In a time where the #metoo movement is calling attention to sexual abuse and degradation towards woman, and where it feels like weekly you're learning about a new man in a position of authority that used his authority to sexually exploit and abuse women, it's hard to ignore that this is an epidemic.
And that awareness is a good thing. We need to shine the light on the shadows and the way people are hurting underneath the surface so we can address the problem. It's hard to know where to even begin to work towards undoing patriarchy's undermining of women's rights to their bodies and safety, but calling it out is a necessary step.
But we have to have a conversation about what's left when you have been abused. About how sometimes, although a person can have survived abuse, it can leave you with a lingering feeling that you are never really safe. People who have survived trauma do the best they can to cope with the painful memories, the guilt, and the shame. Sometimes a person may use an excess of sex, drugs, alcohol, self harm, creating chaos in relationships, or any other numbing or distracting behaviors that can then lead to a whole other range of issues for a person. And on top of all of that, if the person is able to open up to others about what they went through, they could possibly have to deal with people who don't fully understand that experience and tell them "it happened ___ years ago, it's time to move on now", or question the survivor about whether the event(s) "really" happened the way they say they did, dismissing that person's whole experience.
The truth of the matter is those who have endured abuse want nothing more than to be able to be fully in the present and let go of the past. It just isn't always that easy. I'm not saying this is the way trauma and abuse manifests itself for everyone, but I think it's important to talk about how this kind of pain can take a very long time to work through, and there are physical, emotional, spiritual, and even neurobiological reasons why. If you are a survivor of trauma, know that there's no one way to heal. You may never talk about it and that's okay. You may want to talk about it as part of your healing journey and that's okay too.
My hopes are that you KNOW you aren't broken. Because you aren't, and you are not what happened to you. My hopes are that these facts will reinforce that this healing work is work, and the fact that you're here and showing up for yourself every day is something honorable even if it doesn't always feel that way.
There are many kinds of trauma, and it's important to know that not everyone who experiences trauma becomes traumatized. It's also important to know that EVERY SINGLE ONE OF US have the capacity to heal from the things we've been through.
Here are 5 reasons why, no, you can't "just get over it":
1. Traumatic memories don't get stored in the same way normal memories do. That trip to the grocery store from the other day? That memory is a story with a beginning, middle, and an end. However when trauma occurs and the brain registers danger, our limbic system or "fight or flight" brain gets activated, and the parts of our brain that control language, perception of time, and memory are not as active. What that means is that sometimes you literally don't have the language for what happened to you, you can have a sense that the trauma never really ENDED, and when certain memories are activated they can feel like they are occurring RIGHT NOW even if it was years ago.
2. Trauma can be registered by the body even more than in your conscious awareness. A study cited in Bessel Van Der Kolk's book The Body Keeps the Score (amazing book on trauma if you want to learn more about this) cites a study that found a connection between experiences of trauma and auto immune illnesses. The rationale was that after experiencing trauma, the body has registered the threat of the external world so deeply that even the physical cells of the person are not able to trust outside of themselves; they literally attack their own cells. Let that register: trauma can impact the physical body on a cellular level.
3. Repression is real. Sometimes in order to survive, memories are blocked out or may feel like a dream/blur. This is a protective mechanism of the brain to help the individual continue to function (and also part of the memory part of the brain, the hippocampus, sometimes shutting down during the traumatic event). What sometimes happens is that later on fragmented parts of memories may be triggered and come into awareness even years after the trauma occurred. That can be SO confusing and unsettling for a survivor!
4. Traumatic memories sometimes get stored in the same rationale as the age of when the trauma occurred. That's a loaded sentence, so I hope this makes sense: when we are younger, we think the world revolves around us. This sometimes extends to when bad things happen to us: we may assign blame to ourselves even if that blame does not belong to us. Even if our adult self understands that a child can't possibly be responsible for abuse, the memory may get stored as if it was our fault, and our adult selves may be carrying this burdensome thought pattern around.
5. The reaction of loved ones to the trauma can further traumatize a person. Say you go to a loved one about something terrible that happens to you, and they either imply that it was your fault, or outright don't believe you? That can make it even harder later on in life to open up to yourself and others about these difficult experiences.
If you have experienced trauma and it's something you still struggle with, please treat yourself with care. Gingerly and tenderly, because this stuff can go very deep. Don't be afraid to reach out for help if it's needed: working with a therapist whom you trust can really help the healing process. These things that happen to us even though we don't deserve them, they can cause so much pain, yes. But they don't define us, and there is nothing we can't heal ourselves through. Finding a community that you can be vulnerable in is important, and finding grounding practices to begin feeling safe in your body can be so healing as well. You are love and you are worthy, and be patient with your healing as it is definitely a process and takes time.
Sending you love,
National Sexual Assault Telephone Hotline: Call 800.656.HOPE (4673) to be connected with a trained staff member from a sexual assault service provider in your area.