trigger warning: this post contains descriptors of sexual assault
Thank you for taking the time to make your way here. This letter was a months-long process with much of that time being spent staring at a blinking cursor through my blue light glasses. I stepped away for a good while‒eight weeks to be more precise. While my classmates were hunkering down and crushing their practicals before our second clinical, I was wrestling with the heavy weight of my trauma. This was a familiar fight, and I felt myself succumbing to this monster that I grappled with for so long.
The journey of healing is harrowing. Some days I am climbing and distancing myself further and further away from the dark depths below me. Other days, the ground disintegrates beneath my feet and I tumble down into what I fought so hard to stay away from. This is when I feel the most alone…the defenseless. I am not alone though, and I do not want you to feel like you are alone. I am here too, and I want to share my story with you.
I’ll take you back to Fall 2019‒when the Class of 2022 was in the midst of anatomy group presentations. Five of my classmates were detailing the anatomy, physiology, and implications of the pelvic floor and perineum. With a topic as intimate as this, beads of sweat began forming on my hairline as a cold clamminess filled my palms. The tears lining my eyes morphed everything into blurry pixels, and one blink allowed my mind to focus sharply onto the slide detailing physical therapy implications: “sexual trauma survivors”.
As my classmate described the correlation between sexual abuse and pelvic floor dysfunction, I was shutting down. I trembled in my seat, and like a volatile fault line, the quake I felt caused the room to collapse around me. When the walls crumbled down, I felt scared and exposed. Everything I felt during my sexual assault bombarded me: panic, fear, confusion, and helplessness. Here I am learning to help others while desperately needing help for myself. Am I strong enough to be here? The doubt was overwhelming, but it was not forever.
Some mornings I wake up and invite the warm sunshine into my body and allow my spirit to be nurtured‒these are better days. Other times I feel as though the sun becomes a lighthouse‒salvation that is desperately seeking me out in the darkness overpowering me. These are days when I feel delicate and more susceptible to triggers. These are days when I feel just as paralyzed as I did during the night when I was nothing more than just a body.
Have you ever been somewhere that was so dark that you could see more light when your eyes were closed? Imagine an innocuous fly landing on your cheek and the sudden panic felt as your mind frantically eliminates the malignant possibilities for the unforeseen startle. Your brain swiftly concludes the threat as merely a harmless fly, allowing your body and mind to settle in a matter of minutes. This is the best analogy I can offer to illustrate the triggers for a sexual trauma survivor. Please keep in mind, every survivor’s story and recovery is different; however, a parallel can be drawn amongst many survivors for the petrifying dread accompanying a trigger. The mind is violently dragged into painful memories where trauma admonishes the survivor for seeking safety‒even if the initial shock following the violation has dwindled. But it is never truly gone, and that is where recovery resources for survivors of sexual assault is crucial.
Chanel Miller (courageous and compelling author of survivor memoir Know My Name) communicates the complexity of trauma recovery eloquently:
“Trauma provides a special way of moving through time; years fall away in an instant, we can summon terrorizing feelings as if they are happening in the present.”
It almost sounds like a super power, doesn’t it? But we never asked for this nor could we fathom possessing something so fickle and toxic in our bodies. You may need help mitigating the noxious jolt of trauma, and that is 100% okay. It’s normal, and the acknowledgement is powerful. Maybe you will find solace with a counselor, support group, or something else that works for you. Take it from me, healing is exhausting‒It is still exhausting. Remember to be patient and forgiving with the healing process, and be gentle with yourself. You have endured so much distress‒now, you will experience kindness and peace.
Physical therapy is a very hands-on profession. Chances are you have heard this a million times in physical therapy school. While it is certainly true, this statement has a lot more depth for trauma survivors. In my case and that of many others, that trauma stems from a touch influenced by violence and control. When the body is forcibly taken to be nothing more than something to pleasure a monster, the world changes. Author of The Body Keeps the Score, Bessel Van Der Kolk, articulates this devastating shift:
“After trauma, the world becomes sharply divided between those who know and those who don’t.”
Those who understand the pain and those who don’t. Those who live in the same nebulous shadows and those who don’t. Sometimes the depths are so deep and so dark, it’s nearly impossible to see the light that physical therapy can bring. Trauma-informed care is one tool we can use to shine our light for survivors of sexual assault and rape. With that, we have a responsibility to manifest the physical therapy profession as one embedded in our unparalleled ability to rekindle compassionate and benevolent touch. As Regis’s Blessing of the Hands ceremony draws near, we know our hands are the strongest tools we have to validate the distinguished value of our profession. Let us be the amazing healthcare providers we know we can be.
Arianna Armendariz, A 3rd year DPT student, a sister, a daughter, a friend, and a survivor.
Thank you to our wonderful blog director, Suzanne Peters, for sharing my writing on this platform.
Thank you to my family, especially my mom and sister, for your endless patience and support as I heal.
Thank you to my boyfriend for your incredible patience and fortitude over the last five and a half years. The gratitude I feel for you is insurmountable. I love you.
Thank you to my current therapist and former therapists for helping me gain back my strength and self-worth.
Thank you to my friends for your graciousness: Camille, Alyssa, Lauren, Ashley, Shannon, and Jess.
Thank you to the many wonderful Regis faculty members who have shown tremendous kindness and understanding: Shelene, Mary, Heidi, Jean, Larisa, Mel, Rebecca, Amy, Wendy, Nancy, Rachel, Stacy, Drew, and Erika.
Finally, thank you to the entirety of my Class of 2022. You know you are ReSiLiEnT.
- Regis Center for Counseling and Family Therapy
- CCASA – Colorado Coaliton Against Sexual Assault
- Rape, Abuse, and Incest National Network (RAINN)
- One in Six
- National Domestic Violence Hotline
- Stalking Resource Center
- Anti-Violence Project
Bilingual hotline: 212-714-1141
- Safe Helpline