Let the Next Wave Be Hope: Navigating the Sea of Healing as an Incest Survivor
The other day the sea shook me. I attempted to play in the waves, but my timing was off and I got tumbled. The crescent-shaped, powerful blue slope I had hoped to ride pulled me into its perilous patterns. It twisted me, turned me, forced my frame into directionless and disconnected positions of uncontrollable movements. My body, brain, and being felt a familiarity with the fear of floating without ground, breath, or control from the memories of father/daughter incest. As an incest abuse survivor, my base has never been safe.
When I entered the sea, the tide was low and the waves were crashing near the surface of the ocean floor. I knew the sand wasn’t far from me. So, I forced my feet to the direction of the ground and found it, raised my body upright, and once again felt the freedom of standing, the expansion of breath, and the power of self-control.
This has been the work required to heal from childhood sexual abuse: to remove myself from the tumblings of perpetration, to ground myself on stable foundations, to open myself to safe sources of new life, to empower myself to be free. But it hasn’t been easy.
My body began shutting down as soon as I moved out of my home to attend university. Quickly, the tumultuous peril began inside of me. I could barely walk, hardly move, couldn’t digest food. Everything felt stuck inside of me physically, psychologically, spiritually, and emotionally. I was blocked pummeling in this proverbially breathless fluid fixated on healing without an idea of where I’d find it. The repressed memories of sexual violence remained buried in my subconcious, resting deep within the subterranean synapses of my mind’s desperate and diligent walls. I sought the sand.
“Doctor, help me!” I cried in the sterile rooms sitting on the hard beds of gastroenterologists, psychologists, and psychiatrists seeking salvation from the chaos of contemporary currents keeping me constantly catching my breath. Victimized by some steady source of oppressive mystery hidden within my body. I hoped the doctors could find its source, maybe they could lead me to the safety of the sand.
“There’s nothing wrong with you.” They replied after searching my bowels, my blood, my brain. They offered superficial solutions such as gratitude exercises and psychotropics to ease the pain. Without a prognosis, there was no diagnosis. Without a diagnosis, no solutions. Without solutions, I remained sick, bound to my childhood bed without the ability to move, dependent on my perpetrator for continued care. It turns out my symptoms were psychosomatic– real pain caused by the brain or too much emotional distress.
Medicine began to arrive in unexpected ways, guides that assisted in my searching for the sand, the place where I’d be safe. Books and mentors helped me most. The stories of others written into words grounded me from the stirring currents within. I applied for graduate school after receiving a full-tuition scholarship, took out loans to live, and left my father’s house for the final time. Financially free of him, within a year and a half of my departure the repressed memories of incest resurfaced. At least I knew the source of my suffering now. I could stand in the sand for a mere moment and catch a much-needed breath.
Then, the next wave of healing hit me hard, requiring of my body new twists and turns by navigating expensive healthcare and criminal justice systems that lacked trauma-informed physicians and had a history of gaslighting women, especially survivors. Once again I sought for the security of the sand and found it in friends, teachers, and counselors while I continued to explore the deep mysteries of me. I approached my family.
“Mom,” I asked, “I just need some space. Please, don’t reach out to me for a little while.” I needed time to integrate this new information that I was an incest abuse survivor. She replied with a tsunami of dismissals and declarations, followed by the rest of the family. Forgive and forget, they demanded.
Eventually, I hand wrote a letter telling them the truth and mailed it to my mother’s friend so that she could give it to her by hand. I worried my father would swipe it up and never let my family see, always able to control the narrative, to define who I’d be. He took it from her, grabbed a pen with the same color ink that I had written with, and added quotation marks around the word rape. “Dad ‘raped’ me,” the letter now read. He controlled the narrative anyway, like narcissists do: “I emotionally raped her;” he told my siblings who then questioned the validity of my story. “How could you even believe that?” I argued with my brothers. “What is emotional rape even mean?” They stared at me silently, blankly, while I felt the tumbling of their betrayal. The next wave.
Orphaned with a new survivor identity and a brain, body, and being that barely worked, I needed unique and urgent help. I said yes to the wrong job because it offered the highest salary to continue to afford healing modalities. I was miserable at work, but my paycheck afforded me the freedoms to explore a number of ways to heal. I began working with a play therapist, an acupuncturist and herbalist, and an EMDR (Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing) specialist all at once. I traveled through each memory, recalling the feelings, the narratives told and internalized, the pain repressed. I saw, I felt, I reparented, I released. I breathed when I could, but most of the time just became an expert at holding my breath. It was expensive and exhausting and absolutely necessary.
Then, #MeToo rattled the world in October of 2017 and I knew my recovery from incest was so much bigger than me. I quit my job and began writing, writing, writing my wounds onto the page. It gave my pain a purpose. I started a blog and began sharing my story: what hurt me and what helped me to heal. But I felt so afraid. What would my honesty cost me in a world still full of perpetration? The chaos of healing overlapped into the tumbling of sharing now.
The parts that had worked so hard to hide and to heal resisted my need to speak freely of the injustices done against my body, brain, and being: the constant tumbling through the betrayals of my father, my family, and the institutions that were supposed to keep me safe in the first place. They all failed me. My safety was inextricably bound to the safety of others: women, children, survivors, other vulnerable populations who suffered under the patterns of perpetration.
There were two narratives running society’s response to the movement: one, survivors shouldn’t be their own advocates as it would be too triggering; and two, survivors are the problem. I respect narrative one, but it never felt right to my body. I had been waiting my entire life to be found, to be saved, to be helped, and no one came. Survivors have been coming forward for centuries and met with shame or silence.
I couldn’t keep waiting to trust that those who didn’t share my pain would represent my needs in the court of public acclaim. I couldn’t listen to the interpretation of my story from the lips of others who have no idea, who have in goodwill filtered my words and my feelings through their bodies born in peace, developed in safety. No, I had to represent myself.
I had to learn to weave the words of my womb, to create art out of my body’s tomb, to let my truth bloom. There is no room for any narratives that suggest I am the problem. I am the solution. But I must not be solitarily. I found others like me. It turns out I wasn’t tumbling alone after all. When would we all be safe? I still wonder.
I used to dream of a time when I could completely ground myself. Find the sand, leave the sea, and become the place of pleasure and peace, released from the chaotic waters of my childhood. I feel differently now. Although I am safer from my family system than I have ever been, I see the systemic issues on the outside still causing rip currents, still forcing too many to tread water, to hold their breath, to give their lives, to manage the strength of unnecessary wake and waves. How long will this last?
I still harbor the consequences of childhood trauma on the inside of me, making my body some permanent resting place for the chaos of my past. I have decided that I will never land completely on the sand, so instead, have chosen to become the sea. I use Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT) to accept myself as mostly made of water, to feel gentle and peace some days, to be a part of the chaos during others. I flow. I play in the waves, I enjoy the salty spirit of my ways, I swim fluidly in the currents, and absorb the sun on my face.
Daily, I accept who I am, who I’ve been, and who I’m made to be and commit to my values as one who belongs to the sea. I find the others now, seek them in the waves, share with them how I learned to swim, to ground, to breathe, to free myself even if temporarily from the pain and shame of the chaos of all I didn’t choose for me. Let the next wave be hope.
The tides will change. The systems will shift. The perpetration patterns will lift. And we will remain. Those of us who learned to play in the complexities of our pain, to break the chains. To teach the next generation better so that they can enjoy the water without the weight of being tethered. This is my life’s movement. I hope to see you there.
If you’re a survivor, commit first to self-care. That will always be enough. If you ever feel the stirring in your belly of new and unknown currents and want to join this tumultuous sea that has become me, that has become us, then we welcome you here. Heal out loud. If you’re an ally, you belong too. Listen out loud. Show us safety and correct our experiences of violence with patience and love. Learn to hold the weight of our stories so we mustn’t bear it alone.
We are the fight and the freedom, the belief and the belonging, the rest and the recovery, the realization of hope. I can’t ever promise safety, but I can always promise that we will be brave. For we are not alone. Together, we are home.
- Anne M. Lauren
Anne M. Lauren is an author, artist, and advocate. She shares her story of childhood trauma and recovery through writing as a medium to express the significant intersections and urgent demands between spirituality, psychology, healing, and justice on individual and collective levels. You can review her portfolio at annemlauren.com.