“I am safe” is something many survivors teach themselves to say. I have been repeating this mantra to myself for years though often not feeling it. I have been physically and sexually assaulted many times. I came to believe it was my fault. I felt broken and used up. I was scared all the time. My body didn’t know how to relax, even in situations where I was abundantly safe and loved. I felt frozen.
I have spent a lot of time and energy doing the important work of really looking at my story. I released my anger at those who attacked me. I found my real hurt was the story that “no one came for me.” I did the emotional work of coming to rescue myself. It’s been a long and abundantly worthwhile journey. But in a physical way, my body still responded to leering, cat-calls, unwarranted touching (even in benign, large group situations) by freezing up completely. I don’t believe leering and cat-calls are ok (not the same as compliments and looking), they aren’t. But I don’t want to feel paralyzed by them anymore. To relive that specific terror anytime I walk down the street.
When I met Jennie Trower (my amazing krav maga instructor friend), I had the same physical response to her work. She talked about using anger. She’s highly trained to fight. She’s physically strong and her training videos were fierce. It scared me. So I walked right toward it. This lead to an introduction to Jarrett Arthur and the I Am Power Retreat was born. I would teach them about gaining emotional strength, setting energetic boundaries. They would teach me to fight.
We built it and the women came. In short: it was beautiful.
We had discussed some of what the others were doing. But for the most part we stayed out of each other’s work. This is leading well. So while I knew some about what we would do, I mostly focused on my part. The morning before we headed out to the event, the men who would wear the attacker suits came over for breakfast. And this is when the fear set in again.
They talked about the ground rules. The men would raise their hands to their heads when they had had enough and Jarrett and Jennie would pull the women off them. We would go one at a time. Everyone would watch and cheer. My whole body froze. I back peddled. Pull ME off of them? These men were going to attack me? Everyone would watch? I have lived that already. Could I do that again? I wanted to curl up in the corner and cry, even at the suggestion of it. Why did I think this was a good idea again?
They lead as strong leaders do. This is what we came for. Let’s do it.
Lucky for me, I had my own stuff to prepare for so it was off to the event. Jarrett and Jennie opened with the power of fear. They talked about fear being an important response to danger, not weakness. That resonated deeply. But I knew to address the paralyzing fear I have when there isn’t danger, I had to face this fear of fight.
When it was training time and I was participating and not leading, each time they taught a new skill I was scared of it. But the environment felt safe and I stepped out and tried anyway. I thought I might need to cry in the corner but it turned out to be fun! Sometimes when you face the hard things, it’s not so heavy. This is such a great relief.
Photo Lew Chen photography http://www.lewchan.com/
In a beautiful kismet sort of way, we were all teaching the same thing. My sister’s yoga practice, the fighting, the emotional power: it was all about grounding, assessing, being in your body. I could take the power I had learned from grounding my feet and using my voice and put it in an elbow strike. It was the same. It was in me. It was right beneath the surface.
The first thing Jennie had told me almost a year ago when I confessed I was scared of her work was that many survivors find it empowering to fight out of the scenario they were attacked in. On Sunday afternoon, with Jennie right by my side, I did just that. Except instead of being terrified, I was excited. There were nerves and adrenaline, but I felt safe. I didn’t have to repeat the mantra any more, I knew I could handle it. And now I had 30 cheering women on my side. Women with similar stories and not. Women who I’d shared my history with. Women who would scream and yell and cry while I fought my way out.
What I believe about myself is that I was attacked so many times because I learned to freeze. This is a common response in children who are abused. And I believe in the same way you can feel if someone is watching you, or sense that a situation is dangerous, that predators are looking for easy prey. Prey that will freeze. And while this is intuitive information about myself, I recently read that the most frequent indicator of sexual assault is a previous assault. Meaning, the best way to not get raped is to never have been raped before. Hear me say implicitly: Assault is 100% the fault of the attacker. But when I thinly veil my frozen system with a mean face, I still feel small. I wanted to get my fight back.
I wanted to feel safe in my body again and by the time we got to fighting out of the rape scenario, I already did. It wasn’t that there wasn’t fear. It was that I knew how to respond. I knew it was in me. I knew I could fight. And as Jennie would say, I knew I was worth fighting for. I thought it might come with crying in the corner, instead it came with cheers and high fives. I kicked him off me, put him on the ground, and when I could see his face I hit him so hard my hand bled and is still sore. I never want to hit someone like that, but I’m so relieved to know I could. I went all the way back and gave my body a new outcome. I feel free.
Thank you women who did this work together with me. Thank you friends who encouraged me to see this through. Thank you to everyone who has ever held space for my story. Breaking the silence was the first baby step I took toward this. And thank you Jarrett and Jennie. I know the power I found was mine, but it was your friendship, support and unwavering belief that I had it in me that made me feel safe. Thank you for coming for me. I no longer feel like a victim, I feel like a woman with the fire to fight if she had to. I feel power restored in my bones. I feel safe again.