I knew there were memories housed inside.
I started with my feet. Why my feet? Well, I’d always had a good relationship with my feet, and jumping up and down and running were already parts of my healing. I’d go for a run when I’d get really angry, and I’d jump up and down to help myself feel my feet connect to the ground. To reclaim my body, I’d pick a safe, quiet place. Usually my bath tub or down by the lake. I’d cradle one foot, then the other in my arms/hands. In no particular order, I’d run my hands over my foot, I’d gently tap my foot, I’d tense and relax the muscles of my foot, and I’d wiggle my toes. All the while, softly whispering ‘this is my foot, my foot that I love. I welcome you back.’ It was fairly easy for me to love my feet, same with my ears. I really like the way my ears have an elvish-ness to them. I cultivated a deeper relationship with the parts of my body that felt easy to love, easier to make a home.
Earth hour 2009 I filled my bathroom with candles, and brought a big mirror to lean against the wall. I felt ready to spend time with my vulva. Please don’t imagine my relationship with my vulva was non-existent. I had sex, I masturbated, I went for regular pap tests. However my vulva did not feel like my own, there was so much trauma, so much damage. Sensation was dulled, there was no joy, orgasm was difficult, nearly impossible. In my candlelit room, I looked at my vulva. I looked and I started to softly whisper ‘this is my clitoris, this is my vagina, these are my labia.’ In that moment, the wax from the candle I was holding dripped onto my leg, and instantly my entire vulva came to life. It was so beautiful and I started to cry, a deep sobbing, ugly kind-of cry. There was sadness and grief, and anger, and so many different emotions. I ended my candle-lit ritual with ‘I welcome you back.’
Over the next few weeks, I continued my body reclamation, and I also discovered a wonderful guided imagery, Protection and Support for Trauma Survivors by Belleruth Naparstek. The combination of all these practices culminated in me, somewhat violently, vomiting up a gross, green, bile-like substance. It might sound strange, but for me that green slime was whatever toxic poison had been left behind by the abuse. Even though my healing journey was not over, that night for the first time in what felt like forever, I slept soundly. No dreams. No interruptions. No nightmares. Total safety. When I woke up, I felt re-born. My spirit and my body were re-united. There is more to this story, and my healing journey continues, but nowadays I have my self. Most days I treat myself with kindness and compassion. I care lovingly for my body, my mind and my spirit.
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Feature image by Noreen Cauley