Survivors Empowering Survivors

The Freeze Response: How a Warrior Handles the Trauma of Sexual Assault

Amy Oestreicher B&W 2006Many 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.

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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:

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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.

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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.

Bio:

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 artistnewlywedactress, 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 writingmixed media artperformance  and inspirational speaking.

Follow me on Twitter InstagramEtsy and Facebook! Join the #LoveMyDetour Campaign.

 

Survivors Empowering Survivors

How I Used My Own Detour to Help College Students

I’m so excited to kick off the #SurvivorsEmpoweringSurvivors series with Amy Oestreicher. You will be shocked and inspired by what this beautiful woman has not only overcome, but accomplished in spite of some of the most difficult challenges one can imagine. Her resilience is astounding. We’ll hear from Amy again later in the month when she shares her story of sexual assault and how she learned to move through the hopeless feeling of why did I let this happen to me? Amy’s story lent itself to a major ah-ha moment for me and I can’t wait to share it with you. Today, Amy will be taking you through her “detours” and proving to all of us that despite the detours, anything is possible.

I’m the only person in the world that feels this hopeless. 

How can things ever get better?

 I must be crazy.

I feel so alone.

These thoughts raced through my head for years.

When Life Takes A Detour…

These were thoughts I had when my “thought-out” life took a detour.

What’s a detour?

A detour is a curve in the road, a bump in a path, a big sign in the middle of your trip that says sorry, you have to go THAT way.

Nobody expects a detour to happen in life. It’s what happens when we think we have things planned and all figured out, and then we’re thrown a curveball.
Believe me, I didn’t expect to be in a coma my senior year of high school.

At 17, I was molested for almost a year by my voice teacher, then at 18, my stomach literally exploded due to an unforeseen blood clot, I was in a coma for months, and almost died.

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It’s a mouthful, I know.  That was my detour.

For a long time, my detour felt like a dead-end.  After 27 surgeries and six years unable to eat or drink, I didn’t know where my life was going anymore.  As my stitches healed one by one, my thoughts seemed to unravel day by day.  My detour took me to a very scary place, into a new body and a new mind, troubled by Post Traumatic Stress Syndrome – PTSD.  Not only had I woken up in a new body, I now had a mind troubled with anxious thoughts, associations and memories.

Stress Makes Us Feel Alone

Stress and anxiety can make us feel like we’re entirely alone in our struggles.  College, especially, can be a breeding ground for stress – a turning point in our lives where we’re independent, perhaps for the first time.  Doors become open to us that we never even knew existed.  We realize we have the power to make choices, which can be equal parts empowering and frightening.

When I was going through my traumas, the biggest thing I needed to know was that I wasn’t alone. I wanted to reach out to a friend, a mentor, or a community of people, just to listen, to show understanding and compassion.

I realized I wasn’t alone in my stress, depression and anxiety when I saw how mental health issues and emotional concerns were a campus-wide issue.

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Plagued with their own anxiety, as well as taking on the anxiety from their families, many students appear more stressed than ever.  The office hours of my professors were jam packed with students asking for advice on how to handle situations outside of the class room or looking for advice on what to do. Counseling centers are operating on waitlists and students are not learning how to self care properly.  Students may feel uncomfortable reaching out to health and counseling services.  Worse, students may be unaware that these resources exist.

The Frightening College Reality

I was shocked to find out, in a 2011 NAMI study, that 64% of college dropouts were for mental health-related reasons, and that, of those, 50% never accessed any mental health programs or services.  73% of college students report having experienced a mental health crisis while in college. Suicide is the 2nd leading cause of death among college students.

This inspired me to develop a program that combines Broadway theatre and mental health advocacy.  Now, I deliver this keynote to colleges and universities, providing hope, health, and saving lives.

I never thought that 10 years after I was supposed to start college, I’d be doing a different kind of college tour!

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Gutless & Grateful, the honest one-woman musical story of my life, shows the great and not so great aspects of a “detour” in life.  How I traveled my “detour” was by trial and error – and it still is.  But what I realized is that when I finally spoke up, asked for help when I needed it, and shared my story, I was finally able to heal and move on from it.  Gutless & Grateful is the story of how I became a Detourist.

It takes “guts” to talk – and sing – about my sexual abuse, my anger, my guilt, how I lost hope in things ever getting better.  But I share to show that things do get better with patience, trust and resilience.

From my own decade of medical isolation, I learned that nobody can heal in a vacuum. Being able to reach out for help and find support is what helps us realize we’re not alone.  This inspired me to start trying to bridge the gap of communication between departments on campus – academia, career counseling, wellness resources, accessibility, and student groups.  There are barriers between academia and a student struggling with anxiety, campus life transitions, and common adjustments needed for college.
Students often feel embarrassed, afraid or too overwhelmed to seek out wellness resources available to them on campus.  Those who are struggling may not even know there are resources that can help or they may fear being labeled. What ends up happening is many students fall through the gaps.

Starting the Conversation on Campus

My show Gutless & Grateful aims to introduce helpful resources on campuses that can help students build resilience.  I’m sharing the story of my life, and then talking to campuses about what students can do to create their own resiliency toolbox; a must-have in order to deal with stress and navigate life’s detours.

In the final component of my program, I introduce  students to a panel of counselors, faculty and wellness resources on campus, opening the channel of communication between the student body and staff.  If we can bridge that gap, we can help more students get the help they deserve.

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A strong campus community is full of compassion, support, and resilience.  The more open we are about our struggles – whatever they may be – the more we can normalize needing a bit of help.  Resilience is a learned skill, it’s a challenging task, but it is achievable.  Through resilience, I learned how to cope with stress, anxiety, and even better, I was able to travel my detour long enough to finally find that beautiful clearing.

If life's taken you down an unexpected path, you're a Detourist

We all need to learn how to cope when life doesn’t go like we expect it to. We all could use a few tips on learning how to love who we are.  We all have detours in our lives, and we become empowered when we trust that we can travel those detours and come out okay – even better! This “detour” in my path has turned into the richest time of my life and I’m overwhelmed with gratitude. That’s why I call it my “beautiful detour.”

amy 01.pngSo when life gets stressful, or just doesn’t go as you plan, think of it as a detour – and make it a beautiful one.

As you travel, remember to reach out and ask for the help you need.  Together we’re stronger.  Together, we can navigate our beautiful detours.

 

 

 

Learn more about Amy’s program for colleges here as well as her programs for LGBT students and sexual assault survivors.  Get involved in the student Detourist movement here, and help contribute to making #LoveMyDetour a world wide movement.

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 artistnewlywedactress, 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 writingmixed media artperformance  and inspirational speaking.

Amy works directly with survivors of sexual assault and those healing from PTSD. Learn more about her college sexual assault prevention initiative here. All artworkwas created by Amy as a way to heal from her own history of sexual assault.

Amy Oestreicher

Actress, Artist, Writer, Speaker, Survivor, and Detourist

Watch Great Comebacks Documentary

Writer for Huffington Post. Featured in Cosmopolitan and on TODAY

Speaker for RAINN

Motivational Speaker on Student Mental Health, Women’s Empowerment, and Entrepreneurship

Creator of Gutless & Grateful

Follow me on Twitter InstagramEtsy and Facebook! Join the #LoveMyDetour Campaign.