When the Rape Myth is Your Reality

After 11 years of researching, teaching and listening to private testimonies about sexual violence, I have heard the majority of the societal stereotypes (rape myths) that silence survivors’ stories and minimize the depth of these traumatic experiences. Our national denial of the truth of this interpersonal trauma creates a false sense of safety that we use like a shield to cover our ultimate insecurity – which is that sexual violence can happen to any of us. Believe me, the unwillingness to face the reality of our fear is not shocking, there are many days I wish I could buffer my brain from the images that lurk just beneath the humble courage of this self-identified survivor. Still, there exists no phrase we can methodically repeat to ourselves, no drink, no drug, no physical exercise, no new adventure, and no relationship that can actually erase the memory of sexual trauma.

If we are lucky, we learn over a lifetime how to establish enough grounding within ourselves through the utilization of healing techniques that specifically serve us, so that we can develop the confidence to practice not resisting such memory and let what must emerge to finally move through and out of us. Whether our memories surface through emotions, through subtle and not-so-subtle physical sensations or through our dreams, we can begin to carefully explore how to allow, and ultimately, how to re-direct our pain into the life-force that cultivates the healing of a heart that is equally supple and strong. That inner power can feel like a flickering flame on a cool summer night – occasionally bold, clean, curved edges and extending upwards and outwards with the single purpose of enlightening the surrounding space. Often though, that flame is wavering, hanging on, and just about to burn out until the wind settles and it expands into and beyond its original fullness once again. That kind, quieting of the weather catalyzes the next wave of our relief.

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Remembrance and Reclamation Through Yoga

The records of my recovery always seem to surface in the weeks leading up to my anniversary through body aches, animal dreams, escalated emotion and a simultaneous mix of an anxious mind and the lethargy of sorrow’s memory. While not entirely productive, this natural release of endorphin mixed with heartache softens the edges around this waxing phase. I’m reminded once again of the unconscious organizing of my annual calendar around my anniversary in which the other 364 days are either all the days leading up to it, or all the days the follow.

This reflection on the significance of my anniversary has been a work in subconscious progress over the past few years, slowly distilled through my journey on the mat and captured for a moment in a poem. My attempt to memorialize loss emanates from my explorations with a yoga teacher who unveiled an enlightening approach to philosophy, intuition, energy, meditation and the syncing of oneself with the organic animation of the body. She essentially revolutionized my inner experience of myself – in my asana practice, and more importantly in my life – and she brought me back to my beginner’s mind where everything is possible. This daily practice serves me as a human and particularly as a survivor. There are endless options for how we find the balance required to remain present and simultaneously build the energy to move forward – no matter how many times we fail, no matter how deep our wound. Yoga refines our ability to recognize our own resilience.

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Contemplating Forgiveness After Sexual Abuse

Can we remain wounded and simultaneously extend genuine forgiveness? Is forgiveness something we offer outwards or something that we cultivate for ourselves inside? From what part of our mind, our heart, our unconscious knowing – does that sentiment arise? How do we distinguish the degree to which our inability to forgive, our insistence that we cannot forgive, or our simple lack of impulse to forgive, is impacting our possibilities for healing? What is the practice and what is the process that mentors us along this difficult inquiry to define what it means to forgive? Who is it we need to forgive, are drawn to forgive, and why? 

I have had a difficult time, tangibly experienced in the immediate escalation of my heart rate, with the casual concept of forgiving the person(s) that committed such pervasive atrocity/ies against and upon our bodies, our mind and our souls. I tread cautiously into this realm as questions, upset, and confusion start to stir inside. Since we all operate with our own definition of forgiveness, we are not necessarily sharing in an equivalent inquiry into its meaning and relevance in our healing and in this setting, miscommunication, along with unnecessary hurt can abound. I am still working this out slowly and contemplating whether and if forgiveness, which feels still so very hard for me to grasp, and compassion, something I more naturally touch into, will eventually collide.

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Orienting Towards a New Relationship with Time After Sexual Trauma

How does sexual violence change you? Can we actually quantify an impact that is ongoing? How do you measure injuries that move and change like tides, ebbing and flowing nearer and further from the shoreline of your pain? Does time truly heal all wounds and how does trauma change time? What part of our pain is born in the past, shadows our present and trails us into our future? What, if any, part of our human spirit transcends time after trauma?

Our society constantly quantifies the movement of time, always forward on the clock, the inevitable turning of the pages on our calendar – dates, anniversaries, appointments, beginnings and endings – always relating to time. As survivors of sexual violence, times and dates can concurrently be intensely significant – looming ahead and overwhelming our thinking, while at other times, lost in our attempt to outrun the immediacy of the moment with our past tracking not too far behind – the idea of time is irrelevant, intangible and inconvenient. Ultimately, however, our nature as humans causes us and those involved with us before, and particularly, those who remain involved after sexual violence, to look to time as an indicator of where we should be in our recovery.

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The Physiology of Resilience

The unanswerable mysteries surrounding my “story” of surviving sexual violence, like many survivors, I imagine, are far too many to count. Over the last decade though, it is the miracles that have accompanied my healing that increasingly stand out. While the intricacies of any single event of sexual violence could never be fully captured, even if detailed in a lengthy novel, a film, or on the stage – since words alone cannot depict the magnitude of the experience(s) – there are ways that the heart and mind can grasp individual “chapters” of the fuller experience. One unique component of my story is the significance of the song “With or Without You” by U2, which was playing on my headphones while I was out for a run in a majestic forest and precisely at the moment of my attack. This hauntingly evocative love song was forever changed in an instant. I am not exceptional in having a “trigger” (or multiple) that evokes a strong connection to the event – for some it is a film, a type of food, a season, a scent of perfume, a ceiling fan spinning, a book they’d been reading or the way the light looks on their bedroom walls at dawn. For me, it was an 80s pop song.

Sexual violence pervades all of the sensory organs and then lands in the spirit. “With or Without You” is directly linked to a present moment memory and surge of sensation from that crisp Friday morning in May. I hear the song and I see the exact spot on the trail where I was grabbed. I feel the pressure of an arm across my chest and cold metal on my face. I taste salty warm blood in my mouth and recall wondering – what had happened to my face? I remember the view of a snow-capped volcano, piney treetops and a horizon that had no end. The expansive sound of my screams moving into deafening silence still irritates my ears. For years when the song would play on the radio, in a restaurant, at a party, or in my car – my range of responses included freezing, crying, moving into total silence and then embarking on the losing battle of either resisting or re-playing disorganized images of the scene. Over a span of years, I became increasingly skillful at navigating the delicate balance of how much I could allow myself to feel – in that moment, in that space, in that company. The song has surfaced at pivotal times, but the incident that leaves me with a sense of awe, a feeling of both longing and fulfillment, and total wonder about the purpose of my soul within the space of our endless cosmos, was the day I received my Pegasus tattoo.

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Reintegrating the Body, Mind and Spirt After Sexual Violence

The journey to heal after sexual violence is not a sprint and it is not a marathon—unlike other wounds, the ones of the spirit can linger for a lifetime. For many survivors healing is an ongoing practice, with ebbs and flows, highs and lows, and can be both exhausting and exhilarating at different points along the way…Based on my experience, I believe the benefits of working to integrate mind, body and spirit after sexual trauma through holistic healing arts remain unparalleled. Coming back into the body, connecting with one’s spirit, and addressing healing on deep, non-verbal and even energetic levels can also feel more accessible and meaningful to some survivors or may facilitate their moving through or towards the next ‘season’ of their healing journey.

As trauma has been known to disrupt the parts of the brain associated with language and speech, approaching healing through the body and spirit may be a more effective intervention for some. Not to mention the fact that words alone cannot quantify the magnitude of such an experience. I have felt and I have witnessed how simply drawing the mind into the sensation of the body, the feeling of the heart, the awareness of the natural rhythm of the breath, can create an invaluable shift or insight for a survivor. When you survive sexual violence, an event that takes many people out of their body, the healing arts reveal and return the gift of embodiment, which serves as an anchor for self-preservation.

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