Twenty years ago, my life was changed forever. Twenty years ago, a person I trusted implicitly changed my life irrevocably when they made the choice to sexually assault me. Twenty years ago, my life was completely and irreversibly altered. But these words that I’ve just written… they don’t tell the whole story. Because it wasn’t just my life that was changed that night. Trauma ripples out. The impact of my assault still reverberates in my cells and in my daily life and in the lives of so many who surround me- now and then- with love and support. Over the past twenty years, I have learned a lot. And one of the most important lessons I have and continue to learn is this: just as pain and trauma can ripple out, so can healing. There’s a popular saying that hurt people hurt people. Folks are now adopting a similar phrase: that healed people heal people (I would alter that to healing people heal people, because I think it’s a lifelong process- more on that later). But… what is healing, anyways?
My assault occurred around 1:30am on August 6th, 2001. When I woke up the next morning, I remember for a moment thinking that it had just been a bad dream. When I went to stand, my body was flooded with pain, and my heart shattered all over again. I was scheduled to meet a group of friends who had organized an early 16th birthday celebration for me. I spent that day- my “sweet sixteen”- pulling each of my closest friends aside and telling them, one by one, what had happened to me the night before. I watched their hearts break, too. I watched and listened as some of them reflected the shock I was immersed in, while some immediately turned to blaming themselves, others blaming me. When something that overwhelming happens to us or to someone we love, we often turn to blaming those we feel we can control- ourselves or the person we love- to believe that we can prevent it from happening again. I watched and I listened to their responses, too shocked and too numb to feel my own.
In the days that followed my assault, one question haunted me: What was I going to do? Part of my personal heartbreak was that the person who hurt me was someone I loved and trusted. It was too painful at first to face into that fact. Instead of calling my assault what it was, I referred to it as “the accident” as if what happened was an accident and no one was at fault. I told myself that the person I loved and trusted had died, and I mourned that loss deeply. It was too hard to understand that someone I loved could violate that trust so completely; instead, I stopped trusting myself.
A few weeks after my assault, I woke up and made a decision. This question of what I was going to do was no longer going to haunt me- it would become my own personal challenge. I couldn’t change what had happened to me but I could control what I did next. I decided to take this thing that happened to me- a victimization- and to reclaim it as a survivor. The night I was assaulted my voice was silenced. In the months and years that followed, my voice became my weapon and my tool. Less than two months after my assault I gave my first speech as a survivor. My survivorship became both my primary identity and my armor. For the next several years, I spoke to any and every group and individual who would listen. I made it my personal mission to break through the stigma that surrounded this issue of sexual and intimate partner violence in an effort to prevent others from suffering in silence. This made me really good at doing this work, and pretty terrible at taking care of myself. I never stopped working. When I ran programs on my college campus, I would be approached in class and at fraternity parties with disclosures and calls for help. There was no turning it off. I felt this inflated sense of responsibility- I believed I needed to be there for anyone at any time.
When I went on to do this work professionally, I felt so grateful to do the work for established organizations, and also this intense pressure to prove myself worthy. I said yes to any chance to do this work whether it was accompanying a survivor to the hospital for a SANE exam at 3am, teaching a middle school health class at 7:30am, or training a group of volunteers at 9pm. As my primary identity began to blur between my personal survivorship and my profession, my survival became inextricably linked to the success of the programs and organizations who employed me.
I wasn’t yet familiar with the concept of Trauma Mastery – that many of us who have experienced trauma may feel drawn to supporting others with the hope of facilitating a different and more positive outcome than what we experienced. I didn’t know there was a term for it, but I was aware that I was not unique; many of my colleagues would seek me out because I was so outspoken about my story. Friends and family would turn to me with their own pain or for guidance to help someone in their life. In twenty years, the number of times I’ve told my story is far outnumbered by the stories I have had the privilege to hear. I have had the most tremendous honor to bear witness to healing in individuals and communities. And along the way, I have had the blessing of experiencing healing myself.
Healing is not a linear process; it evolves and changes- it’s different for each of us. Telling my story has been healing, but living my story is where the work really happens. For me, healing meant I had to learn to trust myself, to learn that I am worthy not because of what I say and do, but because of how and who I am. When I sit in supervision with a member of my team or lead a training for another group of professionals, I remind myself that what I can offer has so much more to do with how I hold the space rather than how I fill it. I can promote healing in others when I embody it myself. Healing has a lot less to do with the armor we wear and a lot more to do with the strength of our vulnerability beneath it. In my life, healing has meant learning to trust and respect my voice- not the one that commands a room from stages and podiums, but the quiet voice that whispers from within.
I used to say in trainings that healing is hard to define or identify because we didn’t have a lot of examples of it in the public discourse, but I can see healing everywhere now. I hear it in the podcasts I listen to on my walks, I see it in the zoom chat when I ask trainees to share how they’ve taken care of themselves during the pandemic, and in the conversations with friends and colleagues about the collective grieving process we are muddling our way through- separately and together. I saw it in Simone Biles when she chose herself and her own wellbeing despite the intense pressure to do the opposite. May we recognize and name these acts of healing when we witness them and use them as an opportunity to inspire and motivate. Let’s take these moments as the opportunities they are and let these acts of healing ripple through us.