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How to Get Started On Your Healing Journey After Trauma

As a trauma survivor, I’ve done everything possible to push aside my most painful memories. While I’ve always considered myself a no-nonsense, “face the truth” type of person, it took me, literally, decades to realize that I was living in denial about what happened to me so many years ago.

When I was 13 years old, I had a sexual relationship with my 40-year old riding coach. What I didn’t realize until so many years later was that this “relationship” was in reality, child sexual abuse. And while my memories of the events have never changed, my interpretation of them metamorphosed in middle age. I unearthed deeply uncomfortable thoughts, feelings, and experiences from this “relationship” that I once so greatly cherished – and I finally recognized it for the abuse that it was.

This discovery led me to write, direct, and produce my HBO film, THE TALE, which is based on the true story of my affair with my coach at 13-years-old. While the movie took me a decade to create, it continues to impact my life even more, now that it is finished. It not only helped me start a global conversation about memory, abuse, and trauma but has served as a cathartic project for me –– which, jolted my healing journey.

Despite the stigmas that loom over trauma (especially related to sex), the number of people who suffer in silence continues to grow exponentially. If you’re one of those people, or know someone who is, I want you to know that you are not alone and you can heal. Here are three steps to help you get started:

1. Trust your survival skills.

There is great emphasis placed on “admitting what happened” in order to heal, but we often don’t talk about an equally-important truth about survival: most people, like myself, will unconsciously deny what happened to them, in an attempt to function in the face of trauma.

Instead of attacking yourself for not facing the reality of what happened to you “soon enough”, give yourself credit for working through it. After I made THE TALE, I started to have a clear image of myself in my childhood bedroom after the abuse. In the bedroom, there were two parts of me: a child who laid in bed, trying to figure out how to go on, and a child who writhed on the floor. The child in the bed realized she couldn’t deal with the broken girl on the floor (she didn’t know how). She had to leave that broken part behind.

Once I captured this picture in my mind, I understood that I was incapable of dealing with the damage of the abuse at 13, so I cut it off to lead a (seemingly) functional adult life. But finally, after more than 30 years later, I was strong enough to face the horror of that broken child to, ultimately, heal. Now, I’m grateful for my natural defenses that protected me all of those years to survive.

Know that you are meant to survive through your trauma, too.

2. Take “time out” from your triggers.

There will be moments when you think you’ve overcome the trauma completely, only to discover it rears its ugly head again in another way and moment in time. That’s what makes healing so difficult. We can protect our inner world, but not what happens outside of ourselves. Inevitably, this means that we will be “triggered” by other people, places, and things that bring us back to our traumatic memories.

It’s important to take a “time out” from whatever is happening in these types of moments. By slowing down, you’ll realize that your trigger isn’t exactly your trauma, but a test to help you heal from it. Instead of blaming people, places, or things that trigger us, we can leverage our triggers as opportunities to recognize what we’re feeling in order to heal. And if we can get in touch with the pain and stay with it, we can heal its source. Like they say, “contact heals.”

If you’re feeling unsafe about recognizing your triggers on your own, I have found therapy to be especially helpful for slowing down and identifying my triggers in a safe, judgment-free environment. Therapy can be an essential part of healing from trauma. Personally, I continue to attend therapy and have worked with different modalities of therapy at different stages of my journey.

3. Seek self-care. Pursue your passion. 

There isn’t a blueprint-approach for seeking help and healing. Instead, I like to think of healing as an individual creative process that needs to be sourced from within. My abuse left a deep hole inside of me, where I unconsciously felt very bad about myself for many years. I’d always try to “prove” that I was worthy in the world, and that I was good enough to be loved – because I couldn’t believe it otherwise. I depended on external affirmation from others to justify my existence.

Filmmaking has always been a creative outlet and a way for me to make sense of my life and the world. It’s not only been a source of self-care but has allowed me to pursue my own personal development and healing, renewing my sense of joy and hope. It essentially taught me that I am worthy and lovable and purposeful.

Seeking small ways to inspire joy and love to your soul on a daily basis will help you get in touch with yourself and understand your unique, cherishable purpose in this life.

While filmmaking folds into my passion and form of self-care, you can find any creative outlet to help your healing. I’ve also found daily practices like free-writing, exercising, listening to music, and getting massages to help me get in touch with myself.

You can discover your best self-care practices by setting aside time to ask yourself what you need and writing down the first thoughts that come to mind, no matter how surprising they may be. Then, promise yourself to do them.

* * *

There isn’t a fixed timeline or trajectory to heal. What’s important is that you find the process that resonates with you. As I mentioned before, it can be essential to find a qualified therapist to work with you, because it’s hard for anyone to face pain and open wounds completely on their own.

Healing from trauma may be uncomfortable and painstaking at times; no one said it was easy. But once you embark on your healing journey, you’ll realize how exciting and rewarding it can be to reconnect with the beautiful intricacies that make you, you.

This essay was featured in the Feb. 17h edition of The Sunday Paper, Maria Shriver’s free weekly newsletter for people with passion and purpose. To get inspiring and informative content like this piece delivered straight to your inbox each Sunday morning, click here to subscribe.