Transforming Darkness into Gold – An Interview with Susan Page Tillett
Transforming Darkness into Gold – An Interview with Susan Page Tillett
Introduction by Molly Boeder Harris
How do we share the secret we were for so many years told to bury, whether overtly or more discreetly by not only the person(s) who harmed us, but also by those around us who simply could not bear witness to the gravity of our experience? Stranded in a way by desolate silence, many survivors are left on their own to carve out a healing path, yet what options are readily available – what kind of resources will help them discover all that they still are even after such loss? Once survivors have moved through the most difficult phases of the journey, having gone all the way down to the bottom of a sometimes unfathomable ocean, and re-surfaced – lungs full with a breath that can only be quenched in living, and hearts beating strong with the energy of survival – where do we go next? What do we do with the wisdom we have discovered about our selves and others, however painfully found, what is its purpose?
Recently, I connected with Susan Page Tillett, Executive Director of Mesa Refuge, a writer’s retreat center in Northern California, and also a practitioner with The Breathe Network, who through a dedicated focus on healing has transformed the darkness of surviving childhood sexual abuse into a commitment to bring light, hope, creativity and empowerment to others – originating so beautifully from the center of her resilient spirit. We explored the courage to break the silence surrounding sexual abuse as our societal and even our personal attempts to quiet the voice inside, inevitably exhaust themselves. The innate systems of our body will find ways and paths to express what we have guarded inside – however painful – and this is a kind of miracle. Our systems are designed for resilience, cells rejuvenating daily, blood and lymph with their endless circulation, breath rising and falling like the metronome of the human spirit. There exists a body unconscious knowing that trusts that if we can move this thing through and out of us, no longer distracted by our efforts to contain, self-protect, manage or even numb – we will finally be able to land in the fullness of our own lived experience.
We discussed a range of healing arts modalities that Susan drew upon in her healing and in her ongoing self-care practice including yoga, Reiki, psychotherapy, meditation, color healing, EMDR and more. Through her insights in this quest for self-discovery, Susan was empowered to share the amazing gifts of embodiment, intuition and holistic healing with others while mindfully carving out space within the external work of facilitating healing for others, to attend daily to the preciousness of her own reclamation of recovery.
Finally, Susan reminded me of the tremendous capacity survivors have to be great leaders! Their fortitude, compassion, empathy, and willingness to express the unspeakable because they know too well that the violence must end, that our silence only further isolates us from the truth, from ourselves, and from each other, and because who better than the ones who have lived through this (and who can fully honor the loss of those who did not with their stories enmeshed with our spirits) constitutes the most inspiring kind of leadership.
When we look to the future of the movement, it is my utmost belief that it is survivors like Susan that will guide our society in not only dismantling this system of violence and building spaces of healing through the body, through art, through activism, through service, through the heroism of teaching others through the wounds of their own loss. In a world where violence feels almost inherent and where we question the possibility for a different world, a hopeful perspective – it is survivors who can expand our notion of the human capacity for resilience, forgiveness, connection, commitment, embodiment and of triumph against the odds.
The Breathe Network: It is so inspiring to learn about your story and see how you were able to transform your experience of survival into something that has allowed you to relate to other survivors and assist them along their healing journey. Can you talk about how that experience of surviving evolved for you over time, and how it moved into your desire to study healing arts and serve others as a healer?
Susan Page Tillett: I first realized that I was an incest survivor in 1981. It is hard to believe, but at that time there were almost no good resources. This was before the Internet was accessible or the subject was addressed in the media. The first (male) psychiatrist I consulted told me that my secret really was too terrible to share with anyone and the best thing I could do was to forget it!
Of course, I couldn’t forget it, so I set out to find my own way. I sensed that it was going to take work in the areas of mind, body and spirit for me to find a path out of the terrible dark place I was in. I was fortunate to have a strong spiritual foundation as a child that has as much to do with my love of nature as my experience in the Episcopal tradition. I also consider myself lucky to have discovered yoga when I was in high school, which grounded me physically.
It was my mind that was overwhelmed after that first expert I consulted told me to “stuff it.” When we moved to Chicago in 1986, I was very fortunate to work sequentially with a series of excellent women therapists who specialized in sexual abuse. Over several years I tackled the tangle of images and blockages in my mind. My first therapist, Ann Frankel, validated my experiences based on other case histories and helped me to organize my memories in a time line and to find the words to confront my father – all of which was slow, painful work.
My second therapist, Dr. Vicki Seglin, had done her dissertation on PTSD and was one of the first people to bring insights of that theory into the healing of sexual trauma. She was also a Buddhist in the tradition of Thich Nhat Hanh and taught me the importance of centering meditation. For over 25 years while living in Chicago, I studied yoga with Carole, a deeply compassionate teacher who helped me learn to follow my insights and to constantly weave body, mind and spirit together.
In the 1990s, I became interested in hands-on healing and there were wonderful workshops in Chicago where I was able to study first Reiki, then Pranic Healing, Healing Touch and other modalities. As I gained experience, I found that using my own intuition and Aura-Soma (a natural plant-based system of color) came most naturally to me. My courses all required extensive practice, so I began working on my family and friends, and soon people were coming to me for help and to learn these techniques themselves! I felt a strong drive to make the work accessible so I offered classes at the local adult education program and saw people at my home. Although I rarely identified myself as a survivor of sexual trauma, a surprising number of people with similar histories found their way to me.
TBN: You have expertise in so many healing arts modalities, and have likely interacted with those modalities yourself as a recipient, does any one or two stand out for you as being pivotal in your healing journey?
SPT: Yoga was the first integrative system that I learned and it is still the foundation of my understanding of the mind/body/spirit connection nearly 50 years later. It is wonderful that the postures, breathing and meditation techniques have become so incredibly accessible!
Reiki was the first hands-on technique that I learned and is still my “go to” modality for balancing myself and others. It is easy to learn and as close as our hands. With Reiki hands and calming breath, everyone can carry the basic empowering tools of healing with them at all times.
The single most effective thing which I have done to advance my healing was an intensive course in Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing (EMDR) with a very gifted and experienced therapist, Dr. Edith Taber. This system works on and in the brain and has the effect of “unhooking” what felt like a bungee cord from specific memories so that they don’t replay constantly. EMDR was strenuous work, but I really recommend it to survivors who are committed to the deepest levels of healing.
TBN: What, if any, influence has your identity as a survivor had on the work you do as a leader and consultant in the arts – museums, writing retreat centers, etc.?
Survivors are incredibly strong people with deep inner resources, which can also make them very good leaders! Learning to see things as they truly are, treating other people with respect, actively listening and responding with compassion are skills that I have found directly transferable to consulting and organizational leadership. The hard work of recovery has paid off in my knowing who I am, having good boundaries and knowing that confrontation can open new pathways.
I also think that my own journey has given me a strong drive to go from darkness to light and to spend my time doing work that I feel passionate about. For more than 15 years, much of my professional work has been providing places of sanctuary where artists and writers can do their best creative work. That work is worth getting up to do every day! The incredible books, paintings and operas that I have seen created fill my heart with joy and tip the scales towards the GOOD in the world!
TBN: Many survivors question their capacity to heal when time passes and they find themselves continuing to navigate the ups and downs of trauma. As someone who has journeyed so far along their healing path, is their any wisdom you would want to share with survivors who are in the recent throes of their return to themselves after sexual violence?
SPT: I have now been actively healing for more than half of my life. There was a time when I thought that when I confronted my abuser, or that when he died that then I would be free, but that is no longer the case. I now believe that I will continue to heal for the rest of my life. My life today is richer for every breakthrough and insight I have gained.
I find the journey back to the self very similar to walking a labyrinth – sometimes you get close to the center only to go on wide loops in another direction, but if you keep putting one foot in front of the other, you will reach your goal. Besides, it is all about the journey rather than the destination anyway!
I believe that one of the real stumbling blocks for survivors are the people who just want us to “get over it” and “move on.” I hope that there will be increasingly better and more accessible education on the nature of healing from trauma so that family and friends understand that this work is neither a linear path nor a matter of will power. Survivors deserve our compassion for the shattering pain that they have suffered as well as our respect for their courage in pursuing the hard work of healing.
TBN: You have mentioned that you are working on a book, Re-Claiming the Gold, and I am so excited to read it! Can you perhaps give us a glimpse at what the book will be about, what themes it touches on, and maybe what that process has looked like for you in your healing?
In my forthcoming book, Reclaiming the Gold: Healing from Sexual Trauma, I share my own vision of the nature of trauma. When we are born, each of us carries a spark of the divine in a thin golden orb inside our hearts. When a trauma such as sexual abuse happens, that golden vessel shatters and the pieces are sent flying in all directions. The work of healing then, is literally to pick up the pieces and patch together enough of them so that our divine spark can once again be rekindled.
My book presents the many tools which I have found helpful, including creative visualization, hands-on healing, meditation, writing (both memories and metaphors) nature and artwork. Readers can “shop” the tool box, picking things that initially appeal, and gradually custom-build their own path to recovery. The tone is designed to evoke curiosity, reward intuition and to encourage laughter along the way. Let’s face it, this is going to be a long trip and who wants to go in lock step or miss hilarious adventures along the way!
TBN: Self-care is something so many of us take for granted, and at the same time, there are many of us who really rely on a consistent self-care practice to manage our healing on a daily basis. What does self-care mean to you and how do you attend to your own holistic wellness in your role as the Executive Director of the Mesa Refuge, as a writer, a healer, and more?
SPT: I have learned the hard way that self-care is not optional! One of the symptoms of being entirely disconnected from my body early in my recovery was completely ignoring signs that I was not Super Woman. Chronic Fatigue brought me to my knees and finally forced me to quit a stressful job with 15 hours of weekly commuting and two children! Having my own consulting practice allowed me a healthier life/work balance and allowed me to pursue my holistic healing studies.
I confess to having to learn that lesson a second time, when after my divorce I took on another stressful leadership position as a single parent. After 12 years, exhaustion and frustration finally led me to quit and take a Creative Sabbatical Year to catch up with myself and work on my book.
Although I am now the full time Executive Director of the Mesa Refuge, I set my own hours and work mostly from home. I am able to structure my days with quiet periods alternating with times when I am intensively with people, a rhythm that supports me. I never unpacked my TV and draw a tremendous amount of strength from the 10,000 pine trees I view from my deck!
While I would never wish the horrors of sexual trauma on anyone, I am deeply grateful for all that my healing journey has taught me and remain committed to sharing what I have learned with others. As survivors, we are in this together and strides for one of us can mean hope for many others.
TBN: Thank you Susan for sharing your insights on healing, recovery, creativity and self-care as you journey along your path of healing, while lighting the way for so many others to follow!
Learn more about Susan’s work assisting other survivors in transforming the trauma of sexual violence by visiting her practitioner page here.