Holistic Healing After Sexual Violence
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
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 trauma 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 – sometimes our stability seems fleeting. For many survivors, healing becomes something of a practice and it might require investing everything we have into this precious endeavor. Trauma resilience practices are both sacred rituals, and also, life-saving necessities. The arc of our healing will hold clearly identifiable ebbs and flows, highs and lows, breakdowns and breakthroughs – it is an ongoing process that can be equally exhausting and exhilarating at different points along the way. Just when we think we’ve memorized the movements of our unique healing patterns, everything can change. We begin again. In fact, embracing the humble act of beginning again becomes its own practice.
In the United States, we have constructed a remarkable, albeit imperfect, crisis-intervention advocacy response for survivors of sexual trauma. Our 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 – whether in a police station, an Emergency Room, or a guidance counselor’s office – and accompany them through medical and legal processes while also informing them about their rights, options and give them a glimpse of an array of next steps. Advocates, the bulk of whom are volunteers, may be the only person a survivor discloses to who unconditionally believes them and validates that the abuse was not the survivor’s fault. This one-time interaction can create a lasting imprint on the survivor’s understanding of themselves as well as inform their sense of their capacity to recover.
Yet, after the advocacy in the Emergency Room, after the 6-week support group concludes, where does a survivor turn next? What about survivors who never felt sufficient safety to say the words, “I was raped”, aloud? Those who didn’t make it to the hospital? Those who were disbelieved by the police, by their teacher, by their families? What about those survivors who don’t call it “rape” but feel deeply wounded from an unwanted sexual experience? What about the ones whose memory is foggy from substances, yet are bombarded with incomplete pictures and somatic memories that something terribly devastating was enacted upon them? What about the survivors whose livelihoods depend on staying silent? What about those who were harmed by the very people who technically should have been their to help them?
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 personal trauma and the trauma of the client before them blurs? Who advocates for the Advocate whose nervous system overwhelm is cloaked beneath a Herculean effort to fulfill the socially imposed responsibilities of “professionalism”? The Advocate who has to override their own body’s threat response signals to exit their apartment and make their way, in the middle of the night, to their car or public transit, en route to the hospital where fresh trauma awaits them?
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. Our wounds constellate.
Like the survivors we support, advocates also live with post-traumatic stress injuries. They too have complex and person-specific triggers. They continually show up to do this critical yet gut-wrenching work with maximum passion and 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 – the kind of weariness that sinks into tissues and 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 (“more self-care!”) 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 trauma on a person’s whole life: their relationships, their work, their sleep, their sexuality, their immune system, their parenting, their hobbies – truly everything. Then, we can prepare ourselves to offer resources that can accommodate a vast range of support. We still need to acknowledge an inconvenient truth: that this work will inevitably take its toll on our advocates. Still, we can devise ways to reduce the impact.
When we casually sacrifice a survivor advocate’s own healing in service of the survivor client, we fail to see how these two lives and their capacity to recover are interconnected. We neglect the research of neuroscience that reminds us that our capacity to be co-regulators, which is really, really hard when we ourselves are distressed, is a vital piece of creating the conditions to support embodied safety for another. Advocates are the survivors whose backs we have built a movement upon. They are the survivors who keep the doors of our non-profits open twenty-four hours a day. They 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 buzz while they are cuddling with a loved one, because its implicitly implied that attending to their own recovery somehow matters less, or because they simply cannot afford the high costs of care. Yet, this special group of survivors turned advocates/activists/artists/educators deserve just as much tenderness, patience and permission to fall apart as the survivors they 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 and funders – are willing to listen and acknowledge the throbbing vicarious and collateral trauma before us. The historical and generational trauma memories that bleed into and magnify the pains of daily living amidst systematic oppression. We must be brave enough to face our own internal struggle to survive within a culture that tests our resilience, our tenacity and our faith daily. We must refuse to pretend any of us can do this work in isolation and commit to deep interconnection that will reveal our personal and collective vulnerabilities alongside our growing strengths.
We can begin to create this shift today.
Building resilience in survivors, whether our clients or our colleagues begets 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 is not inevitable. Resilience can be undermined by societal messaging about the illusory timeline for healing or through the barriers to accessing adequate biopsychosocial resourcing. It can be thwarted by the daily micro-aggressions which actually feel quite macro in their ability to overwhelm our physiology. On the contrary, our resilience can be nourished like a seed when we have access to healing methods that address the nuances and layers of our total experience without asking us to compartmentalize any of it. Approaches which attend to the dynamic and changing way our bodies hold trauma can accompany us through various stages and phases of healing as wounds and resilience are continually unearthed. There is remarkable potential for trauma healing and symptom resolution or reduction through acupuncture, somatic psychotherapy, chiropractic, 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 and volunteers.
It comes down to our priorities. Are we ready for the radical change required to usher in a movement that embodies the healing we aim to share in the world?
For too long, we’ve leaned on 6-week support groups and bubble baths as a counterbalance to injuries of sexual trauma, and while they have their place, they simply aren’t enough. This is an incomplete and inadequate level of care after the kind of trauma that changes a person, for many of us – quite irrevocably. Healing sexual trauma requires comprehensive, ongoing, multi-layered care. It requires resources that are accessible to those in the acute stages of trauma and those who are decades removed. It demands we triage the wounds and we commit to the ongoing rehabilitation of the heart that can never unknow this breach of boundary. We know that alternative methods of healing – the kinds of practices that recognize the way in which our organisms inherently gravitate towards some kind of balance, a person-specific degree of repair – can give survivors the chance to connect with their bodies, to hear the wisdom of their own heart and soul, and to determine how to translate past horror into future heroism through the simple and profound act of reclaiming one’s life.
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 historically promoted. It will mean centering the survivors whose access to healing has been limited by the greatest barriers – Black, Indigenous, People of Color, Trans, Nonbinary, Disabled and Low-Income survivors. It will be more effective if the anti-sexual violence movement can intentionally collaborate with the healing arts community and open ourselves to new ways of seeing humans, to honoring community, to understanding bodies and to recognizing how trauma harms and is healed beyond the tangibles we can see and touch. Holistic healers have insight that could re-inspire our movement’s work and meaningfully expand the scope of our services. Our advocates also hold essential information for healers about the prevalence and impacts of sexual violence and the unique needs of survivors – that when well understood, could better ensure healers provide a trauma-informed space when a person seeks their support.
Although our fields are different, our core commitments to bring about healing and resilience very much align, so why not 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 various forms of sexual trauma – including child sexual abuse, stranger and acquaintance rape, attempted rape by a partner, stalking and sexual harassment – all of which have landed specifically and unevenly within my body and psyche. While a stranger rape in early adulthood catalyzed my initial quest to heal, it was also an awakening to naming and facing all the other violations my body had survived in my short time on earth. Intuitively, I felt drawn to holistic healing practices as the primary means to recovery. As a survivor, I didn’t need a special degree or training to recognize that the medicine I would need would have to incorporate my mind, my body and my spirit. Fear held my mind hostage, metaphorically closing door after door. While shame throbbed in my pelvis and abdomen, it was the way it felt pasted on my face that was unavoidably the worst. Grief was a regular slow-drip sedative on my system which was confusingly met with dissociated states of anxiety where I lost control. I didn’t locate myself within any energetic or spiritual realms prior to sexual trauma, 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 parts . I easily recall feeling my spirit soar high into the trees, where I was looking down, both a witness to and a victim of my own trauma. 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 to make a different choice – and I heard those desperate requests sink down into the earth beneath my crumbling body. I felt how my left hip memorized the pressure of a knife long after I escaped danger. I translated the messages of my dreams and could map out all that my spirit was still fighting against, fighting through and fighting for – every single night. All of this and more, for me, was not something that pursuing a formal advocacy, justice or medical processes – processes which ask survivors to struggle through the impossible – organize a jumbled sequence of events for impatient police officers, answer a series of questions about your most intimate parts to a total stranger while still totally disembodied, take a cocktail of medications with a stomach that refuses digestion, 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 my self, that there was more than pain. I needed permission to totally unravel and to occasionally check out from feeling too much. I needed to take some risks in relationships and boundaries and trust that I could come crawling back to my healers for a supportive reset or reframe. 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 changed or escaped me only to later deepen and evolve. 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 limitless compassion – still.
Based on my experience, I believe the expansive benefits of utilizing holistic healing practices to address sexual trauma remain unparalleled. Safely inhabiting our body, expressing our emotions in the company of an empathic witness who can contain and titrate our experience so we do not have to leave or override ourselves in doing so, connecting with spirit or simply our core sense of self, and approaching healing through non-verbal channels may feel more accessible and more meaningful to many survivors. It may be that clearing the energetic residue of trauma facilitates a survivor’s move into the next season of their recovery. Perhaps, a birth or a death has brought our unresolved 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 inherently healing, just as yoga or massage or any therapy isn’t inherently healing. The relationship, the conditions, the pacing and the process matter. Not to forget, of course, that words alone could never fully quantify the magnitude of this violation nor the unexpected collateral impacts of trauma on nearly every aspect of a survivor’s life journey.
In my work with survivors, I have witnessed how guiding attention towards the body – noticing the organic rhythms of the heart and breath, tracking the rise and fall of the belly or the expansion and contraction of the ribs – can create an invaluable shift, insight or a precious moment of respite for a survivor. It can give them a felt sense of being in a body on the earth. Sometimes that level of body noticing feels too provocative and so the work is simply informing the oldest part of the brain, that which is associated with initiating survival responses, that we are measurably, even if only relatively, safe. My training as a Somatic Experiencing Therapist has bolstered my belief that for many survivors, connecting with our inner body awareness (interoception) is more accessible when it has been preceded by dedicated time to external awareness tracking (orientation) in truly and and all environments we occupy. We turn our attention outward into the room – we notice the sound of the ceiling fans, the temperature on our skin, the color of the plants and flowers, the visible exit door, the time of day as indicated by light through a window, etc. and we know at a physiological level, that we are here (to any degree!) in the present moment where the trauma is not actively happening. Our hyper-vigilance lets down (again, to any degree!). We take a spontaneous breath. We shift and adjust the position of our shape. Time slows down just enough for us to take in our surroundings while also noticing what is arising from within.
These gentle, natural and simultaneously powerful tools of observing and valorizing the subtleties of the world we inhabit and their relationship to the self are tethered like an invisible thread across all many of the healing arts. We learn from our healers, whether our yoga teacher, our acupuncturist, our herbalist – that the systems of our body seek balance, that our bodies hold our individual and familial biographies, and they the animal nature within us has its own wisdom to teach. When you survive sexual trauma, an event that takes many people out of their body, the healing arts can reveal and return the gift of safe embodiment, which serves as an anchor for ongoing self-preservation and future life-reclamation. The body as an ally after trauma comes as a tremendous relief and attending to somatic/body-inclusive healing is not peripheral to sexual trauma recovery work, it is essential.
Yet, each survivor is unique, and what uplifts me may feel destabilizing to another person.
A central tenet of trauma-informed healing is allowing the survivor to determine what feels healing for them. There is no one-size-fits-all approach, rather, we must listen and be willing to let the survivor lead. This is survivor-centered care and it is essential – whether we are an advocate, a yoga teacher, a university administrator, a medical doctor or a supportive friend or family members.
Personally, I found the process of reporting to law enforcement to be completely degrading. Having my “evidence” collected twice, as there was an error in the handling of my initial rape kit by an untrained provided – was twice re-traumatizing. Later, when my support group counselor told me, in front of the group, that according to the conventions of her training and the arbitrary map she had for my healing, it was “too early” for me to be dating, I felt disempowered and humiliated. She made me question my desire as potentially abnormal, a craving for intimacy which was re-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 and from whom we seek care. 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 sense unconditional support around their decisions on choices they make next. When service providers and care givers (whether on campus, in the hospital or on the massage table) listen to survivors, they learn what assists that specific survivor in healing and also, what it is that creates barriers to healing. 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?
Promoting recovery practices that mirror and magnify the innate resilience of survivors, that center them in the pacing, planning and design of their own healing map, is a counterbalance the residue of sexual trauma. We are building a healing practice that has agency, sovereignty and intrinsic value built into its very foundation. Survivors who emerge with scars and blazing hearts, who continue to say yes to life in spite of so much harm – teach us how to coexist with the delicate truth of our vulnerability. Survivors, and all people, can become steady and skillful in the practice of attending to our own resilience and in the refusal to apologize for our continual vulnerability. It is perhaps 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 still traveling toward us even as we navigate through some of our darkest times. Vulnerability is the nectar that allows us to feel, as D.H. Lawrence so succinctly describes, “alive to the depths of our souls”. Vulnerability may offer the necessary surge of creativity and innovation that breathes new life into the larger “cosmos” of the current incarnation 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 trauma response system, which is in fact also both a trauma healing and a trauma prevention system, to meet the exquisite and dynamic diversity of needs, desires, vulnerabilities and strengths among our survivor community. If together; advocates, lawyers, doctors, healers, educators, survivors, beloveds, social and political leaders – together – we embrace this commitment to ensuring access to holistic healing after sexual violence, the possibilities for individuals, communities and society as a whole are endless.
What are we waiting for?
Holistic Healing After Sexual Violence was written by Molly Boeder Harris. Molly is the Founder and Executive Director of The Breathe Network, a Somatic Experiencing Practitioner and an Experienced Registered Yoga Teacher and Trauma-Informed Yoga Trainer. You can read about Molly’s work with trauma survivors 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.