Today was an emotional day in the therapy room, the day after Donald Trump was elected President of the United States. His statements have come up a fair amount in my practice this past year, as they have touched on wounds for many of the clients I work with, seeing as I primarily do trauma work with adult survivors of sexual abuse. For many, he has become a symbol of domineering patriarchy, male entitlement, and the objectification of women at the root of sexual abuse. The vote of him into power for many represents the affirmation of those threatening forces.
I often tell my clients that therapy can be like cleaning out the pantry. Taking all the items out of the pantry can look like a lot of chaos and disorder momentarily, but it must be done in order to see what we’re dealing with, clean up properly, and put things in a working order that will benefit our household in the long term. The same principle applies to our emotional work. But what is also coming into focus is that the same goes with change in society at large. Although news reports in the past year of Donald Trump coverage have been triggering for many survivors of sexual assault, these news reports also mean that sexual assault and sexism are topics that are being discussed at a societal level. This year we’ve seen courageous women coming out in droves with their stories of being sexually assaulted by Bill Cosby. We’ve seen a brave woman who survived rape at Stanford University using her voice, and while doing so, speaking for so many other voiceless survivors of sexual assault.
Sure, we’ve seen unjust rulings and ignorant, victim-blaming reactions in the media, but we’ve also seen responses to those reactions, educating why that is wrong and inappropriate, and how to better respond. I recently heard an interview with Tiffany Pham, Founder & Chief Executive Officer of OnMogul.com, an online hub for women around the world that reaches 18.6MM women per week from 196 countries and 30,470 cities. She said that in the past year, she has noticed significant changes in the narratives within the articles women were sharing about sexual assault. Pham explains,
“Around a year ago what was trending were pieces where women were more victims in stories of rape… Now a year later the trend is ‘here is what is happening with women standing up towards that topic’… The stories are already reflecting a change, that women are standing up and fighting it.”
We are talking about things that have historically been personal or family secrets, clouded in stigma, guilt and shame for the victim, the person who least of all deserves that burden. We are naming it. We are grappling with it. Our voices are demanding and creating change. The pantry items are strewn about the kitchen table and counters. It may feel uncomfortable for different people for different reasons, but we are doing it.
As Ralph Waldo Emerson so eloquently said,
So at my practice we sat with the emotions today. The fear, panic, grief, anger, frustration, disbelief. We acknowledged the right a person has to those feelings, and that they make a whole lot of sense. We also got to work. We reprocessed traumatic experiences to transform their meaning from weakness to strength, from degradation to empowerment. We built skills to prepare for trauma work, where for the first time an internal sense of calm and safety could be experienced in the present moment. That, my dear reader, is power. What started as a day of fear and uncertainty and sadness, thanks to the work my courageous clients do, turned into pure inspiration to keep on this path of healing, progress, and underneath it all, love.
As I prepare for my evening group for female adult survivors of child sexual abuse, I’m again reminded that this group is evidence of a space that would never have existed even 30 years ago. A place where connectedness, unconditional positive regard and safety reign. Let’s keep creating these little corners of the world. This is change in action.
Though the process of change and healing, whether at a pantry level, individual human level, or society-at-large level can be messy and bumpy, nothing can take away progress that has been made. Nothing can remove those experiences. Our minds and hearts are now stretched to new dimensions. And in this ever-changing world, we can find a constant comfort in loving each other. Even those we maybe don’t understand just yet. Whether it be neighbourly love, intimate love, friendship, brother/sisterhood, or the general love for fellow [wo]man, know that you have the power to incite that feeling within yourself, and spread it to those with the honour of being around you.
Helen Thomas MC, RCC, LPC