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February 27, 2014

Survival & the Physiology of Resilience. ~ Molly Boeder Harris {Trigger Warning}

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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, a film, on the stage—since words alone cannot depict the magnitude of the experience(s).

There are ways that the heart and mind can grasp individual “chapters” of the fuller story.

One unique component of my “story” is the significance of the song With or Without You by U2, which was playing on my headphones while out for a run in a majestic forest and at the moment of my attack. This hauntingly beautiful song was forever changed in an instant. I am not exceptional in having a “trigger” (or multiple) that evokes a strong connection to the event. For some it is a film, a type of food, a season, a scent of perfume, a ceiling fan spinning, a book they’d been reading, the color of the walls at dawn.

For me, it was an 80s pop song.

Sexual violence pervades all of the sensory organs and then lands in the spirit. ”With or Without You” is directly linked to a present moment memory and surge of sensation from 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 had happened to my face? I remember the view of a snow-capped volcano, piney treetops and a horizon that had no end. The expansive sound moving into deafening silence irritates 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 freezing, crying, moving into silence and 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 could allow myself to feel— in that moment, in that space, in that company.

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, and total 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 six 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 impossibly difficult to describe, and I saw the beautifully intimidating tigers on the cover. Having grown up enamored by the feline species and a 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.” – Peter Levine

In the margins I wrote “tattoo” which tells me that even in in the darkest phases of our lives, our resilience is immediate. We can begin to long for and believe in a vision of ourselves that might one day embody our deepest hopes and wildest dreams—and that yearning creates a thread for us to follow.

Amidst great anguish our spirits continue to seek light. Even when we feel ourselves to be our most broken, our tissues and fluids, the energy constantly running through our body unconscious, have already begun to work their magical repair on microscopic, and essential, levels. In our core, beyond our bodies and minds, some part of us gravitates towards wholeness—and the effortlessness of that response, to me, is the gift of being alive.

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 the detailing of a story that is for many, their greatest fear. Most importantly, this would entail an unfathomable amount of internal seeking.

I had been a world traveler and identified strongly with a desire to adventure into the unknown, and yet my greatest quest, the place I had to get lost in order to be found, was actually just beneath the surface of my skin. Ten years later, I would start with the Pegasus tattoo and then approach 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 selecting words accurately takes time and precision. Combined with the constantly changing nature of our relationship to a traumatic event, it can sometimes feel like there simply aren’t enough words—while the wellspring of sensation somehow never runs dry.

The Pegasus tattoo would be placed on my left rib cage—the cradling of my breath, and the representation of my life force—also the side of my body that continued to hang on to the residue of the rape.

The ribs being one of the most delicate places to receive a tattoo was an inverse metaphor for my feeling that my rapist had wounded the most sacred part of myself—my soul. I wanted the winged horse to move and breathe, to bend, expand and contract—its forward facing wings a symbol of fierce protection and flight. It would be my shield.

I prepared a musical playlist to support 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, has always required a very physical healing practice—literally sweating out the stress chemistry with every motion and breath, each muscular contraction followed by an eventual softening. Healing with body art made sense throughout my shape.

The first line of ink was drawn and I felt an impossibly perfect connection to an 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 into flesh. The sharp sensation of the tattoo being drawn onto my skin felt like a reclamation of tissue and body, of blood and heart. It was my ability to breathe smoothly and deeply 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 my tattoo artist’s positive presence and his eclectic selection of music (while prepping his materials I had already heard My Morning Jacket, Manu Chao and The Cure) I had ditched my plan to have a preset playlist and decided to go with the flow of the studio’s sound.

Less than 10 minutes later, I heard the low hum and pulsing drum of the song begin— 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” played on the stereo. I read somewhere that there are over 97 million documented songs, so what were the chances this 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 deepest, smoothest breath. I allowed the song to completely move through me, and when it ended I was still there, heart pulsing on the table. These were tears of survival, of relief, of totally letting go and feeling yourself finally land.

The song assumed new meaning—an anthem of survival.

My rapist didn’t destroy me. I had chosen to instead be transformed. There were already shadows of a wind-blown tail, the outline of wings extended, and a sweeping mane etched into 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. I will continue to call upon the resources that the Pegasus represents—grounding and instinct, strength and courage, on the Earth and of the Sky. Simultaneously, from that heavy hoof rootedness and self-trust, there is an ability to rise beyond the confines of my own idea of myself.

The beauty and strength that my skin now shows reflects something new in the mirror—that this practice of integration and resilience is not just an infinite journey, but also an exquisite one. That not only have I empowered myself after rape, but in fact I am more powerful than ever. For me receiving 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 body art, somatic psychology, dance, yoga, activism, or traveling around the globe, are valid and meaningful in a way that sometimes only the survivor can understand. We bring to these practices, an intuitive desire to transcend trauma—a pull to discover ourselves reaching beyond even the sometimes, unfathomable vastness, that is the pain of loss—to a space of indescribable freedom.

These moments, whether they last for three breath cycles or three hours, full with the intention and meaning we have placed so carefully into them, carve a new memory, for the next step along our journey.

The triumphs and markers of our healing, immeasurable yet unforgettable like the laughter of your best friend, provide a thread we follow ahead—urged along by the irresistible, inevitable, gravity-defiant brilliance of our rising from the fall.

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Editorial Assistant: Dana Gornall/Editor: Bryonie Wise

Photo Credit: Elephant Archives

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Molly Boeder Harris