This is a post I thought I wrote ages ago, but must have forgotten to. (Diminishment in focus and concentration were two predominant symptoms I battled throughout the depths of my depression.) When I stop to think about my life a year ago…well, it’s not something I try to do very often. Last Christmas I reported my assault to the police. I could never have known that finally admitting, and speaking aloud, what had happened to me would unleash the greatest darkness I had ever known. I spent nearly the entire month of January, 2014 in my bed. It was all I could do to make myself shower occasionally and maybe babysit a few hours a week in order to buy groceries. After running through my savings, I brokenly turned to my family who began fronting my bills. I lived on potato chips and cheese, if I ate anything at all, because they required no preparation. I slept on average 2-3 hours a night, if I was lucky. Most weeks I might go night after night without sleep until my body hit utter exhaustion and would crash, a cycle that had plagued me since the assault. When I did sleep, it was racked with nightmares and flashbacks of the assault. In the midst of all the darkness and hopelessness, I remember it also being a time when many of my family and friends started questioning why I couldn’t just move on, some outrightly, some more silently. Though it was painful at the time and only served to increase the piercing loneliness I already felt, I think I understand that their desire came from a good place, or at least a reasonable one. It had been 4 months since the assault and I think they wanted, for my sake, that to be enough time to heal and move forward. I think for their sake they wanted it to be enough time because it was becoming far to painful to watch me continue to struggle and be in pain. The overriding opinion seemed to be that it was time to “get back to normal.” I remember reflecting endlessly on those words. “Normal.” “Back to normal.” I didn’t know what normal was anymore and I certainly didn’t know if I could get back to it. I realized, during that time, that there was no going back. The me that existed before the assault could never exist again. In a very real sense my assailant had permanently altered my path, leaving me permanently branded. I also knew, somehow, that while he had condemned me to a new existence, he would not get to determine what that existence would be. He may have eliminated the old me and branded me for life, but only I, along with my God, would determine how my life was changed. For me, this meant taking back control in a real and tangible way. I needed a constant reminder that he had changed me, but God and I determine how. So, last March, after months of consideration, I decided I would permanently brand myself the way I chose and with the words that would remind me of who truly determines where I go from here. Thus, I got my first tattoo. (I don’t necessarily think this is the best method for everyone. It was just want I needed.) It reads “Ecce nova facio omnia:” Behold I make all things new. A Reminder that we are every changing, every being changed. This does not define me. God and I define me.
Assault in the City
Those Who Suffer Alongside Us
I was recently talking with a friend who was sharing with me her frustrations regarding our friendship over the past year. She had been hurt a great deal by my distance and seeming lack of interest in the events that had taken place in her life. I admit that my initial reaction was one of hurt, outrage and injustice. But, the more I thought about it and sought understanding in prayer, the more I realized that this is what they mean by vicarious trauma. It’s so easy, and even necessary for a time, for us, as victims, to shut out everything and anything superfluous to survival. The needs of others don’t become less important to us, but merely impossible to even see through the fog of darkness encompassing us. The comparison given to me was that of a husband returned home from war, perhaps even struggling with PTSD. While he is the one forever changed by his experience and he is the one who has to wrestle with a new normal and the grief over the loss of his old self, his wife must suffer along side him. She suffers not knowing how to help. She suffers adjusting to the new man returned home to her. She suffers the grief over the loss of her husband’s old self. When we’re able, it’s important we let our loved ones know that we see their pain and suffering, that we are sorry for it, and that we wish we could ease their pain. It is also important to realize, however, that at times we are not capable of more than that. For much of the journey, we cannot offer them the outlet they need to share their frustrations and sadness.
The article I’m posting with this entry is one that I believe can better help our friends and family glimpse our side of things, but it is also important that we try to acknowledge their perspective, when able.
Trauma can be an isolating experience. It’s only through relationship that we can be most fully healed. Lightspring/Shutterstock
I wasn’t really expecting painful things to happen to me. I knew that pain was a part of life, but-thanks in part to a peculiar blend of “God-has a plan” Southern roots, a suburban “Midwestern nice” upbringing, and a higher education in New England stoicism-I managed to skate by for quite some time without having to experience it.
After a handful of traumas in the last five years, things look different now. Trauma upends everything we took for granted, including things we didn’t know we took for granted. And many of these realities I wish I’d known when I first encountered them. So, while the work of life and healing continues, here are ten things I’ve learned about trauma along the way:
1. Trauma permanently changes us.
This is the big, scary truth about trauma: there is no such thing as “getting over it.” The five stages of grief model marks universal stages in learning to accept loss, but the reality is in fact much bigger: a major life disruption leaves a new normal in its wake. There is no “back to the old me.” You are different now, full stop.
This is not a wholly negative thing. Healing from trauma can also mean finding new strength and joy. The goal of healing is not a papering-over of changes in an effort to preserve or present things as normal. It is to acknowledge and wear your new life — warts, wisdom, and all — with courage.
2. Presence is always better than distance.
There is a curious illusion that in times of crisis people “need space.” I don’t know where this assumption originated, but in my experience it is almost always false. Trauma is a disfiguring, lonely time even when surrounded in love; to suffer through trauma alone is unbearable. Do not assume others are reaching out, showing up, or covering all the bases.
It is a much lighter burden to say, “Thanks for your love, but please go away,” than to say, “I was hurting and no one cared for me.” If someone says they need space, respect that. Otherwise, err on the side of presence.
3. Healing is seasonal, not linear.
It is true that healing happens with time. But in the recovery wilderness, emotional healing looks less like a line and more like a wobbly figure-8. It’s perfectly common to get stuck in one stage for months, only to jump to another end entirely … only to find yourself back in the same old mud again next year.
Recovery lasts a long, long time. Expect seasons.
4. Surviving trauma takes “firefighters” and “builders.” Very few people are both.
This is a tough one. In times of crisis, we want our family, partner, or dearest friends to be everything for us. But surviving trauma requires at least two types of people: the crisis team — those friends who can drop everything and jump into the fray by your side, and the reconstruction crew — those whose calm, steady care will help nudge you out the door into regaining your footing in the world. In my experience, it is extremely rare for any individual to be both a firefighter and a builder. This is one reason why trauma is a lonely experience. Even if you share suffering with others, no one else will be able to fully walk the road with you the whole way.
A hard lesson of trauma is learning to forgive and love your partner, best friend, or family even when they fail at one of these roles. Conversely, one of the deepest joys is finding both kinds of companions beside you on the journey.
5. Grieving is social, and so is healing.
For as private a pain as trauma is, for all the healing that time and self-work will bring, we are wired for contact. Just as relationships can hurt us most deeply, it is only through relationship that we can be most fully healed.
It’s not easy to know what this looks like — can I trust casual acquaintances with my hurt? If my family is the source of trauma, can they also be the source of healing? How long until this friend walks away? Does communal prayer help or trivialize?
Seeking out shelter in one another requires tremendous courage, but it is a matter of life or paralysis. One way to start is to practice giving shelter to others.
6. Do not offer platitudes or comparisons. Do not, do not, do not.
“I’m so sorry you lost your son, we lost our dog last year … ” “At least it’s not as bad as … ” “You’ll be stronger when this is over.” “God works in all things for good!”
When a loved one is suffering, we want to comfort them. We offer assurances like the ones above when we don’t know what else to say. But from the inside, these often sting as clueless, careless, or just plain false.
Trauma is terrible. What we need in the aftermath is a friend who can swallow her own discomfort and fear, sit beside us, and just let it be terrible for a while.
7. Allow those suffering to tell their own stories.
Of course, someone who has suffered trauma may say, “This made me stronger,” or “I’m lucky it’s only (x) and not (z).” That is their prerogative. There is an enormous gulf between having someone else thrust his unsolicited or misapplied silver linings onto you, and discovering hope for one’s self. The story may ultimately sound very much like “God works in all things for good,” but there will be a galaxy of disfigurement and longing and disorientation in that confession. Give the person struggling through trauma the dignity of discovering and owning for himself where, and if, hope endures.
8. Love shows up in unexpected ways.
This is a mystifying pattern after trauma, particularly for those in broad community: some near-strangers reach out, some close friends fumble to express care. It’s natural for us to weight expressions of love differently: a Hallmark card, while unsatisfying if received from a dear friend, can be deeply touching coming from an old acquaintance.
Ultimately every gesture of love, regardless of the sender, becomes a step along the way to healing. If there are beatitudes for trauma, I’d say the first is, “Blessed are those who give love to anyone in times of hurt, regardless of how recently they’ve talked or awkwardly reconnected or visited cross-country or ignored each other on the metro.” It may not look like what you’d request or expect, but there will be days when surprise love will be the sweetest.
9. Whatever doesn’t kill you …
In 2011, after a publically humiliating year, comedian Conan O’Brien gave students at Dartmouth College the following warning:
“Nietzsche famously said, ‘Whatever doesn’t kill you makes you stronger.’ … What he failed to stress is that it almost kills you.”
Odd things show up after a serious loss and creep into every corner of life: insatiable anxiety in places that used to bring you joy, detachment or frustration towards your closest companions, a deep distrust of love or presence or vulnerability.
There will be days when you feel like a quivering, cowardly shell of yourself, when despair yawns as a terrible chasm, when fear paralyzes any chance for pleasure. This is just a fight that has to be won, over and over and over again.
10. … Doesn’t kill you.
Living through trauma may teach you resilience. It may help sustain you and others in times of crisis down the road. It may prompt humility. It may make for deeper seasons of joy. It may even make you stronger.
It also may not.
In the end, the hope of life after trauma is simply that you have life after trauma. The days, in their weird and varied richness, go on. So will you.
Catherine Woodiwiss is Associate Web Editor at Sojourners. Find her on Twitter @chwoodiwiss.This piece originally appeared in Catapult magazine’s January issue, Ten Things.
I recently started graduate studies in Forensic Psychology. While it’s definitely a life style adjustment being a student again, I am loving it so far. Someone asked me the other day, how I could choose to study Forensic Psychology after what happened to me? “Isn’t it difficult?” they asked. Then today, I had this moment talking with a friend, that she commented in awe of how well I’m doing and how far I’ve come. I actually had to pause myself in utter amazement. These two events are so significantly connected in my mind because they’re markers of the distance I’ve traveled through the healing process.
I know that some people reading this blog may not believe in God, but for me, there have been times in this healing journey, when I have had no explanation for the healing that has taken place. We weren’t made for violence. We weren’t made to be used. And so, when these things infiltrate our life, I would venture to argue that there is no way for us to conceivably work through it ourselves because we weren’t made to understand it. We were made for love. The times when my growth has most surprised me, have been the times I wasn’t trying hard, focused on controlling the PTSD, faking happiness, pretending I was tough and moving on with my life. They were the times I was broken down…raw and exposed…freely admitting my brokenness and my inability to fix it and crying out to God, sometimes in anger, sometimes anguish, sometimes both, to fix what I couldn’t, to heal what I was incapable of healing and to help me understand what I was incapable of understanding.
It’s difficult to be vulnerable again after that vulnerability has been exploited in sexual violence, but I believe it’s in that vulnerability, in the ability to admit we can’t make it through this on our own, and inviting our family and friends, and most especially our Creator, into the midst of it, that the transformation truly begins and the wholeness we so desperately seek starts to reemerge.
Thirty Years: Oh the Possibilities!
Today I completed my final Victim Assistance online training course, the topic of which was Victims’ Rights. I have thus far only known Victims’ Rights in the context of my own case. Somehow it was both invigorating and staggering for me to learn that the bulk of Victims’ Rights work has taken place in my lifetime. In February, I’ll turn thirty. To think that so much change can come about in thirty years is encouraging, to say the least, of what’s possible when individuals unite in passionate support. I hope only that I can play my part in all that I dream to come in the next thirty years. I encourage you to take a look at the Video from my training. It gives a poignant overview of how far we’ve come with the Rights of Victims in the Legal System. For even further encouragement, today also marked the announcement of the $35 million dollar gift from the New York County District Attorney’s Office in the form of a grant open to any and all jurisdictions nationwide to make a dent in the nationwide Rape Kit Backlog and to encourage Congress to pass their proposed $41 million contribution. I believe this to be a pivotal moment in the continuation of the Victim’s Rights Movement because as actress and advocate Mariska Hargitay put it during the press conference, “The backlog sends 2 terrible messages: to victims, to criminals, that it doesn’t matter. Testing the kits reverses those messages.” –@Mariska For more information, watch the captivating press conference that took place today at noon which included words from Cyrus Vance, Jr., the New York County District Attorney; Mariska Hargitay, founder and president of the Joyful Heart Foundation, Kym Worthy, Wayne County Prosecutor who has ended the backlog in Detroit; and Natasha, from Natasha’s Justice Project.
“How are you different a year later?” was the question my counselor recently asked me to reflect on. In striving to answer her, I found myself taking inventory of the countless moments strung together that made up the last twelve months.
There are so many life events we plan and prepare for: choosing a college, a new job, marriage, the birth of a child, re-locating, etc. We ready ourselves, as much as we can, for the changes that will occur and we greet them as they come. Trauma is one of the exceptions to this rule. Trauma doesn’t come like the gentle change of the tide, it’s a tsunami. Often, we don’t think it could happen to us. We don’t prepare for how we’ll handle it when it comes because we hope to God it never does. Trauma crashes into us and leaves behind it a wake of devastation and destruction.
Reflecting on all that has happened and looking ahead, I find myself in my favorite season of the year: Autumn. Greeting Fall 2014, though, has come with mixed emotions. August 27th (the anniversary of the eve of my assault) initiated a string of first year anniversaries that will last me into the New Year. The one year anniversary of the assault, the period of emotional numbness, seeking counseling, talking with a legal advocate, reporting the crime to the police, telling my family and friends for the first time, the pre-trial horror, and so on. With each passing anniversary, I find myself in awe of how far I’ve come and with great relief and gratitude look forward to leaving each painful and terrifying event behind me as I move forward into a year untouched by the shockwave of heartache and havoc left in the wake of the crime.
This year is like a fresh clean slate awaiting all the wonders I’ll write upon it. This year will be filled with endless memories that I will greet the anniversaries of with joy, this time next year. This year I begin my Master’s in Forensic Psychology. This year I invest in the relationships, new and old, that I was incapable of investing in last year. This year I will witness a miracle as all of the darkness of this past year is turned to light and that light is brought to others as I begin to volunteer in victim services.
No doubt this year will still hold its struggles and difficulties, both in the ebbs and flows of daily life as well as the trial/plea that still await me, but I greet them a stronger individual, revived by hope, and reinforced by the knowledge of the inner strength this past year has revealed to me.
Come what may, I greet this year with joy and hopeful anticipation.
Letters of Gratitude
Below is a letter I wrote, but never had the opportunity to send, to actress Mariska Hargitay.
She has played a pivotal role throughout my healing process and so I thought I’d share the letter publicly here.
**Does contain details from my assault.**
If you want to take a look at some of the amazing work she’s doing,
check out her Joyful Heart Foundation.
Dear Ms Hargitay,
To have taken an acting role on a show that for over a decade has been enlightening society to the ever prevalent epidemic of sexual violence, would be inspiring enough. What captures me, and I imagine so many of your adoring fans, is that you allowed what could have simply been a gold mine opportunity (to star on a hit series for sixteen years and counting) to touch you personally. Now, your light shines not only from the screen each time someone watches an SVU, but through your public advocacy for victims of domestic and sexual violence. It is no wonder to me, why you likely have the most loyal fans in Hollywood. Through your public role, both on and off the show, you seem to “see” us.
My story. I was with the man who raped me for three hours. Stuck in his car, with no where to run, surrounded by trees and fields, I remember the exact moment the light went out in his eyes, the moment he made his final choice, to ignore all my pleas, to ignore that there was another human person involved at all and to just take what he wanted. My first words to him when he pulled the car over that night were “Stop. I’m sorry, you took the wrong girl home. I don’t do this.” Three hours later, his last words to me were “I’m sorry I had to be so brutal there at the end. I hate when it’s only sex and not making love.” In between, a chorus of no’s, stop’s, pleases and explaining my desire to wait until I was married.
Even with the most supportive family and friends, the healing process from such an event can be a lonely one. In the midst of that loneliness, Law and Order: SVU has been a lifeline for me. In every episode, I’m greeted by the compassion and passion of the squad, victims facing the same obstacles I am, and the knowledge that those I see on the screen represent a real live population of survivors and advocates. Not only has it taught me that I’m not alone, but that the severe symptoms I’m experiencing are part of RTS, that counseling is a vital part of the healing process, and it’s prepped me for the bravery required to stay the ups and downs of the legal system. And you, both as Olivia Benson and Mariska Hargitay, have inflamed my hope, ignited my courage and inspired me to push forward into the great unknown: life after sexual assault.
Now, fourteen months after my assault, I look forward to joining you on the front lines and waging war with you against domestic violence and sexual assault, as I train to become a victim advocate. Perhaps one day our paths will cross. What a glorious gift that would be!
Thank you for being a light in the darkness and sparking a revolution of change. I am indebted to you for giving me the courage to break the silence and I know I am not alone in that debt.
May you, your precious family, and all that you do be abundantly blessed.
To Cease to Exist
Today is one of those days I’d like to simply cease to exist. Yep. Those days still come around every so often. Don’t get me wrong, life is going splendidly at the moment. I am feeling more and more like my alive, soak up every drop of goodness in life self. And yet, when I find myself questioning for the nth time how I’m going to provide for myself, as a potential job has fallen through, having “thought to be solid” relationships unveiled as the mirages they actually are, facing the reality that I am still weary to trust people, particularly men, at their word because of what happened and, finally, wavering as to the exact steps forward I’m meant to take, all the while terrified to take any at all…I find myself on shifting sand. It’s times like these when I remember what it once was to stand firm in confidence. To be unshakable in a decision well discerned. Instead, now I find myself wondering if I have even the strength to deal with one of these factors, let alone all of them at once.
I know that at the moment, I’m down a rabbit hole. I also know, if I can cling to truth and hope and not allow myself to be overwhelmed by it all, that this day will pass. That tomorrow, or a day soon to come, I will awake with a zeal for life again. But these days…these seemingly endless dark days…are consuming. During the time I live inside of them, a part of me still begs to just give up. I do not believe in suicide, both because I believe life is a gift given by God and to choose our death is to imagine we are God himself and because I have known personally the devastating impact that it has on those left behind. And so, on these days, I find myself wishing this breath could be my last. That I could simply cease to exist and leave this world of pain and heartache behind. But then, the clouds part, the day passes, and I find myself ever more indebted to the God who made me, for knowing in every moment better than I and not responding to my plea. For to cease to exist, no matter how much I may long for it when the pain in my heart is so great I’m not sure I can bear it a moment longer, would mean not only giving up the pain that is ultimately momentary, but also the joys, love, and blessings that are left to unfold in my life.
If I am still here, then there is still so much I am meant to be a part of, so much I have left to give…
So, here’s to existing. Here’s to the good days. May they grow more numerous.
What are You Doing to Say, “No More?”
A few weeks ago, I was at the hair salon sitting under the dryer enjoying my book. It was early on a Friday morning, so the place was still mostly abandoned. Following my appointment, I’d be driving north in preparation for my assailant’s scheduled plea hearing. Shortly after settling under the dryer, two women, took their place at a hair station to my left and began talking quite loudly. Their conversation permeated the silence in the small salon as it demanded the attention of all present based on its sheer volume. After discussing what hairstyle the woman desired, they segwayed quickly into friendly chit chat about family and work. It seemed that the client worked within the Women’s Defense office at a local University and they began chatting about making preparations for the return of the students and the incoming freshman. Still trying to read my book and ignore their “look at me” conversation, I zoned out, until my attention was caught by the drastic change in the tone of their discussion.
Overhearing the word rape, my skin went cold and my heart skipped a beat. Could I not escape it? Was it to follow me everywhere? The client was telling horrifying stories of sexual assaults on college campuses. Girls being drugged, predatory guys wreaking havoc on the naive incoming freshman girls. That they were discussing such intimate material so insensitively loudly was disheartening enough, but worse still were the second woman’s reactions: “Girls can’t be that stupid!” and so on, every one of them victim blaming. I couldn’t believe my ears. I wanted to shrink down into my seat until I became so small I could runaway unseen by their judgement. Another part of me, however, roared with the injustice and ignorance of their comments.
In the midst of these conflicting and rumbling emotions, came a still small voice: “What are you doing to say, ‘No More?'”
The No More Campaign is one of my favorite movements. Directed by Mariska Hargitay, the campaign aims to change the face of domestic violence and sexual assault in this country by transforming the way we think and speak about these undeniably prevalent epidemics. They strive to challenge each of us by asking the difficult questions: How are you changing the culture of violence? What are you doing to say, “No More?”
With these questions echoing in my consciousness that morning, I knew that I had a choice. I could walk out of that salon, pierced by the women’s words, belittled and demeaned. Or, the initially painfully more difficult option, I could see it as an opportunity to throw a pebble of change into the vast pool of victim blaming. I could see it as an opportunity to change the way they think and speak about sexual assault and in the process bear witness to the “NO MORE” battle cry screaming in my heart.
Allowing my emotions to subside, I thought quietly to myself of what words might reach these women. Watching one of the women exit and realizing I had no grand words to offer, I took a breath and offered myself instead. Introducing myself to the second woman, the one who’s words had been seeping with blame for the victim. I said, “My name is Danielle and I am a survivor of the crimes you were discussing…” After I told her my name and shared my story, I gently explained that a person need not be stupid to fall prey to a predator. I graduated Summa Cum Laude from my University and still I was assaulted. I discussed with her the need to review our perspective that it is the victim’s fault, asking “Why would she go to that party?” instead of placing blame where blame is due, “Why would he drug her drink and rape her?” This seems a far more poignant question. Finally, I humbly asked her to consider that when conversing about such issues she remember that some statistics suggest that 1 in 3 women have been sexually assaulted and 1 in 6 men. Meaning that, in a public place such as a salon, the odds were incredibly high that someone within ear shot had suffered the very crimes she so loudly discussed.
We had a beautiful and open conversation. I will never know what affect our exchange had on that woman’s life, but I know that mine was forever changed. In those brief minutes, I learned with certainty that I had within me the strength to say “No More,” and the insatiable desire to willingly accept every opportunity given to show someone kindness by sharing with them the truth about these issues. The women meant no harm. They simply weren’t aware. Now they are. Now they know that a living, breathing, feeling person is attached to each story of DV and SA.
I imagine that if we open our hearts to it, we’d find that we are each given countless opportunities to lovingly share the “No More” message, until, God-willing the Campaign’s symbol becomes reality and there are 0 instances of domestic violence and sexual assault.
Will you join me?
What will you do to say, “No More?”
I am What I Am.
It’s only been a few weeks; and yet, I’ve missed putting fingers to keyboard. I’ve been traveling. Gaining new perspective. Sometimes it’s so difficult when we’re right on top of something to be able to focus our eyes and see it clearly. With the trial date moved, unemployment looming as my previous job came to a close, and a year’s worth of less than fruitful routines and relationships weighing me down, I was suffocating. Suffocating under the prospect that I might only ever continue to “survive” and that thriving was a thing of the past. A daunting prospect. Generously, a friend saw me drowning and reached a hand out to me, flying me half way across the country to the beloved state of Texas to “get away” for a few weeks. Sometimes it’s amazing what distance can do! More of my latest illuminations to come.
Until then, a quote that has stuck with me during my time away… “By the grace of God, I am what I am.”