With the advent of #metoo in 2017, I began to feel anxious, and I didn’t understand why. I was not, on the whole, an anxious person, and in one part of my career I had actually been a yoga therapist who taught people how to be calm, regulate their nervous systems, and practice mindfulness.
A strange wave of panic hit me as I watched Christine Blaisey Ford testify at Brent Kavanaugh’s confirmation hearing in 2017, right during the onset of the #metoo movement.
In the weeks that followed the feelings of anxiety would just hit me in waves, and all the techniques I used to teach other people did not help me. I kept thinking it would go away, but it didn’t, and I soon started looking for a therapist to help me.
I had been to therapy before and never found it very helpful, but I was feeling pretty desperate at this point. Fortunately, this time worked out a lot better as my therapist specialized in healing trauma through a method called Internal Family Systems, which was helpful to me right from the start.
A few months after I started therapy I went to a conference for survivors of clergy abuse, which I had experienced when I was 18 when a youth pastor at my church- whom I trusted and looked up to- sexually assaulted me numerous times. Clergy abuse is unique in its effect of spiritually wounding a person- because someone whom they think of as a representative of their faith and their God has broken their trust. At the conference, I experienced an onslaught of triggers that left me unable to attend past the first hour because I could not stop crying.
This started a process of unearthing the layers of trauma held by this event.
I was diagnosed with Complex PTSD and began to learn about its effects in my life. I experienced a wide range of physical, emotional, and spiritual symptoms which I had never experienced before: increasing and unpredictable panic attacks, crying that wouldn’t stop, depression, fatigue, and chronic pain. The well of feelings was seemingly bottomless and out of my control. Then, the nightmares and flashbacks started and I had a difficult time concentrating.
I felt oppressed by a sense of shame so strong it felt like it would knock me over. Before this, I used to have a pretty good self concept and had formerly been a very public person in my career, and now my confidence evaporated and I felt like I just wanted to hide from people. And I basically did while I was going through the early stages of therapy. I took a hiatus from “in real life” and started to explore online communities of people who had been through similar things as me. I desperately needed support, guidance, and reassurance that I could get through this thing that had taken over my life.
Along with therapy, the peer support and connections I developed online were my lifeline at this time. Hearing others’ experiences and how they managed daily helped me feel that what I was experiencing was normal for a survivor of trauma. It wasn’t just me that was going through this. I could talk to others who understood and that made me feel like I could manage.
This was the start of my healing path: good trauma therapy and peer support. I could begin to take down the walls of shame I had built around me both internally and externally brick by brick. This process can be really challenging because, in a way, shame had become a big part of my identity, though I was mostly unaware of it because of a coping mechanism that many survivors use- dissociation. During therapy/ healing I had to become aware of just how much I had been completely repressing the shame via the process of dissociation.
Instead of being conscious of the shame, I was acting it out by being in relationships where I either kept getting hurt or wanted to take care of others – both codependent behaviors. This was the way my shame was manifesting in the world, completely without my understanding. The other way it showed up was that I did not take good care of myself and often had self-destructive impulses and behaviors.
I learned that self-destructive behaviors are coping strategies that survivors use to deal with their pain, and they are not in ANY way moral failings. They are simply ways that we keep our sanity while continuing to function. When I began to have compassion for all the challenges I had in my life- especially self-destructive behaviors- the shame decreased hugely. I am a survivor of sexual violence and I did what I needed to survive that. Now as I begin to heal from that violence, I can learn and practice healthier ways of being.
I am learning new ways of being in relationships where I set boundaries that are healthy for me. I am learning to take care of myself. I am learning to value and cherish myself again. And I am learning to lay the responsibility for the abuse squarely where it belongs – with my abuser.
This is not an easy process. In many ways, it can be “easier” to stay dissociated because then you don’t have to face the pain head on. But the pain shows up whichever path you take, and facing it head-on means I get a shot at having the life I want to create post-abuse.
And hopefully, by sharing my story, others will feel a little bit less alone.
Author: Shannon Brigid
Epione wants to personally thank Shannon for using her voice to share her personal experience of clergy abuse with other survivors, organizations, and communities illustrating how survival mechanisms are adopted to ‘survive and reviewed in the personal process of healing and recovery. Peer support – is people support – and connecting with people who have walked the path before you can be so empowering.
If you would like to collaborate with us and share how you have overcome trauma and how you have been recovering, please get in touch with us at firstname.lastname@example.org – We look forward to hearing from and seeing you in 2021!