The Power of Finding Your Voice After Sexual Violence
[Content Trigger Warning]
Last week I had a panic attack while riding in the car with my husband. That’s never happened to me before. The seatbelt was bothering me first, and then I felt a rising tension in my chest, had trouble breathing and eventually felt this intense feeling of being trapped.
We only had 25 minutes to go on the car trip, and I thought: Well, I can handle it for 25 more minutes. And then I realized and told myself, “NO, I don’t need to “just handle it,” and asked him to pull over so I could get out and help myself. He quickly found a parking lot — I think glad to have some instruction on what to do to help — and pulled in.
Once I got out of the car, I felt a little relief but dreaded having to get back inside the car.
But then my trauma-therapy training kicked in, and I went to, “OK, my body obviously needs to do something. [I could tell there was a build-up of trapped energy that needed to be addressed.] What does my body need to do?”
… I picked up a snow chunk and threw it down. Nope, that didn’t help. I tried it again. Nope. … OK, so maybe I need to kick. So I tried that. I kicked the crusty snowbank at the parking lot’s edge. OK, that felt good. So I kicked it a little harder, twice (with enough presence of mind not to kick too hard and hurt myself).
…And almost instantly I felt that unsettled energy leave my body, like a balloon deflating. And I could get back into the car, thankfully.
This week in therapy, I brought up the panic attack, and I elected to do an EMDR session about it.
During EMDR (Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing), which my therapist has been doing remotely (successfully) with me since the start of the pandemic, I engage with the emotions and feelings in my body that occurred during an event or memory to help me put a foot into the past as if I were there again (but with my therapist to help keep me feeling safe) and talk about what happened, while tapping my thigh alternately with each hand (in her office when I did in-person sessions, I held small paddles that alternately vibrate).
In each EMDR session, I visit the memory multiple times and see where it takes me and at what point in the retelling it feels most intense. There’s more to these sessions, but essentially EMDR helps me figure out what I still need to process. And my own travels to the past, allowing myself to feel and acknowledge the emotions and body responses — along with the alternating tapping/vibration and guidance from my therapist — help me move the stuck parts through.
I knew the feeling of being trapped was related to my sexual assault because I was trapped then and I had similar feelings, though less intense, during a dentist appointment in 2019 and during a knee MRI last year. The dentist experience made me avoid the dentist for two years. Not good.
So unsurprisingly, during the EMDR session the words I spoke drifted to my assault, where a man held me down at knife-point and tried to rape me.
During the assault, my brain responded with the “fight” message (one of several possible survival mechanisms to a life-threatening experience like this – the others being flight, freeze or fawn), and I screamed continuously and kicked and rolled to try to get him off me.
As I revisited the physical struggle during EMDR, I felt this rising energy in my neck and in my throat.
I’m four years into recovery and trauma therapy, and through that work I’m able to pay better attention to the sensations that arise in my body and zeroed in on that energy. “It means something. It means something. Don’t suppress it. Don’t suppress it. … You need to let it go!” I guided myself.
Skipping ahead: I figured out that during the assault while I was able to move and respond physically and scream, I couldn’t use my “voice.” I couldn’t say the things that I wanted to say, like “What the F! Get the F off me!” Or even, “NO!” … The thinking part of my brain had switched off because my brain and body were in survival mode, and there weren’t any words coming out.
It’s that attempted suppression of a victim’s will and voice that makes finding and using that voice once again (and maybe for the first time) so powerful.
I’m now learning to listen to what my body is saying and learning to use my voice to help myself heal.
I’m wishing you all love, courage, peace and the power of voice (whatever that means to you) on your own healing journeys.