I have thought a lot about my relationship with gratitude as a survivor of incest and sexual violence. I often struggle to understand what gratitude is, until something catches me by the heart and my whole body is wrapped in the warm rays of gratitude. I won’t try to explain the feeling too deeply as I think it manifests differently for everyone.
What I want to share today is my frustration and journey with gratitude practices and attitudes and how I am growing intimately to open to gratitude in my life. For a long time during my healing process, people would say to me to be grateful for my abuse, I would not be who I am without it. That it made me stronger. Anger would rear its lovely and righteous head. However, I remained silent as I did not understand, because weren’t they right? Perhaps I was playing the victim?
Then I found a writer online named Megan Devine and I began to follow her blog and Instagram “Refuge for Grief.” She began untying all the platitudes and false hope I was being fed by people who did not understand and people who truly were still living in denial of their own pain. I began to understand why gratitude journals were not working for me. Last year I read her book, “It’s OK That You’re NOT OK: Meeting Grief and Loss in a Culture that Doesn’t Understand.” This book opened a gateway for me to evaluate the many ways I tried to please others and make them comfortable with my pain. I began to validate my own pain and take time to slow down and process.
All my childhood I had clung to the outer illusions of good grades, unbreakable faith, apple pies, and those powerful horses in my backyard. Yet I carried within me a darkness and a pain that threatened the implosion of my own atoms. I lived in my own belief that hope was a barren desert stranded in a lost sea.
In my mid-twenties I was required to look at my pain or dissolve. I felt nothing but sorrow and disbelief that I was alive. After a few months, I felt this nagging truth that I did not want to be alive. The pain was unbearably physical.
My body felt like it was in a dream or like my arm was ten feet away. My chest carried 1000 pound bricks and my legs were seaweed in a tsunami.
Trauma happens to the body. I do not feel grateful a lot of the time. I am still learning what safety and joy feel like in my body in bits and pieces. To feel gratitude regularly is not a fair request of myself.
I have first had to feel and lay in my loneliness. I have needed to allow fear and exhaustion. In 2014 I chose to be hospitalized due to suicidal ideation. Eventually, I began to read more trauma-informed books, guidebooks for survivors, and committed to therapy. I realized that there were many different paths people took. I became familiar with different trauma methods, resources, and tools. The ones that always made sense to me were practices that brought me into my body. Over time I have learned that perspective and a relationship with my body have brought gratitude to life in a way I can invite and tend to with compassion. And I move slowly.
Without first feeling my pain I was not going to know what joy and gratitude feel like. Somatic experiencing, yoga, poetry, and EMDR therapy has connected me to the ability to allow my body to feel fear and anxiety with less judgment more and moreover the years. When judgment is quieter there is space where I see strength in the ways I kept myself alive.
My body was intelligent to dissociate during abuse. I now appreciate what I used to judge as a weakness. Understanding the biology of trauma in its uniqueness to my journey suddenly makes gratitude journals useless when I can now hold myself present through the pain.
I am not grateful for my abuse. I do not believe my abuse was for a higher purpose, a soul contract, or a deeper mission (however I do respect those beliefs). I have had to grieve who I could have been, had I been well-loved, and protected. I believe that trauma is called trauma because we are not built to endure these things, if we were built to endure these types of heinous crimes then we would not have to choose to do a lifetime of healing from its repercussions. I am in awe of the resilience and the biological ability to survive.
I have gratitude for who I am. I am strong in my commitment to rescue and love myself as I hug myself wild in tears through a moment of pain. I am courageous as I tell my story, bring the truth forward, and sincerely forgive myself.
As a survivor, I am still terrified of what the tragedies of life may steal from me now that I finally embrace my strength. I am still building foundations so I cannot always feel gratitude even though I know it is there. I am still busy protecting all that I gained through loving myself well. I do not wish to lose my partner or my new friends. I am still healing spaces where people abandoned me and ways that survival required me to betray myself.
What I can find gratitude for and build from are the things that cannot be taken away from me, those moments that cannot be lost. When I write or list my gratitude, I also invite my body to participate or it is a fruitless practice, a menial checklist of a well-trained compliant robot. I ask my body, “What are you grateful for that you cannot lose?”
Some of the gratitude I feel is the first sunset I ever saw over the Pacific Ocean and my degree in Psychology. It feels like a yawn after an intense EMDR therapy session or the kiss on my forehead from my partner before we make dinner. It feels like a sunrise over Midwest fields or a warm rain in Florida. It feels like telling the truth, choosing what I need, and knowing that it is always there. Gratitude lives in the arches of my feet, pads of my toes, pinky fingers, and thighs. Someday, I will write to you that gratitude makes its appearance in my whole body. It is a relationship that occasionally requires I tend to other emotions first and understand it is always there for me, even when I do not understand it.
Gratitude also shows me that we are all different and meant to embrace what resonates with us. Gratitude is hoping that you have your own journey with authentic acceptance and validation. True gratitude encourages you to be yourself and go forward empowered with the choice of how you need to heal. The choice is such a powerful tool as a survivor. I hope you claim what is for you and own it. I know I am grateful for all of you doing this work with me.