At the beginning of my recovery from sexual assault, I needed to re-learn how to feel.
I am lying on my floor with my knees bent, hands on my belly. I am trying to breathe into my belly. This is my homework. A yoga teacher/bodyworker/massage therapist/witch I’ve been seeing told me that all my feelings were stuck in my pelvis and that if I wanted to feel anything again, I should do this every day.
My mind spins—I think about work, what I’m doing later, the pile of dishes in the sink. I’m supposed to be focusing on my breath. Nothing is happening. I try to focus. I try to let my breath move down lower, into my guts, my genitals, my pelvic floor. I can tell there is tension there but it is not letting go. I can barely feel that part of my body. It’s frustrating. It’s all I can do not to jump up and do the dishes before the timer goes off.
Finally, I hear that sweet welcome “ding!” letting me know that my ten minutes is finally up. So I roll over and head to the kitchen to wash those damn dishes. And that’s when the tears start. Every day it’s like this. I lie on my back and try to feel my belly, nothing happens, but then as soon as I get up to make some coffee or take a shower and get on with my life, I start to cry. I don’t even know what I’m crying about, the tears just spring up all of a sudden and spill out. It’s a very strange experience, but it’s also the small seed of a big change. As I’m incrementally relaxing the tension I am holding in my gut, grief, fear, and anger are unlocking, coming up to the surface and melting all over my face in a mess of unbidden tears. I was at the beginning of my recovery from sexual assault, and I needed to re-learn how to feel.
I’ve come to understand that one of the hallmarks of trauma is that it threatens the survivor’s worldview, the core beliefs one holds about the way the world is supposed to work. That’s one of the reasons we don’t want to talk about it, sometimes for years. It would require facing a challenge to our faith. Trauma is, in many ways, a spiritual wound.
I didn’t grow up super religious, but I was always drawn to various spiritual worldviews. I started getting into yoga and meditation when I was twelve, and by the time I hit sixteen I was your classic teenage witch casting spells in her bedroom with scented candles from WalMart. By the time I was sexually assaulted by a close friend, I didn’t exactly believe in a god, but I had a vague idea that bad things happen to bad people and good things happen to good people because the world is fundamentally just. In my recovery process, I had to come to terms with the fact that most events in our lives are generated by random chance. I don’t believe anyone “out there” is watching out for me, because if that were the case, I was abandoned on that day. I do believe there are ways we are connected to each other and the world around us that can’t always be quantified, but I don’t think that’s because of any design. I think we can do good things with what we learn from bad experiences, but there’s never some cosmic reason for our tragedies. Things just happen.
My sexual assault threatened so many of my beliefs: that I knew how to read people, that men could be trustworthy, that I was mostly safe in my day-to-day life, that my “no” mattered. When our traumas mess with our core beliefs about the world, they can sometimes bring out the core beliefs we hold about ourselves. Deeply, unconsciously, many of us believe we are fundamentally unlovable and worthless. Trauma can bring up these core beliefs about ourselves: If the world is just, then bad things only happen to bad people, and a bad thing happened to me, therefore I am a bad person: just as I always suspected! In order to acknowledge the threat to our core beliefs, handle the shame, and be able to imagine new ways of understanding the world after trauma, we need to be able to face what we are feeling. I wasn’t ready for that, at first, so I clenched up. I held my resistance in my muscles. Then I started getting stress hives. Then I got pneumonia. Twice.
When the mind won’t acknowledge the pain, the body often speaks instead. My body brought me aches and pains and forced me to sit down and learn how to feel what I was going through so that I could move on. My desire for a more connected life had somehow survived my years of suppression and repression, rising up in itchy skin and screaming through swollen tonsils and infected lungs. It might be strange to think of desire as manifesting in physical pain and dysfunction, but sometimes these symptoms represent the body’s rebellion, a refusal to go on as we have been. Pain is a fantastic teacher because it forces us to change something.
The practice of feeling means paying attention to what the body is saying and resisting the urge to make it stop. Negative emotions are uncomfortable, of course, but even positive emotions can make us feel vulnerable and trigger a shame response. When we can befriend our bodies in all their ugly glory, we are cultivating a lifelong relationship with the flow of sensation inside ourselves, healing ourselves physically, emotionally, and spiritually. Accessing desire, passion, joy, and presence necessarily comes with accessing everything else. When we get good at being in the dirt and muck of our bodies on a day to day level and learn that we are okay and worthy of love as whole beings after assault, our desire can start to flicker back. With time, that little spark can transform into the life hunger that wants to feel things fully. Feeling often hurts, but when we can do it with kindness, compassion, and courage, feeling heals, too.
Read more from Julie Peters here.