What is Scarier than Being Vulnerable?
by Elisabeth Swim, MA
Daya Helpline Advocate
What is scarier than being vulnerable? Holding onto what scares me. One of the most challenging things about being a survivor of intimate violence is the taboo around discussing it. One of my family members flat-out refuses to discuss it with me because she wants to remember the late person who harmed me in the best possible way. Silence has taken me decades to open up to others about the harms I have experienced starting from early childhood.
As a telephone advocate for survivors of gender-based violence, I often get pieces of my own story given back to me through the testimonies of people who call me. Memories I have blocked out slowly trickle back and along with them come recollections of songs, foods, sights, places from the times in my life when I experienced danger or harm. As I practice talking with callers from a compassionate distance, I discover ways in which I could use the same compassion and grace myself.
For most of my life, I lived without any knowledge that the gender-based harms I had faced were unjust, or that I did not deserve them. I used my very strong mental will and my body’s coping skills to cut myself off from parts of my life when I lost all control of my circumstances, and felt my suffering to be insignificant. What broke down my internal walls? Stories.
In 2012 I danced with my community to One Billion Rising’s Break the Chain, with choreography by Debbie Allen. The song’s lyrical stories call for an end to gender-based violence and to the power and control that bolsters hierarchical social norms. This multi-sensory anthem unlocked stories in my own body that had been hidden away from my conscious awareness.
While learning and rehearsing the choreography, my body began to show me how immediate the song’s message was to my own circumstance. I needed frequent breaks from dancing and ultimately had to bow out from our troupe’s performance to give my body some nourishing rest.
I worked for years through EMDR therapy, trauma-informed movements, mindfulness, meditation, more therapy, and a creative writing practice. Step by step, I sought support and learned how to receive support (which is still a challenge to this day). Talking and writing about what happened to me was a private and emotional way to access and reframe memories, emotions and desires for the future.
There have been setbacks along the way, not the least of which was having my first journal entries about childhood adversity lost in a purse snatching – it took me four years after that to feel comfortable writing again. But I bought a shredder and started shredding anything I did not want to keep. That helped me to feel safe letting go of things once I had put them down on paper.
In 2021 I joined the movement to support other survivors, as an advocate. While my own experiences with abuse and violence were immediate portals into empathy, I had trouble finding the subtle differences between empathy and enmeshment. I would often finish helpline calls feeling raw and open, like I had just opened up one of my own wounds in the process of providing support to heal someone else’s.
SOAR’s pilot Storytelling cohort gave me a place to practice being my own advocate in a community context. To see my experiences with gender-based violence with the same understanding that I offer to others. During the workshop I discovered for the first time that the cumulative amount of interpersonal violence I have been through is much greater than I had ever realized.
Being in community for this realization supported me to continue writing about my experiences and to mine my memory to see other ways in which my personal challenges are connected to those I see at work every day. All of this with greater agility between compassionate neutral distance and deep emotional presence. Since the end of our classes, I have started writing in my local poetry community, taking classes that generate new work where encouragement takes center stage.
Before SOAR’s storytelling program, I was on a year-long break from writing poetry. I felt like I was too close to my experiences to be able to write about them without upsetting myself. Along with therapy and focus on trusted friendships, the SOAR storytelling workshop helped me to get out my pencil again and start making syllable music.
First published on www.southasiansoar.org