The Critical Role of Pain
This afternoon the sun is making its slow way towards sunset in Addis Ababa, where in a few hours I’ll be heading home through Frankfurt and Chicago. I had one more full day of rest, time to wash all my stuff to get the smell of African dust and dirt out of my hair, clothing and gear. Well, sort of. The smoke will linger in my sleeping bag and tent, adding to the mingling of scents gathered from all over the world.
Like pain. Like trauma. Like our experiences. They mingle and make us who we are. Who we ultimately can become.
I just read this article by Fearless She Wrote editor Jessica Lovejoy, which brought home one of the great truths that we sometimes stumble into after we’ve had a while to gather our wits about us. Like so many of us, Jessica experienced sexual trauma. I got gang raped at 23, while on active duty, then shortly after that was assaulted while drugged and on a gurney at Walter Reed, then repeatedly raped by the very Army psychiatrist to whom I was assigned for counseling about those rapes.
It happens. It took me more than forty years to pull that sewage out of the basement and air it out. It took me forty years of self-loathing and eating disorders before, finally, I was able to come to some sort of peace with those events. Those men are long dead. At very nearly 67, I’ve been able to live a pretty extraordinary life in spite of those events. And now, in some ways because of them.
Lovejoy’s piece focused on the critical role of permission that you and I give each other by speaking our truth. That fundamental legitimacy — that you and I are not alone, that our feelings are not stupid or foolish, or that we somehow “mis-remembered” which so many people would have us believe if we dare to air the events that carved canoes in our innocence- is the first step to realizing what those events are for. What they can do for us, rather than to us.
They were not, never were and never will be about us. At some level, of course they are. This was after all our body that got violated, our trust, our innocence. But let’s take it another level.
In the much larger sense, the role that we play in serving each other by telling our story is not just that we offer implicit and explicit permission to others to be validated. In a much higher sense, we cannot possibly offer empathy and compassion to others without having been through this kind of trauma.
You and I understand. We know. It’s seared into us forever.
Such compassion isn’t present among the victim-blamers. Those who struggle so desperately with the idea of an unjust society, or that their husband/son/brother/father/uncle/best friend is capable of evil (yes he is, sorry folks). Denial is far easier than embracing a very uncomfortable truth.
Compassion is present among those of us who have been assaulted. The level of healing that is available to those of us who are able to move past the immediate, awful pain of sexual assault to being able to transform that into Something Else is amazing. But never easy.
While admittedly it is fucking hard (oh hell, it only took me four decades), the emotional/spiritual process of understanding that what happens to us is to help us be of service to each other is ultimately freeing. The agents involved- whatever their sad stories, whatever twisted them into monsters and abusers- lose their agency over us, our bodies and our quality of life. The facts remain that these things happened.
But how we use that knowledge, those experiences, can be life-changing.
Lovejoy points out that the circle of healing happens when we speak, however we go about it.
I might posit that for many of us, the next level of healing is recognizing that what happened to us serves as a way for us to touch the larger human condition. The nerve center that is all women everywhere, our relative vulnerability, the battle we have to own our own bodies, and the need for so many of us to stand witness to the aching sadness that such sickness exists, that it is winked at, ignored and supported by so many.
Here’s how that worked for me in practice: a few years ago I was asked to speak at a women’s veteran’s conference. I chose to call out the elephant in the room, and I used my story as way to state that we can choose to let our offender ruin the rest of our lives or we can use those experiences to support, offer love, understanding and empathy to our fellow vets. That speech got a standing ovation. For the next two days, women of all ages hugged me in the hallway. Some said that I had “saved their lives.”
All of us had contemplated suicide. Many already have. Female veteran suicide rates are shockingly high. For good cause.
I of course got blackballed from future conferences, if for no other reason than the conference supporters tended to be male, and mostly ex-military. I will leave you to come to your own conclusions.
This is what Lovejoy speaks to, the calling out of a larger truth. There is immense power in such courage.
We cannot be mute. Silence serves the offender. By allowing us to mourn, we also gather strength. By knowing that our pain is shared, we also gather power. By taking back control of our lives, we rewrite our stories, and in doing so, we make space for others to do the same.
I know how hard it is to speak your truth. I know how difficult it is to crawl out of the cave we hide in where we find some solace in the darkness.
However, I would add my voice to Lovejoy’s and emphasize that it isn’t just the acknowledgement and validation that our honesty earns us. The isolation ends, the healing begins, but even more so, there is something deeply sacred in the shared experience.