What does the term survivor mean to you?
A survivor is someone who accepts circumstances and seeks to overcome them. Defying trauma as a survivor means living another day, even if you feel vulnerable and afraid. Survivors walk around knowing what people are capable of—and capable of overcoming—and that's a big fucking deal. It’s a constant fight to stay healthy and to lean into healthy love and intimacy.
What do you want other survivors to know?
If you are a survivor of childhood sexual abuse (CSA), you may have memories that are hazy and difficult to string together. People take advantage of kids because they think they can get away with it, either because kids are too young to remember or are not actively listened to. Some people were abused when their brains were still developing, before they knew what rape was, what sex was. If you suspect that you may have been sexually assaulted or abused as a kid but are having a difficult time remembering, listen to your body and over time it will tell you what you need to know.
Sometimes you'll find a trigger, a room, a phrase, the shape of someone's glasses, a rash on your back, an animal, a smell, a gun—and underneath is a memory you forgot about. It might be more overt, like a memory coming up when you are having sex. You can spend a lot of time trying to make sense of your abuse but it will come naturally. If you are open to the unraveling, the memories will come up on their own. Give yourself the room to experience the painful memories when they come up because they will help you understand who you are. It takes a lot of courage but it's rewarding—in order to build stronger relationships, to live more vulnerably and more authentically, coming to terms with trauma and abuse then learning how to communicate it can free us from the isolation of anxiety, chronic depression and PTSD.
I would say being honest with your partner and your friends when you are experiencing flashbacks is really important.
How can someone be a good ally?
Notice when someone starts to get quiet, when their eyes glaze over, when they disassociate from conversation and the present moment. Ask them if they are okay and if they need to talk. Ask them if they want a glass of water and some food. And if you're able to listen, lend them your compassion.
Above all, believe the people who speak to you about their abuse. Especially if you know the perpetrator, it may be difficult to believe at first. No matter what, do not press someone to confront their abuser. It puts the survivor in harms way.
Often times people are threatened with violence and told that they will be hurt or killed if they tell anyone which is why many survivors never speak out. Acknowledge the bravery that it takes for someone to share their experience as a survivor with you and thank them for their vulnerability and trust.
Was it difficult for you to open up to friends and/or family? If you haven't, would you?
Yes, it was very difficult for me and continues to be. There is still a huge stigma around sexual assault and abuse. Especially as it affects families. We've talked about how sexual assault has affected celebrities, campuses and our work places but we have yet to openly discuss in the current mainstream how sexual abuse impacts families on an inter-generational level. I try to remember that there are so many people like me out there and that family secrets run deep. I’m okay with being the distant relative if it means speaking up. Now I’m really just trying to be as honest and open as I possibly can while still holding a protective space where I can process being raped and sexually abused.
The details are hazy, sexual touch sometimes disguised as play and other times horrifyingly violent, it’s been difficult for me and my family to process. It’s only been a year since I “came out” to my family about being raped and molested. It will take time for my family to accept what I’m saying.
At times I feel isolated and again, have to remind myself that sexual abuse and assault in families is systemic and I know that I come from a lineage of abuse. I wasn’t the first person who was sexually or physically abused in my family. Right now, I’m focused on accepting my sexual trauma and repressed memories, realizing that it is 100% not personal that I was raped. It’s unlucky chance circumstances. I’ve moved far away from my family and hometown but technology keeps us connected. If anyone wants to talk more about all this, they can email me at firstname.lastname@example.org.
What has been some of the most difficult parts of the healing process for you?
The person who abused me is still alive and I am still afraid. When you are threatened not to speak, threatened with violence, even if it was 20 years ago, it's still scary. Even when you are 1000 miles away from your abuser it's not far enough. When your abuser is a gun owner and a family member, you can never be far enough away. I've talked to my family and my friends about this, and I go to therapy twice a week (art therapy, individual and group) but I have not confronted my abuser.
I don't think it would benefit me right now—it would just make me more fearful for my safety, and I'd like to hold on to my safety at all costs. And I was so young that I worry that maybe I was sexually abused by more than one person. It’s hard to tell. I remember being raped for sure at my grandparents house but of course I didn’t know what was going on or why there was a man violently on top of me. As an adult, I’m still confused. People do things that don’t make sense.
How do you relate to shame and fear?
I had a lot of shame around sex, which was how this unraveling process started. Not to sound crass, but you can learn a lot from masturbating and observing your feelings. For most of my adult life I shut down during sex. It was difficult for me to enjoy sex but I didn't understand why. Sometimes after sex I would feel depressed, then anxious, then depressed again, seeking relief in substances, people, art, work, but not being able to find it. I relate to shame as an emotion that highlights a circumstance that must be looked at more closely.
I have memories of my grandfather tickling me to the point where I peed my pants. Multiple times. Touching my genitalia, "tickling" me until I peed. I was so ashamed, and I thought it was my fault that I peed. So orgasm is associated with this shame of letting go, this helplessness, like there's nothing you can do to stop it from happening—there's so much shame in that line of thinking. It fucked me up for years. To be held down, to be screaming NO STOP and to have someone not stop. For there to be rug burns on your back and your parents not noticing or saying anything about it. This is just one instance of abuse out of several that were disguised as play... I could go on. It's difficult to know how much to share, when to share and who to share with, so I'll stop here for now.
Fear is another thing. About a year ago I went to a condo, an Airbnb in the Poconos. A friend of mine wanted to create a little spiritual retreat of sorts. My heart is palpitating writing this, thinking about the most terrifying day of my life. I went up to bed the first night we were at the condo and realized that the lamps looked like the ones my grandparents had in the bedroom I slept in at their house. The walls too were the same yellowish color. My sister and I shared a room when we visited them, so there were two twin size beds with quilts on them.
When I got under the sheets and turned on my side, I felt my heart begin to race. Why did I feel so uncomfortable? Why did I feel scared and in danger? Like “someone was going to come into my room and shoot me”, that kind of danger. I started panting, breathing heavy, almost crying but unable to. I heard this voice inside my head say, in a garbled child voice "raped by grandpy and clareby!" and then a bunch of memories started to come back. My grandfather had come into my room and woke me up while I was sleeping with the dog under the covers, licking my genitals.
I was threatened not to tell anyone, that this was our "little secret" and I remember him closing the door several times through out my childhood saying "now remember our little secret". I also remember being digitally penetrated with fingers in my anus, again disguised as tickling, with little sing-song rhymes. I also remember guns being showed to me, and being threatened that if I told anyone there would be repercussions. Little phrases, something about being “hung from the hook on the door”. Terrible things. I remember being violently held down in my bed by a shadowy figure.
Sometimes during sex I have to stop because my gentle boyfriend suddenly morphs into a violent shadowy figure. PTSD is absolutely crazy, and I hope I’m writing about this in a way that’s translating. I’ve journaled a lot about my rape and abuse but I haven’t shared any of it in a written format until now.
One of the wildest parts of all this is that I am the oldest of four. I have three younger siblings. I shared a room with my sister when I stayed at my grandparents house. We shared a room with a door that never locked. It was always opening at weird hours of the night and morning to "let the dog in" and my bed was furthest from the door. I worry about my sister constantly. I would share more about that but she’s going through her own struggles right now and her story is her own.
I remember several times waking up with my grandfather's face hanging over me, his breath in my ear. He has a certain cologne that clings to you forever. I remember hives from his cologne and his beard, from him kissing me too much too hard. And rug burns from being smashed against the carpet.
I had to find the word for rape. For a young girl crying for their life that no one heard, who thought she was dying. And then she woke up the next morning alive to see the sun coming through the curtains and to her nana making eggs in the kitchen. This is how I learned to disassociate.
I think I was maybe three when this all started but I get the sense that I could have been younger. My mom says I was constantly throwing myself out of my crib.
I had a lot of fear around going to bed and being in bed. I buried the memories around rape and they were replaced with the sensation of bugs crawling on body as I was falling asleep or a dream of alligators invading my bed and eating me and my sister. Sometimes I would dream of someone coming into my room and shooting me or holding me down in the middle of the night.
How do you feel empowered? How do you, or have you, empowered yourself?
One of the most empowering activities for me right now is biking. I love biking around Brooklyn and Manhattan. It feels incredibly bad ass to get where you want to go whenever you want to by the power of your own body.
I’ve given myself a lot of room to explore my creativity by drawing, painting, writing and playing music. I’ve felt extremely childlike in my artistic expression lately and I think processing abuse has opened up my creative voice.
With empowerment, or how it is traditionally viewed, I have a ways to go. I’ve tried to maintain a sense of grace and strength throughout my recovery process. I’m evolving and working on myself everyday, looking for ways to connect without seeking validation.
What is self-care, and healing, for you?
Self-care is listening to your body, doing activities that feel good that contribute to your long term health and well-being.
Healing is a process and one that can’t be pushed — it’s the passing of time, letting go of grudges, hoping for the future.
And again, just recognizing that sometimes you get the short end of an experience and that the world is unfair.
Realizing that there is so much to be happy about is important. Connecting with friends, loved ones and your partner, and continuing to move forward even when you feel sad and hurt.
Self care and healing is doing the best with what you have and continuing to move forward with hope. Sometimes that means leaving behind unhealthy relationships. That’s the hard part.
Every experience we have in life is important. Contributing and focusing on the big picture is paramount for healing.
What has been a positive experience for you when sharing your experiences with others?
You start to realize that your circumstances, even though they may be unique to you, are also universal. In tarot readings, I have cards that alert me that people may have experienced some kind of trauma, and it's so much more common than people think. Even though everyone's story is unique, there are patterns and when you begin to talk about your experiences with others it gives you distance from the secrecy around trauma. The shame and guilt and stigma falls away when you share and continue to share your experience with people, and it helps other people open up too. We are all worlds within worlds.
Define happiness for you.
Happiness for me is a place to think, read, reflect, write and create. It’s the ability to be curious and loving and playful. I love games and puzzles and stories and ideas.
I like a balance in my life between creating and learning, receiving and giving.
Obviously happiness is fleeting so when I feel inspired I try to hold on to it as long as I can. Happiness is an idea that’s difficult to sustain, but we do our best to recognize what brings us joy when it hits us.
What makes you feel joy?
I’m passionate about tarot and sharing it with people in a thoughtful, fun way.
I crave warmth, compassion and understanding; hope for the future and the ability to dream big; quick action, movement, motion, agency; that and a flexible sense of stability.
Describe a good day for you.
A good day is listening to jazz radio, having a cup of coffee, cooking a nice breakfast and sharing it with a roommate or friend. Reading, writing and meditating until 4pm or so, then getting ready for a tarot gig! I live in Brooklyn and read at a lot of parties and events in and around NYC. Playing video games with my boyfriend and snuggling with my cat in bed on a Saturday morning sounds so nice right now, too. I like to go out when I work and then when I get home I turn into a total homebody.
What makes you feel secure and safe?
Food and water. Almost every time I feel off, eating and drinking centers me. I meditate when I'm feeling divided. I also love reading and playing video games when I'm feeling down.
Being around people who I can trust when I'm experiencing a flashback is really important. I am so grateful for the people who have been there to listen to me and hold me during times in my recovery that were too overwhelming to go through alone. My boyfriend (who I live with) has stood next to me through this whole trauma recovery process. I like clean sheets, a hot shower, a cup of tea or coffee, the sunlight and having my cat around.
Does your writing/art/tarot help you cope?
Writing, art and tarot all help me tap into a universal story. When you can step back and see a bigger picture, it's easier to cope. I studied fiction in school so I fantasize about creating a sweeping epic about growing up new age conservative rust belt american queer, with an inter-generational cast of characters.
I always felt like I could rely on books, art and tarot. So I consistently come back to them. I've moved around a lot, so having consistent art forms has been really crucial for me.
What inspires you?
People. The people who are really candid, who must tell their stories, where they come from, who they are now and where they want to go. The people who are always creating something and putting it out there regardless of what other people think, those are the people I want to be around. I live in a communal house with a lot of creative people who inspire me to be loving and purposeful every day.
How do you want others to see you? How do you see yourself?
I would like others to see me as someone who is capable, confident and compassionate. I think that the work that I'm doing is a quiet kind of social activism. I really try to put my heart and soul into the conversations I have with people and send them on their ways. So much of my time in New York has been spent balancing a full time editorial job, processing my abuse and getting my tarot business up and running, but I want to start writing more and sharing it.
I've been reading tarot professionally for a few years now, but I've been reading cards for over ten years. I'd really like to establish myself as an expert in my field, especially since tarot is gaining so much popularity right now and I have a lot to say about it. People look at me and think "oh, she's so young, she's too young," not realizing how long I've been reading for. I guess being young and female presenting, I would like for people to take me more seriously. I'm pretty shy but I feel like when I'm older I could be someone who commands a room.
Tell me something you'd like others to know about you. Could be anything.
My favorite tarot card is the Seven of Cups. It’s the card of fantasy and emotional experiences, and learning to choose what you wish to explore in this life. It reminds me that there are so many different sides to all of us, that we all have some form of traumatic experience, but we don’t have to let it define us. Focusing on orchestrating a hopeful future has been the most important part of my recovery and I’m excited by the possibilities.