The Physiology of Resilience
The Physiology of Resilience
“Wear your heart on your skin in this life.” ~Sylvia Plath
The unanswerable mysteries surrounding my “story” of surviving sexual violence, like many survivors, I imagine, are far too many to count. Over the last decade though, it is the miracles that have accompanied my healing that increasingly stand out. While the intricacies of any single event of sexual violence could never be fully captured, even if detailed in a lengthy novel, film, or on the stage – since words alone cannot depict the magnitude of this trauma – there are ways that the heart and mind can grasp individual “chapters” of the larger experience. One unique component of my story is the significance of the song “With or Without You” by U2, which played on my headphones while I was running through a vast forest and precisely at the moment of my attack. This haunting and evocative song was forever changed in an instant. I am not exceptional in having a “trigger” (or multiple) that evokes a visceral connection to the event – for some, it is a film, a type of food, a season, a perfume scent, a ceiling fan spinning, a book they’d been reading or the way the light reflects on their bedroom walls at dawn – which pulls them back into the trauma vortex. For me, it was an 80s pop song.
Sexual violence pervades all of the sensory organs and then lands in the Soul. “With or Without You” directly links me to the somatic memory and surge of sensation I experienced that crisp Friday morning in May. I hear the song and I see the exact spot on the trail where I was grabbed. I feel the pressure of an arm across my chest and cold metal on my face. I taste salty warm blood in my mouth and recall wondering, “what happened to my face?” I visualize the view of snow-capped volcanoes, piney treetops and a horizon that had no end. The expansive sound of my screams disappearing into deafening silence still buzzes in my ears. For years, when the song would play on the radio – in a restaurant, at a party, in my car – my range of responses included heart-rate escalation, crying, panic or freezing, while simultaneously embarking on the losing battle of either resisting or re-playing disorganized images of the scene. Over a span of years, I became increasingly skillful at navigating the delicate balance of how much I would allow myself to feel – in that moment, in that space, in that company – when it would play. The song has surfaced at pivotal times, but the incident that leaves me with a sense of awe, a feeling of both longing and fulfillment, alongside wonder about the purpose of my Soul within the space of our endless cosmos, was the day I received my Pegasus tattoo.
In 2003, less than 6 weeks after I was raped while running in the largest public park on the continent of South America, a book called Waking the Tiger by Peter Levine glimmered on the shelf in a self-help bookstore in Chicago. I wandered through the rows, searching for something that might speak to an event that was impossible to describe with language, and I saw the beautiful, powerful tigers on the cover. Having grown up enamored by the feline species as evidenced by my robust stuffed animal collection of tigers, pumas, lions, panthers, snow leopards, cheetahs and more, I was immediately captivated. Little did I know it would change my life in countless ways as via those tigers, I was being divinely introduced to Somatic Experiencing (SE) and not only the innate wisdom, but the natural inclination of the body to heal itself after trauma. I read the book in one day, and it was this passage that awoke a great possibility within me:
“Body sensations can serve as a guide to reflect where we are experiencing trauma, and to lead us to our instinctual resources. These resources give us the power to protect ourselves from predators and other hostile forces. Each of us possesses these instinctual resources. Once we learn how to access them we can create our own shields to reflect and heal our traumas.
In dreams, mythical stories, and lore, one universal symbol for the human body and its instinctual nature is the horse. Interestingly enough, when Medusa was slain, two things emerged from her body: Pegasus, the winged horse, and Chrysaor, a warrior with a golden sword. We couldn’t find a more appropriate metaphor. The sword symbolizes absolute truth, the mythic hero’s ultimate weapon of defense. It conveys a sense of clarity and triumph, of rising to meet extraordinary challenges, and of ultimate resourcefulness.
The horse symbolizes instinctual grounding, while wings create an image of movement, soaring, and rising above an earth-bound existence. Since the horse represents instinct and body, the winged horse speaks of transformation through embodiment. Together the winged horse and the golden sword are auspicious symbols for the resources traumatized people discover in the process of vanquishing their own Medusas.” (Dr. Peter Levine)
In the margins I wrote “tattoo”, which tells me that even amidst the darkest phases of our lives, our resilience sits beside us. Resilience enables us to believe in a vision of ourselves where we reclaim the fullness of ourselves without the residue of trauma cluttering our view. The yearning to re-discover ourselves creates a magnetic force for us to follow when we are just beginning to write the map for recovery. Alongside great anguish, our spirit continues to seek light. Even when we feel ourselves to be our most broken, the processes and energies that constantly run through our body bring about daily repair on microscopic, yet essential, levels. In our core, beyond the physicality of the body and beneath the conditioning of the mind, a part of us gravitates towards balance – and the effortlessness of that response, to me, is one of the miracles of life.
I knew that particular image of Pegasus and the sword represented an embodiment I would slowly earn with flesh and sweat, tears and love, along with cognitive and somatic processing of an experience that had irrevocably altered myself and the world around me. Moving towards a space of greater integration would entail an unfathomable amount of internal seeking. I had become, to some degree, a world traveler and identified strongly with my insatiable desire to adventure into the unknown. Yet, my greatest quest, the place I had to get totally lost in order to be found, was just beneath the surface of my skin. Ten years later, I chose to mark my healing trajectory with the Pegasus tattoo and then one day, I would claim the golden sword.
In my healing practice, the body has always been where I first orient myself before I can put words to my experience in a way that feels true. The language we choose to describe our pain and our healing is precious, and accurately selecting words requires time and precision. Combined with the constantly changing nature of my relationship to trauma, it often felt like there simply weren’t enough words. A the same time, the wellspring of sensation – wanted or unwanted – never ran dry. The decision to place the Pegasus tattoo on my left rib cage felt authentic to the nature of my trauma and implicated my capacity to tolerate and transcend the worst kind of pain. Cradling my breath, my ribcage was a tangible representation of the unstoppable rhythm of my life force. The left side of my body had also continued to manifest undiagnosable, chronic pain for years – the residue of rape. The ribs being one of the most tender places to receive a tattoo paralleled the way rape had buried the most tender parts of myself, and this intentional placement would symbolize their retrieval. In synchronicity with my body, the winged horse would move and breathe, it would bend, expand and contract, and its forward facing wings represented a symbol of fierce protection and a capacity for flight. It would be my shield and it would be an embodied prayer.
I prepared a musical playlist to nurture me through what was certain to be an intense whole being experience – many hours riding the sharp edge of tolerable, yet numbing pain – pain that I had chosen. The physicality of being raped, for me, had required a very physical healing practice that I tapped through yoga – literally sweating out the stress chemistry with every motion and breath, each muscular contraction followed by an eventual softening. Complementing the healing process with the application of body art made sense throughout my whole shape.
The first line of ink was drawn and I felt an impossibly perfect connection to the animal being born onto my body and sinking into my skin. My faith was placed in the compassionate hands of an artist who would translate my vision onto flesh. The sharp sensation of this righteous image being drawn on my torso felt like an immediate reclamation of tissue and body, of blood and heart. It was my ability to manipulate a smooth and deep breath into my abdomen that allowed me to stay. It was the practice of focusing my mind on the immediacy of this very moment that allowed me to stay. It was a relentless desire to take my body back and transform my story via this cathartic art that allowed me to stay.
I squeezed my partner’s hand tight, hoping to re-distribute discomfort, while the adrenaline of this epic moment and all that it represented began to seep into my cells. Due to a combination of nerves mixed with trust in the artist’s positive presence and his pleasing eclectic selection of music (while prepping his materials I had already heard some of my favorites, My Morning Jacket, Manu Chao and The Cure) I ditched my plan to have a preset playlist and decided to go with the flow of the studio’s ambient sounds. Less than 10 minutes later, I heard the low hum and pulsing drum of the fated song beginning – this was happening.
I was on the table with my ribcage like an offering – humbly exposed, releasing my past and claiming my future and “With or Without You” began to ring through the stereo speakers. I read somewhere that there are over 97 million documented songs, so what were the chances that this song would play at this exact time? Given my specific intentions, the shock of the song and the coincidence of that moment was so surreal, that instead of a habitual desire to resist or to renounce the song – I drew the sound in more deeply. I closed my eyes, the melody merged with the oceanic sound of my steady respiration. I allowed the melody to completely move through me, and when it ended I was still there, heart pulsing, on the table. I was flooded with tears of relief. For a pivotal moment, I had completely let go, and it enabled me to finally land. The song assumed new meaning – an anthem of survival. My rapist did not destroy me. I had chosen to instead be transformed. I looked down and there were already shadows of a wind-blown tail, the outline of wings extended, and a sweeping mane etched on my flesh – I was moving forward.
My tattoo has given me a visual reminder of resilience and the careful path of healing that I can admire and attend to with tenderness every single day. The healing of the tattoo parallels the healing of the heart: rupture and discomfort, inflammation and slow-motion repair until one day, the scab falls away and something new and brilliant is revealed. In my healing practice, I continue to call upon the resources that the Pegasus represents: grounding and instinct, strength and courage, on the Earth and of the Sky. From the rooting of my growing the depths of my internal resources, there is an ability to then rise beyond the confines of my own ideas of myself. The beauty and strength that my skin now shows reflects something significant in the mirror – that this practice of integration and resilience is not solely an infinite journey – it is an exquisite one. Not only have I empowered myself after rape, but in fact I experience myself as more powerful than ever. For me, this tattoo was an essential rite of passage along my healing path, and it continues to inspire me in countless ways.
All paths to healing – whether through body art, somatic psychology, dance, yoga, activism, or traveling the globe – are valid and meaningful in ways that sometimes only the survivor themselves understands. We bring an intuitive desire to transcend our traumas to these practices and rituals. There is an innate longing to discover ourselves reaching across the unfathomable vastness of loss and moving towards a space of indescribable freedom. These moments of freedom and connection, whether they last for three breath cycles or three hours, infused with our specific intentions and meanings, can carve a new memory, a new way of becoming, a new way of relating, while widening the pathway of our recovery process. The triumphs of healing, immeasurable and unforgettable, provide a thread to follow, a growing resilience birthed by the gravity-defiant miracle of our soul’s rise from the fall.
The Physiology of Resilience was written by Molly Boeder Harris. Molly is the Founder and Executive Director of The Breathe Network, a trauma-informed yoga teacher, and a Somatic Experiencing (SE) practitioner-in-training. She is based in Portland, Oregon and travels nationally and internationally leading trainings on trauma-informed movement practices and sexual assault recovery. Read Molly’s poem Pegasus the Horse which was inspired by the experience of this tattoo process here, or visit her practitioner page to learn more about her work with survivors.