Holistic Healing After Sexual Violence

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Holistic Healing After Sexual Violence

My belief is in the blood and flesh as being wiser than the intellect. The body-unconscious is where life bubbles up in us. It is how we know that we are alive, alive to the depths of our souls and in touch somewhere with the vivid reaches of the cosmos.” -D.H. Lawrence

Holistic Healing After Sexual Violence

The only thing we can truly count on when we embark on healing after sexual violence is that it will be an unpredictable, nonlinear journey. The wounds of violence can linger, coming and going from our psyche, our muscles and our dreams over a lifetime. Triggered repeatedly by the news, a book we are reading, or a lover leaving – our stability seems fleeting. For many survivors, healing becomes something of a practice and it might require investing everything we have into it. Trauma resilience practices are at once sacred rituals, and also, life-saving necessities. The arc of healing has clearly identifiable ebbs and flows, highs and lows – an ongoing process that can be both exhausting and exhilarating at different points along the way. Just when we think we’ve memorized the movements of our internal healing patterns – everything can change. We begin again and realize that embracing the humble art of beginning again is indeed its own practice. 

In the United States, we have constructed a remarkable crisis-intervention advocacy response for survivors of sexual violence. This movement is sustained by the relentless dedication of advocates who put their bodies, minds and souls on the line in a field that requires a 24-hour a day, 365-day a year commitment. We have designed a system where advocates will show up for people after sexual violence in a police station or a hospital, and accompany them through various processes while informing them about their rights, their options and next steps. Advocates, the bulk of whom are volunteers, may be the only person a survivor discloses to who fully believes them and unconditionally validates them in the truth that it was not their fault. This one-time interaction can create a lasting imprint on the survivor’s view of themselves and their capacity to recover.

Yet, after the advocacy in the Emergency Room, after the 6-week support group stops meeting, where does a survivor turn next? What about survivors who never felt the necessary safety to say the words, “I was raped”, aloud? What about those survivors who don’t call it “rape” but feel deeply wounded from an unwanted sexual experience? Where do they even start? Where do our advocates and educators turn when the trauma they witness daily starts to merge with the trauma they worked so hard for all those years to heal? What are their options when the line between their trauma and the trauma of the client before them blurs? Who advocates for the advocates whose nervous system overwhelm is cloaked beneath a Herculean effort to fulfill the socially imposed responsibilities of “professionalism”? When I contemplate survivors and their healing, I specifically include our professional and volunteer advocates. I do not distinguish their survivorship as something other or less or separate from those we collectively serve through our work. Advocates and their clients are intrinsically connected. They too have PTSD. They too have triggers. They keep showing up to do this critical yet gut-wrenching work with minimal resources. How do we reconcile that the work our movement asks them to perform – physical, emotional and psychic labor that most aren’t even compensated for – may in fact be widening their wounds and disrupting their capacity to heal?

How could we have forgotten about the survivors right in front of us? The survivors in our staff meetings? The survivor catching their breath and setting their own triggers aside in a desolated parking garage at 2am before heading in to advocate for another? The survivor in the mirror whose weariness cannot be quelled by any amount of sleep – whose weariness has sunk into their bones?

It is time we think more creatively, more holistically, more honestly and more intentionally about how to best support survivors in healing – all survivors – clients, staff and volunteers alike. We need to move outside of our standard practices and conventional advice to finally meet the body, mind and soul needs of this diverse population. We must fully recognize and validate the scale and scope of sexual violence on a person’s whole life: their relationships, their work, their sleep, their sexuality, their immune system, their hobbies – truly everything. Then, we can prepare ourselves to offer resources that can accommodate that range of support. We still need to acknowledge an inconvenient truth, that this work will inevitably take its toll on our advocates – and that if nothing else, we have to change this model of care for them. When we casually sacrifice an advocate’s own healing in service of the client in the ER, we fail to see how these two lives and their right to recover are interconnected.

Advocates are the survivors on whose backs we have built a movement. These are the survivors who keep the doors of our non-profits open. These are the survivors who cannot access the self-care they need, no matter how hard they try or how much they make it a priority since ultimately, their pager will go off in the middle of a yoga class, it will start buzzing while they are cuddling with their loved one, or because its implicitly implied that attending to their own recovery somehow matters less. Yet, this special group of survivors turned advocates/activists/educators deserve just as much tenderness, just as much patience, just as much permission to fall apart as the people we serve. It is my belief that we can actually give them the resources they need to facilitate ongoing healing if we as a movement – stakeholders, administrators, funders – are willing to listen and acknowledge the throbbing vicarious/collateral trauma before us. If we are willing to face our own internal struggle to survive within a culture that tests our resilience daily. We can begin to create this shift today. 

Building resilience in survivors, whether our clients or our colleagues, requires strategic collaboration. It demands a willingness to change the plan, to move in a new direction or possibly, to completely start over. While resilience is truly inherent within our human system, it can be thwarted by society, by survival, by our best efforts to cope, or by being told that there is such thing as a timeline for healing. On the contrary, our resilience can be nourished like a growing seed when we have access to healing methods that address the nuances and layers of our total experience – approaches that are attentive and responsive to how those nuances and layers will inevitably change over time. There is remarkable potential for trauma healing and symptom resolution through acupuncture, somatic psychotherapy, chiropractic care, EMDR, dance and movement therapy, herbalism, massage, yoga, art and animal-assisted therapies. There are many ways to invest in these kinds of programs and services within our agencies and options for how we might deliver them to our staff.

For too long, we’ve leaned on 6-week support groups and bubble baths as a counterbalance to injuries of sexual violence, and they simply aren’t enough. This is an incomplete and inadequate level of care after the kind of trauma that changes a person irrevocably. It requires comprehensive care. It requires resources that are accessible to those in the acute stages of trauma and those who are decades removed. We know that alternative methods of healing – the kinds of practices that recognize the way in which our organism gravitates towards balance – give survivors the chance to connect with their bodies again, to sense the wisdom of their own soul, and to determine how to translate past horror into future acts of heroism.

This change from “doing business as usual” in a non-profit industry where resources feel increasingly scarce will demand significant flexibility and risk-taking, along with inclusive and visionary thinking. It will happen more organically if we make space for the personal testimony of survivors who have found ways to transform trauma outside of the conventional, one-size-fits-all approaches our society has promoted. It will be more effective if the anti-sexual violence movement can thoughtfully join together with the holistic healing arts community and open our hearts and minds to new ways of seeing humans, to understanding bodies and to recognizing trauma beyond what we can see and touch. Holistic healers have insight that could re-inspire our work and meaningfully expand the scope of our services. Our advocates also hold vital information for healers about the prevalence and impacts of sexual violence, that if they better understood, could ensure healers are providing a trauma-informed space when a survivor seeks their support. Although our fields are different, our core commitments to bring about healing and resilience very much align, so can we make this unspoken solidarity explicit? Let us attempt something monumental for the future of our movement. We have nothing to lose and everything to gain.

The context for the change I seek is born out of my experience as a survivor of sexual violence. Intuitively, I felt drawn to the holistic healing arts as the primary means to my recovery. As a survivor, I didn’t need any special degree or training to recognize that the medicine I would need to heal would have to incorporate my mind, my body and my spirit. Fear held my mind hostage, shame throbbed in my pelvis, chest and belly, and grief was a slow dripping poison on my soul. I didn’t locate myself within energetic or spiritual realms prior to being raped, yet there was simply no way for me not to identify with my soul once I had lived through that soul displacing terror. I felt myself split into three. I easily recall feeling my spirit soar high into the trees, where I was looking down, simultaneously a witness to and a victim of my own rape. I heard the unquantifiable agony of my pleas for help – for someone or something to rescue me, for this person in front of me to see my humanity and make a different choice – and I heard those pleas begin to sink down into the earth beneath my crumbling body. I felt how my left hip memorized the pressure of his knife long after I escaped danger. I translated the messages of my dreams and all that my spirit was still fighting against, fighting through and fighting for – nightly. All of this and more, for me, was not something filling out a legal document, struggling to achieve the impossible – organize a jumbled sequence of events for an impatient police officer, taking a cocktail of pills, or telling my story with 5 strangers in a circle, could alone, ever fully treat.

I needed space, a lot of space, to incrementally explore all of these realms and to sense into them with my muscles and bones, with my breath, and with the clear seeing lens of a heart uncluttered by thoughts. This would require time, seasons and years, if not decades. I needed to discover for myself the inner landscapes of my being in order to become acquainted with the size of my traumatic experience. I needed to go deeper than I had thought was possible to find within that hidden sphere of the self, there was so much more. I needed permission to totally unravel and to occasionally check out from feeling. I needed to take some risks in relationships and boundaries and trust that I could come crawling back to my healers for support. I needed someone to affirm this natural, although uneven, re-balancing of the human system, someone to empower me to chart my own course as the process evolved. I needed to develop the confidence to get lost on my path in order to discover my own compass and bring myself back, time and time again. I imagine that maybe I am not alone in this need for space, permission and compassion.

Based on my experience, I believe the expansive benefits of utilizing the holistic healing arts to heal after sexual violence remain unparalleled. Coming back into the body, connecting with one’s spirit (or simply, the core sense of who you are) and approaching healing through non-verbal channels may feel more accessible and more meaningful to some survivors. It may be that clearing the energetic residue of trauma may facilitate a survivor in moving into the next season of their recovery. Perhaps, a birth or a death has brought our pain pulsing to the surface, and we require a totally new way to treat it. Importantly, as trauma has been known to disrupt the parts of the brain associated with language and speech, accessing healing through the body and soul may prove to be a more effective intervention for some. Telling our story is not necessarily healing. Not to forget, of course, that words alone could never fully quantify the magnitude of this violation and the unpredictable, ongoing collateral impacts of trauma on nearly every aspect of their life.

In my work with survivors, I have witnessed how guiding the mind towards sensation in the body, noticing the quality of the heart, and tracking the organic rhythm of one’s breath, can create an invaluable shift, insight or a precious moment of peace for a survivor. These gentle, natural and simultaneously powerful tools, all of which are tethered like an invisible thread across all of the healing arts. We learn from our healers, whether our yoga teacher, our acupuncturist, or our herbalist – that the systems of our body seek balance and have their own wisdom to teach. 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 ongoing self-preservation. The body as an ally after trauma comes as a tremendous relief.

Yet, each survivor is unique, and what uplifts me may feel destabilizing to another person. 

An essential piece of healing is allowing the survivor to determine what makes sense for them. This is survivor-centered care and it is essential – whether we are an advocate, a yoga teacher, a university administrator or a medical doctor. Personally, I found the process of reporting to law enforcement officers completely degrading. Having my “evidence” collected twice, as there was an error in the handling of my initial rape kit – was twice re-traumatizing. When my support group counselor told me, in front of the whole group, that it was “too early” for me to be dating, according to the conventions of her training and the arbitrary map she had for my healing, I felt disempowered and humiliated. She made me question the supposed abnormality of my desire which was surfacing in the wake of assault (something I saw as a mark of my resilience) and this just lead to more shame.

Not all survivors will have that kind of experience interacting with the conventional institutions and people with whom we are expected to disclose. As our systems become more coordinated, more adaptive to survivors’ unique needs and more trauma-informed, these environments might allow people to experience the immediate surge of their inner strength, to sense the value of their own voice, and to receive validation in their responses – as well as unconditional support for their decisions on next steps. When service providers and care givers (whether on campus, in the hospital or on the massage table) listen to survivors, they learn what assists the survivor in healing and also, what it is that creates barriers. They can then demonstrate their responsiveness, flexibility and make modifications to the way they deliver support.

Fortunately, survivors are increasingly making their needs for comprehensive support services, culturally-sensitive and informed resources, as well as nuanced demands for paths to justice – as they define it – more widely known.

For me, though, I sensed that these external processes had nothing to do with how to actually cultivate internal resilience – which was something I was desperate to discover. Counter to the systems I was funneled through, I found that utilizing practices that focused solely on healing my body, mind and soul – such as acupuncture, massage, psychotherapy, EMDR, art and yoga – were nourishing to me. I felt returned to the center of my own experience and in control of my own experience, at last. Importantly, these practices taught me to listen to the language of my body, which became my best resource in healing. I learned to trust my intuition and I stopped apologizing for my persisting pain. I released the self-defeating wondering about when and if the residue of the rape would go away. I observed in sensation and in dreams how trauma moved, how it had its own rhythm. I began to respect and even appreciate this rhythm because it was mine. I envisioned these diverse healing practices as if they were infusions of crystal clear, spring water, diluting the trauma throughout my system – making it something I could tolerate, I could digest, I could transform. I felt that energetically, my whole being was growing bigger and that I was able to contain so much more than I could have ever imagined. Sadness and fear could sit alongside humor and sense of adventure. These practices promoted an embodied sense of justice – a sense of liberation and balancing that was free from external expectations or demands – born of the space and invitation to feel, to process and to embrace my own experience.

The only way for me to live authentically has been to allow myself to remain fully in touch with my grief, anger and the violation of this ultimate boundary breach, while also recognizing the precious tenderness that has bloomed from the tears of my despair. This is a sensitivity I would never trade. I could not continue in this movement if I distanced myself from my own experience. I would not be able to be present for survivors of any kind of trauma if I did not already have a deeply established understanding of my relationship to my trauma. I cannot be sustainable (and of course, there are times I feel myself start to slip) without my own daily, self-care practice. My own resourcing has to come first to do this work ethically and I surround myself with people who will support that kind of necessary “self-centeredness” in the name of balance and sustainability. I was privileged to be able to access healing (financially, geographically, culturally) in the first place. I was lucky to be given permission by my healers to fully feel the weight of rape and to fully express its impact. They invited me to remove the socially and self-imposed filters on my experience in order to find the magnitude of my own confusion and my own truth that lived beneath the clutter. They mirrored my intensity and they welcomed it. Time and time again. This allowed me to bolster my patience and to grow to a sense of gratitude for the nature of impermanence. Their lens on healing allowed me to surrender to a nonlinear process with no expectations for anything other than what was surfacing in the here and now.

By embracing my continual grieving that lives alongside my growing strength, I realized that for me, the way to go forward after trauma was to go further into my pain. This made me incredibly vulnerable and then revealed to me that vulnerability is a resource. Our tears are a resource. Our rage, when held, can evolve into a resource. Our willingness to admit we may never “get over it” is a resource – it liberates us from the pressure to cross the finish line. The inevitability of things shifting – feeling better or feeling worse – cycles we become more adept at surfing, this too, becomes a resource. The worst of our pain comes, in fact, from being told to stifle all of this tremendous internal processing, unravelling and uncovering. Our trauma is compressed when we are forced to bury emotional and psychic toxins that we could have naturally released – even deeper within our system. This kind of silencing causes the grossly unnecessary body, mind and soul shame that so many survivors hold within. Shame however, is not and never was our burden to carry.

In my work and in my personal life, I have listened to countless experiences of sexual trauma, each one as unique as the individual who had the courage to disclose. Most survivors will detail their struggle with the invisible impacts of the trauma on their physical body, their sense of spirituality, their connection to sexuality, sensuality and intimacy, their experience of undiagnosed yet deeply felt pain, and the many, often surprising and uncomfortable, emotions or sensations that transcend language. All of this pervades their waking and dreaming, day in and day out. Yet, there is little space to name these complexities, and so there are regular eruptions in relationships with friends, family, employers, or partners who don’t understand the facets of our hurt.

Healing with the holistic arts gives people resources from the inside, while also expanding our perspective beyond the confines of the mind and the boundaries of physical form. Instead of turning towards potentially harmful coping mechanisms to numb or alter the pain of the trauma, what if it were standard that survivors would be introduced to myriad self-care practices to nourish them in the aftermath of violence and throughout the course of their lives? For survivors who are years or decades removed from their trauma, they may find that connecting with healing arts practitioners will allow them to finally acknowledge the intensity of their history and collaborate with their healer to let it go. Or perhaps, they will be able to heal deeper layers where the pain of their experience – physical, emotional and energetic – still lingers. Some of them may discover they too are healers, and go on to study the modality that transformed them – giving the gift of their healing back to the world.

Our efforts to support survivors in discovering resilience and finding their path to recovery remains essential. It is vital not only for individual healing, but also for the healing of our communities and for the possibility of one day living in a world where sexual violence is not the norm. It is central to the sustainability of our movement and our ability to retain our staff advocates and volunteers, who have turned their own wounds into battle scars of insight. Their recovery in the form of advocacy and activism, lessening the burden on those who are still in the trenches of trauma’s impact, is the clearest embodiment of why we do what we do! What if all survivors were empowered to approach healing without a timeline, without expectations? What if we were all given access to the powerful presence of healers who could bear witness to the gravest of pains and reflect back our innate capacity to heal? What if we were given support to take time off from advocacy work to embark on the next layer of our healing instead of subtle pressures to martyr ourselves for the cause? What if our volunteers received recognition for engaging in self-care practices and drawing healthy boundaries with the work, instead of praising the ones who took the most calls or spent the most hours in a hospital depriving themselves of sleep and food? What if we treated rest and self-love as something noble and something to strive towards? How would our world change if healing – the way we dream of it, the way we long for it, the way we are drawn to it – was given to us with grace, permission, respect and ease?

Millions of people have lived through sexual violence. Millions. So many have suffered and hurt and lived beneath this weight all alone. Alone, they have found their own ways to cope – sometimes the mechanisms are healing, sometimes they are harmful but they help us manage the unmanageable and to survive another day. These are my heroes, those whose recovery, against all odds, deserves our societal awe. Now imagine what those fiercely resilient souls could do, if first of all – they could access healing resources, and then, if the foundation of their healing attended to every aspect of their being. What would their lives look like if no part of them had to be left behind? No feeling buried under the rubble of shame. No part of the body whose miraculous sensation would have to be resisted, numbed or feared. No single memory whose image would need to be closed off indefinitely. No central aspect of our identity and the unique way it informs our both struggle and our capacity to overcome trauma would be left out of the conversation. Instead, what if the whole self was welcomed into a healing space – fully and without apology? What if we could shift the norm away from berating ourselves for not being “over it” and instead, praise ourselves for being willing to stay with these feelings, to stay with these sensations, to stay with the wounds – even when it feels like the absolute hardest thing to do?

When we promote ways to mirror, and then to magnify, the resilience of those who have lived through trauma – the ones who have touched the bottom of an ocean of sorrow and whose buoyant hearts keep pulling them back up for air – this is when we can create sustainable change. This is how survivors learn to heal themselves from the inside out. This inbuilt capacity to heal – mending what has been hurt, rebalancing what is off-center, repairing where there is wreckage – has been taught to us repeatedly – by nature, by wildlife, by the cut that is already healing on our pulsing thumb. When these brave ones emerge, with their scars and their blazing hearts, like the phoenix rising from the ashes, they teach us how to embrace the beautiful vulnerability of our humanity. Survivors, and all people, can become skillful in a practice of attending to resilience, in the refusal to apologize for our continual vulnerability. It is the embrace of our vulnerability that makes our living worth the many losses we will inevitably incur. Our willingness to stay open to experience – despite everything that makes us want to close – is our greatest resource in recovery. It keeps us open and receptive to the beauty that is coming to us even in our darkest times. Vulnerability is the nectar that allows us to feel “alive to the depths of our souls”. It may offer the necessary surge of creativity and innovation that breathes new life into the larger “cosmos” of the anti-sexual violence movement.

This can be our collective future, a movement and a model that holistically supports, empowers and sustains all aspects of us – bodies, minds and souls – survivors, advocates, and allies alike. Knowing that there is no such thing as one-size-fits-all when it comes to healing, we can begin collaboratively building a response system to meet the gorgeous diversity and nuance within our survivor community. If together; advocates, lawyers, doctors, and healers, educators, survivors, loved ones and our political leaders – together, we embrace this commitment to holistic healing after sexual violence, the possibilities for our individual, communal and societal transformation will have no limits. What are we waiting for? 

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Holistic Healing After Sexual Violence was written by Molly Boeder Harris. Molly is the Founder and Executive Director of The Breathe Network, as well as a certified yoga instructor teaching private and group classes for the general public and for survivors of sexual violence. You can read about Molly’s work with trauma survivors in Portland, Oregon via the holistic practices of yoga and Somatic Experiencing by visiting her practitioner page. Learn about her consulting services, training offerings and public speaking by exploring her personal website.

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