Reclaiming Our Voice
Forgiving doesn’t mean forgetting. Neither does it mean what happened is acceptable. It means that we have moved from the paralyzing place of total fear, through icy denial and fiery anger, into a space of releasing enough hate and guilt to be able to start to take back our power, and love ourselves again.
“When trust is broken from an assault of any type,” says Sharon Aden, lead counselor at Buncombe County’s Our VOICE, “the world becomes unsafe. People are unsafe. One has to get to the point where they understand the forgiveness is for themselves, to be able to let go, and accept the other person is human.”
Forgiveness is just one piece of the puzzle
In her work with Our VOICE, a non-profit agency offering support, advocacy and education to victims of sexual violence and human trafficking, Sharon has seen how forgiveness is a journey, not a destination, and says, “It’s never a ‘once and done’ thing. It’s a process. Some people are ready to start working on the trauma right after an incident. Others, like a child who was sexually traumatized, may have kept it secret for decades. Their readiness to work could depend on a person’s relationship with the perpetrator – a relative? A trusted family friend, coach, teacher or priest? All that plays into when and how healing can begin.
“At the time of trauma, our rational brain doesn’t function. The brain goes into fight, fright, or freeze mode. Feelings are activated SO strongly, and may get submerged. It might not be until later on that a smell or sound triggers a horrific memory. Some people might be triggered by a wall the same color as in the place where the trauma happened. The scent of aftershave might activate it, or glimpsing someone who has a resemblance.”
Whatever activates a traumatic memory, Sharon offers tools to help people regain emotional balance. “When we’re triggered, we start shallow breathing. Take a deep breath in. Take a quick look at your surroundings. If you’re in a room with a picture, find five red things. Touch different textures in the room. All of these instantly ground us into the present. The trauma isn’t happening now.”
Sharon stresses that forgiveness does not diminish the atrocity of what happened. “Sexual abuse is a death in a way – a part of you dies. Your ideal of what life was going to be, all the hopes and dreams; those plans die. It’s a different world, and you have to figure out how you fit into it now.”
Forgiveness is just one piece of the puzzle, Sharon said. There are other layers of healing that are done when we move forward, towards our purpose.
“People I work with frequently find ways to reach out to others,” Sharon said. “They might become an advocate, go into the counseling profession, or become an activist of some sort. It’s their voice that comes out – as they reclaim their own power, they stand up for someone they never noticed before. They frequently come out of their experience with a deeply personal desire to do meaningful things.”
Another path to forgiveness is working through the pain with others. “The beautiful part of a group,” said Sharon, “is it brings a unanimity to their experience and normalizes it. They learn it’s happened to someone else. They can talk about all the tangled emotions they’re dealing with in the group, because here others truly understand. The group lets you hear your own voice, and be able to interact with others. You receive validation that you CAN feel happiness again when you forgive yourself.”
When a person can get to the point of forgiveness, there’s a release, said Sharon. “They don’t have that heavy weight on them. They can breathe again. That other person doesn’t hold power over them anymore.” If an incident was perpetrated by a family member or someone they knew, with forgiveness comes a sense that person doesn’t really matter to them anymore. They can make decisions on whether they want to be around that person or not.
As we head into the holiday season and family gatherings, Sharon said, it’s important to be mindful of old patterns that could trigger old memories. Even if it wasn’t a family member or trusted family friend who abused you, did the family believe you? No matter what the old patterns might have been, Sharon suggests creating new solutions.
“You can choose where you sit, and whether you decide to engage in a discussion with a particular person. Take a break, and go for a walk outside. If you change your mind and simply don’t want to be there, you have the power to leave early.”
While you’re reinforcing your own healthy boundaries, Sharon suggested helping the younger members of the family develop a positive sense of self, too. Instead of just hugging and kissing the kids, ask them first if it’s OK. Remind even the little ones that it’s their body, and they can hug and touch who they want.
While the holidays can be a mine field, when we reinforce good boundaries, they can also remind us how far we’ve come. “People need to know it’s possible,” Sharon said. “People get caught in, ‘I’m never going to heal – this is my life and it’s not going to get any better.’ People need to know there’s hope.”
To see and hear more stories of hope and healing, Our VOICE invites you to their 16th Annual Survivors’ Arts Show on November 9th from 5-9pm at the Blue Spiral 1 Gallery at 38 Biltmore Avenue, Asheville, NC 28801. The event is free and open to the public.
The Our VOICE Crisis Line has someone to talk with you 24/7 at (828) 255-7576. Find more resources on their website at ourvoicenc.org.
Author, Emmy-winner and psychic medium Jonna Rae Bartges is a frequent WNC Woman contributor. Tap into your natural intuitive ability at her Practical Spirituality 101 class Nov. 11 & 12; nurses receive 14-16 CNE contact hours. For a consultation or to register for the workshop, visit www.JonnaRae.com.