On a cool morning in El Paso, I stood at the edge of the Rio Grande. The sun snagged on the current’s ripples, creating undulating webs of light on the river’s surface. The grass beneath my feet rustled and cracked; spring hadn’t yet tinted it green. This was a moment of transition; its weight was in the swiftly flowing band of river and the dense blue sky. It was in the thick stem of flower I held in one hand, and the rough stone I held in the other.
The previous three years had been filled with watershed moments that had left me bruised and battered. My newspaper downsized, and rather than risk a layoff later, I accepted a buyout and entered the freelance world. My mother-in-law developed dementia and moved into residential care. Then my own mother was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s. And finally, the coup de grace that shattered the frame of reference I’d used for most of my life: the paternal uncle who had sexually abused me when I was four died. My mother had been the sole witness to this trauma.
I’d been through therapy for years, had processed the experience, and thought I was done with it. But now I experienced fresh grief in knowing that the only person who could testify to my past would soon not even know my name. Life had taught me to mark important milestones with ceremony. But, marking the acceptance that my mother could no longer corroborate the most painful chapter in my life—where was the blueprint for observing this particular moment? I needed an outward symbol, a ritual that would allow me to put our shared trauma in its proper place and move on and into the phase of being her caregiver. With no playbook for this, I created a rite of my own, and that’s what brought me to the river’s edge.
MARKING MAJOR LIFE EVENTS
The desire for ritual in the healing process is common among survivors of any kind of trauma, says Shea Alexander, Clinical Director at the Dallas Area Rape Crisis Center (DARCC). “There is a reason why we have ceremonies when people pass on, a reason we have ceremonies when people are born. We have christenings, memorials,” she says, because we need to mark major events. And recovery from trauma is a major life event. “Ceremonies can help you move on.”
Alexander has worked with trauma survivors for more than 20 years, the last ten exclusively with survivors of sexual assault, and says that people healing from trauma go through a period therapists call the “meaning making phase,” where they try “to make sense of their suffering. It’s about putting things in perspective: ‘What does this mean in my present life?’” This is where rituals such as writing letters, making scrapbooks, creating sacred spaces for mementos, even burning symbols of the past can be helpful.
A sexual assault survivor herself, Alexander used something she calls “ballooning off” to mark part of her healing. She wrote down everything she felt, tied the paper to a balloon, and then released it into the sky. “I was putting it into the universe of experience, and it no longer belonged just to me. I was one with the universe. I wasn’t alone anymore.”
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Some of her clients have found this ritual helpful, but others craft rites of their own. One client had been abused for years by both parents as a child. During her therapy she compiled journal writings and pictures for every year of her abuse. Finally, her father deceased and her mother grown old, she felt ready to put that past behind her. She took the notes and drawings made during therapy and burned them. Since she still had contact with her mother, it helped her shed the image of her as abuser and convert it to the frail woman she had become. “For her, it was a very freeing experience,” says Alexander.
NEW FRAMES OF REFERENCE
Investing these rituals with meaning helps us give the trauma “a positive frame of reference” so that when it comes up later in our life we can see it as “something I overcame, I conquered, I healed from,” says Alexander. “It’s something to celebrate. I’ve come out on the other side in one piece, and not only that, but I’ve become a better person for it.”
We seem to be so wired for the physical manifestation of change that we even ritualize the smallest steps in recovery without realizing it. Barbara Banda, a licensed professional counselor intern who works with child trauma survivors at the Dallas Children’s Advocacy Center, recently witnessed a teen client mark four words that held special meaning. The girl came to her and said she would like to help other kids by sharing her story of sexual assault. Arrangements were made for her to talk with a group of younger children. As Banda helped the teen prepare for her talk, the girl asked if it would be all right to take a sign with her into this talk. When Banda said yes, the girl took poster board and wrote on one side, “It’s not my fault,” and on the other, “No es mi culpa.”
“I definitely feel that it was not only for [the kids] but maybe more for herself,” says Banda, who saw her client reach a milestone in healing by writing those words. “She’s giving her message that ‘this was not my fault,’ and that may be all she needs right now.”
But what about those of us who think we’re done healing only to have the past rear up in our faces from time to time?
Trauma becomes a part of who we are, and healing from it is a process, a journey we walk for life, says Alexander, of the DARCC. The only difference is that we eventually reach a point where “we are in control of it, rather than it controlling us.” There comes a time when we toss the life script that trauma wrote for us and write our own future.
AN OFFERING TO THE RIVER
She’s right about trauma’s staying power. Mine has certainly been with me for years. But I also agree that healing is possible. My own journey is reflected in what she says about rites of passage. I’ve rewritten my life script at many steps along the way, the last time in 2008 at the edge of the Rio Grande.
Two days prior, on the eve of the first anniversary of my abuser’s death, my brother had driven me to the Juárez cemetery where he was buried. There I bought a bouquet of carnations and paced by his grave, the latent power of our history in my clenched belly and trembling lips. I squatted and sifted through my fingers a handful of the earth that blanketed him. I pocketed a rock I found in that layer of soil. Then, I lay all the flowers over the grave, save for one red blossom with petals that glowed with mica-like specks. I held that one in my hand as we drove away.
Now, I stood by the river. Some forty or fifty yards across, its surface was unbroken by sand bars. Whatever secrets it held were hidden deep. This river had stood witness to several generations of my family living along the border. I’d picnicked alongside it, swam in its channel, and crossed bridges over it countless times. It felt appropriate to ask that it testify once more to a chapter of my life.
I took a few deep breaths then offered the rock, its jagged edges the shape of my pain all of those years. It sank with a tiny plop and a silent prayer from me that the water further smooth its sharpness with time. Then, I offered the flower, a metaphor for the tender pulsing center of my soul. It landed gently in its watery cradle, and I watched it flow downstream until it disappeared.
If you are a survivor of sexual assault or abuse, visit the Rape, Abuse and Incest National Network to find a rape crisis center near you.