Charting 3 years of healing and acceptance

[tags: womxn survivors; survivors who menstruate]’

Dear friends and family,

If you know me as the founder of the Healing Collective, please reconsider reading this story. Maybe you would prefer to hear it from me directly, in conversation. I might prefer this, too. You know me and our relationship, so your call.

 

A little over 3 years ago, several things came together to catalyse my healing journey. I had been assaulted multiple times by students at St Andrews over the previous two years, with the most serious having occurred in 2016. The two years following that experience I tried to repress the memories and deny to myself what had happened. During that time, I began to show symptoms of PTSD, such as frequent flashbacks, and stopped having penetrative sex.

In the spring of 2018, my final semester at St Andrews, something in me shifted. I ran a very impromptu campaign to be Student Association President and put addressing sexual violence firmly on my agenda. After losing the election I decided to publish to my story, to raise awareness not only of the issue on campus but also of the lengthy impact these experiences can have on one’s life. Writing that article, in which I went into unnecessarily gory detail with the explicit intention to shock, was on some level empowering, but ultimately retraumatising. It put me back in a dark place and filled me with a powerful and undifferentiated rage towards men.

At the same time, the school of IR was conducting focus groups about gender-based discrimination at the school and I signed up. It turned out almost all of the students (all women) who attended had experienced sexual violence. I emerged from that meeting dazed and exhilarated, having found a group of women who not only shared my experiences but were keen to take action. Despite our passion and our ideas, I think none of us were emotionally in the right place to become activists on this issue, at that time. I certainly wasn’t. I was fuelled by anger, pain, and betrayal, all of which can be powerful motivators in the moment but are exhausting to cling on to as drivers of activism long-term. I believe that the energy you put out into the world is the energy you will get back. That is why I created the Healing Collective. Through it, I feel I have been able to transform the violent force that I was subjected to into a force for good in the world, one that would support the healing of others in the very community in which I was violated.

In the following paragraphs I want to tell you about my healing journey of the last 3 years in the hope that it may resonate with you and perhaps help you navigate your own experiences. Whilst we are all on our own paths we may walk down them, side-by-side.

 

Therapy and Allies

The experience of publishing my story made me realise that I needed therapy. To access therapy meant I had to tell my parents what had happened. Whilst this was very difficult, I am incredibly glad I did it. I am fortunate to have very supportive parents and their – especially my mum’s – support has made my healing much deeper and a much more bearable journey than if I had tried to do it without them.

Whilst I firmly believe that therapy is a gift to oneself, the first round of therapy was also one of the hardest things I have ever done. I cried every Tuesday (therapy day) for hours, for two and a half months. It was emotionally deeply exhausting. Each session stirred up new and complex emotions and thoughts. In my experience, therapy leaves you feeling worse before you start to feel better. I couldn’t bear being touched by any man, even normal gestures of affection from men in my family, like hugs. I was so overwhelmed, that the fact that I was developing romantic feelings for a friend of mine was deeply distressing.

R*pe is one of the most dehumanising acts I can think of. It shattered the foundations upon which my Self – my relationship to my mind, body, spirit, and other humans in my life – were built. My therapy focused on these impacts, not on reconstructing the event itself. I began by investigating the character of my spiritual and mental injuries and the way they shaped my relationships to others. In time I have come to appreciate how deeply the mind, spirit and body are connected and to recognise the trauma that my body holds, too.

Therapy enabled me to begin renewing my relationship to myself (including my body) and others. I began a self-care routine including practising mindfulness, which helped me create a gentle container in which to hold and attend to my pain. I stopped shaving, learning to love my body as it naturally is. I have now completed three rounds of therapy and plan to do more. Even though incredibly challenging, I can say with certainty that it has been one of the best decisions I have ever made. It has taught me to ask myself difficult questions and helped me reframe my perception of myself and my traumatic experiences to allow self-love to grow.

If therapy has been one pillar of my recovery, being accompanied by a variety of allies has been another. Along with my parents, siblings and friends who have believed me and given me indispensable support, there are two friends in particular, P. and J. (also a survivor), who have played pivotal roles in my journey. With them I am able to share all the details, the highs and lows and my extensive self-analysis. Their listening, empathy, validation, and perspectives have been invaluable.

 

Navigating sex and romance after assault

My assaults happened very early on in my sexual life and the few other experiences I had had of sex at that time contained coerced consent. For several years I partly blamed myself for the harm that had been done to me. This led me to deeply doubt my ability to judge people and situations accurately. Another consequence of these experiences is that I have found it very difficult to trust men and to separate sex and sexual violence in my mind. A persistent, at times overwhelming, sense of being in danger has impacted all of my intimate interactions and romantic relationships over the last 5 and a half years.

Learning to both trust and forgive myself have been difficult and related steps in my journey. I feel like my traumatised brain has developed an ultra-sensitive alarm system, which goes off even when there is no discernible threat. Whilst this has prevented some further harmful experiences, it meant that at one point I essentially cut myself off from all intimate experiences, good or bad. There came a time, in 2019, when I wanted to challenge myself, so that I could have good experiences, too. On a date I discussed with the guy what I was and was not comfortable doing and upon his suggestions we laid some ground rules before returning to his flat. Before entering I hesitated because my alarm bells were going off, but in the interest of good experiences and reasoning that we had mutually agreed parameters, I went in anyway. He broke our rules, and it was not a good experience (although no physical harm was done to me). The reason this experience was, counter-intuitively, a powerful one in my healing journey, was because afterwards I was able to forgive myself. I was able to offer compassionate understanding to the Me that had hesitated on the doorstep yet decided to enter anyway. This self-forgiveness allowed me to build my self-trust: I had not misjudged the situation. I had made the best decisions I could, with the knowledge I had at the time, and what had happened was not my fault.

The fact that my romantic relationships don’t tend to hold very long has also hampered my ability to build trusting relationships with men in an intimate setting and to explore and gain confidence in my sexual Self. It also meant that I was frequently freaking out about how this new potential romantic partner would respond when I told them about my trauma, as having survived sexual violence remains stigmatised in our society. Where I used to feel like I owed men sex, I now felt I owed them an explanation as to why I couldn’t have sex. That was tough because I made myself very vulnerable, sharing my deeply traumatic experiences of which I was still ashamed, with virtual strangers. I have since internalised the truth that I do not owe anyone access to my body nor an explanation of those decisions. I have also shed a lot of the shame.

Nonetheless, navigating what to share and when remains a challenge. Even if I don’t feel pressured to, I may choose to give men hints as to my experiences, but their frequent failure to infer my subtext frustrates me and leads me to be more explicit than intended. Even then, however, I rarely share any details of the actual assaults. I have come to accept that no one can truly understand my experience and that that is ok. They do not need to know details of my assaults to know me. What is far more relevant to our encounter is my partner’s awareness of which actions make me feel un/safe and what I enjoy/do not enjoy.

Sexual violence has left deep traces on my body’s psyche. Whilst I am no longer on my sabbatical from penetrative sex (which lasted 3 years) I still rarely engage in it. To me it can feel anything from bizarre and mildly uncomfortable to actively painful and I often start to dissociate (feel detached from my body). I generally feel blocked during stimulation, pleasure can turn to pain in an instant and arousal can disappear just as quickly (aka female sexual arousal disorder). This often leaves me feeling sad, frustrated, and impatient. Sometimes it leaves me feeling ashamed, although I know it shouldn’t. It is in those instances that offering myself loving kindness is hardest, yet most important.

In my view, the hetero-normative understanding of sex is deeply patriarchal. Penetration is considered the apex of the sexual experience, ‘fore-play’ as a means to that end. Our popular culture frequently depicts sexual experiences which are devoid of communication and emotional connection, where women are objectified and submissive and men are hypersexualised and dominating. This warps our perceptions of what consensual sexual relationships look like, creates a rigid impression of the course sex ‘must’ take, and breeds a sense of entitlement amongst many men of women’s bodies. It has taken a lot of work for me to unlearn this socialisation and feel comfortable refashioning sex in a way that works for me.

Finding romantic partners who are truly respectful of me and my boundaries is challenging, but letting them into my heart and having good sexual experiences with them, has also been very healing. M. was the first man to truly respect my boundaries and not put pressure on me to extend them, ever. He showed me what a communicative, respectful relationship could be like. Those five months in 2019 were a crucial safe haven for me to feel my way back into this very scary space. More recently, I met R. with whom I have been more comfortable with and enjoyed physical intimacy more than I ever have before. And then when new trauma symptoms presented themselves (I burst into tears in the middle of hand sex) his caring and compassionate response formed a powerful moment in my healing. With M., R., and other respectful, communicative, and compassionate men’s help, I have learnt to model the kind of communication I want in sexual and romantic encounters, how to express my own desires and boundaries and have come a long way in reclaiming my sexual life.

My healing journey has not been like climbing a mountain, but more like traversing a mountain range. New challenges regularly present themselves, old ones are overcome but may periodically resurface. I am nowhere near the end – if there is one – of my healing. Nonetheless, I have come far in building a loving and forgiving relationship to myself. With the support and solidarity of friends, families, and lovers I have learnt what it means to trust, respect and value myself and therefore to truly respect and begin to trust others. Three years ago, I could not have imagined that I could be the person that I have become today.