Creating Safer Spaces for Healing Sexual Violence: An Interview with Tovah Means

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 Creating Safer Spaces for Healing Sexual Violence: An Interview with Tovah Means

Feeling safe again within one’s own shape after sexual violence can be one of the most challenging aspects of healing, and is often an ongoing internal conversation for survivors. Working primarily with the mind and relying on language or telling the details of the “story” (or perhaps, stories) can be destabilizing for survivors and decrease their sense of safety. Yet, we know that our bodies, minds and spirits are intrinsically connected and therefore, attending to our whole selves and healing from the inside out is effective and empowering – so what alternate options are available?

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For many survivors, beginning with modalities that bring them into their bodies can be an entry into healing the mind and spirit as well. For others, emphasizing or exploring the spiritual or energetic quality of the experience can enable their deep resilience to emerge. The feeling of being safe within your own body and mind requires a different approach than steps to create a sense of external safety. Re-establishing an inner connection and learning to listen to the language of the internal spheres as communicated through sensation, energy and intuition, can ultimately facilitate a release of the mental pain of trauma – while simultaneously creating a sense of inner spaciousness. There are some things that we must first discover or uncover in our bodies and spirits before our minds can fully make sense of them, and often exploring the inner body will give us the necessary space for our clearest mental or intellectual insights about the trauma we survived to emerge in our minds. Learning to trust our own wisdom can create a safe foundation from which we can move forward on our healing journey.

We had an opportunity to talk with one of our psychotherapy and EMDR practitioners, Tovah Means, about her work to support survivors of sexual violence in feeling safely embodied again, and learn more about her practice at Watch Hill Therapy. Watch Hill Therapy is a Chicago-based therapy practice specializing in individual, couples, and trauma therapy, with a unique focus on enhancing relationships, healing from the past, and thriving individually. Tovah’s experience working with trauma and her approach to working with survivors – helping them to trust the wisdom of their own internal guidance and incorporating modalities that help bring people back into their bodies – is empowering and inspiring. In this interview, Tovah helped us to better understand how she integrates Eye Movement Desensitization & Reprocessing (EMDR) and the Feminist Relational Model into her practice, as well as her understanding of healing sexual violence and sexual trauma holistically.

The Breathe Network: I was reviewing your bio today and I was curious about your experiences traveling abroad. You mentioned that you spent time in Ghana and other countries while in college and that during your travels you witnessed the traumas that people all over the world experience. Did that journey abroad inform your decision to pursue your degree in Marriage and Family Therapy, and if so, how?

Tovah Means: My experience overseas and in poorer communities did not influence my decision to pursue my MFT, but it did help me broaden my understanding as I learned to become a therapist of how important someone’s context is in truly being able to engage them in treatment and understand their issues. Being a compassionate and skilled therapist involves being able to step into the perspective of the client and putting aside my own. Being in Ghana and other places forced me to questions the assumptions I had made about what makes people happy, what is important to others and what healthy relationships look like. It taught me that I do not have the answers and to trust and respect the process of helping others as a guide to finding their own answers. It’s such an honor to have learned this lesson – and to realize that I am not the expert!

TBN: Can you talk about the Feminist Relational Model for the treatment of complex trauma and its appropriateness for survivors of sexual violence?

TM: The Feminist Relational Model introduced the idea – in a time where women and minorities were fighting to be seen and heard – that healing is a process that happens in a relationship and is more than just about actualizing and becoming independent. One of the main principles is that what is harmed in relationship is also healed in relationship. This relationship, specifically between therapist and client, is focused on fostering safety and mutuality – where both therapist and client have a voice and the therapist is deeply attuned to connection. Relational trauma is trauma that happens in a relationship such as incest, domestic violence, date rape, neglect, and physical abuse. This kind of trauma often leaves the survivor very confused about relationships. How can a relationship that was supposed to keep me safe be so harmful? It creates a dilemma where intimate relationships become terrifying and yet, as humans, we long for closeness and connection. The therapist’s job, as a relational therapist, is to attend to the ways that the client moves in and out of connection, experiences fear in the relationship, and unconsciously repeats old patterns of abuse. It’s my belief that you can’t do this kind of repairative work with a client without having some framework for understand what is going on in the relationship.

TBN: You mentioned that you are doing postgraduate work at Womencare Counseling Center, can you tell us about your role there and perhaps about the organization itself?

TM: Womencare Counseling Center is the place that I learned to practice the Relational Model. They are a trauma focused practice in Evanston, Illinois, founded and directed by Laurie Kahn. Laurie and the other therapists at the center are dedicated to treating clients who have experience relational trauma but also to training and supporting other therapists who work with survivors, in a number of different capacities. I was a fellow there for two years. They also have other training and consultation programs. They are wonderfully skilled in teaching the relational model and also living it out as a community.

TBN: I know that you integrate various modalities into your work with your clients, including EMDR, which I think many people are still unfamiliar with at this time. Can you describe how EMDR could be an effective intervention for a sexual assault survivor? Is it appropriate at any stage of a survivor’s healing process?

TM: EMDR is a treatment I often use to help process parts of the trauma that are harder to access and talk about in just regular talk therapy. During the trauma the brain is focused solely on survival. As a result, certain parts of the brain that have to do with language and memory shut down and other parts of the brain take over. This is absolutely necessary during the trauma. The problem is that after the trauma is over, we really need to process and remember and talk about the trauma to work through it. It’s very hard to do that because of not only how terrifying the event was, but because it’s stored in a part of the brain that doesn’t have easy access to language and explicit, narrative memory. EMDR quickly taps into those “trapped” parts of the experience and helps bring them to awareness, developing the capacity to speak and remember. It can be intense and I recommend that the client be in a safe, stable place, where they can handle some exposure to the original trauma. This is an essential part of everyone’s journey of recovery, and although I do use EMDR, there are other techniques that help a client process the traumatic event.

TBN: You mention that trauma affects the mind, body and emotions, and that you try to engage these various aspects in your work with clients. How do you bring the body into the therapeutic setting? Why do you believe addressing or including the body in treatment is important for survivors of sexual violence?

TM: I often think that one of the most difficult impacts of a traumatic event is that it creates a divide between mind and body. The survival part of the experience drives us to dissociate or avoid dealing with what happened – which was so essential in the moment but not effective long term. This part of us often feels like the mind. It works so hard to not remember, to not have to know or feel, to control the unmanageable emotions and memories. On the other hand, the body literally holds the memory, knows what happened, remembers the horror – and intrudes this “knowing” into our daily lives. I often see survivors struggling with these two parts. I love using the concepts of mindfulness to help survivors learn to slow down and listen and be compassionate to what the body is saying. Teaching that the body has wisdom and deserves attention and can be trusted. This is very complicated for survivors of sexual assault because the body was violated and the memories are terrifying, and survivors often learn that they shouldn’t trust themselves. So part of the work is learning to tolerate feeling the pain that the body holds and part of the work is learning how to trust it again. Also, honoring what needed to be done to cope and survive the trauma, but moving forward towards healthier more adaptive coping skills. These skills involve learning how to tolerate feeling pain, pacing the amount that we can handle without getting overwhelmed, listening to the body, being compassionate, noticing the urges to become anxious or to avoid or numb out, and staying present.

TBN: Your private practice is under the name, Watch Hill Therapy, can you tell me more about the name and its meaning?

TM: Watch Hill is a beautiful beach in Rhode Island near where I grew up. Besides just liking the name, it represents parts of childhood and adolescence. It reminds me of a period of my life where I began to notice that I had certain difficulties feeling content and being connected in relationships. It was a safe place for me to start exploring what I was noticing, even though it was just the beginning. That is what I want my practice to be for others – a place that is safe enough to begin noticing, being open and starting right where you are to dealing with the things that have been painful and need healing.

TBN: Finally, specializing in the treatment of trauma, you likely encounter and hear, as well as hold space for many stories and much emotion for survivors of trauma, how do you take care of yourself so that you can be sustainable in your work and in your life?

TM: This question is hard for me because I really love the work and it feels energizing to me. I spend a lot of time in training and consultation with people who I really respect who have been doing this work for a long time. These professional relationships are open, honest, and non-judgmental and really help me explore deeply how this work affects me. On the other hand, I am learning that too much of a good thing can be overwhelming. I am learning to slow down, make use of quite spaces, and not over-fill my life. That is really hard for me!

TBN: Thank you so much Tovah for the work you do to empower survivors of sexual violence in discovering a healing journey that resonates for them as individuals!

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