The journey to heal after sexual violence is not a sprint and it is not a marathon—unlike other wounds, the ones of the spirit can linger for a lifetime.
For many survivors, healing is an ongoing practice, with ebbs and flows, highs and lows, and can be both exhausting and exhilarating at different points along the way.
In the United States, we have built an incredible crisis advocacy response to survivors of sexual violence—sustained by the relentless dedication and unstoppable passion of advocates and volunteers who have put their bodies, minds and spirits on the line in a field that requires a 24-hour day, 365-day year commitment.
Yet, after the advocacy in the Emergency Room, when the community support group stops meeting or for those who never had the opportunity or the safety to say the words “I was raped” aloud, where do survivors turn next as they navigate this (sometimes) lifelong journey of healing?
Where do our advocates and educators, who are so often survivors, turn when the trauma they witness daily starts to merge with the trauma they worked so hard to heal, and the line between their trauma and their client’s trauma begins to blur?
It is time we think more creatively, more holistically, more honestly and more intentionally about how to best support survivors in healing; move outside of our standard practices and typical referrals to finally meet the body, mind and spiritual needs of our diverse survivor population.
We need to fully recognize and validate the scale and the scope of sexual violence on a person’s whole life and be prepared to offer resources for that kind of healing.
Building resilience in survivors, steadily and slowly, can come and take root in their being by incorporating embodied approaches to healing such as acupuncture, chiropractic, EMDR, massage, yoga and animal therapies.
This change from “doing business as usual” in what is largely a non-profit “industry” located within a struggling economy, will demand collaboration, flexibility, risk-taking, visionary thinking, and mostly, the undeniable truth of personal testimony from survivors who have transcended trauma through the healing arts.
The context for the change I seek is born out of my experience as a survivor of sexual violence.
Intuitively, I felt drawn to holistic healing arts modalities as a primary means to address the mind, body and spiritual trauma of rape. I watched my spirit soar high into the trees and then suddenly, I was looking down, simultaneously a witness to, and a victim of, my rape.
I heard the unquantifiable agony of my pleas for help, for someone or something to rescue me, for this person to finally see my humanity and stop the violence, travel deep into the leaves and earth beneath my body.
I felt my left hip hold onto the pressure long after I escaped danger. I recognized the messages of my dreams and all that my spirit was still fighting against, fighting through and fighting for, and this for me, was not something filling out a legal document or telling the story alone could fully reach.
I needed to be able to explore all of these realms and reach into them with my muscles and bones, with my breath, and with the clear seeing lens of a heart uncluttered by thoughts. I imagine that maybe I am not alone in this feeling.
I needed to explore for myself the inner landscapes of my being in order know and become acquainted with the scale and size of my traumatic experience and in that sphere, I was able to see there was so much more.
Based on my experience, I believe the benefits of working to integrate mind, body and spirit after sexual trauma through holistic healing arts remain unparalleled.
Coming back into the body, connecting with one’s spirit, and addressing healing on deep, non-verbal and even energetic levels can also feel more accessible and meaningful to some survivors or may facilitate their moving through or towards the next “season” of their healing journey.
As trauma has been known to disrupt the parts of the brain associated with language and speech, approaching healing through the body and spirit may be a more effective intervention for some. Not to mention the fact that words alone cannot quantify the magnitude of such an experience.
I have felt and I have witnessed how simply drawing the mind into the sensation of the body, the feeling of the heart, the awareness of the natural rhythm of the breath, can create an invaluable shift or insight for a survivor. 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 self-preservation.
Each survivor is unique and what uplifts me may very well feel destabilizing to another.
An essential piece of healing is allowing the survivor to determine what makes sense for them. Personally, I found the process of investigation with law enforcement offices, having evidence collected (twice, as there was an error in the handling of my first rape kit) and being ill-advised about an arbitrary timeline for healing by my first counselor—to be degrading, traumatizing and dis-empowering.
Not all survivors will have that experience, and as our systems improve and become more coordinated, ideally these steps and spaces can be immediate sources of power, speaking one’s truth and validation. On the other side of this, I found that utilizing acupuncture, massage, Reiki, EMDR, art and yoga therapy empowered me, provided infinite space and possibilities, and allowed me to explore the trauma on a soul level.
I was able to learn that while I was in a body, I was not my body.
Simultaneously, these practices taught me to listen to the language of my body, which is now my best ally in healing. I learned to trust my intuition and I stopped apologizing for my persisting pain and let go of the timeline for (and notion of) when the residue of the rape would go away.
Ten years later, when I let myself drop into all that the experience contained, the pain of the rape feels fresh.
It still feels transcendent in a way I cannot fully describe. It still challenges my mind that seeks clarity about “Why?” while the core of my heart accepts there will be no answers in this lifetime.
Yet, I know now through the wisdom of the healing arts that my being is always gravitating towards balance. I have learned how to let the hurt, anger, grief, and loss flow when it needs to rise and move out of me—and I am not (usually) afraid, but more often (not always) curious about what I will bear witness to and what I will learn when it emerges.
The only way for me to live my life authentically through this experience has been to allow myself to remain fully in touch with my grief, anger and outrage, while also recognizing the precious tenderness that has bloomed in the cells of my own resilience—a sensitivity I would never trade.
I could not do the work I do if I distanced myself from my own experience. I would not be able to be present for survivors if I did not have a deeply established understanding of my relationship to my own trauma, and I could not be sustainable if I did not continue my self-care practice on a daily basis.
By embracing my continual vulnerability and simultaneously growing strength, I realize that for me—and maybe for others, the way to go forward after trauma is both through, and into my pain.
In my work and in my personal life, I have listened to countless disclosures of sexual trauma, each one as unique as the individual who had the courage to share. Yet, most survivors 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 pain, and the many, often unpredictable or uncomfortable, emotions and sensations that transcend language—meanwhile pervade their waking and dreaming lives.
Healing with holistic arts gives people hope in things unseen, but rather felt deeply inside. Instead of turning towards potentially harmful coping mechanisms to numb or alter the pain of the trauma, survivors could be introduced to diverse self-care practices that will nourish and strengthen them for 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 know that they can trust the healing process of allowing emotion, sensation and feeling to flow or perhaps, they will be able to further heal deeper layers of their being where the pain of their experience—physical, emotional and energetic—still lingers.
Our efforts to support survivors in discovering resilience and finding their path to recovery remains essential—not only for their 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.
In my view, the most powerful sexual violence movements, organizations and actions have emerged from the experience of survivors who had the resources, resilience and support to face and transcend the trauma (see Arte Sana, The Line Campaign, The Invisible War, A Long Walk Home, Women for Women International, The Voices and Faces Project, Incite, PAVE, V-Day.)
If all survivors could be empowered to work with the healing process without a timeline, without expectations, and be given access to the powerful presence of healers who can bear witness to the gravest of pains and reflect back the survivor’s innate capacity to heal, the world would change in the most beautiful way.
Each survivor must intuitively and courageously, often through trial and error, discover and design an ongoing healing system that works for them and their individual experience. Survivors have already lived through the violence, and they are humble warriors whose recovery deserves our societal awe.
Now imagine what those fierce, resilient, hearts-on-fire could do, if the foundation of their healing attended to every aspect of their being—no part of them left behind, no feeling, no body part, no memory closed off indefinitely—their hearts wide open?
Imagine if however many times and for however many years they broke down, there was always someone who could remind them of their ability to rise up, out and beyond the confines of the material world into the infinite spheres of life?
Imagine if sometimes, that someone was their own intuition whispering inside,
“I have seen your resilience in your dreams, in the way you love your child, in the movement of your spine, in the smoothness of your singing voice, in the tears you have cried and it’s still there. Kkeep listening, keep attending, keep believing, keep feeling—all of it, because you can.”
When I imagine survivors accessing healing at those depths, I see a future of compassion, social transformation, balance, beauty, embodiment, connection and freedom, and I see the best of humanity coming back to life.
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Assistant Ed: Gabriela Magana / Ed: Catherine Monkman