Like many women, I felt my gut twist and tears rise when I heard our presidential candidate’s casual description of sexual assault. The empty apology that followed was just as bad. I’ve felt uneasy each time I open Facebook and read survivors’ brave and inspiring posts about their own experiences of abuse at the hands of all sorts of men in all sorts of situations. I kept hitting share even as I felt like a fraud for not speaking up about my own experience.
There were times when I might have ignored those feelings and hidden in shame, but I’m inspired by the general sentiments of “enough’s enough.”
Artwork courtesy of Ana-Maria Manolache
Those stories of assault and survival… those are my stories too.
As that weekend continued, I let myself lean into the pain. I let myself admit the tears were also for my own history of being harassed, mistreated, and violated… All of the non-consensual encounters that I’d brushed off, dismissed as my fault, and proceeded to lock away in the basement of old high school and college memories.For years, I kept all of this to myself because I felt I deserved blame for dressing provocatively, staying out too late, drinking myself sick, or not saying “no” more loudly and more often. No longer. As I let the past wash into the present, new waves of doubt and self-blame flooded forth:
“How could I be so naive? How could I have swept this aside until now?! How can I be a therapist helping other therapists if I’m still uncovering these tender wounds from my past?”
I began to scan back as if I’d forgotten a passage from an old book, thumbing the chapters for that missing link. “What have I been doing if not dealing with my own trauma all these years?”
Sometimes, you deal with just enough of the past to cope with the present
Those traumatic experiences of my teens and early twenties… How had I dealt with them?
First, I thought of Uganda.
Before I went to graduate school to become an Art Therapist, I traveled to Central Africa to work on a National Institute of Health project. We were studying how Art Therapy could help war-affected youth in Northern Uganda.
I was immersed in the trauma that these young people had experienced – atrocities that included rape and torture. What I learned would become integral to my graduate thesis and inform so many aspects of my clinical practice. And it would become a step in my own healing process.
Artwork courtesy of http://dinawakley.com
Devastating events have the power to create both painful memories as well as incredible strength and resilience. As I heard these stories and supported the people who shared them, I began to find my own courage. I explored some of my own experiences. When I got too overwhelmed with emotion, I channeled the pain of my past and the present into my artwork and studies. And then I kept going.
I understood trauma intellectually. I devoured the literature and I could apply such theory to my own emotions through art-making. It helped. It did not provide complete healing, though. As much as I wanted to, I could not do it alone.
But what does Donald Trump have to do with the unresolved pain of my past?This started as a post about the collective pain that was unleashed by Trump’s horrific Access Hollywood video, remember? Let’s get back to that…To put it mildly, I was surprised by my own emotional response to Trump. I fell into my own shame spiral about all the ways I’d been complicit in sexual assault. And I started to pass the judgment ball around because I admit I was pretty eager to shift that blame elsewhere as soon as possible. Trump was the easiest target for my anger, of course. And then I saw that my father posted a pro-Trump article on his Facebook page. “C’mon, you’ve got to be kidding me?!”
I knew my dad had been a Trump supporter, but it really hurt to see this in the wake of this talk of grabbing women. I reached out and discovered he was now on the fence, but clearly he hadn’t abandoned the candidate’s camp. I wanted to puke. I journaled. I cried again.
Soon, I realized that blaming myself and others wouldn’t erase the past.
I was certain that my need to assign blame was a result of me not wanting to sit with the discomfort of my own feelings. Life is not so linear and simplistic, and as much as I’d like to divide characters into “good guy/ bad guy,” I understand the complexity of humans with their strengths and their shadows compounded by the many influences of family, culture, media, etc.
Most woman I know have had, at minimum, unwanted advances and usually worse. I grew up hearing about my mother’s multiple rapes by multiple males. I ended up repeating the cycle because I was desperate for love and found myself in compromising situations, so, when the tears came they weren’t inexplicable, but they did surprise me. Eventually, I cried harder than I’ve ever allowed myself before. Wrapped into my loving partner’s arms, I admitted aloud what terrible choices I had made. I let him love me despite the ugliness I felt.
(Artwork courtesy of www.trauma.blog.yorku.ca)
My rational mind jumped back on board as I witnessed my own process. I was able to remember what I know about trauma. It distorts time and can rearrange our memories out of chronological order. I found compassion for myself instead of listening to the old harsh voices that whispered “What’s wrong with you? Why are you so sensitive and dramatic?” I was able to look at how far I’ve come. Now, I can regulate my stress and emotion and that allows me to design a life I love helping others do the same.Fully back in the present, I called my dad. I heard his truth: “both candidates suck. He may be a pig and she’s a liar.” I couldn’t argue and I probably wouldn’t even if I could. I said I love you and remembered a previous conversation with him crediting me with the courage to share parts of my story. I was disappointed he didn’t want to join me in the fight against rape culture. I was sad that he’s never really known about what had happened to me and how hard it has been to heal.
It’s time to say what I couldn’t say that weekend
I am sharing the story of tears and blame because I want to bring light to the shadows.
I want to shout out and stand against the notion that it is somehow okay for men to prey on vulnerable women. It was never okay for some frat dude to take what he wanted from me just because I was unconscious.
It was never okay for some horny prick to ignore my “NO,” and it will never be okay for men to turn the other way when they see it happening.
That said, I own my part. I own the blame I placed on myself and on men who weren’t responsible for the violations I suffered.
We know there’s a huge problem here. Whose fault is it?
I wanted to blame my father. That blame was easily transferred to our entire patriarchal system. But, the further I moved into the grief of not having what I wanted from him, the closer I came to acceptance. That level of acceptance gives me power.
Artwork courtesy of Mr. Kaufman
Hope and healing are not found at the other end of blame. We heal when we acquire higher self esteem, learn to differentiate between love and violation, and are empowered to choose differently. This is what it looks like to live into forgiveness. When our needs are met and we are living in alignment, blame melts away because it no longer has anything to guard or defend. Sharing my truth with trusted loved ones, comforting myself with tender compassion, and speaking out to help others heal their own wounds provides connection – with myself, my community, and those in need.
This is the silver lining of suffering. Finding meaning despite the hardship is necessary for full trauma recovery. Because I let myself remember, I could finally leave the mourning behind. It becomes possible to integrate these painful memories and move forward knowing that sadness and grief, as the Dalai Lama reminds us, can knit us more closely together through the hard times.
When I sat down to write this piece, I thought that I might take a political stance. I thought I would urge you to stand up and fight back, but something has shifted.
There is no urgency. My protective armor has loosened now that the emotional threat is behind me. Fear of my own grief, tears, and pain is no longer fueling immediate action. With this experience has come a peaceful acceptance. This is the power of emotion.
Maybe this presidential campaign has triggered your own sexual assault stories or feelings of anger, hatred, angst. Instead of wishing you vengeance or your share of righteous rage, I hope you will connect to your own emotions, even when they’re hard. Trust them. Trace them back and let them teach you. They offer you an intelligence like no other.