Healing, and even thriving, is possible after a trauma. There is hope, and it can sustain us during our difficult journey towards emotional health.
There was a time when I wondered if I was damaged goods, beyond repair. As an adolescent I was terrified of never being able to lead a normal life. I had this (unrealistic) fear of becoming a prostitute, or a bag lady, unable to find my place among other human beings.
There was nothing, and no one, telling me that it was possible to heal myself, to have satisfying relationships, to be a good parent, to have hobbies, friends, an interesting job… You know, all the things that most people take for granted, but which can seem so out of reach for some of us. It definitely seemed out of reach for me. It wasn’t.
It’s not easy. It’s not simple. But it is possible and I would love this message to go to all wounded people out there who are unsure they can aim for it. It takes energy, persistence, help from wiser souls, and time. But if I managed, surely you can too. If you get only one message from this post, this is the one: you can heal.
None of us should stay alone, wondering if there is a way out of the maze sexual violence creates in our souls. There is a way out, and we must never stop trying.
Any kind of violence leaves a trail of painful problems in us: low self esteem (when it’s not downright self hate), depression, addictions, difficulties in relationships, post traumatic stress disorder, eating disorders, rigid or non existent boundaries, difficulties feeling or regulating emotions, anxiety, obsessive compulsive disorders, self sabotage… the list seems to go on and on.
We are all different, and not all of us will suffer from all of these troubles, fortunately. But no one can emerge from a history of sexual violence unharmed. And we should not expect ourselves to function “normally”, whatever that is, with unhealed trauma in our past. Please note the operative word here : unhealed.
If you are reading this post, you have already started your healing journey: you are out of denial. You do not pretend there was no violence, and you do not pretend there are no consequences. This is a huge step, probably the most important one. For some of us, it never happens. For some of us it takes years to get there.
Then, along the way of recovery, we often realize consequences are even much more profound than what we thought. At least, I did.
In a sense, it was depressing. Like all of us, I suppose, I did not want to be defined by my painful history. I wanted the impact to be limited. I did not want to be a victim. I thought it had happenned a long time ago, that it was not so bad, and that I should be able to master it, succeed and be happy in spite of it.
At some level, I did not want to grant the abuser the victory of having had such an impact on me.
On the other hand, it was a real relief to find out that most of the difficult or frightening things I was experiencing had very little to do with who I was, and a lot to do with my history. I also realised that many people had many issues. I was far from unique in my difficulties.
It was important to heal my self esteem, and to make sense of myself. Without the understanding of why we are having issues, we remain strangers to ourselves, we even can believe we are weird, frightening, or bad.
The first priority is to heal our relationship with the most important person in our lives: ourselves. For me, it has been an immense task. I was feeling completely innapropriate, unfit for life, the most inadequate, stupid, and bad person in the world. And I’m pretty sure I was not the only one in that space.
We have very good reasons to feel this way; not that it is true, of course, it isn’t. But this is what trauma does to a human being. Sexual violence, in particular, is especially efficient at burying us under shame about who we are.
Because our mind has become structured around this false belief, we need other people to help us repair ourselves. I really wanted to heal alone, believe me. Alas, (or not!), it was not possible.
We are often not very social. We can call ouselves loners, introverts, shy. I tried to spend as much time as possible alone, as a young adult. I thought it was the way I was. I also wished I had been one of these very extrovert people, the life of the party, surrounded by friends.
I was discussing with a relatively new friend the other day, telling her how withdrawn I used to be. She was amazed; she told me she could not even imagine me like this. I’m not really the life of the party, but I clearly need, and enjoy, other’s company now. At some stage it dawned on me that interacting with benevolent people is a mutually satisfying activity.
I have never been a real introvert. I have been traumatized. Heal the trauma, and the real personnality comes out.
Relating is hard
Of course, we face serious difficulties establishing healing relationships, or even normal relationships for that matter.
To start with, we don’t trust others, and we don’t trust ourselves. That’s not a very solid ground to build something on.
Having such an abysmal level of self esteem, we don’t want to let people see within us, so intimacy of any kind is threatening. Some of are litterally hiding, some of us, like me, are hiding in plain sight (efficiently hidden behind a confident false self, who is interacting with the world).
We may have non existent boundaries, letting people invade us with their needs, wants, emotions, even if they do not intend to. Interacting with others without having boundaries is frightening, and exhausting. Believe me, I know.
That’s why it is important to start small. Reading (books, articles, blogs), watching videos, listening to podcasts, is a way of connecting that is completely unthreatening. It’s a good start. I have used it extensively, and I have largely benefited from it. Testimonies, in particular, have helped me break the isolation I was in. Learning, as much as I could, about my symptoms, why they were there and what I could do to alleviate them was also helpful.
Online connections can also help. It’s more rewarding than just reading, because there can be a real conversation. However, it can be less stressful than real world relationships, because you have more control: you can go away at any time if you start to feel uncomfortable. And it is easier to find like minded people who can understand you. It happens that others come to us to share their healing experience in the physical world. But in order for this to happen, you have to first broadcast your experience in some way. Not everybody can, or wants, to do it.
Real life healing relationships
We are all different, and I don’t pretend to know the one and only truth.
But I am convinced than we need at some stage to connect with people in person, to let them see us, and be healed by the corrective experience.
Starting small is important and necessary, but it is not enough. On our way to real intimacy, we can hire helpers in the form of therapists, group therapy, or support groups. There is something that happens with smiles, eye connections, non verbal communication, that is irrepleceable.
Reading words of empathy feels good. Witnessing someone showing empathy feels better. Chatting about boundaries is important, but seeing someone gently enforcing boundaries is amazing. Having a therapist look into your eyes and tell you without any ambiguity that something you thought shameful about you is a truly normal and universal experience, is life changing.
Friendships and romantic relationships can be healing, of course. I even had work relationships that helped me move forward in my recovery. But therapy and support group can be even more powerful: if done correctly, they establish a climate of acceptance and warmth. They are also completely centered around your needs, and your circumstances. Give it a try as soon as you can.