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.