Last night, survivors and allies of sexual assault gathered at James Madison University to “take back the night.” Throughout the month of April, which is Sexual Assault Awareness Month, the annual event takes place in communities and campuses around the world. The goal is to draw awareness to the prevalence of sexual assault, de-stigmatize it, and provide a safe place where survivors can share their stories and find support.
And I really did not want to go.
I know this statement must sound crazy to most of my readers, especially those who remember how hard I rallied for survivor support in my last blog about the Steubenville case. I didn’t really understand my reservations myself, or why the knot in my stomach continued to grow as the event loomed nearer. “I am a survivor and an ally!” I told myself. “Of course I will be there, 100%! 1/3 women and 1/6 men are assaulted worldwide – we have to stop this crime against humanity!!”
I went, but I wasn’t happy about it – that is, until guest speaker Angela Shelton stepped on stage, holding a nerf sword (literally) and claiming “You can live happily ever after, no matter what you’ve been through.”
The thing is, I have been feeling happy for quite some time, but what many people don’t realize about survivors of sexual assault is 1) healing takes more time than you might expect and 2) relapes happen, it doesn’t mean you have failed. Although I knew this, I didn’t really understand it until Shelton shared the analogy of the sword.
Like me, Shelton is a survivor of childhood rape and abuse, and she is all to familiar with the fact that trauma can follow you through your life, cropping up at random times, making you crazy, making you cry, making you ANGRY. This trauma she says is a sword – a sword stabbed through your body that you carry around every day.
As you can imagine, being burdened with a sword in this way makes one very irritable, and makes lots of little moments in life very difficult. The sword also hurts others – and if they have a sword too? Forget about it. There is NO WAY to have a healthy relationship at this point. You have to take out the sword and deal with the wound.
Granted this is easier said than done. It takes therapy and a support system, but most of all, Shelton says that a big part of the processes involves changing your own brain. Because of the rape culture we live in, almost all survivors go through a period of self-blame and hatred. When thoughts like “I am fat, ugly, stupid, worthless, maybe I deserved it, etc.” play through ones head, not only are they FALSE, they are creating neuropathways in the brain – meaning they are active, alive parts of the brain. They become your go-to thoughts in moments of self-doubt and panic; however, they can be changed and Shelton shared two easy ways to get started.
1) Sing yourself a cheesy love song – no really, make yourself the subject of a love song and sing it out loud to yourself daily. It might sound crazy, but weirdly enough, your brain will believe it! In a moment of anxiety or during a panic attack, turn your song on and remind yourself that “You’re beautiful…you’re beautiful it’s true.” Personally I will probably go with Bryan Adams, but it’s up to you.
2) Deep Breathing, Something Pretty – You know when you hold your breath for a second and feel the beginning quivers of panic in your chest? That’s also how it feels like at the start of a panic attack. To learn to deal with this – take a deep breath, hold it, release, hold it – and keep repeating. Every time you hold it, think of “something pretty,” something that your brain will remember the next time you start to freak out. My friend suggested a cat, but again, this is an area where you have some creative control.
It take a lot to heal the wound, but Shelton says that once the wound is healed, the sword (trauma) is separate, something that you can pick up and use! You can finally do the things you always wanted to do, because there isn’t anything holding you back. Sometimes you will share your story, but it will not longer define you. You will not be a rape survivor – you will be a person.
I thought I was in the sword-in-hand mode, but I realized last night that I am still healing the wound. Some days I feel defeated, like I will never be fully healed, like I can’t even bear to go to an event dealing with sexual assault – but when I see women like Angela Shelton, I am inspired. She is successful and awesome, and somehow manages to bring humor (yup) to the issue of sexual assault. While writing blogs about being a survivor is an important part of my healing process, I also realized last night that I am not comfortable telling my story publicly – yet. But I think I will be able to one day.
By the end of the night, I was really glad I had gone to Take Back the Night, but I was also face down on my bed crying. And you know what? It felt fucking great. So thank you Angela Shelton!! And my awesome feminist campus for making events like these possible.
*If you missed Take Back the Night, another chance to stand up against sexual assault and violence is happening at JMU on April 7 – join C.A.R.E. in the Commons at 1pm for a “Step-Up Walk” to show your support.