Your Bill of Rights … for Survivors of Sexual Assault

‘Wow.  That’s a lot of rights!’

The first time I read this, I was sitting with a group of incredible women – all of them were beautiful, talented, intelligent, strong, funny – and they shared one other thing in common:  all were survivors of childhood sexual abuse.

As such, most (if not all) had experienced the loss of knowing and being able to honor some of their most fundamental rights as human beings.  We read this at the close of the group, and one of the women commented, “Wow. That’s a lot of rights!” with a huge smile on her face.  I agree; this is a lot of rights, and they are all YOURS, truly and fully (please read on … ):

Survivor’s Bill of Rights  (from WINGS Handbook, 2008, 2nd Edition)

  • I have the right to healing and wellness.
  • I have the right to make a decision or the freedom to postpone my decision.
  • I have the right to accept that I am human, make mistakes, learn from them, and go on with my life.
  • I have the right to participate in and enjoy sexual pleasure.  Even if I am not yet ready, I claim my right to know that this can be mine.
  • I have the right to joy and happiness right now, today, at this time in my life.
  • I have the right to my anger.  I have the right to turn it into my healing.
  • I have the right not to be numb – to feel any way I do at any given time.
  • I have the right to honor my coping skills.  I can choose what coping skills are still valid and necessary and change others at my own pace.  I can also revert back to them if I need to – they have served me well.
  • I have the right to be heard, to be validated, and disconnect from those who seek to harm or invalidate me, including my family of origin.
  • I have the right to protect and nurture my inner child – to re-parent her or him and to allow her or him to grow and play.
  • I have the right to love and support in all my relationships, to expect respect for my physical, emotional, and sexual well-being.
  • I have the right to safe touch, and to protect myself from all inappropriate behavior.
  • I have the right to love myself, be loved, and be accepted as I am, good points and flaws.
  • I have the right to set boundaries and limits, to say no to anyone including myself.
  • I have the right to grieve for my losses, and not feel guilt for that which was not my fault.
  • I have the right to grow and change, in myself, my relationships, and in all aspects of my life.
  • I have the right to learn to trust others and to trust in degrees as it is earned.
  • I have the right to forgive myself, and to choose whether or not to forgive my abusers.
  • I have the right to be ME.  To accept myself as a unique, precious, priceless individual who deserves the very best of all things.  I deserve to be the person I was created to be.
  • I have the right to see myself as a strong, courageous person who is reclaiming his or her own life.  I am powerful and determined.

If you are an individual with a history of childhood sexual abuse, or sexual assault in adulthood, I’m guessing a few of these really hit home as you read them.  It’s unfortunately quite normal for experiences from the past to sneak into the present moment, and to rob us of not only the ability to fully enjoy our lives, but even to rob us of our most basic human rights.

I encourage you to seek out the support of a trauma-trained therapist who can help you reclaim your life – and your many rights – as you heal from these past experiences.

If you are in the Denver-Boulder area, and are a survivor of childhood sexual abuse, check out the WINGS Foundation, which runs therapist-facilitated support groups for survivors, both men and women.  If you are a survivor of sexual assault or rape as an adult, check out the Blue Bench (formerly RAAP), which provides prevention and care for sexual assault survivors.

And, a PDF of this Bill of Rights, for you, here: Survivor’sBillofRightsHANDOUT_KDunn_0913

Relaxing into the Hard Times

I recently found myself between a rock and a hard place.  Literally…. Between a rock … and, well, another rock…. Trying to shimmy and squeeze my way down the narrow crack, hovering 10 feet over a pool of murky water, held only by the tension of my body between two sandstone walls.

yikes!
yikes!

It was by choice, kind of.  My partner and I decided to hike a couple of slot canyons in Utah, successfully navigated one, crossed overland and dropped into the second one, and … well, it was a bit more than we had bargained for.  So here I was, stuffed between two rocks, trying to control my frantic breathing, my shaking legs, and even more frantic mind, talking out loud to myself (“It’s okay.  Okay.  You’ll be okay. Okay”) and gazing down at what seemed like certain death below me.

Now, I must confess that while I had a ‘climbing phase’ as a young adult, I am quite afraid of heights, falling, breaking my bones, etc., and tend to not manage my emotions very well when I get really scared.  And, after having already squeezed, shimmied, jumped, balanced, and dropped over one ledge with a rope, my nervous system was pretty well taxed by the time we got to this particular “problem.”

stone between canyon wallsBut, like a good therapist, I pulled out all of my skills:  I was using my breath, and making the exhale longer (this ‘lights up’ the parasympathetic and calms the nervous system); I used some EMDR-esque self-tapping to strengthen feelings of strength and grounded-ness; I had spontaneously found my mantra and positive self talk, “Okay.  I will be okay.” (who said it had to be something fancy?); AND I used my container to put away the fear until we got out and I was in a better place to let it process through.

And, then, here’s the thing:  when we are confronted by fear, and our systems are not resourced enough, I believe our true nature emerges.  And my true nature – I’m not going to lie – is to panic and freak out.  To push against the discomfort and to try to get to safe ground as quickly as possible.  The irony is, this doesn’t work when you are stemming between rocks; what holds you securely is the natural tension of your body between the rocks, so if you push away, you are actually much less secure.  Instead, you need to lean into the rocks, to actually relax into them – and this is where you find your most calm and stable position from which to navigate your next move.

canyonAs human beings (bless our hearts!) we spend so much energy pushing against our own lives, trying to avoid the pain and discomfort and fear, and grasping towards some sense of certainty or solid ground.  On this same trip I was reading the words of Pema Chödrön, who very eloquently speaks to this human conundrum, naming the root of our suffering as “our resistance to the fundamental uncertainty of our situation.”  She continues:

“Our discomfort arises from all of our efforts to put ground under our feet, to realize our dream of constant okayness.  When we resist change, it’s called suffering.  But when we can completely let go and not struggle against it, when we can embrace the groundlessness of our situation and relax into its dynamic quality, that’s called enlightenment, or awakening to our true nature, to our fundamental goodness.  Another word for this is freedom – freedom from struggling against the fundamental ambiguity of being human” (Chödrön, 2012, p. 6)

freedom by balonja on stockxchange
“freedom” by balonja on stockxchange

What if …? What if we could just relax into our difficult circumstances?  Perhaps we would find, paradoxically, a place to rest, support, and a solid place from which to make our next move.  I encourage you to look at the places in your life where you find yourself pushing away from your present moment experience, and instead, to lean into that moment, that experience, and let it unfold, let it support you.

“leaning in” with the breath – a practice

Fortunately, we have so many opportunities during the day to notice ourselves pushing away from our actual experience, and to recognize the choice to do something different – to relax into it instead.  Here is a simple mindfulness practice:

  1. Notice yourself resisting your situation, emotion, experience – that is, avoiding discomfort or reaching towards pleasure (easier said than done, I will admit)
  2. Create a “Pause,” to tune in to the present moment.
  3. Take three deep breaths, and just notice what is there.  Be curious.  Practice elongating the out-breath, and finding just a little more space to open up and relax.

 “We have a choice.  We can spend our whole life suffering because we can’t relax with how things really are, or we can relax and embrace the open-endedness of the human situation, which is fresh, unfixated, unbiased.”  (Chödrön, 2012, p. 14)

 Recommended Reading: 

  • Chödrön, Pema (2012).  Living beautifully with uncertainty and change.  Boston, MA:  Shambhala Press.
  • Chödrön, Pema (2010).  Taking the leap: Freeing ourselves from old habits and fears.  Boston, MA:  Shambhala Press.