This is the question everyone asks me when they learn I work with survivors of intimate partner violence.
So to answer the question, I have a question for you. Look around you right now, wherever you are and ask yourself, “Would I be willing to leave my partner, home, job, car, possibly children, extended family, and phone today? Right now?
Survivors wrestle with this question and more. Blaming them is not the answer. Maybe the question should be, why do people abuse each other, hit, assault? Maybe the question should be, “Why doesn’t the abuser leave?”
Announcing an exciting new collaboration to illuminate healing from abuse and capture hearts!
What happens when creatives have an idea and they collide? Vikki Downs, Cedar Fort Marketing Director sparked an idea. What if we combined art and writing to bring awareness and hope to survivors and their loved ones?
And what if you could contribute?
That was all it took!
I called Haley Miller of Haley Miller’s Captures Photography. Haley, a true creative listened, was inspired, packed and here in two days! Driven by the power of an idea and the family van!
Haley had been creating beautiful photographic art like the pieces below.
I have long believed in the power of changing one heart at a time.
Abuse is a difficult subject. It is easy to swipe past it on our screens. One-second glance and it is gone. But that same one second of time can be used to touch a soul.
What if every day we all shared one positive thought, we cared for just a minute and we all encouraged the survivors in our world?
That is why I will also be adding a page to my website for Haley Miller’s Photographic art and for you to share your stories. We want to hear about moments that have changed your heart or acts of service you are doing to touch others.
Haley’s art will be traveling with me to bookstores, book clubs, firesides, and events.
Has an act of kindness captured your heart or changed the way you feel about yourself or a survivor you care about? Have you participated in a service project for others?
Please share your experiences and we will share some of ours.
I hope survivors and the world can walk together towards healing.
My father Jeffrey was in the 5th grade in the 1940s. Christmas was coming and his class prepared to sing carols at the school Christmas concert.
The teacher stood at the front of the class and told all the children to close their eyes and put their heads down on their desks. She said she was going to walk up and down the rows. If she touched their head, they shouldn’t sing or they would ruin the concert.
Jeffrey listened to the teacher walk and then felt a tap on his head. Jeffrey stopped singing. In fact, Jeffrey almost never sang again.
At every church meeting, his children asked why he didn’t sing. He would tell the story of being asked not to sing and assure us he was terrible.
Finally, Jeffrey was the bishop in his church and sat in front of the congregation weekly. His grown children didn’t just encourage him to try singing, they badgered him. Bravely, Jeffrey did something unusual, he took a risk and sang.
Admittedly, when I heard his first attempts, I wanted to say, “You’re right. Please stop Dad!” But somewhere in his wobbly tones, there was a buttery voice and potential, so we smiled and he continued to sing, every note and every song just a little better than the one before.
No one who hears him today would think he had ever felt so much shame about his voice, that he had been silent for over 40 years.
Brene Brown, the author of “Daring Courageously,” said 85% of adults she interviewed remembered experiencing an event in school which was so shaming it changed their lives forever. 50% of those people shared the shame wounds were around creativity. Brene called these wounds, “Art Scars,” in her podcast with Elizabeth Gilbert on “Big Strong Magic.”
My father had a deep and painful Art Scar. But unlike most of us, he chose to risk being creative and sing. In taking the risk he has healed.
Do you have art scars?
We have learned the human heart and brain are beautiful things, able to change and heal. Trauma survivors, wired for anxiety and stress can rewire their own brains by learning healthy “go to” ways to cope involving creativity and movement. But for many victims the thought of sharing their innermost feelings in a tangible way is terrifying and creates a fear of rejection, inflaming old art scars.
Many years ago the person I loved the most told me my writing and painting were foolish wastes of time for a young mother. Overcome with grief, and believing this older man, I put the toys of my youth away. Gradually something inside me began to grow. It was an unmet need, painfully growing until I recognized the importance of self-care and dusted off my paint brushes.
Writing my book was a wonderful, private experience. I enjoyed every minute of it until I decided to take it to the next level and risk ridicule again by publishing.
I remember filling out the online book submission form and staring at the send button. You could have sliced my fear of rejection with a knife. The triumph was hitting the send button. Success or failure, taking the risk was a moment of healing and personal growth.
Is there a dream, a wish, a creation waiting inside your heart?
Some survivors share their art scars or fear when I talk to them about letting go of addictions and filling their lives with healthy coping skills like writing or artwork. Do you doodle all day, but dream of creating a masterpiece?
Brene Brown went on to say she used to believe there were creative and non-creative people. But after her research, she understood there was no such thing as creative people. She said, “There are just people who use their creativity and people who don’t…unused creativity is not benign.”
Find your inner creator!
It never occurred to my father, even after years of repeating his story, that maybe the tap on his head was just a mean boy sitting next to him playing a prank. If you have ancient art scars, speak as kindly to yourself as you speak to others. Take another look at your story and give it a happy ending.
Displaying your creation is not necessary for healing. The process is powerful enough.
It is my belief we are all children of the greatest creator of all time, our Heavenly Father. Everything we do is worthy of a magnet and space on our own personal refrigerator.
Creating can be a spiritual experience in a lifetime of consuming. Creation is our chance to organize our thoughts and share our feelings in a tangible way.
This week, if you have a buried desire to create, take a risk. Don’t compare your first steps to world class musicians or feel pressured to share your beginning work with anyone who isn’t safe. Safe, as in has your back, will laugh with you if you hit a sour note and cheer you on for your courage.
“Joy is what happens to us when we allow ourselves to recognize how good life really is.” Marianne Williamson
Today I leaned into the joy!
It all started when I found five dollars during my morning run. I thought to myself, it’s a sign! Today is going to be great! Then my morning coconut milk, mate tea was free. My punch card was full and I thought, see! Today is going to be great! I leaned into the joy instead of thinking all my fun tickets were spent and any moment something would go wrong, maybe even a random bear attack.
As a trauma survivor, I remember living for years with the fear that someone or something else was going to jump out and hurt me. Then one day I decided to take my life back. I remember the exact moment.
Choosing to change my thoughts
It was a summer day, I was 28, a mother of five children, in the middle of a two and a half year divorce. I was on the phone for hours with the gas company, insurance company and well you name it, struggling with everyone and everything while my children played joyfully in the yard.
Suddenly it hit me. The sun was streaming through the windows, the kids were waiting and I was letting the person, the trauma, the things that had hurt me poison this moment. The banks had closed. The courts had closed. Anyone who had traumatized me was far away and yet I was allowing them to consume my thoughts like a hungry bear.
That’s it! I thought and I took back my life. I decided I was not going to give them one more minute of this beautiful day. I opened the door, stepped into the sun, put the kids on their bikes and went for a run.
Okay, it wasn’t quite that simple, but that day began my personal struggle and journey towards taking back my life.
A few things I have learned along the way
Trauma and adverse childhood events change our brains. If you have a pulse, there is a better than good chance you’ve experienced trauma, and it’s rewired your brain. You may even spend some of your time on high alert waiting for something else to go wrong.
What happens to your brain if the bear lives at your house?
Nadine Burke Harris, explained in her Ted Talk, “… imagine you’re walking in the forest and you see a bear. Immediately, your hypothalamus sends a signal to your pituitary, which sends a signal to your adrenal gland that says, “Release stress hormones! Adrenaline! Cortisol!” And so your heart starts to pound, Your pupils dilate, your airways open up, and you are ready to either fight that bear or run from the bear. And that is wonderful if you’re in a forest and there’s a bear.
But the problem is what happens when the bear comes home every night, and this system is activated over and over and over again, and it goes from being adaptive, or life-saving, to maladaptive, or health-damaging. … High doses of adversity not only affect brain structure and function, they affect the developing immune system, developing hormonal systems, and even the way our DNA is read and transcribed.”
The good news
“Owning our story can be hard but not nearly as difficult as spending our lives running from it. Embracing our vulnerabilities is risky but not nearly as dangerous as giving up on love and belonging and joy—the experiences that make us the most vulnerable. Only when we are brave enough to explore the darkness will we discover the infinite power of our light.”
― Brené Brown
We now know we all have something called neuroplasticity. To put it simply, we can change our brains.
Dr. Amen in his book, “Change your brain Change your life,” said, “Most negative thinking is automatic and goes unnoticed. You’re not really choosing how to respond to your situation, it’s being chosen for you by bad brain habits.”
Today is a good day to make new thinking habits and to stop waiting for the bear in the woods to jump out and eat you!
Here are some ways to change your brain and your thinking habits:
Practice spending time in the moment focusing on things that bring you joy
Set aside time to do things to fill your emotional bank like gardening, writing, walking or listening to music
Recognize what you can’t control, and focus on what you can control
Look for beauty in your home, the world and the people you choose to spend time with
Choose friends who think positively
Invest in hobbies
Learn to meditate, practice yoga or find a prayer that quiets your mind when you feel anxious
Treat yourself with the same compassion and kindness you do others
It is my hope that you allow yourself to be happy because joy is one of the few things we are entitled to. We are entitled to find joy, feel joy and create joy whenever possible.
Great news! You can heal! For years research focused on the damage done to victims brains and well-being by abuse, but as it turns out survivors are more resilient than anyone ever dreamed. They may feel broken, but they don’t have to stay that way.
Although after trauma, our brains are rewired, leading to the release of stress hormones and anxiety, we can choose to create new neuropathways and new responses to stress.
Trauma survivors have a personal basket full of coping mechanisms they use at times of stress. Some of the ways they use to cope worked well during trauma, like abusing alcohol, however, after the trauma passes abusing alcohol becomes an additional problem. Survivors can work on adopting healthier ways to cope.
Once a survivor finds a healthy way to self-sooth, like exercise, they can reinforce it through practice, making it easier to let go of some of the costlier methods. It’s hard to let go of a habit that has served a survivor well unless they replace it with a habit that serves them better and gives them a healthier sense of self-worth.
Here are some healthy coping mechanisms. Try one or try them all. Find out what comforts you and put it in your basket of coping mechanism for difficult days:
Exercise. It isn’t necessary to run a marathon to benefit from exercise. It is important to find something participants like doing so they want to do it again. Anything from a calm nature hike to a cross-fit class constitutes a healthy way to reduce stress and combat depression. Remember, variety keeps it interesting.
Read a book. Whether it’s a romance novel or a self-help book, it can be a mini vacation between covers. The library is free and filled with adventures to give readers a short break from life.
Garden to Table. Gardening is a way to move, find peace and grow healthy food for interesting meals. Gardening can be a quiet solitary moment or a place to connect with family and community. Community gardens may offer free or low-cost space to plant vegetables and grow a healthy salad.
Yoga or meditation. Trauma survivors often spend time disconnected from their feelings or their body. Sexual assault survivors sometimes feel their body has betrayed them. Yoga is a way to reconnect in a safe environment. Survivors should ask instructors if they are trauma informed and inform instructors if they are uncomfortable being touched. Learning to control breathing and relaxing are skills that can transfer outside the yoga studio.
Art. Any form of arts or crafts that allow free expression of inner feelings is powerful. Be aware that art therapy is a safe environment to explore feelings and express them. Survivors, who are new to art, may experience powerful emotions as they process feelings.
Music. Whether a survivor sings plays or is a part of the audience, music is therapeutic. A song can express a feeling a survivor hasn’t found words for, or lift an aching heart with hopeful notes.
Writing. Anything from a short poem, journal entry to an autobiography can help a survivor process the good and bad experiences that make up all of our lives.
Spiritual healing. Read, ponder and pray. Search out good books and spiritual connections that fill your basket.
What do you do to cope? Comment below and share ideas with other survivors. Let’s stop examining the trauma and start focusing on healing.