April 10, 2014

Negotiating Time & Healing After Sexual Violence. ~ Molly Boeder Harris

clock distorted time

“People like us, who believe in physics, know that the distinction between past, present and future is only a stubbornly persistent illusion.”

~ Albert Einstein


How does sexual violence change us?

Can we actually quantify an impact that is ongoing?

How do you measure injuries that move and change like tides, ebbing and flowing nearer and further from the shoreline of your pain?

Does time truly heal all wounds?

How does trauma change time?

What part of our pain is born in the past, shadows our present, and trails us into our future?

What, if any, part of our human spirit transcends time?


Our society constantly quantifies the movement of time, always forward on the clock, the inevitable turning of the pages on our calendar—dates, anniversaries, appointments, beginnings and endings—always relating to time.

As survivors of sexual violence, times and dates can concurrently be intensely significant, looming ahead and overwhelming our thinking. While at other times, lost in our attempt to outrun the immediacy of the moment with our past tracking not too far behind, the idea of time is irrelevant, intangible and inconvenient.

Ultimately, however, our nature as humans causes us and those involved with us before and particularly, those who remain involved after sexual violence, to look to time as an indicator of our recovery.

Yet, it feels to me that trauma cycles through with its own unique rhythm and the wounds of our past and the distance between us and them is beyond our standard human concept of time.

Sometimes we feel closer and the event of a decade ago tingles to escape from the pores of our skin. Other days, we feel further—the image of ourselves like a character on-screen in a silent film, someone we can see, but we cannot touch. Our systems signal alarm when the topic comes up in a space not conducive to the big exploration/excavation that comes with being asked “Have you ever been sexually assaulted?”.

I am certainly not the only one faced with the dilemma presented to us by the well-intentioned person (most recently, in my case a very kind doctor) who inquires about our past.

And so, we weigh our options and make a choice.


How far do I go? What can I share?

How much do I trust?                  You want me to choose words?                       In this setting?

With a clock ticking out the time that remains until your window of listening closes?

How much time do I have?                 Do you have tissues?                            Will it be okay if I cry?

Do I want to let myself cry?                             How much am I going to allow to surface?

Am I really going to “go there” in my re-telling?

When will I sense and where then, will I draw the line of regulating my emotion?

Is this going to linger into my day, my week?

Should I cancel my plans after this appointment?

I want to tell you but are you prepared for what you are about to hear?


And the silent self-interrogation can go on and on—of course, all within a split second of time. Sometimes the stream of questions that fire in a moment like this reminds me of the flash flood of thoughts that raced across my brain when I was attacked.


Is this just a dream?

Is this how this my life will end?

Will I be found?

Where is God?                      Do I believe in God?

Does this person believe in God?            Maybe I should talk about God?                 Where are You?

What will my family think?

Is this a joke? Is this a nightmare?

Is somebody coming to rescue me? Can anyone hear my cries?

Is anyone out there?

Is anything out there?

Please let me wake up!


As quickly as the questions stream, so too does the decision to self-protect, one of the greatest skills we develop as survivors. We occupy multiple spaces at the same time. We can be here in the physical body and soaring through space, out of this pain, lost in our mind.

I elect to select a consolidated response to the question, which is full of facts that allows the doctor to make sense of me: details that are linear, a beginning, a middle, a conclusion, all captured in moments that can be etched onto white paper by her inky blue pen. I wonder about the impossibility of her effort to translate my trauma into something she can comprehend with sound bites and casual references to the most devastating day of my life. I long to tell her that yes, in fact, without charts and without tests, I can confirm that all of these symptoms she plans to treat me for can be traced back to a story I wasn’t quite sure I’d live to tell.

Just the facts—no pause, no nuance, no allowing of the organic surge of indescribable meaning that seems to surface every time we have the rare chance to tell our story.

Except that the surge happens regardless and then we are telling a story, using words that emerge from our mind not from our heart—all the while harnessing feeling, sensation, connections and some intensely important revelations that bubble beneath our vocabulary.

We are in the world with others asking their pointed questions and giving them the facts, while simultaneously diving inside and experiencing new truths, unearthing old sorrow and wondering how they cannot see what is right in front of them.

We are right in front of them with the magnitude of this pain seeping from our cells.

In a way we become careful magicians, physically present while distant at heart. We learn to steward our trauma, self-selecting when and who and where we share this sacred secret, although that delicate scanning for the right space and time can build our eventual sharing into a resonant scream.

We are warriors protecting the wreckage of our loss, now we get to draw the line of how much, how fast, and how deep this will go.

Yet, for me, the barriers I erect in order to survive the conversation always ends up feeling like a tragedy, another byproduct of having been raped. Another one of those moments when I want time to stop and to simply have permission to go deep into the cavern that the question has revealed.

There is an infinite reservoir of impressions—scent, sight, taste, touch and sound—when we embark on looking back and looking inside.

We perceive our own edges soft like watercolor, permeating into the universe around us.

We have an ocean inside and yet there sits just one small glass on the table into which we can pour our response. “Tell me your story.” Someone else could drown in all this salty water, yet it is the constant swirling of salt, water, an enigmatic current that keeps us afloat, that soothes inflamed wounds, that helps us survive.

This isn’t just about sexual violence.

This is about the immeasurable losses, conscious and unconscious, that land and create a quiet, yet constant, anguish in our souls. None of us passes through this life unscathed. We have scars that still ache, injuries of the heart that may require decades of tenderness.

Yet, an acquaintance asks “How you are doing?” in the grocery store, a family member checks in on the phone, we run into someone from our past wandering down the street  and when approached by the question we’ve been desperate to answer, all we can think to ourselves is “Someone else could drown.”

This doctor’s invitation to make meaning seems cruel when the container around her question is tight like our accepted notion of time.


Linear, just the facts, always moving forward,

Beginning                           Middle                         Conclusion

 No pause, no nuance, no allowing

Not emotional, not slow, not breaking down

Contain, describe, link one thought to the next


In my best attempt, I am treading water somewhere in between fact telling and feeling, aware of the time, watching the subtle way her body language reacts, mindful not to be too explicit, careful to conceal the worst.

I realize that I am taking care of her and attempting to protect her from such darkness. I don’t want to scare another person off by disclosing what I know, what I saw, what I can still sense as if it was yesterday. I protect myself too, this heart can only bear so much breaking.

It’s not her fault though that I feel trapped by this impractical expectation to reply to a question it will undoubtedly take a lifetime to answer.

While she has taken my breath away with the invitation to disclose to a total stranger, I simultaneously feel gratitude for her intention. It is the overall absence of space in a society invested in moving on, to actually still ourselves enough to talk about our losses, that complicates my ability to reply.

So when the question I’ve spent nearly 11 years examining is finally raised—How did the rape change you, physically, emotionally, mentally, spiritually?—I am stunned because I don’t know where to start and I am frightened because don’t know how I will stop.

Recovery is so much about allowing what many told us to resist, and so I send a prayer of condolence to my most precious and painful experience for the inevitability of a dissatisfying response—for not being able to give it the space it deserves. I disappointingly regret a question that has defined every day leading up to right now and I resent my own expectations for an appropriate response.

I take one last pause, I fix my mind to a timeline and I begin to speak.

“It was a blue sky morning and I was running in a park. Actually, it is the largest public park on the continent of South America. Twice the size of Central Park, although I’ve never actually been to Central Park, but I know that it is big. For me, I guess the vastness of the space, the size of the forest and my own smallness within that stands out…”

Sitting in her office, I can suddenly see the trail and I am on it and I see everything that happens next. It is the glimpse of a hawk out the window, floating over her head that interrupts the still frames in my mind. I borrow its quiet blessing and remember to breathe.

With trauma, and memory in general, we can reach into our childhood while reaching our arms up to the sky during our yoga practice. We might catch the scent of the grass that we once laid on, the last time we remember savoring the abundance of nature with no connection to the word survivor and suddenly, we are there.

The moment is frozen, we circle an image of ourselves, trying desperately to remember what it felt like to not know this pain.

pain depressionSome of us have never known the world without this pain.

Wondering why the emptiness still lingers inside, we recall exiting our physical shape during the trauma and finding ourselves in what can only be described as a very surreal dream, experiencing the violence and simultaneously, a witness to it, helpless from above and wondering, when, if and how it will ever be safe to return to ourselves?

Still, many of us want to return to ourselves—not immediately, not necessarily consciously. Despite the horrors we know we will find, there is an innate sense, some complex pull that is both grotesque and angelic, a yearning to return to the only home that is truly ours.

Beneath those scars—physical, emotional, psychic injuries—the spirit we were born into this world with is desperate to be released from this burden and show itself to us once again. We want to find the natural rhythm of time inside our own shape, to have the emotional resources to move into the present, to carefully select our exploration of the past and to find enough earth beneath us to support a gentle inquiry into what lies ahead.

To sync our bodies, with our hearts, with our minds.

Our cells and tissues and our magnificent if oft misunderstood mind can actually contain all of that, can provide room and space and anchors to support our survivor time-travel as we uncover, discover and recover ourselves.

Much of sexual violence cannot be described or contained by words, since so much of it lives beyond our mental cognition.

The timeline of healing simply cannot be measured on a clock.

Trauma can create temporary fissures, that sometimes collapse into canyons of separation between the body, the mind and the spirit as in the moment of trauma, our beings instinctively providing an “out of body” separation, unconscious self-protection to survive our experience of an overwhelming, life-threatening event.

Yet, those unspoken wounds, the spaces between our bodies, our minds and our spirits, seek to be known through the rising and falling of symptoms, through painfully repetitive dreams, through difficult to describe aches, through evocative sensation and imagery that spreads throughout our shape. Those essential aspects of ourselves, short-circuited for some time, long for our attention in our recovery and beckon us to bring them back together, slowly, methodically and with courage.

We can learn again, with consistency and practice, to synchronize with our own sense of time as the natural rhythms of the body are restored and to passionately protect a process that refuses to be rushed.

I’ve spent every day since my attack walking along an invisible trail to restore my spirit inside. Looking for signs, markers and a hawk eye perspective of what it means to survive that can encompass this feeling of mind-body desolation, this newly birthed sense of divine intention, and can assist me in both my soaring and my grounding.

In that quest, I’ve been so blessed to share spaces with holistic healing arts practitioners navigating through the pain and symptoms that live in the shadow of trauma, ultimately arriving at the timeless, and in some senses, limitless space of ongoing integration and continually evolving insight that begins to emerge when mind-body-spirit oriented healers can shine a light into the darkness of survivor’s journey back to themselves.

While the approaches, the instruments and the language utilized to facilitate healing is as varied as the modalities themselves, a common thread, a parallel aim, weaves naturally throughout all of them: healing is innate within all of us.

There are so many entry points or “doorways” into healing trauma for survivors to consider depending on what feels most accessible and meaningful to them and the doorways to healing do not close.

The universe has left us an open-ended invitation to heal when we are ready, when it is our time.

There is no limit to how we embody our grieving and how we embark (again and again) on our healing. While for some survivors, we learn to peel back layers of heavy residue via a physically engaging yoga practice, for others healing may come in the form of a smooth and precise spinal adjustment that recharges our nervous system.

Some of us may benefit from quietly receiving an acupuncture treatment that nourishes our spirits and aligns the flow of the vital energy of our bodies or we may release the fullness of both our pain and our power in a spontaneous and significant piece of art we create.

beach art sand sculpture womanWe are as unique and vast as grains of sand along the beach and so too is the way we heal.

The language of our body can provide a map to our own rhythm inside, through the movement of energy, the ability to communicate, release and integrate without words and the opportunity to turn within to witness the wisdom of our own internal resources.

The circulation of our breath, the pulsing of our heart, the changing way we relate to yesterday and tomorrow, guide us home to the power we can find in the here and now.

Addressing trauma holistically, bringing the body—the vehicle of our experience—into the foreground provides survivors an expansive, inclusive and safe space to allow the unspoken wounds to be healed and ultimately, supports the organic integration of trauma and the body, mind and spirit.

Healing begins like a seed in the heart that blooms and opens into the mind, the bones and the breath—the markers of the infinite time inside. These constant cycles persist despite our pain, orienting us towards a new relationship with time in which we discover that gravity inclines our systems to align.

The moments of witnessing our resilience come and go, like a breeze across the beach, yet we have no need to grasp.

We see ourselves, we sense ourselves and we remember ourselves in our truest, most original form—profoundly resilient, humbly recovered, finally found.


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Apprentice Editor: Yaisa Nio / Editor: Renée Picard

Photos: Pixoto / Ghazal Khan, Pixoto / Megan Nicole, Pixoto / Sudipto Goswami

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