The Re-Wounding of Healing
The Re-Wounding of Healing
“The wound is the place where the Light enters you.” ~Rumi
It is early May and I am sitting with my best friend in an outdoor cafe in Cartagena, Colombia. I’ve dreamt of traveling to this city for years. It is hot and humid and even the 5pm sun can bake the plaza bricks and deepen the color of our flesh. A disheveled hippie woman with an honest face approaches our table and asks if I would like a psychic reading. I am in South America, I am 26 years old, and I am totally open to everything – so, of course I reply with an enthusiastic “Sí!” The reading begins and almost immediately she becomes visibly upset. I am worried about my translation skills and what I might be missing when she explains in Spanish, “Be careful! You are going to be terribly harmed by a man!” and she runs into a boisterous crowd. I don’t remember if I even had the chance to pay her for the reading and I certainly didn’t comprehend how to interpret her comments. How could I?
Within days, I am back in the neighboring Andean country where I live and I have finalized a well-thought out decision to place a tattoo on my sacrum. The image would represent my connection to the lush, green land I had lived in for nearly 3 years. Its texture and colors reflecting my developing identity as a woman, adventurer, daughter, sister and a lover of nature. It is vibrant and powerful, and one of my dearest friends will apply it to my skin. The hours of ink-on-skin infusion are another marker of my integration with this country and the community I have connected with living in this international city.
Exactly two weeks later, my large tattoo is still a peeling wound when I am attacked while running in a park, held at knifepoint and taken deep into the woods where I am raped by a stranger whose body, scent, hands – the shape of his teeth – may never leave my brain. I survive, but it is a dramatically altered woman that walks out of the forest. My soul feels fragmented. My identity is thrown into a state of limbo. I question everything and everyone around me which makes my head feel dizzy and the ache in my lower back pulses with a new kind of pain. The pain of a physical, psychological and energetic boundary having been breached. My tattoo, however personally affirming the intentions behind it, soon becomes a daily reminder – a forced and remorseful pause in the mirror – of this tragic and life-altering event. These two separate wounds of skin and of soul begin to unconsciously fuse.
Conceptualizing how I will ever move forward after rape, with no clear direction or guidance around how one actually does that, initially makes the issue of how to address the design on my lower spine the least of my concerns. There are police reports to make. In this archaic system, a psychologist will interview me and test the severity of my trauma to determine whether the state’s attorney will press charges. I have to prove psychological injury within 48-hours of being raped in order to deserve due process. Still in shock, my futile search for the tears that will justify their pursuit of justice, creates yet another crisis inside of me. Where are the tears? Where is the emotion? Where have I gone?
I’m increasingly depleted after 2 dozen interviews detailing my story, time and time again, in crowded rooms full of glaring men sitting at desks. I can still see their necks twisting to watch my humiliation – they do not even pretend to not be listening, and their expressions show the darkest hint of pleasure as the words fall out of my mouth. My trauma grows into something gratuitous in the abyss of law enforcement apathy, mixed with their eagerness for “entertainment” outside of their boredom and my residual shame. More abhorrent still, within almost every single interview I am asked whether I was a virgin at the time of the rape – as if that matters, as if it is anyone’s business, as if it sways the validity of my story in any single direction. Translating the context of these intimate conversations for my family members who have voyaged to help me through this impossible event becomes yet another depleting duty. These are words whose translation I never wanted to know. These are words I never thought I would use to describe what had begun as the most beautiful day.
The daily cocktail of prescription pills both exhaust and nauseate me. I cannot imagine leaving the house to go back to work – where everyone now knows – and I think to myself that I will soon have to quit. Raped on a Friday, I am discreetly back at work on Monday with my eyes down when one of my favorite students asks, without knowing anything, “Why didn’t you fight back?” He raises his fists in front of my face and makes a punching motion. I swear I can feel the momentum of the planet spinning beneath my shaky feet. My teeth clench and the scream inside could have shattered the glass of this schoolhouse building. I am stunned, and immediately give notice to my boss. The tattoo could wait – my focus was on surviving the nightmare I was living right now.
Years later though, 10 to be exact, my discomfort with the tattoo and the literal and figurative energy it held – expanded into an ongoing distraction. Looking at it – which I did compulsively – gave me a sense of suffocating from the inside out. I related its permanence to the parallel permanence of rape. Regardless of how many times I replay the story and imagine the tiny, yet exact, moments of that singular day – or the decisions within the sum of my life – the many benign and casual choices – for reasons I will never know, the total of their sum delivered me to this place. The past refuses to be undone despite my best attempts to retell it and the tattoo isn’t disappearing despite the daily desire from my eyes.
I am out for a run one day, on a Friday – an activity and a day of the week which remain permanently pregnant with memory – and I am overcome with a realization. My tattoo was seared into the skin and I cannot find an easy way to remove it – a cover up would be nearly impossible and contemplating laser removal felt like another layer of failure. It seemed there is no way to unmake this mark on my skin and it is stifling. In a similar way, I felt like the energy of rape had been seared into my soul and after many years, I was still quite challenged to release it. Although I had always been dedicated my nonlinear healing process and letting go of expectations or destinations – in a moment’s flash, I realize that despite my intentions, the fantastical dream of out-running the embodied memory of rape had its grip on me. My unconscious desire for a different ending, to finally “move on”, to “get over it” – had been well shrouded beneath relentless self-care and daily activism. This awakening startles me. I drop my hands onto bent knees and my body goes numb from the sharpness of my longing. I still wanted a different end. A deep part of me still hadn’t accepted that there was no going back. My coping styles of self-care and service for other survivors had buffered me from having to face my own impossible wish to close the chapter of rape and be done. The physical tattoo made my emotional pain feel more permanent.
Even if I could cover the tattoo with a new image, the shadow of the original tattoo would whisper through – a faded yet still haunting impression. In a similar way, I could engage in every healing practice one could find, and perhaps never quite fully erase the nature of my grief. Yet, I have not given up on my daily efforts to work for my recovery, despite knowing that this quest to heal may accompany me through the entirety of my life, and that wherever it is I am going in my healing holds no promise of a clear completion. There is no guarantee that the pain of rape won’t be there at my side on my life’s last day, and still I try – to feel better, to feel more, to keep feeling through all the different channels of my body and with the support of countless forms of healing arts. My healing practice has given me glimpses of the landscape beyond pain and a notion of timelessness that can contain the many questions life has yet to answer. Practice has gifted me a map to come back into presence when I drift into the overwhelming loss of my past or press myself forward into a paralyzing anxiousness about the unknown.
I humbly surrender again and again to the fact that I cannot undo this pain, and therefore it is my greatest teacher – while embracing a belief that I can uncover more ways to live alongside and even beyond it, and therefore, I must rise to be pain’s greatest student.
A few days pass and as these insights settle within my psyche, I feel a clear urge to pursue laser removal. I don’t want to analyze my decision, it comes straight from my gut. This difficult and imperfect option was the alternative to grappling with the daily trigger of my skin. I wanted to take my body back – again. The mental and energetic distraction of the tattoo was inhibiting the next phase of my healing, and I was eager to embark on the next ritual of letting go.
I didn’t tell anyone about the procedure besides my partner, it felt preciously private. While I sat in the doctor’s waiting room, an unexpected sadness began to arise. Shouldn’t I feel empowered by my choice? What are these tears? What does it mean to erase this mark from my body? Am I doing the right thing? Ten years had passed and it was still hard for me to trust myself, to be able to discriminate between the voice of intuition and the voice of unresolved fear. My adrenaline drops as the nurse enters the room, spreads a numbing cream on my back and tells me it will be just a few more minutes. The reality of why I am here crashes like a wave into my brain and starts to spread throughout my body. I cringe at the likelihood that the cream is in fact a placebo to soothe nerves and boost courage. As if anything topical could numb this kind of ache?
Within ten mind-numbing minutes of sharp, hot, prickling of skin and a pain that reverberates down into my bones – the first round is finished. My clothing soaked with sweat, my muscles flaccid from acute contraction, and my head filled with the image of one man’s face. I am sent home slightly delirious with after-care instructions. Understandably, these are all very physical – cleaning, moisturizing, bandaging and resting. I couldn’t conceive of the magnitude of the emotional and energetic side effects that bubbled beneath the surface.
I had done so much preparing for the onslaught of physical pain, I had neglected how this would impact my inner world. My sacrum behaved like an emergency button on my back, my own personal Pandora’s box – and the gate had been blast open.
Shower Flashback: Collapse. I’ve been here before with this grief that makes no sense. Pain that is archaic and primal. A doe losing her fawn to a great predator. No relief. No sense. Keep going. No second thoughts. Not enough air. Lungs and muscles collapsed. Give up. Start again. But it’s not fair! I’ve come so far and now I’m back at the beginning. The weight of being born into a post-rape existence crushes me – again. I lived in this place for so long. Didn’t I work through this phase? Why this “Stage 1” acuteness – shock, pictures and horror? I cannot go through this phase again. I cannot do this again. But here it is – again. And again and again. There is no relief in sight. There is no relief in sight. There is only right now. There is only right now. I am here, right now, in this terrible mess. But I am here, right now. I am here. Find your breath. Let this flow. Squeeze yourself into a tiny ball and wait this out. If I’ve learned anything about how I process, I know I cannot resist this surge. I go into this pain so very alone. My soul and my body lead the way, complex thought retreats, offline. Let this flow. Don’t resist. Wait. Patience. Process. Water. Feel the water on your skin. Watch the water flow. Find another breath. Movement leads to stillness. You’ve done this before. You’ve gotten through this so many times before. Remember the nature of this process. Remember the nature of how you process. Remember your nature.
This trigger brings me back to that feeling of collateral loss I had the day after I was raped. I remember waking up the next morning, and for a split-second – forgetting, disoriented, still sleepy – only to crumble beneath the realization that it wasn’t just a dream. After a few hours of rest and nourishment though, I noticed an important process of discharge was stirring inside. Once accepting the presence of the trauma energy still clearly locked within my body, and the organic nature of the way it was trying to flowing through and out of me, I could re-orient myself as a witness to the experience. I stopped judging myself for carrying so much sadness after a decade of healing. I viewed myself like I would another wounded human and recalled that the body heals in its own way – and this is how I heal. My process is unpredictable and it can be messy. Sometimes it is subtle. Sometimes it sounds like the apex of an symphony but all the instruments are blasting – unabashedly – out of tune. Yet, in this wide spectrum of experience – the process is still undeniably mine.
Contraction is inevitably followed by expansion, if I can see this release through. I am interested in the way grief pools like liquid behind the dam of my heart, filling in the corners of muscles and bones and waiting patiently for the exact pressure that will cause it to flow. I understand that the tattoo removal was a necessary valve that had to be turned in order for my pain to move outward, and for me to move forward.
Having grown weary of my own self-doubt and self-blame around the trauma residue that lingers inside (I am too sensitive! It is time to move on! What is wrong with me?) I shift my perception. I re-frame any perceived weakness, my falling apart, as the impulse of unrecognized wisdom to make itself known. Perhaps, I consider, a surge of this sort was only possible after a decade of building the internal stability to allow a storm of this scale to roll though me? It may be the subconscious wish of my being, on every level, to receive this pain, to face this emotion, to unburden myself of this grief and to once again, be renewed.
I spend the next few days fumbling through choppy waves of grief, that due to the gift of gravity, is always followed by deep relief. Given the circumstances of my predicament and the need to rest after such an invasive treatment, I turn to poetry, music, and nature to treat the tender inner layers of my wound. On the outside, my tattoo bubbles and blisters, it throbs and bleeds. I tend to it with nourishing creams and thick, soft bandages. Most importantly, I simply wait.
But this isn’t a story about a tattoo, this is a story about the resilience that reveals itself when we journey into the core of our suffering.
This is where we uncover the golden opportunity, though cloaked in sorrow, awaiting each of us in this lifetime. My tattoo was a distressing, unavoidable trigger, and in order to transcend its hold on me and to voyage further into my healing, I chose re-wounding.
The unavoidable, human experience of suffering will eventually reach all of us. For some, our losses can inform us like silent guides, pointing us in the direction of greater connection and purpose in our living. They may purify us of that which no longer serves us through a process of washing the psyche with our own distinct, yet universally human pain.
Our pain can hide deep in the recesses of the brain, closing doors to all the places the heart longs to go – and often, doing so for our own self-protection. It takes up space though, in the hidden photograph of someone we have lost, an unjust event that resurfaces in the metaphor of nightmares, a relationship dynamic that continues recycling, an illness that no one deserves, a particular season, or maybe, it is the mere idea of one’s own heartbreaking childhood that is ignited by the sight of a family playing in the park – our ego wants to shield us, but the heart longs to face this loss – however painful. We all have these delicate spots, archived like slivers in the recesses of our brain, buried in the tissues of our body, and their desire is to be gently unearthed and held.
This is about the stories that wound us, and the stories we think define us. This is the purposeful unravelling of the self to reveal the transcendence of the soul. Sometimes as friends, family, partners or colleagues we steer clear of topics that we don’t personally relate to, convincing ourselves that if we haven’t been there or gone through that, than we shouldn’t dare wade into those waters. Unfortunately, this psychic fence we create deepens our isolation, reduces our ability to actually see our inter-connectedness, and prevents us from receiving the support of someone who may have never been there, but who is here with us now.
I am reminded every single day that while pain has been my most challenging teacher, pain alone hasn’t transformed my spirit. It is my quest for healing, for understanding, for a way of living beyond the pain that created an environment for my resilience to unfold. In the case of my tattoo removal, it was pain that I had purposefully chosen and realized I must in fact welcome. On a core level, the surface-level burning and scarring served to catalyze the mending of my underlying pain. At this point in my process, with years of therapy, bodywork, and energy healing as a bolster, there is a particular kind of healing I can access in the aftermath of re-wounding. As much as I detest being triggered, as harsh as being hurled back in time through a flashback can be – I am coming out of these experiences with more awareness about where I am at today – and knowing that, locating myself in the here and now, in flesh and bone, is one of my greatest resources. It is not a process I can mentally grasp, but then again, healing for me has never been an intellectual experiment.
I may be indefinitely climbing down the ladder of pain, sometimes free-falling, into the unchartered layers of myself. It is here I uncover not only the wounds of rape, but the many other wounds my Soul has archived along the way. The gift of healing my Big Wound has been the opportunity to see everything else that was buried there, by years, a will to survive, pressure to move on, a threshold for coping, and to finally give all the other injuries their space as well. I have permission to feel all of it now. The healing of one wound can be the gateway to the next wound-suturing that wants to take place. I don’t measure their individual magnitude and there is no hierarchy of which hurts mattered most. There is no room for ego in this organic process – only innate physiology. I douse myself in my belief that whether or not I like it, I clearly have been awoken by rape. In the throes of trauma resolution, I have uncovered so much other hurt, my own and that of those around me. In the laboratory of my soul, I am crafting tools to encompass everything that might choose to surface in this tender and safe space.
I recognize that it wasn’t until deciding to let this tattoo go – to actively remove it from my body – that I could see what a strong hold it had on my heart. Like after a relationship ends, looking back as remorse and unspoken feelings surge, somehow that distance, found only in an impulse to exit – gives us the lens we need to see clearly. No more pre-requisite to make things work, we can become liberated in accepting that when it doesn’t, there is something else out there for us still. We can celebrate the courage to tolerate the intensity of complex emotions, to take risks in trusting our gut and even revel in the singular feeling of freedom from the shoulds of the world around us. Instead of viewing grief as some cruel, persistent punishment that we cannot overcome, the anguish of grief’s return may actually be here to give us much needed information or an overdue nudge towards what needs to come next.
The surfacing of all this emotion, this colorful and stimulating content, is the reward of choosing something else when the thing we were doing before was no longer working. Reminders that we as humans are not stagnant are crucial, even when they arrive in the form of intense internal storm. It does not matter how many times we find ourselves returning to the beginning. Beginning is the most potent place of possibility – this is actually a powerful place to land, everything is ahead of us. Our tears, our rage, our total collapse is the body finally coming back to us – pulsing and writhing, we can sense it once again. It wants to be known. The clearing of the cobwebs that cluttered our senses may unravel us, temporarily – but ultimately, the excavation open up more space.
Like therapy, like a break-up and like choosing to remove a tattoo – we might have to re-open the wound to finally understand what is required to properly heal the wound. We easily reconcile the healing process of skin, yet we must remember that all our parts – our bones and our organs – at the core, all comprise a perfect mixture of cells and spirit, and that the psyche too can bruise. While my experience contains a big event that catalyzed even bigger sensation, if we pay attention, many of the most poignant moments occur in the subtle realm, out of nowhere, arising unplanned in the simplicity of our daily life. Instead of questioning, “Why this sad feeling, still? Why this immeasurable loss, still? Why this inability to control these tears, still? Why this feeling of nothingness, still?” we can re-center ourselves within our own world. We can notice that we notice. We can acknowledge an innate desire to understand our own experience. We can direct all of our compassion and our willingness to listen towards the practice to simply stay with the tenderness of our own Soul.
No one experiences the depth and impact of your innermost experiences quite like you. If you are still hurting over loss that seems ancient, or registers insignificant to others, it is okay. There is nothing inherently wrong with you. You are still hurting, yes, and you are still healing. There is no timeline. Tell yourself again and again – there is no timeline. Write it down somewhere visible. Yes, you will have tremendous grief, but you are not your grief. You are the one who watches this brutal and exquisite human experience, who feels it surface and who with bravery and nothing left to lose, allows its fullness to surge. It will pass, even if for a brief moment, and in that openness, when your breath returns to rest and your perception has been cleared by your own tears, you can acknowledge yourself for moving out of the way for what must come through you.
Intentionally commemorating the spaces between clarity and collapse, we can be reminded of the vastness of the human organism. Stretching beyond and beneath skin, our “vision” is most precise when we use the heart to sense inside. Grief, rage, anger, hopelessness, isolation and anxiety. Inspiration, joy, possibility, love, tenderness and gratitude. You can and you do embody all of this. You are microcosm of the Universe. It is you and it is yours. The process of life constantly turns with its endless cycles of growth and decay, each answer invites your next question, and the great mystery grows into the one and only certainty you need to survive: anything is possible. The great unknown becomes the wish of your still to be fulfilled dreams – dreams that will find sustenance in the air that only your lungs will breathe. You can channel your experiences – good, bad, horrific – into significant touchstones that you trust. Markers of what is behind, what is still to come, and what is here, right now. Learning how to navigate the zones between so much sensation and constant unpredictability begins a personal practice in which you will tether the highs and lows of your healing together into a steady thread that you can hold.
For me, the un-tattooing was felt boldly through all of my senses, but I believe it is the micro-movements I make on any given day – breathing slowly, nourishing my body, practicing presence and coming back to this path of healing when I’ve strayed away, that combine to create the possibility of even more complete healing. While the total-body rush of new sensations – both positive and negative – have always served to remind me that I am alive, isn’t it in fact the seemingly simple miracles of water, gravity and breath that sustain life?
Healing is cumulative – it is a practice, it becomes a sacred ritual. Resilience is built upon our breakdowns and our breakthroughs, the rise and fall of our breath, the tears of sorrow and the laughter of a wide-open heart. There is an indescribable grace in the basic-ness of our stillness – the space between all that we have suffered and all that is yet to come. Our re-wounding informs an impossible to quantify, innate capacity to heal and we can choose now to carry their scars as reminders of all that we overcame and all that we will continue to transform.
The Re-Wounding of Healing 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 via the holistic practice of yoga by visiting her practitioner page or her personal website.