Author’s Note: “You were like this once. What did you do to get better?” A day after leaving a mental institution, my sister, devastated by flashbacks from childhood sexual abuse, posed this question to me. Within a few weeks, she took her own life. I wrote a book to provide her with the answer I wish I could have offered then. The following excerpt from that book is the afterword that synthesizes much of what I learned along the way.
It is a sober truth—healing from sexual abuse is an odyssey, a long and wandering journey with many upheavals along the way. Each person’s voyage to a Promised Land of emotional stability, sustained freedom from the triggers of trauma, and a life lived with contentment, connection, and purpose is utterly distinctive. The winds that whip then dissipate into a dead-sea calm, the storms that strand us in desolate shores, the routes that we navigate, and the ports of call that replenish us are as unique for each survivor as the circumstances surrounding the horrors from which we are recovering.
For all of the idiosyncrasies, however, several things are true for each voyage. The journey is lengthy—spanning across years if not a decade or two. The journey circles and spirals, stalls and speeds up, gains ground and regresses, ever defying any linear progression. And the journey is hard—it demands resilience, determination, confidence, and courage. It is truly a hero’s and shero’s epic quest.
To adequately delineate all that I have learned about recovering from sexual abuse, I needed to tell the entire story—with all of its sordidness, and all of its dead-ends and misdirections, in the midst of all of its discoveries. On this side of the telling, though, I can distill a few of the measures that helped me, over time, to get better.
Judith Herman, in her landmark book Trauma and Recovery, suggests that recovery from trauma happens in three stages—three legs in the epic journey to the homeland of healing. The first stage is Safety and Stabilization. Trauma dysregulates us. Furies, flashbacks, nightmares, and instinctive reactivities typically overwhelm the survivor and perpetuate a chronic sense that the world is unsafe. In this first stage of recovery, supports need to be put into place to sustain a season of healing, and skills need to be developed to navigate difficult emotions and regulate the body’s fight, flight, and freeze impulses.
The second stage is Remembrance and Mourning. This is the season of deep and therapeutic healing. Traumatic memories need to be processed and metabolized. The losses that one has experienced—of innocence, connection, trust, and self-worth—need to be acknowledged and grieved. And the resilient spirit of a survivor—as opposed to a passive victim—needs to be discovered and internalized.
The third stage is Reconnection and Integration. On the far end of recovery, trauma no longer defines who one is. The horrors that one has lived through are integrated as but a single chapter in one’s overall ongoing story. A life of agency and vitality can now be claimed. Meaningful relationships with others can be cultivated, work that is intrinsically fulfilling can be pursued, and a heightened meaning can be given to the trauma—perhaps by companioning other survivors, sharing one’s story and wisdom, writing about it, speaking publicly, volunteering for support organizations, or even engaging in political advocacy work. That which could have defeated someone now inspires a life well-lived.
As I look back on my journey, I recognize this threefold arc. I loosely followed its trajectory although, for me, each stage circled back multiple times and interlaced with the others. Throughout this meandering journey, I found the following coordinates most helpful in continually pointing me back in the right direction and keeping me on the course toward healing:
- Circles of Support: It was indispensable for me to find people in whom I could confide about my abuse and its tortured aftermath. Be they friends, confidants, support groups, or professionals, I needed people like my therapists and spiritual directors who would say repeatedly and unequivocally, “I believe you; something happened to you that was horrific and wrong. You are not crazy; you feel what you feel for a reason. You are not alone; others have been through this too. And yes, the way is hard, but you can get through it.”
- Setting Boundaries: I needed to suspend contact with the still living person that abused me as her presence only triggered me into a state of chronic agitation. A prolonged period of separation not only removed me from physical proximity with the external source of my activation, it reassured my inner world—the wounded ones within me and the defensive impulses that protected them—that I would keep them all safe from any further violation.
- A Season of Recovery: Mike Lew suggests that survivors leave a shingle for a spell on the door front of their lives that says, “Temporarily Closed for Repairs.” I needed to give myself a season dedicated to my recovery—both minimizing the demands on my life as much as possible and mobilizing myself with the determination that it takes for the hard work of recovery.
- Learning about Sexual Abuse: I went through a spell of devouring works depicting sexual abuse—everything from self-help books to novels, films, and documentaries. For me, this was not a masochistic wallowing. It was profoundly consoling. I was able to recognize myself in the portrayals, thus validating my experience. I learned how trauma impacts the body and soul, which normalized my own crazy-making symptoms. And with the vast number of accounts available, I felt like I was not alone—others knew the horrors of assault as well and had discovered resources for overcoming it.
- Trauma Therapy: Finding skilled counseling with people trained in working with trauma was essential for me. Trauma work is more than talk therapy. Memories need to be surfaced and shared; neural circuits of reactivity need to be rewired; physiological symptomology needs to be released. And the trauma does not need to be re-experienced—which only re-traumatizes and further entrenches protective systems—but it does need to be reimagined and metabolized. I found such therapeutic modalities as Internal Family Systems Therapy (IFS), Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing Therapy (EMDR), BioSpiritual Focusing, and Jungian Active Imagination particularly suited to healing the trauma that I had endured. In explaining why such therapies are necessary for trauma recovery and summarizing the most promising among them, I find Bessel van der Kolk’s book, The Body Keeps the Score, both brilliant and definitive.
- Trusting My Body: Foundational for cultivating the stability necessary to plunge into the deep work of therapy, I needed to stop fighting my body and to learn to trust it. It was a hard-won recognition—the body does not lie. The rages, reactivities, and revulsions to touch; the instinctive stone walls of unyielding invulnerability; the sordid images that invade one’s mind both night and day—it all comes from some place. We were not born that way. Something gave rise to it. Instead of minimizing my body’s maladies, battling to subdue them, or lacerating myself in self-condemnation, it helped when I learned to listen to what my body was telling me, and to trust it to lead me to the truth of my anguish.
- Giving Expression to my Emotions: The passions and impulses that warred within me needed an outlet. Simply smoldering in their possessive energy did not help. Nor did trying to suppress them, judge them, or find a way to manage them. I needed to honor and validate them by giving them a safe space to express themselves. For me, this came through incessant journaling, drawing them with colored pencils, working them out with clay, emoting them on a stage, howling in the woods, and venting them to my therapists. The energy was seared into my cells. Giving my chaotic emotions expression discharged their intensity and dissipated the power with which they were wreaking havoc within me.
- Befriending and Restoring My Psychic States: Perhaps the single most restorative game-changer for me on my journey of recovery was the discovery that every one of our interior movements—the emotions, impulses, fantasies, and self-talk that whip through our psyches—all serve some life-promoting purpose. To be sure, in their cry to get our attention, they usually overwhelm us with their force, prompting us to try to suppress, numb, or manage these interior psychic states. My recovery took a radically restorative turn when I learned the process that came to be known as the Compassion Practice. This involved cultivating a grounded, mindful awareness of the presence of these interior states within me. It then required listening to the deep cry or need hidden within them, extending a loving care to the wounded parts of me buried underneath my reactivities, and accessing a sacred source of compassion—sometimes personified in divine figures or ancestors, sometimes experienced as a spiritual energy of care and vitality—that restored me to my best self. I engaged this process most consistently through meditation that evoked my imagination. I also discovered that this process could be engaged in other ways—writing it out in both fictive and non-fictive narratives, acting it out on stage, working it out with externalized figures drawn on a page or symbolized with objects, and talking it through with spiritual directors and confidants. The mode is multiple; the liberation, revolutionary.
- Physical Activity: Frequently, my body merely needed to discharge energy. I had to move, and to move vigorously. When I was physiologically flooded and emotionally overwhelmed, I tended to power-walk through the hills or run for miles, though cycling, swimming, dancing, and yoga would all have been equally effective. Sometimes, it was necessary just to exert myself mindlessly to get away from the barrage of my inner torment. Other times, I ruminated over memories while pushing myself physically, which helped metabolize the pain without being consumed by it. And sometimes, I simply needed to tire myself out to at least approach a good night’s sleep.
- Transforming Trauma into Art: Art takes human experience and crafts it into objects of beauty. The art form can be many—composing music, painting, poetry, pottery. For me it was story—giving shape to my experience through playwriting, writing a novel, and molding accounts of abuse, my own and others, into short stories that I could share at speaking events. Whatever the form, art is more than simply sharing one’s experience. Art takes the raw material of experience, reflects upon it, and fashions it with meaning and purpose—to provoke the mind and pierce the heart. In doing so, creating art resists the passivity of despair and births life out of the death-dealing tomb of trauma. In the midst of the horror, the human spirit endures. A creative life-spark is uncovered. Power and agency are reclaimed. And the ugly is transformed into something sublime. The music may be blues; the poetry may be bleak; the sculpture may be replete with jagged edges and barbed hooks. But the truth is told, and told with emboldened vitality. In the end, I wrote a spiritual autobiography—dedicated to my sister. I told my truth unveiled from fiction. And with it I share the hope of all art that is born from the crucible of trauma. If this story inspires a single other survivor to claim the truth of their experience, to know that they are not alone, and to launch—even with trepidation—a journey toward healing, then my odyssey would be complete.
An Accompanying PracticeThe Compassion Practice with a Difficult Emotion
1. Get Grounded (or Catch your breath):
Become aware of your breathing, perhaps deepening and extending your breath, until a rhythm of breathing takes hold that nurtures an inner quiet.
Allow yourself to settle into an inner space of peace, safety, and gracious receptivity.
2. Cultivate Self Compassion (or Take your ‘PULSE’):
(a) Pay attention:
Turn your attention inward, and allow into your awareness a difficult emotion that has been a common companion in your inner world.
Without suppressing it, becoming carried away by it, or judging yourself for experiencing it, cultivate a non-reactive, non-judgmental awareness that this emotion is simply present within you.
(It may be helpful to:
- refer to the emotion in the third person: ‘Anger is within me,’ as opposed to ‘I am angry.’
- locate the emotion in your body: ‘I am aware of fear tightening my chest.’
- imagine the emotion as held in your hand some distance away from you:
- greet the emotion with an accepting attitude: ‘Welcome anxiety, I accept your presence within me; I trust you are here for a reason.’)
(b) Understand empathically:
Trusting that this emotion is present for a reason, empathically connect with the suffering hidden within its cry.
Sense from within the emotion:
What is the deep fear underneath it?
What is its deepest longing?
What ache, or buried wound might it carry?
What gift does it offer that may be stifled and obstructed?
Allow its cry to unfold until you feel a sense of deep understanding for the root reasons that it strains to get your attention in the way that it does.
(As you do this, it may be helpful to invite the emotion to materialize in your imagination as a child or figure, a symbol, a memory, a gesture, or a sound that captures its experience.)
(c) Love with connection:
As you open in your understanding, extend a warm loving regard toward the emotion and tend to it in any way that helps it feel heard, honored, and cared for.
Allow the emotion to receive the care you offer to it. Soak in this compassionate connection for as long as it feels right.
(d) Sense the sacred:
If it feels right, invite a compassionate sacred presence to be with this emotion or its image.
Allow the sacred presence to tend to this emotion in any way that feels healing and restoring.
(This sacred presence may appear in a variety of forms: a radiant light or the sun’s warmth; a healing energy; an image like cradling hands or an embracing blanket; a divine figure like Jesus, Buddha, or an ancestor like a kind-hearted grandmother; a soothing sound or encouraging voice.)
(e) Embrace new life:
Before you surface from this contemplative space, notice any gift you are receiving from this practice.
Allow this gift to soak into you, seeping into every tissue of your body, and into every part of your inner world.
(This grace may be a sense of healing; a gift budding within you; a quality of wholeness or goodness; a power being kindled; or even a deepened awareness of a longing that aches to be satisfied.)
3. Discern Compassionate Action (or Decide what to do):
Still soaking in this space of compassionate restoration, sense any invitation for one concrete way you may claim and sustain the gift emerging within you.
(This concrete action may include internalizing the gift through journaling or drawing; reminding yourself of it through a symbolic gesture like placing an object on your desk or in your pocket; or embodying the gift in some action in the world.)
Adapted by the Wise Brain Bulletin from Cradled in the Arms of Compassion: A Spiritual Journey from Trauma to Recovery © 2023 by Frank Rogers, PhD. Reprinted with permission from Lake Drive Books. All rights reserved.
Frank Rogers Jr., PhD, is the Muriel Bernice Roberts Professor of Spiritual Formation and Narrative Pedagogy at Claremont School of Theology. He’s a spiritual director, speaker, retreat leader, and the author of Cradled in the Arms of Compassion, Practicing Compassion, Compassion in Practice: The Way of Jesus, and The God of Shattered Glass: A Novel. He focuses on spirituality that is contemplative, creative, and socially liberative. He is the cofounder of the Center for Engaged Compassion and lives in Southern California with his wife, Dr. Alane Daugherty, with whom he shares three sons. www.centerforengagedcompassion.com.