Many survivors “know” that being sexually assaulted was not their fault. Now, I’m one of them. But the question I’ve worked to answer after a decade of healing and processing what happened to me is, “Well, then why didn’t I do something?”
I had heard this dozens and dozens of times — in my own head and with students who have opened up to me during my programs. Many victims of abuse, molestation and domestic violence often feel a guilt that they are not deserving of. For months after my voice teacher molested me, I beat myself up thinking, “Why did I do that?” wondering, “What was I thinking?” I assumed something must be wrong with me.
It also took me a very long time to accept that a mentor and father figure in my life had violated our trusting relationship. I kept replaying the events that had occurred in my mind, telling myself, I must have done something wrong — why else would he have done this? I felt like I must have instigated it. I blamed myself, convinced that no one could take advantage of me if I had not invited it.
I couldn’t shake off this shame I felt no matter how hard I tried. In fact, the more I tried to block my memories, the more anxious and confused I became. I became a space cadet — hardly feeling at all. It was how I protected myself from feeling the loss, betrayal and shame. My numbness started to alarm my friends and family, to whom I insisted that nothing was wrong at all. I kept this secret hidden inside, burning in my gut, hidden from those I loved.
Shocked, upset and overwhelmed, I began living in three worlds — part of me functioning normally in school, keeping up my grades, and telling people I was “fine”; part of me replaying traumatic memories in my head, beating myself up for not saying no, for not running away, for not fighting back; and part of me in a numb, apathetic space of disconnect — a place I created in my head as a survival instinct.
When I turned 18, I finally spilled everything to my mother. I was so afraid of what she might say or if she would judge my actions. I was embarrassed to say words like “sex” and “molestor” and “rape” out loud, let alone with my mother. My mother was as shocked as I was, but provided me with the one solid anchor that I needed. She told me it was not my fault. No matter what I told her I had done, what he had done, what details I could remember, or what I confided in her, she reassured me with the kind of certainty only a mother can — it was not my fault.
Reaching out to someone I knew loved me unconditionally calmed my anxiety. Telling someone what had happened made my dark secret come to light. I became open to viewing my abuse in a different way. I was willing to take some of the responsibility off of myself. My mother and I started reading about trauma.
I learned that in the face of trauma, you can have three responses: You can fight, flee or freeze. I could have immediately fought back against my abuser, yelling No or defying him in some way. I could have just ran in the other direction as fast as I could. But I was so shocked by everything that happened that I froze. Like a deer in the headlights, I couldn’t come to terms with the idea that a man that I trusted as my mentor could turn into such a monster in the blink of an eye. I mentally left the situation, disassociated from my body, and became a passive bystander to a trauma that my body was directly involved in.
I learned that the physical sensations of guilt register in the same way that shame and helplessness do in your body. When a person feels helpless in a situation, the body automatically pairs that sensation with guilt. When you undergo any kind of trauma, it causes a disturbance in your energy flow. Suddenly, you are unable to feel those emotions that once came so naturally.
My body stopped breathing the same way it used to — a big knot of tension evolved in my chest and remained there like a cocoon. My thoughts became rigid and too scared to wander into past memories. I put myself in to a daze with four safe walls around me that protected me from being consciously present in the abuse That daze stayed with me with or without him. I lived in a world separate from everyone else.
Reaching out not only gave me the blessing of compassion from others, it also informed me of what I had really experienced. I realized my numb response to my assault, my nervous energy, sweating fits and anxiety attacks were not something to be ashamed of, but rather, a proud and victorious survival strategy.
In a wonderful book, Waking the Tiger, Peter Levine writes:
Suddenly, I felt understood. I understood that I protected myself in a traumatic situation by becoming numb to my emotions. Now, when I work with survivors, I help them realize that their reactions to trauma and assault are natural human reactions to be applauded. The real work comes from taking that nervous energy, which was formerly an essential trauma survival skill, and turning it into productive healing energy — energy that once redirected, can build a new, beautiful world for the survivor.
As a proud, once-frozen survivor, I finally see my world in color again. I could finally find the courage to feel the sensations of being alive. Now, the work was up to me. I told myself it wasn’t my fault, until I believed it. And once I felt these words resonate in my body, in my soul — I was liberated. I had nothing to be ashamed of. I had every right to reclaim my life, my aliveness, move on and experience the world in all of its radiant colors once again.
The biggest gift I can give to survivors I work with in my program now, is the gift of a world in color — alive with melancholy blues, angry reds, uncertain grays, but also one of ecstatic oranges, bright yellows, and deep rich purples. Once we let ourselves feel the bad, we make room for the good.
I was sexually abused. It was not my fault. In a traumatizing situation, I froze, while others might have fled or fought back. But with time and with confiding in those I trust, I have thawed and faced what I’ve tried to forget. And with nothing to hide, nothing to regret or redo, and everything to look forward to in the future, I’ve allowed myself to move on, claiming my voice, speaking my truth. As survivors, the most wonderful part of healing is moving from a helpless situation into a world of our own design.
So what is shame? Shame is energy. As we turn that energy into energy that is rightfully ours, the energy of survival, pride and life, we become forces to be reckoned with.
Isn’t she fantastic!! Amy has two upcoming performances of her one woman show Gutless & Grateful, a one-woman musical autobiography of her life, taking her audience on a journey of hope, resilience and gratitude. An inspiring story of survival and determination, Gutless & Grateful is appropriate for audiences of all ages. You can check her out at: Boston College 2/29/16 and New York 3/11/16. Click here to learn more.
Amy Oestreicher is a PTSD peer-peer specialist, artist, author, writer for The Huffington Post, award-winning health advocate, actress and playwright. As a survivor and “thriver” of nearly 30 surgeries, a coma, sexual abuse, organ failure and a decade of medical trauma, Amy has been challenged with moments of extreme difficulty. But as an artist, newlywed, actress, 28-year old college student and overall lover of life, Amy eagerly shares the lessons learned from trauma and has brought out the stories that unite us all through her writing, mixed media art, performance and inspirational speaking.