I do not know why I ever start a series on my blog because each time I do, a different topic feels important to discuss. From now on, I may wait until a series is complete before I post the first entry. So, here is a detour on words that I felt needed to be written.
One of the most difficult aspects of healing after childhood sexual abuse or sexual assault is reclaiming felt safety in the body. When a person’s body is sexually violated, it feels like someone else has busted the front door down and taken up residence within it. The body may not feel like it belongs to you anymore. The autonomy you once rested in, is stolen.
To complicate matters, one of the prime coping mechanisms for dealing with sexual trauma requires the disconnection between a person and their body. Dissociation. The good thing about dissociation is that it does allow us to disconnect from our body during events that are painful, full of betrayal, and that overwhelm our capacity to function. The bad thing about dissociation is that it allows us to disconnect from our body even when the external threat has subsided. People who have experienced trauma, specifically sexual trauma, often have seasons where they remain somewhat disconnected from the present moment because a perceived threat remains. Sometimes that threat may feel like yourself.
When I was a little girl, one of the beliefs abuse instilled in me was that I no longer had the privilege to choose what happened to my body. I no longer had the right to refuse what my abuser wanted. As my brain developed, that belief generalized to people outside of the walls of my house. I have written numerous times about an incident at a hotel pool area when, as a child, I believed that whenever a man did things like my abuser, it was my duty to “help.” In elementary school, it did not feel like my body was really, truly, my own.
The belief that my body was “owed” to others and an indebtedness persisted. This belief often holds hands with self-blame (which is what I plan to address in part two of the series). I could justify the belief that I owed my abuser because I was not physically coerced into the abuse. It was what just had to happen if I wanted to watch a television show with him. That message was reinforced by words my abuser spoke and eventually it transformed into a sense of obligation to others. My body did not belong to me and it was meant for others’ consumption.
While one may break the chains of self-blame and obligation to others, re-establishing felt safety within one’s own body has a different trajectory. It is not as simple as telling ourselves, the threat is gone and we are now safe. We can say that to ourselves, but our body is not going to embrace that belief because the dissociation severed the connection. First, we must restore the connection and allow ourselves to feel- period. Many of us will slowly wade into the pool of feelings because simply jumping in is too overwhelming. As we wade into the pool, we begin to feel what we have not felt in a long time. After a while, we start to realize we can swim in the pool of feelings. We can choose which area of the pool we want to visit. We have learned self-regulation techniques so that if someone jumps in and causes a huge splash, we can either embrace the water hitting our face or we can swim away from the commotion to a place that feels calmer. It isn’t until we lay on our backs, allowing the water to hold us up, as we float with the sun hitting our face, our eyes closed, that we feel safe. Safety comes when we trust that our body is not going to betray us, when we trust that no one is going to try and drown us, when we trust that we are not going to sink- that is when we are truly free.