Our Response to Victims of Sexual Trauma Will Determine The Outcome of Their Healing

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An edited version of this article is published at The Sydney Morning Herald, however, this is the original and full-length version.

It’s late afternoon and I ride my bike; country roads, dirt roads, lonely places. Twenty kilometres turns into thirty, turns into forty-five. Lately I have been riding more than usual. At some point I realise it’s less about movement and more about escape. I don’t allow the thought to linger.

The September winds bluster, bitter and relentless. An old farmer once explained them as the Spring equinox winds. The blowing out of winter. The making way for summer. I should welcome them – their representation of longer days, more hopeful days. Instead, I resent the way they force themselves upon me, uninvited. I am angry at the way they won’t let up and my legs burn and my lungs burn and they do not stop and I cannot stop, either. Anger propels me. Hours pass. I’m still riding.

I recognise the anger, the familiar warmth and comfort of it. Triggers aren’t always immediate or apparent, but often harder to pinpoint. We find ourselves short-tempered, impatient. An edge in our voice. A shoulder angled away. Less outward engagement, more inward turn. An underlying simmer we feel inside our organs. It isn’t until we excavate beyond these outward expressions that we are able to unearth our truths within them.

This week I’ve been watching the Netflix series, Unbelievable. The show is based on the 2015 news article “An Unbelievable Story of Rape” about the story of an 18-year-old woman who reported a rape but was later accused of false reporting while her rapist continued to carry out horrific crimes for a further two years before being eventually caught by two female detectives in Colorado.

The series is fearless in its willingness to explore trauma. There is much to respect and admire in both the writing of the show and its execution. For me, as I have watched, I have been most drawn to its portrayal of the varied responses to trauma which women experience – more so, the assurance that they need not apologise for the ways in which they have responded to, and processed, their trauma.

I think of this as I ride uphill. Take mouthfuls of air into my lungs. Push. Punish. Push harder. In episode five  of Unbelievable there is a scene where Amber, a victim of the serial rapist, stands outside the church service she has just attended with detective Karen Duvell and says,

“I bought a gun. I give my dad hell about hunting wild turkeys, and here I am at a shooting range. I met a guy there. Two, actually. I have no idea why I slept with either one of them. I didn’t plan on it. I just… if Eric found out. If anyone found out – my friends, may family. Sorry, um, you came here to worship, not to hear how crazy I’ve turned.”

Duvell replies to this, “You don’t sound crazy to me. You sound like someone who’s been through a trauma and is looking for a way to feel safe again and in control. And there is nothing crazy about that.”

I found myself simultaneously gripped and undone by this scene. I cannot stop thinking about it; as I work, shower, grocery shop, make dinner. It is with me again as I ride – try to outride – the anger it dredges from my most unseen places.

Rape Trauma Syndrome is the psychological trauma experienced by a rape victim that includes disruptions to normal physical, emotional, cognitive, and interpersonal behaviour. It is a cluster of psychological and physical signs, symptoms and reactions common to most rape victims immediately following a rape, but which can also occur for months or years afterwards.

There is no typical or expected way to process rape or sexual trauma, as we are shown in Unbelievable. Some victims outwardly express the trauma through agitation or anxiety, others are more controlled and appear to be without emotion, while others again go into shock and feel confused, disoriented and unable to concentrate.

Likewise, sexual relationships become disrupted and while most would expect victims to shy away from sexual interaction after rape, many survivors lean toward the other extreme and become hyper-sexual or promiscuous as a way to feel in control of their lives and regain autonomy over their own bodies.

In an article on how childhood sexual abuse can lead to promiscuity, Tia Hollowood writes, “Sex became an escape on several levels. It was a dopamine-, serotonin-, endorphin-loaded experience. I did not have to be emotionally attached. I could have the satisfaction of being found attractive, wanted, and worthwhile, while still escaping any controlling relationship or the possibility of abandonment. As a final defence, my reckless encounters could trigger dissociation, which remained my ultimate escape for many years.”

There was a point in my life, some years after I had stopped being raped by my stepfather, when life spun out of control. It was during this time I plummeted into self-destructive behaviours, yet also during this time I was regularly involved with a church. There is no amalgamation of these two things; you cannot both fornicate and worship on the same day, at least, not without some measure of compartmentalisation, which as it turns out, was a skill I was quite adept at.

However, there is always the shame; man-made or church-made or God-made, tangled around the compartments of your psyche like a barbed-wire fence; the harder you try and remove yourself, the more it pierces your flesh. Eventually the shame drove deeper than I could continue to carry. I sought help; a broken woman in need of compassion and grace and permission to be human. Instead, told I carried the lust of my stepfather inside of me. I was not cared for, but prayed for; advised to repent of my sins that I would be forgiven and washed clean and made acceptable before God.

There’s a quote that occasionally surfaces on my social media pages which says, “I sat with my anger long enough, until she told me her real name was grief.” (unknown) I ride until my body is spent; until there is nothing left for me to give anymore, until there is nothing left for me to outride anymore, until there is nothing left but surrender, then pull over on the side of the road, and weep.

I realise it is grief, this thing which has inflated inside me; I am a swollen riverbank who can no longer contain the burden of overflow and in that moment I yield. Allow this long-held grief to seep from my bones and form salt-crusted recesses in the pale earth alongside my feet. Drain myself of its heaviness, it’s mass. Grief for what I needed most, and was not given. It is a different grief than the mourning of something you once had, and lost; more desperate grasping for than letting go of. Clawing at the deficit of our basic human need for understanding, compassion, grace, forgiveness, acceptance, validation, empathy. Trying to fill the wounds of gaping scarcity with our bare, empty hands.

The thing about the process of healing, is it must be the same as the process of grieving, or even the process of development; there must be stages and milestones and if we are denied these things or shamed because of them, our healing cannot occur as it needs to. We struggle to move forward; stagnate, eventually regress. Loathe ourselves for our incapacities, and how they affect not just ourselves, but those who would try to love us.

For years I lived overwrought with shame because of the judgement from those who were not given the burden of my shoes to walk in; whose knees did not bleed like mine when that walk eventually became a crawl. I allowed this shame to destroy my self-worth and convince me I was unworthy. When what I needed to be told was promiscuity does not make a person morally defective or inferior – that our worth has nothing to do with the number of people we have been with, nor the ways we have chosen to survive.

Also, however, that engaging in promiscuity as a means of control and autonomy will not reconcile the symptoms of Rape Trauma Syndrome, nor elicit healing. But that it is still a normal, valid and expected response to sexual trauma, and one which should not be met with judgement or condemnation, but empathy and compassion.

How we respond to victims of sexual trauma will determine the outcome of their healing. We must understand that at the core of Rape Trauma Syndrome is the innate need for permission to be human. Whether we understand or not, or agree or not, we cannot deny victims of sexual trauma the fundamental right to process trauma in whatever way makes them feel most safe and in control of their shattered world.

As the afternoon sun deepens its yellow hue, I stand; note the way the shadows have lengthened, the new softness of their silhouettes. The ride home is an act of purification; I breathe in crisp air mingled with wattle, breathe out that which I will no longer call mine. Realise not all of us will have Duvell’s in our lives to hold such generous space for us. Understand that makes us no less deserving of such tender grace.

Let Them Throw Stones

Nobody has the right to judge you.

Nobody has the right to hold you prisoner to your mistakes when they don’t know a damn thing about the choices you had to choose from and how hard you fought just to survive.

Nobody has the right to shame you for your humanity. To deny you the right to be human. To deny you the grace of the human condition that sees us all fuck up at times and learn from that and do better.

Nobody has the right to take away your redemption. To take every damn drop of blood poured for your healing, your growth, your change, your becoming, and make it worth nothing.

We are not held captive to our yesterdays, to the person we once were when we knew no better. We are not bound by our mistakes, to the ways we hurt others when our hearts were hurting so damn much inside our fragile chests. We are not defined by our rock bottom, when nobody knows what it has taken us to claw our way out to become the person we are today.

We are not our past.

We are not our shame.

Nobody has the right to judge the heart they do not know.

Your heart is beautiful; made new with each day you have woken and determined to do better. You are worthy. You are deserving. You are everything they will never be.

Forgiveness, grace, second chances: these are the things we offer other humans when we understand the frailty of our own humanity. When we understand that mercy always triumphs over judgement. This is how we offer love.

There will always be those who throw stones.

Let them.

For their feet will forever be bound by the shore, destined to watch as you, my darling, become the ocean.

The Fear of Abundance

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You’re so scared of abundance, aren’t you?

You’re so scared to be everything you long to be.

You know it’s there. It burns within you; your purpose, your calling. It burns and you feel it when you’re alone and your soul is connected to the universe and in those moments you are an unstoppable force. In those moments your heart cracks open with the beauty of all you are and it cannot be contained within you and you know this is who you were meant to be.

You long to step into your destiny and make that your home. But when you emerge from the quiet shadow of your solitude, the fire is smothered by a fear you can’t let go of; scared of what they might think of you, what they might say about you, of being misunderstood, ridiculed. And so you shrink yourself, bend yourself, shape yourself, mould yourself into something you think is more palatable to the world.

And then wonder why you feel as though you never fit, why you never find your place, why nowhere feels like home.

You were made for so much more than you allow yourself to be.

You must be brave, beloved. Be fearless in the pursuit of your destiny. Find your place. You will never be too much for this world. Do not fear abundance, but allow the overflow of your life to spill into the world. Allow beauty and creativity and kindness and love to flow mightily.

Let go of the fear you are too much.

Instead, go set the souls of the world alight with the radiance of your all-consuming fire.

I’ve Been Thinking About Grief Lately

I’ve been thinking about grief lately.

About those of us who weren’t given the childhood or upbringing we deserved; about what it is to grieve for something that never existed.

I find myself recognising the stages of grief more as they happen – the perpetual cycle of denial (this hasn’t affected me), anger (all I wanted was a normal childhood), bargaining (maybe something good can still come of this), depression (I will always be fucked up and unloveable), acceptance (it is what it is and I’m doing okay).

I keep getting stuck in anger. I see my lack of self-worth; the way it affects my relationships, my work, my belief that I am not just as capable as others, but also as DESERVING. I see myself sabotaging these things from the belief that I will never be enough. I obsess over who I could’ve been if I didn’t have a childhood of trauma and abuse; if I hadn’t left home so young to escape that. If I had been nurtured and loved and protected and raised without a shred of doubt that I. AM. WORTHY.

I’m reminded of my favourite quote on grief from Jamie Anderson: “Grief, I’ve learned, is really just love. It’s all the love you want to give, but cannot. Grief is just love with no place to go.”

I’m still learning to understand what it means to grieve for something I never had. How not to be jealous of those who have this. How to deal with the sadness and loss and longing that overwhelms me at times. How to let go of the anger and find acceptance.

But if I choose to believe that grief is love with no place to go, then so must I choose to build that grief a home. To not just love those in my life with abundance, but also love myself with the same measure.

So must I believe I am worthy to be that home; to believe I am worthy of a love that was never received, but always deserved.

When You Come To Understand Your Worth

When you come to understand your worth:

You’ll stop caring he chose her and know if he couldn’t see your worth back then, he still won’t see it now.

You’ll stop thinking about all the ways you weren’t enough for him and know he never would have been enough for you.

You’ll stop replaying all the things you could have and should have done better and know you never have to be more than you already are for someone to love you perfectly, now.

You’ll stop believing you need to strive for the perfect body just to earn his attention and approval and instead fall in love with the girl in the mirror, flaws and all.

You’ll stop wondering why he couldn’t see you and instead wonder what you ever saw in him.

You’ll know you are so much more now than you’d have ever been with him, anyway.

You’ll know you are everything worth loving, exactly as you are.

You’ll know you didn’t lose; he did.

For My Fellow Survivors ❤️

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For my fellow survivors ❤️
 
It says on pill bottles as a disclaimer, do not operate heavy machinery. The irony in all of this, is trauma is heavy fucking machinery, which is to say, I’m not giving you permission. But if you ever decided it was too much and you wanted to rip yourself from the soil of this world, I would understand”
 
Sometimes, I feel like my heart is doing okay. And then, without warning, something wrenches it open and I come undone. I listened to this spoken word poem today and came completely and utterly undone. Because as people who have survived trauma, this is the kind of validation we need. We need to know it’s okay to feel what we feel, no matter how dark, no matter how terrifying, no matter how uncomfortable it makes others feel. Rarely do I allow myself that validation. Instead I tell myself I’m fine. I tell everyone else I’m fine. So goddamn fine. Except, some days I’m not fine.
 
Today I’m not fine.
 
There are days I still wake up so damn tired; beaten before the day has even begun. Beaten by the memories and the flashbacks and the triggers and the demons and the shame and the anxieties and the fears and the way these things seem to find me in the night while the rest of the world sleeps and leave me feeling like a small girl in a big world; so very alone and afraid. I woke up today like this; the graveyard of my heart dug open in the night and me, too weary to fight against it. To outrun it. To stay above it. To shovel the dirt upon it once more.
 
“You will feel broken. It is okay to feel broken. Broken is where the healing begins. This is where we begin. This is where we begin again, and again, and again.”
 
Healing doesn’t come in straight lines and even spaces. It is a wayward journey that brings us back to the places we need to be broken once again; that after the breaking, eventually, we will know the rising.
 
But for today, I am reminded it’s okay to be broken. It’s okay to feel this way. It’s okay to begin again. Today, I am reminded I am not alone in this.
 
“You, survivor, are still here.”
 
I am still here. You are still here.
 
And by god, the world will see us bloom.

Day Six #poemadayfeb: Ugly

When will we learn

there is nothing ugly

about the stories of

survival

mapped upon our skin.

~ ©️ Kathy Parker // Scars ~

Day Seven #poemadayfeb: Ugly

Their Forgiveness Isn’t Your Responsibility

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There are times we hurt others. Whether purposefully or inadvertently, it makes little difference. We have still damaged another through our own actions, and so we seek to make that right. It hurts us to know we have hurt another; we ask forgiveness and seek restoration in the hope to receive grace from those we have wronged.

We hope for the best outcome. We hope for what we perceive as fair.

Sometimes though, we don’t receive forgiveness, no matter how sorry we are. No matter how much we try and make it right. And it’s hard to accept, it’s hard to let go of the injustice we feel at not being granted the forgiveness we had so hoped for.

But this is what we need to remember.

Their forgiveness isn’t your responsibility.

Your responsibility is this: To admit your mistakes. To own your actions. To seek forgiveness. To make right the things you can. To let go of the things you can’t. To learn, to grow, to recognise behaviours in you that have hurt others and change them. To mindfully choose to be a better person, and take necessary action required for that to happen.

But their forgiveness isn’t your responsibility.

We don’t get to control the way others think of us or what they choose to believe about us. We can stand before them with our heart in our hands and ask them to see it – to see us ­– for who we are and not for what we’ve done. But we can’t make someone forgive us who is determined to only believe the worst of us. Who is determined to hold tight to their judgement, their bitterness, their animosity.

This is a hard lesson for people like us to learn.

People like us, who believe in forgiveness. Who give second chances. Who understand the human condition, the way we fail and fall. Who choose to believe people are good, and that until we have walked a mile in their shoes, we will never fully understand the choices they have made. Nor the mistakes they have made, and why they have made them.

We are people who believe mercy triumphs over judgement, and we choose to love others with grace and with second chances, understanding the frailty of our own humanity. And it can be hard to accept there are people who don’t live like this, who don’t love like this.

But what matters is these people aren’t our judges, nor are they our jury. We don’t belong in their courtroom.

What they choose to believe about us is their choice, and who we are isn’t dictated by who they try and make us believe we are.

When we have taken responsibility for our actions, when we have owned our wrongs and sought to make them right, when we have asked forgiveness and reached for reconciliation, then we have done all we need to do. We are no longer bound by their unforgiveness but can walk away knowing we are worthy of our own grace, even when they are unwilling to extend theirs.

What others choose to believe of us is not the truth. It is only their opinion. Only their judgement. Only the evidence of their unenlightened heart.

Their forgiveness isn’t your responsibility.

We don’t always get the outcome we hope for.

But when we have done all we can do, it’s no longer our burden to carry. Just because someone isn’t willing to forgive us, doesn’t make us unforgivable.

Unshackled from the chains of their unforgiveness, we can now run free under skies of grace and redemption.

We can now rise strong.

The Unravelled Heart, a profoundly true reflection on trauma, abuse, love, loss and healing, now available worldwide on Amazon http://amzn.to/2BIvFhp

Image courtesy weheartit.com

To The Mother Who is Struggling

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Dear Mother Who is Struggling,

I know you haven’t been yourself lately.

I see it in the way your eyes no longer carry the light the way they used to, their colour faded; like an old photograph that once held a cherished memory, now lost.

Your frown lines have deepened, they outnumber the lines of laughter that once etched the sides of your face, back when your joyful smile would reach that far, back when your shoulders were straight and the weight of your tiredness didn’t pull you down.

You love your babies, I know you do.

But this is hard.

And you are tired. So damn tired.

And maybe this is what adds to the tiredness; the guilt that you shouldn’t feel this way. You wonder if you’re the only mother out there who feels so isolated, so alone, so exhausted. Or do they all have these villages you hear of; support networks of family and friends who share the burden of raising a family, while you wake up each morning and wonder how you will get through another day on your own?

There was a world you used to belong to, and you grieve it. It’s there in front of you, every day, on Facebook, Instagram, Twitter – there, in the radiant faces of other women as they go about their social lives, their holidays, gym classes, dates, promotions. You wonder how, in a world so connected by social media, you are left feeling so goddamn disconnected from it all.

Surrounded by little people, noise, clutter, you find yourself lonelier than ever. But it’s not a loneliness from being alone. It’s a loneliness that comes from being so far from yourself, so far from who you once were. You don’t even know who that is anymore. You feel as though you’ve traded your whole identity to be a mother. Sacrificed your entire life to care for those around you. This is all you know now. This is all your life has become.

And you miss the woman you once were, and the life you once had.

You long for your independence, your spontaneity, your carefree. For road trips and dinner dates and live music and nights out in the city. For beach days and lazy Sundays in bed and to read a book, uninterrupted. Drained, you yearn for the things that bring nurture to your tired body and soul as you force yourself through another day on the scarce remnants of what you have left to give.

Around you, other mothers appear cool, unflustered; they’ve got this. You wonder if they catch a glimpse of the defeat in your eyes before you look the other way, if they can sense the effort it takes to simply place one foot in front of the other.

I know this is hard. But take heart, dear one.

It won’t always be this way. It won’t always be so hard. Days will get easier. There will be more moments to be still, to breathe, more moments to laugh again. There will be more moments where you can reach inside and find the misplaced pieces of the woman you used to be, and the days will begin to feel less lonely as you journey back to your own heart.

I know you think the way you struggle makes you a failure. That because of this, you fall short and aren’t enough. Don’t believe these lies. Be gentle on your heart, for every day you face the hardest job, alone, and you make it through. No matter how hard, you don’t give up. You show up, and continue to do the best with what you have. And some days that may not seem like enough.

But every day, you continue to love.

And that will always be more than enough.

I know this is hard. But for now, this is all you need to know.

This too shall pass.  

And when you close your eyes tonight, write those words on the back of your eyelids, and watch as they fall away beneath your skin and seep into your bloodstream where they will reach your heart and kiss it with the hope that will get you through your tomorrows.

You may not feel it today, but I promise you, my love – you’ve got this.

Image courtesy The Winged Woman 

The Courage To Choose Love, Even When It’s Hard

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I was reminded today that we can choose to be bitter. We can be bitter over how much we have been hurt, the injustice of every way we have been wronged. Over the ways we weren’t loved and how we weren’t cared for and all that we didn’t receive that we felt we were entitled to. We can carry that close to us and hold it dear and let it dictate how we treat the world. Respond in kind. Even score. Eye for an eye.

Or we can see what a blessed opportunity we have to be the catalyst for change. To be the ones to break generational cycles. To choose to no longer hurt others because of the ways others have hurt us. To do for others what was never done for us. To sow love where only hate has been reaped.

To do differently; to do better.

It doesn’t always come easy, and it doesn’t always seem fair – to be the ones to have lived without love and yet be the ones to offer love back into the world that broke us. There isn’t any justice in that. Yet we are the ones who now choose to put in the hard work of ripping out our thistles of anger, bitterness, and judgement that we have allowed to grow and have nurtured with our unforgiveness, no matter how justified we may have been. 

It takes much effort from our often weary hands to work the hardened soil of our hearts so that new seeds may be planted; much dirt under our nails and blisters on our fingers and grit that gets trapped inside our skin that we scrub, and scrub, and scrub, yet still can’t be free of. But it’s not always our own pain that matters. It’s how we choose to treat others in spite of that which makes all the difference.

It isn’t our responsibility to change the entire world ourselves – that is too much for each of us to carry. But we can change our part of it by offering love in the places we have been hurt the most. This is how we can heal not only the hearts of others, but also ourselves.

Because today, as I was able to offer love in a place I had been wounded, something was changed inside of me too. Something was released. Softened. Broken open. Healed. Restored. A work was done deep inside of me as I chose to override my own pain so that I may not cause the same pain to another.

A new seed is born.

The world is healed a little more.

Our healing comes in many ways. But always, always, our healing is found in the courage to choose love, even when it’s hard.