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Windfalls for You and #MeToo

Knowledge is dropping all around us these days, of the sweet and the sour and the poisonous and the rotten. Abusers are named like Rumpelstiltskin. Goose Girls find an iron stove to cry in, and good kings hear them and forge brutal justice. How satisfying it is to see monuments crumble and false idols topple from their pedestals.

Meanwhile, the victims who stand as accusers more often than not go down with their tormentors, martyred on the pikes of public scorn and retaliatory hate.

And then, what comes next for us down here on the ground? What comes down upon the millions of children and women and men scarred by someone who is poor, sick, anonymous, or dead, or also a child and a victim too? What happens to those of us who can't or won't tell? To those who have nothing to gain from disclosure?

What if you can't afford the risk to yourself and your family? Sharing a story publicly can draw blame and shame upon the victim. It can traumatize or re-traumatize people who witness your story. And, sick but true, it can titillate and encourage predators, resulting in a rash of copycat sexual violence.

A few days ago, Me Too movement founder Tarana Burke gave an interview about her plans to shift away from trauma and toward revelations of healing. I breathed such a sigh of relief when I read her words. "You have to get it out," she says,
...but it doesn’t have to be... on social media at all. It could be a trusted friend. It could be your journal. That’s hard for survivors because people are always saying, 'Tell your story.' It’s like a balancing act because I have to acknowledge that stories are important, and sometimes saying the words, 'This happened to me' and 'This is what he did' is cathartic to get out. I think there’s enough evidence in this world of survival and recovery to show that repeating that doesn’t help you, though. Reliving that doesn’t help you. I want to teach people to not lean into their trauma. You can create the kind of joy in your life that allows you to lean into that instead.

Ooh, I know the relief of getting it out. I kept a journal all through my childhood and adolescence, the usual kind where you write down all your secrets and the literal facts of your days. I have felt the surging rush of printing in glossy ink the names of victims and perpetrators on the clean, receptive paper of a notebook that locks: the names of children, babysitters, relatives, teachers, priests--legible to the eye and tactile to the finger, pressed in hard with the pen, like a magical incantation. A protective charm. A curse.

I also know the strain of being pressured to disclose what you can't. When the most traumatic incident in my life occurred, I was four. There were other victims who surely do not wish to be outed. At the time, I quite literally lost the ability to speak for a time. I experienced dissociative amnesia and derealization, traumatic hallucination, and flashbacks years later. I had thoughts of self-harm and death and a strong wish to disappear. I had panic attacks and digestive ailments bad enough to lose me a couple of jobs.

And now, as an adult, I don't have those symptoms anymore.

And why I don't--that is the story I want to share. The solution, not the particulars of the cause. As Tarana Burke puts it, "If I sat here and gave you the gory details of what happened to me, what are you taking away from that?"

It's a dangerous tightrope. It is important that other victims know that they aren't the only ones who have been through what they've been through. Sometimes, as Rebecca Solnit explores in densely thoughtful prose, it is nothing short of revolutionary to break the silence and the story. Someone must do that--but that someone doesn't have to be every victim. It doesn't have to be you. Each one of us does what we can, and our first responsibility is to heal ourselves.

It is essential for victims to know that survival is possible. That you don't have to stay a victim. It need not become a part of your identity. It need not define the borders of your life.

Everyone's responses to trauma and healing processes are personal and unique. We don't choose how our bodies and brains respond to the initial wound or what it takes to heal us, just like we didn't choose what happened to us. The way it plays out isn't fair. Some victims have greater barriers to recovery than others. Children who are poor, those with certain inborn personality traits, the disabled, the mentally ill, and people of color often have a longer road to travel and fewer resources available.

I was fortunate in that my symptoms came on so suddenly and acutely, at such a young age, that my trauma was discovered immediately by my parents. I am also fortunate that they were willing and able to acquire professional treatment for me right away. Unfortunately, that isn't how it goes for most child victims of abuse.

But if you are alive, you have the power to heal. It is never too late to begin. And no matter how many resources are unavailable to you at any given time, there is an unlimited field of possibilities to try, as long as you're breathing and your heart is beating. There are no quick fixes for deep, systemic problems. There is no justice in this mortal world that isn't crafted by hand. But there is endless evolution.

Today, I am 35 years old. I am happily married, with a healthy and bright daughter, an adorable cat, and a simple but comfortable life. I still have lingering anxiety tendencies that can be triggered to flare up, but my anxiety is well managed and rarely interrupts my peace. At this time in my life, my favorite therapeutic habit is writing fiction. For those who enjoy it, novel writing can have potent mental health benefits which are different from, and take me much further into healing and wisdom than, the effects of retelling the facts of what happened to me.

I have found, throughout my life, that a focus on nurturing good habits is far more effective than a focus on rooting out bad ones. Robust health in a person--the same as in a whole ecosystem--is the best defense against illness or injury. Instead of trying to harden myself against danger or purge myself of evils, I try to stay supple and flexible and enmeshed in warm, strong relationships. Instead of seeking purity, I fill myself with good nutrition--literal and metaphorical--so that I can enjoy my naughty treats in faith that my healthy self can handle them in casually unmeasured moderation.

The habits that end up helping each person along the road to healing are as different as we are from each other. I have a list of practices that have helped me--not all at once but at different times in my life, when each one felt right and good for me. My list won't be identical to anyone else's list, but maybe it can serve as an example of ideas to consider.

A common thread running through all healing practices, though, is the maintenance of healthy boundaries. These apply to relationships between people--recognizing interpersonal dynamics that are harmful and disengaging with them--and they apply to one's own self-discipline. If a practice is not working or no longer working for me, I stop. If I try something and it makes things worse, I don't stick with it. I can always come back another time if there is good reason to believe it will work for me at a different time or in a different context. And if it is working, but I fall off the wagon, I expend the effort to climb back on, because I have the power to set long-term goals for myself.

Practices that help or have helped me to grow in health and happiness include:

  • clinical treatment (short-term; in childhood, as a teen, and as a young adult)
  • yoga
  • Zen meditation
  • self-defense and martial arts
  • distance running
  • regular walks in nature
  • cooking and baking
  • belly dance
  • music for every mood: everything from sweet folksong to brutal heavy metal and thrashy punk rock
  • gardening
  • comedy and laughter, especially twisted or raunchy humor
  • bicycling
  • drawing
  • painting
  • making collages
  • building fires and piling up the hygge 
  • mothering and trusting my instincts
  • celebrating holidays, personal milestones, or any other opportunities for a party or spontaneous expression of fun with friends
  • obtaining good enough health insurance that seeking care is not an overly stressful decision
  • learning to manage money and live within my means
  • acquiring job skills
  • travel
  • volunteering for causes that move me
  • choosing and committing to meaningful employment
  • democratic participation
  • reading all the books and magazines I can consume
  • blogging and posting joyful junk on social media
  • watching artsy and foreign films, especially emotionally intense, shocking, or creepy masterpieces
  • scheduling regular visits to the salon

Some of the above practices fit well into the trendy notions of "wellness" and "self-care," and others may read as frivolous, counter-intuitive, or simply a drag. But the truth is that human beings contain multitudes. We must replenish many physical, mental, and emotional wells within ourselves to be at our best for ourselves and our loved ones, and each one of us has different needs and tolerances. Though we absolutely need other people in our lives to be whole and healthy and to have access to the sources of healing that we need, we also absolutely need to direct our own healing. We must be our own fairy godmother, because no one is coming with a magic wand to fix us. Life isn't fair, and it isn't necessarily just, but it is beautiful and endless in its possibilities.

As the poet Mary Oliver asks, "what is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life?" Only you can answer. Only you can make it happen.

Life will break you. Nobody can protect you from that, and living alone won’t either, for solitude will also break you with its yearning. You have to love. You have to feel. It is the reason you are here on earth. You are here to risk your heart. You are here to be swallowed up. And when it happens that you are broken, or betrayed, or left, or hurt, or death brushes near, let yourself sit by an apple tree and listen to the apples falling all around you in heaps, wasting their sweetness. Tell yourself you tasted as many as you could.

Louise Erdrich, The Painted Drum


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