I want to write more about sexual healing, building on my last post. But first I have to back up for a moment and remind you that I’m fairly serious about yoga. And yes, the two things are connected.
Three and a half year ago, I studied to be a yoga teacher, and before the pandemic, I taught at a women’s residential substance use treatment center and at the women’s prison, both of which were very rewarding experiences. I’m not the type of yogi who can put my foot behind my head or do a lot of pretzel-type poses. I am more the type that sticks with basic and intermediate poses but pays a lot of attention to how the breath can bring mind and body together. I’m excited about how yoga can be used to soothe an agitated nervous system or spark one that is depressed and lethargic. I’m interested in the intersection of polyvagal theory and yoga philosophy (for example, the gunas–some of you may know what I am talking about, but if not, no worries). I’m interested in trauma healing, obviously for myself, but also for the many women I’ve met in drug and alcohol treatment or in the prison.
I have really missed in-person yoga classes for the past year. I occasionally do an online class, but I find that fairly unsatisfying. I’m trying these days to restart my asana practice (my practice of the physical poses) because it’s become very irregular. But what I have kept up with recently are online dharma talks and opportunities to learn more about teaching yoga from a trauma-informed perspective.
The other day my teacher talked how we use the poses we select, as well as our voice tone and prosody, as well as the very words we use, to bring students into a mental space where they feel safe enough and resourced enough to participate, to try new things, to take risks. She reminded us that our students, and we ourselves, don’t have to be fully healed before we can take something on. We only have to be resourced enough, in the current moment, that we can manage whatever emotions and sensations arise.
I have been thinking about this a lot in relation to my efforts to change my relationship to sex.
After reviewing some of what we learned in my therapy group (art therapy group for women survivors of childhood sexual abuse), I realized yet again that it helps me a lot to learn more about the experiences of others. It helps me feel more normal, less freakish. So then I thought, maybe if I learn more about what others have done to change habits and patterns that hold them back, that could help me too. I decided to pick up a book I have tried and failed to read several times in the past: The Sexual Healing Journey: A Guide for Survivors of Sexual Abuse, by Wendy Maltz.
The first time I spotted the book was many years ago, at least 15 years earlier. I was in a bookstore, in the psychology and self-help section. I looked around me furtively, trying to make sure there was no one around who would see what book I was picking up. I ducked into a corner with it and flipped it open. The first thing I read, at least as I remember it, was a short summary of a woman’s history of sexual abuse by a family member. Then there was something about the author, who is a clinical psychologist, recommending a period of celibacy.
What?!? How would that fix things? That would just mean I’d have to talk to my husband about it. I couldn’t do that! And anyway, my situation probably wasn’t as bad as the example in the book… was it?
I quickly shut the book, shoved it back on the shelf, left the bookstore, and felt sick.
Some years later, my therapist loaned me her copy of the book. I didn’t leave it on my bedside table with the other books I am always reading. Instead, I tucked it in my dresser and only took it out when no one was around. I had the intention of learning from it, but I found it difficult to read. Impossible, really. I would skim a page or two, and then it would feel too “hot” for me. I use the word “hot,” also when I talk about this now with E, my therapist, but I guess I mean I felt a very uncomfortable emotional reaction to what I was reading. And I felt afraid.
I kept that book in my dresser for several months, but I never managed to read more than a few pages. Finally, I took it back to E and said, “I don’t think I’m ready for this. I’m not sure I ever will be.”
After that, I spend years telling her things like, “I’m doing better in a number of areas, but this sex thing, I don’t know if it’s fixable.”
Then I started to get a bit braver, and as some long-time readers will know, I even tried going to a sex therapist for a while. But I got really triggered there, too. She suggested I try EMDR, to see if we could reduce the power of the triggers. But for some reason I never really clicked with that therapist. And I often got triggered in her office, so she wouldn’t even try EMDR. That felt like another failure, and I started thinking maybe I had been right, maybe this sex thing really isn’t fixable.
But this therapy group has been very healing, and it’s made me think I might try again. I might try again to read Wendy Maltz’s book. I might try EMDR again (although I have called around, and so far no one is taking new clients). I might try again to see if I can be sexually intimate with my husband without having abusers in my head.
So I borrowed E’s copy of The Sexual Healing Journey again a few days ago. This time I keep it on the table by the bed. My husband knows I want to change things, and he’s supportive. I don’t feel like I need to hide.
I started to read it on Monday morning. A few paragraphs into the preface, I could feel my heart started to beat faster. Some part of me–not sure what part–suddenly wanted me to harm myself, to shut down this whole project, right now, right away. Throw that book across the room!
But I didn’t. I remembered this time that it helps to turn toward, not away from, the difficult emotions. I put my hand on my heart and told myself, Wow, you are really afraid of this. You become very distressed the moment I try to do this work. I can see how scary this is for you. I will pay attention to your fear. I will ask you what you need. But I won’t run away from this healing work anymore.
I went on, I know this is really hard for some part, maybe for multiple parts. But right now, I am safe enough, I am resourced enough, to do this work. I have ways to soothe myself, if I need to. And if it gets really hard, I can turn to E or to Lisa from group therapy, and I can share this with the other women in my group if I want to. I don’t have to be alone with it. I can do this.
At the same time, I didn’t want to dismiss the fear and just override it. I decided that I could go really, really slow, if that’s what I needed to do. I determined that all I would require is that I pick up the book every day. I can read one chapter, or I can read one sentence. I can just hold the book in my hand. Whatever feels right on a given day is fine. But I’m not giving up. I only get one life and orgasms are awesome and my husband is very loving and why shouldn’t I want us to experience this pleasure together? Maybe it’s truly not possible. But maybe it is, and I am strong enough and skilled enough and resourced enough and stubborn enough to try.
Oh how I miss in person yoga. I’ve fallen out of the habit of practicing this last year, and starting back up seems so difficult. You’ve reminded me how important yoga has been to my healing and why it is worth the effort to even start practicing again for a few minutes everyday.
I have a copy of that book, and it has sat, hidden in my nightstand for several years. I understand the “hot” feeling of trying to read it— I think that is honestly a great description.
Can I just say how incredible the way you speak to those scared parts is? And also, while I can’t “say” the words, I love what you said at the end about only having one life and doing the healing work even if it’s slow going because you deserve to have that type of intimacy with your husband. It’s really inspiring and when I think of where you started (at the beginning of your blog) and where you are now, I hope you can feel proud of yourself.
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Aw, thank you Alice. Sometimes I do feel proud that I have come so far. And then I get triggered by something and wonder, oh my gosh, do I have to do this AGAIN? It still happens far more than I want it to, but I guess I do recover faster.
Maybe we should do a book club with the Maltz book? You can take it out of your nightstand and just hold it or read one sentence. We can tiptoe towards the book, telling ourselves repeatedly that we are safe enough, we are resourced enough, to tolerate it in teeny tiny doses…
I’m feeling all of the things in this first paragraph. I’ll spend days or weeks feeling really good and steady and present, where trauma feels very much in my past. And then I’m triggered and it feels like I’m back where I started. I think you are right— we recover faster and I think I cope better now than I did even two years ago. Maybe this is what being healed looks like. Maybe being healed isn’t about always feeling “normal adult self in the present” but about being able to cope with and recover faster when our trauma is front and center because of a trigger.
Hmmmmm. I’ll think seriously about looking at the book again. 🙂
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Once again, thank you for openly sharing these experiences. Your bravery in venturing into this work while also being mindful to honor the fearful parts inside is really inspiring.
Your last post gave me the gentle nudge to try to begin to address these issues with my therapist. I am taking some very tiny baby steps into it (intermixed with some serious avoidance if I’m being truly honest). I think I often want to bulldoze through the hardest stuff to try to force healing as quickly as possible so I can get the hell out of there. Of course I know better, but I struggle to take my time, pay attention, and tend to all of the internal responses and fears that occur. Your words and connection to yoga is a great reminder to slow down and tune in. 💕
I can absolutely relate to 1) the avoidance, which I certainly seek when things feel especially difficult and scary and 2) the desire to bulldoze through the hard stuff. I remember years ago, apologizing to E because I was taking yet another session, a third or fourth session, to talk about one incident. “You can spend the next six months talking about this event, if you need to,” she said to me. I was actually horrified by that comment. I had expected that in six months I was going to be fine. Cured. Free of depression and anxiety, boldly going about the world as my best self.
What a delusion that was. This stuff takes a long time. Our minds and bodies were set up to think and react a certain way when we were very young, when brains are most malleable and responsive to their environments. Then we repeated patterns based on those thoughts and reactions for years. It makes sense that it takes a long time to undo some of it. Most of the time, I am capable now of being more patient with myself than I used to be. The hardest parts seem to be when something sets me off, when I am so triggered that I have trouble functioning in my day-to-day life. Then I become impatient again, because it feels intolerable that I should still have to work this hard after such a long time.
So, I feel you. It’s hard to be focused. It’s hard to be patient. We might as well acknowledge it and give ourselves some compassion for this challenging task we’ve taken on, the task of healing.
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Yes, it sure takes time to undo those long held and ingrained patterns. It’s brutal at times, but it helps so much to feel the validating support from other survivors who struggle with similar experiences. Patience and self compassion are such critical pieces to this healing puzzle. Thank you again for all that you share. 💕