This post was originally written for / appeared on Reveal to Heal as a guest post. Reveal to Heal is an art / written blog for survivors of sexual abuse, assault, and rape to use either art form as a tool to share their voice about how sexual violence has impacted their lives. Reveal’s goal is to provide an avenue of healing for survivors of sexual violence to share their scars/stories in a community of support and understanding. Stop by and look at the submissions uploaded by survivors, and, if you are moved to, submit one of your own.
It’s not something that society deems acceptable, the daring idea that sometimes – really, far more often than we know – objects and people become far stronger and all the more beautiful after sustaining and mending catastrophic damage from a breakage event. Sadder still, as the emotional weight of abuse, rape, or assault crushes down on our shoulders and wrings our very spirit flat and lifeless, it’s not a thought that many victims and survivors of trauma are willing or even able to contemplate. The poison injected into our minds and hearts by those who abused and brutally attacked us systematically erodes, undermines, and renders the figurative tissue of our objectivity into a necrotic state. Without a healthy perspective of our worth, value, and beauty as imperfect human beings, it becomes unthinkable that such a dark, painful time in our lives could make us more beautiful than before.
For a time, we perpetuate the lies and transgressions of our abusers in our daily lives as truth. We feel the shame of worthlessness and mourn the blight of our inability to see the wolf disguised in sheepskin as it lurks about in the fold. All the while, the general public is largely unaware as they wag their fingers with contempt and judgment in our faces, that the amount of self-blame, criticism, and cruelty we heap upon our own shoulders is far heavier than anything they can ever offer up. Survivors of trauma are known, however, for using that external shaming as justification of our own negative self-talk and proof that we truly were the cause of the abuse/trauma we endured. Although it may have taken a while to wear away our sense of love for ourselves during priming in abuse, the constant injection of negativity creates a deeply ingrained self-loathing and shame in our hearts and thereby taints and warps our thoughts so we come to believe all the lies and cruelty fed into us by the abusers is truth. For those of us who experienced this loss of self-love due to a brutal instance of sexual assault, the onslaught of the cruelty and callousness in the environment around us has the same effect of planting and nurturing the seed of shame.
Once we escape to safety, even as we continue this assault on ourselves, we also endure at the hands of those around us. Some of very people closest to us will use their relationship with us as justification to exploit an emotional bond by being cruel and critical instead of kind and supportive. In doing so, they unknowingly support the abuser by “proving” to us that we are in fact everything hateful, loathsome, and burdensome instead of all the beautifully and amazingly strong, courageous, intelligent, and capable beacons of light and love that we truly are. The suffering, despair, and shame we experience with trauma cuts far deeper into our being than any blade could ever pierce, and the victim blaming and shaming that follows is the salt rub and barbs that refuse to allow the wounds to heal. It inflames the tissue, eating away the partially mended flesh, and the infection spreads, worsening to a point where it becomes an intolerable threat to our well-being.
“Why would you go home with someone you just met anyway?”
“For someone so smart, you should have known he/she would hurt you.”
“I never would have been so stupid to allow anyone to hit me. I would have left immediately.”
“And what were YOU wearing?”
“I would have seen that coming a mile away.”
“What did you do to push him/her that far? You must have done something!”
“Well if you weren’t so drunk….”
“I can’t believe you’d accuse your father/grandfather/mother/sibling/the priest/teacher/boss, etc of that! He/she is such a good person!”
“You ought to be ashamed of yourself!”
“You’re just seeking attention. We both know it wasn’t that bad. Get over it.”
To me, it’s one of the worst contradictions of all. The respect for those overcoming adversity in so many other situations is often lost upon us as abuse and rape survivors despite the fact that we, too, epitomize the beauty in not only surviving devastating circumstances but also coming out with so much gratitude and hope that we are propelled to offer up our voices into the world. As harbingers of the monsters lurking in the light. As warnings that no one is immune to the risk, because it can happen to them. As proof to others still trapped in the torment that they can escape into a circle of support and create a life filled with love. As lights in the darkness that can lead others out and away from danger, carry someone who is unable to walk on their own, and to guide those who still stumble and tremble with doubt and encourage them as they bravely confront and subdue the demons from their horror stories. Somehow, even as people look upon survivors of severe illness, family tragedies, natural disasters, and acts of random violence and terrorism with a sort of reverence, they are filled with disdain at trauma survivors who have endured assaults and abuses of all kinds and are moved to act not in support but in denial. Denial of humanity, dignity, compassion, respect, and gratitude. Withholding things so imperative to our healing only pushes us back into the shadows in silence and prompts us to shamefully hoard away our stories from the world as objects of disdain and humiliation instead of the gifts that they are.
As a whole, our society has the unstoppable drive to not only discard the broken bits of objects and undesirable things but to hide them away in dark pits with other cast-offs deemed no longer fit to see the light of day. Bad choices of our youth are left behind in the shadows. When we break a dish, we throw it away. If an electronic gadget stops working, we replace it without checking why it failed. If an article of clothing develops a small hole, we discard it in the trash. We have even begun replacing and upgrading objects that are still far from the end of their useful service life, abandoning them in favor of new, shiny toys to show as bragging rights because nothing less than the best is acceptable. We develop the belief that crisp, clean, undented, shiny, and ease of disposal serves as evidence of our worth and that we should be embarrassed to have hand-me-downs in our closet, an older car with no AC and manually opening windows and rust spots. We feel shame for not being able to afford to live in the best neighborhoods and utterly humiliated when we must “belittle” ourselves to working in fast food to put food on the table.
Often this short-sighted behavior actually trickles down into our social interactions and how we treat each other as human beings. It sends the message that nothing and no one is worthy of long-term presence in our lives, that it’s okay to keep chasing newer and better, and we become slower to appreciate or mourn things and people that used to hold an important place in our lives. It’s what bolsters the idea of “not airing our dirty laundry” in public by sharing the disgraceful things that can happen to us behind closed doors at the hands of a family member who should have protected us, in a home we share with a partner, or an innocent jog through the park or a date that went terribly wrong. It’s the thought that once we have been broken, we are no longer worthy of compassion, kindness, and respect and therefore should fade away into the background so as not to be noticed.
Enter in the Japanese art of Kintsukuroi/Kintsugi – repairing broken or cracked pottery by mixing powdered gold, silver, or platinum with lacquer and mending the damage in one of three main ways. The origins of this type of pottery repair are said to date back to the 15th century. After his favorite tea bowl had been broken, a Japanese shogun sent it to China for repair. He was disappointed in the result when it returned, as staples had been used in the repair. Although this was the common method of repair used at the time, the shogun was displeased with how it marred the aesthetic appearance of the bowl, and he commissioned Japanese craftsmen to develop a more attractive way of repairing his treasured cup.
Although the finishing process lends to the assumption gold is used to adhere the pieces together, they are actually set using an adhesive derived from the Chinese lacquer tree called urushi lacquer. Once the lacquer adhesive has dried, there is a final cosmetic application of the burnished gold powder. The “crack method” uses small amounts to fill in chips or cracks or to join two or more pieces where there is effectively no missing parts. A second repair option is the “piece method.” This is used when there is a piece that has gone missing; the area is replaced with the precious metal/lacquer compound. The third repair type called “joint call method” is where a similar shape closely matching the missing piece but from a different source than the broken object is joined using the metal/lacquer mix.
Obviously, this goes against our habits of hiding damage or discarding the object altogether. However, this illustrates the appreciation the Japanese have in regards to wear of objects over their life and the belief that just because it was damaged does not mean its usability, purpose, or value has been lost. It is seen as simply one event in the life of the object. If you noticed, the repairs aren’t done using wet compounds matching the original material the vessel was made with. The lacquer serves to deliberately draw the eye to the damage, because it’s respected as part of its history and isn’t something to be hidden in the shadows. The use of kintsukuroi, then, becomes in some ways a celebration not of the fact that the object was damaged or broken but that it was worthy of being saved and therefore the necessary effort was made to put it back together. And its ability to be saved and to continue on its useful life (even if in different appearance) is to be appreciated. Illuminating the damage and showing its past scars doesn’t make the object ugly or worthless. It is an honor in many ways, because although there was a breakage event, the damage it sustained didn’t spell out its destruction. The object, while not always able to be used for its original purpose, still served a function, and it was displayed with a sort of reverence at its strength.
Contrast this with how many prefer to repair damaged pottery/earthenware objects. There is a popular preference of choosing a mending medium to repair the broken item in a manner that when complete blends into the original piece and is not immediately visible to the eye. In fact, many times if the person completing repairs is a true craftsman/woman, you will have a very difficult time finding damage ever existed, even upon close scrutiny. This is done by many methods: adhesives that dry clear, insertion of metal pegs inside the piece, molding missing pieces using epoxy, sanding, buffing, painting, and glazing techniques that restore to near perfect condition – because anything less renders it invaluable. And people pay a premium to make an object appear pristine.
Some of you are probably shrinking back in horror at this point if you’ve realized where I’m going with this, because you understand that I’m relating kintsukuroi/kintsugi to sharing our vulnerability in a very public manner. It isn’t easy to apply this to our own lives when it’s connected to trauma, but the truth of this is imperative to helping you heal and move forward. Many of us have been shamed into hiding these horrible things that we lived through as though they make us damaged and unworthy of rebuilding our lives and moving on. We are often expected to ball them up, bind them, and banish them to the darkest reaches of our hearts and move forward as though it never happened. Due to the changes the trauma and the healing afterward cause in us, this is impossible. The very nature of abuse and trauma has a profound and lasting emotional and behavioral impact on us that we cannot escape although many of us try.
Sometimes, because the pressure is great enough, we can be tempted to search for quick fixes. Much like kintsugi, cheap fixes are ineffective and can expose the earthenware to being easily re-broken, more severely than the first time. While we are caught up in looking and acting like we are okay, that our trauma didn’t happen because it’s more comfortable for everyone else to be able live in denial of our pain, we are causing stress fractures in our mental and emotional health that will eventually create fissures so deep that we will be crushed under the weight of avoiding the trauma. This is often a point of re-traumatization and we can and often do suffer horribly because of it.
A point I want to make before going any further is that none of us owe that comfort to others. While that discomfort is not always easy to face, it in no way compares to what we as trauma survivors endured, whether it be childhood sexual abuse, domestic violence, sexual assault, or a combination of any or all of these, and it certainly is far better than them having to endure it themselves. It isn’t worth sacrificing your own well-being to keep them comfortable in their bubble of denial. Break the bubble. Go ahead. Pull out a pin and pop it, because you have absolutely nothing to be ashamed of. If those around you cannot be the support that you need and deserve in people who call themselves family and friends, you will need to go out and build a new circle to get that support. You might not think you are worth it or deserving of it, but you are. Once you get the support you need, you will begin to heal, and the courage to share those scars you might wince at in disgust right now will come.
One of the bigger struggles I faced when I first started on my journey to heal from the 1,551 days of abuse I endured (my ex used all 6 methods – verbal/emotional, physical, sexual, spiritual, financial, and digital/technological abuse [stalking]) was the frustration I felt at not knowing who I was. My ex had used verbal and emotional abuse to erode my sense of confidence of self-worth, gas lighting to cause me to doubt my instincts, objectivity, and sanity, and extremely brutal amounts of physical abuse all in a chaotic mix to condition me. First, he emptied me and stuffed me full of self-loathing. Then he taught me that not only did I not know what I needed/wanted, it wouldn’t matter even if I did. I existed to do his will, and I was warped into another version of him. I started to like things he liked and was rendered incapable of making decisions. Effectively, I was a shell that did barely more than exist for over four years, and after I freed myself from him, I started the daunting task of reclaiming my identity. I felt incapable and feeble when I discovered that it was nowhere to be found.
What’s worse, because everyone around me kept telling me I’d “be back to the old Amy in no time,” I stubbornly chased after her without any thought to something very profound. The version of Amy I was pre-abuse no longer exists. I was an earthenware vessel shattered across the floor. Pieces were missing. Some pieces had completely detached but were hidden from view, and others that remained at my feet were cracked almost all the way through. This is what the poison of trauma can do to us and how we identify with others and who we are at our core. Whether it results from domestic violence, sexual abuse, child abuse, or sexual assault, the conditioning and pain of what we endured changes how we think, how we see ourselves, and it undermines our objectivity. Our emotional life, our ability to cope and thrive, shatters like pottery.
When I finally came to the realization that I was never going to completely be the old me again, I went through a period of mourning. It’s hard not to when you find yourself standing in the aftermath of trauma. I remember days I would break down in tears in front of the mirror, because I could not recognize the stranger staring back at me no matter how long and hard I searched. Constantly re-arranging my pieces in an attempt to fit the original mold that everyone – including me – wanted to see was exhausting and distressing.
Once I accepted that I had changed, I began to look at this second chance to find myself as a gift. Instead of trying to force pieces where they no longer fit, I sat myself down on the floor, collected all my fragments and jagged edges together, and began the slow process of piecing myself back together. Several times I had to deconstruct the ideal of whom I thought I had become to re-arrange and make room for new things and to discard others that no longer felt like me. Initially it was frustrating and tedious, but over time, I came to appreciate the extra time I took to look inside the heart that remained – damaged, bruised, and torn, but oddly still wildly alive – and examine myself fully. Learning to be Amy all over again allowed me to focus on those core elements of my personality that make me who I am both before and after abuse. Once you find those commonalities, building up from there becomes easier. You feel freer to try new things, give a few old things a try, and keep/discard what fits you now – post-trauma.
One of the many things I am proud of myself for is being able to overcome the shame and be able so brazenly, boldly, and eagerly put my damaged vessel in front of the eyes of others every day. Not because I want recognition or attention, but because when it is all too easy to fade away into obscurity and nearly impossible to battle the walls of shame that close in on us all, I fought back, I stood up, and I shined a light on the horrible things I endured to help others get courage to leave, to find their voice, and to come to love their scars as much as I do mine. And to make others see that I am not defective, undesirable, or unworthy because I was abused, and that my ability to endure, survive, and overcome the oppression of trauma and shame is a treasure.
The best thing about this for us as survivors of trauma is that in piecing ourselves back together, we get to highlight those areas so many others among us are too afraid to show the world: our strength, our resilience, and our scars. Vulnerability is a key part of what makes us all human, and it both serves as fuel to belong and a possible stumbling block of shame. It is my hope that you come to see your own vulnerability as the gift it is – not just to ourselves or other survivors of trauma, but to a world filled with people who haven’t the faintest understanding how beautiful and deserving of respect our scars are.
We are the most beautifully mended vessels possible. We haven’t merely joined and gilded a few cracks that are a result of normal every day life. And we aren’t just pieces painted over or filled in wherever we needed patching. With all our emotional damage, our violated hearts, minds, and bodies, we are bits of all three. We salvaged what we could, rebuilt things that were once reality for ourselves, and also fit new truths into this second version of ourselves. As survivors of trauma, we have become precious treasures to the world around us. While we are not perfect, and we are not and cannot be exactly as we once were, we are here. We survived and moved forward with our lives, gilded scars and all. And that strength and beauty deserve more than being hoarded away in darkness. Shine a light on your scars, because they have made you stronger, more powerful, and far more amazing than you will ever know.