Content warning: mention of child sexual abuse and invasive medical procedures
I’ve been doing work with the BATJC since 2016 and I often share how being a part of this group has completely changed my life. We begin all of our meetings with a grounding and Mia often times asks us to think about who we do this work for, and for me it is often times a younger version of myself. I do this work for the children in my life. I do this work for our liberation and divestment from prisons, but I also do this work to heal my inner child.
This has led me to be in deep reflection about what self care looks like for me. Engaging in the work of building transformative justice responses to child sexual abuse is deeply personal for me. This work has meant putting a mirror to my life and thinking through how my survivorship has affected so many aspects of my life and the way I relate to the world. I’ve been gently pushed to think through my trauma responses, my relationship to myself, and how I’ve chosen to build relationships with my community. I’ve realized that the way I build relationships with the people in my life is deeply connected to my trauma responses. I am conflict avoidant, insecure, lack healthy boundaries, and tend to appease, and these are all behaviors that are at the core of how I relate to myself and my community. As I’ve gotten older, I’ve [thankfully] become more conscious of how these have resulted in me building toxic relationships with friends and romantic partners. This naturally means that I also have not been good to myself, I’ve exhausted myself with guilt and have a lot of work to do to forgive myself for the many years of unhealthy patterns. I also know that I’ve harmed people I love along the way, and need to be accountable for that. I am now at a point where I understand the parts of myself that need some deep healing. I want to be a better person for this work and for the people that I love, and that is honestly a huge motivator for me to address and work on my shadow side.
Mia often reminds me that taking care of myself is a huge part of accountability: If I am doing the work of building community responses to harm that are centered around true accountability, then I need to be practicing these same skills in my personal life. I’ve learned that many of the responses that people have when they are being held accountable for harmful behavior, are similar to the responses that we have when we are attempting to be accountable to ourselves. There is shame, denial, not making it a priority, making excuses for not following through, etc.
Doing transformative justice work and being a part of a collective that is genuinely grounded in their values, has pushed me to want to be my best self and this means prioritizing my healing. I am very far from loving myself and/or stepping into my power, but I do feel like reflections on my childhood and my survivorship have pushed me to have a clearer understanding of my full self and my needs. I’ve tried to not make my survivorship my entire identity, which has sometimes meant refusing to speak about it. Being a part of the BATJC means being in constant conversation about child sexual abuse and sexual violence as a whole. This has encouraged me to become more comfortable with telling my story and connecting with other survivors. I have also learned about common behaviors of folks that grew up in abusive households, and see myself reflected in those at times. All of this has created a supportive foundation for me to begin to see myself more clearly, not just as someone who lived through years of abuse, but also as someone who was shaped by moments of joy and survival.
In thinking about taking care of my whole self, I’ve also been reflecting a lot on the long term impacts of abuse on the body. As a survivor of child sexual abuse and someone who struggles with chronic pain and reproductive health problems, I can’t help but wonder about the connections that exist there. I’ve read that trauma and histories of abuse, can impact brain development and have effects on our immune and nervous system. I recently learned about a condition called fibromyalgia, where folks can experience musculoskeletal pain, fatigue and cognitive difficulties. One of the thought causes of this condition is physical or emotional trauma. When I read about fibromyalgia, it affirmed for me that we can carry memories of abuse and trauma in different parts of the body and that this can lead to negative health outcomes.
Our bodies are wise, they remember things that our conscious selves might not. I think that trauma impacts the way we relate to our bodies, sometimes to survive we have to dissociate from our physical selves. For me, being fully aware of myself means remembering, it means facing the ugly thoughts, the shame, the disgust, and deep emotional wounds that have resulted from the abuse. Even if I wanted to forget, I’m not sure that the way my mind and body relate to one another would allow me. I am reminded of this when being physically intimate with people. There have been plenty of times when I’ve had physical reactions that I had no control over and where I couldn’t even find the words to explain what was happening. I understood that I was triggered but didn’t know exactly what was causing this bodily response. I couldn’t understand how even in being intimate with someone I trusted, my body was still paralyzed by fear and discomfort. Over a year ago I had to visit my gynecologist to get some extensive testing done (due to the reproductive health problems I mentioned above). I received a pap smear, biopsy, and transvaginal ultrasound all within days of one another. I was not prepared for how extremely triggering and painful this experience would be. I didn’t even know how to talk about it, all I knew was that the way my body felt was similar to how it felt when I was living in the abuse. The effects of this experience were felt for months and I am still figuring out how to care for myself after having these responses. The memories of the abuse exist in all these different crevices of my body, healing means being aware of all the ways I’ve been impacted by it. Healing will not only happen through talking through my lived experience, but it will also require me to care for my physical health. It will mean being consistent with myself and being honest with others about my physical boundaries.
In my experience, surviving has meant some some serious dissociation from my body, resulting in years of ignoring/being unaware of the pain that lived in my body. What does it do to our physical bodies to experience sexual abuse as children? Where does the tension and trauma live? Is it possible to heal these parts of ourselves, especially when we still have to interact with our abusers? What are the physical trauma responses that we are having without even being fully conscious of them? Even if I do the work of addressing my mental and emotional wounds associated with my childhood trauma, can I ever heal the physical impacts the abuse has had on my body?