By Amy Oestreicher
“Healing” has meant different things to me at various points in my life. As a child, healing took forever when I skinned my knee running around outside. As a teen, healing also meant crying on the phone to a friend when the “guy of my dreams” was taken. But “healing” took a completely new meaning – on the inside and out – when my life and world as I knew it changed forever.
When I turned 17, a mentor-figure in my life who I had known and looked up to for several years transformed into a complete stranger when he started to molest me. I went into total shock and coped by leaving my body and staying numb. This father-figure in my life who I completely trusted had broken our sacred bond in a split second, and suddenly I didn’t know who I could rely in. I kept this secret burning in my gut, hidden from my family, who didn’t recognize the numb space-cadet I had become.
I was so out of touch with my emotions that it was hard for me to face that I had been betrayed by someone who intimately inside my circle of trust. One day, I was browsing through the bookstore. Pacing through the aisles (as my way of coping and marking time) and I experimented with scanning the “Self-Improvement” aisle. I had an instinct that something within me had changed, but I wasn’t exactly sure what. It wasn’t even a reality to me that someone so close within my circle of trust could betray me in such a horrific way. I “window-shopped” each shelf, trying to look as casual as possible, when a big yellow book popped out at me: The Courage to Heal.
I was struck by those words – courage, heal. Was there something I was scared to face, that I needed to find the strength inside to really confront face to face? I involuntarily reached for the thick yellow binding – as though someone else was leading me towards this. Now I was face to face with the cover, every now and then glancing over my shoulder to make sure no one was looking.
Now the caption read loud and clear: “For survivors of sexual abuse.” I almost laughed and was about to put the book back…but couldn’t. I opened up the book and read through the “symptoms” in the first chapter…
“check all that apply:
I feel dirty, like there’s something wrong with me
Sometimes I think I’m crazy
I feel ashamed
I’m different from other people
I feel powerless
If people really knew me, they’d leave
I have a hard time taking care of myself
I don’t deserve to be happy
I don’t trust my intuition or my feelings
I’m often confused
I’m a failure
I use work to make up for empty feelings inside
I don’t know what I’m feeling anymore
CA: I cant cry anymore
I cant express emotions anymore
I’m rarely angry because anger scares me
I have nightmares and panic attacks
I feel as if my body is separate from the rest of me
I feel numb”
Numb. That was the word. That is how I felt. Like my body was physically going through the motions of every day life, but the “me” I knew my entire life was not a part of it. My soul, my heart, my “Amy-ness” was somewhere else, and I felt empty inside. It was as though the moment I was first abused, my youthful spirit had been ejected out of my body, and now it was running in the other direction, determined to remain in denial that anything like this could ever happen.
The text from this book was starting to process, and intrigued, I read a bit more until I realized that I was sexually abused, and yes, it was by someone who I had considered family and my mentor. Soon, I couldn’t contain this tense secret inside any long. When I turned 18, I finally spilled everything to my mother. Two weeks later, before I could get therapy or anything, something truly terrible and unfathomable happened.
I woke up months later in the ICU of a hospital to learn I’ve been in a coma for months. All I remember is being in intense pain and then my parents rushing me to the ER. Now I am told by doctors that my stomach exploded due to a blood clot, I have no digestive system, and it is not known when or if I will ever eat again.
What happened to me medically is another story, but a decade later I am happy, healthy and still healing. The sexual trauma took years and years to heal from – and I feel that it is something you continually heal and learn from. As I am preparing to marry the love of my life next month, I am trying to fully process the abuse I underwent as a teen and tell my entire self what true love is – my fiancé has truly shown me that.
It took a very long time to verbalize the abuse, to tell someone and the hardest of all, to tell myself. And then, I had to forgive myself. I was once told that the physiological sensations of helplessness feel the same as guilt and shame. So when you feel helpless in a situation, your body also relates that to guilt and shame. I consciously know I have nothing to be ashamed of or feel guilty for. I’ve heard plenty of times that “it was not my fault.” It took a very long time to truly embody this feeling.
I learned that it’s not always about forgiving the other person. It’s letting go and forgiving yourself. It’s feeling comfortable in your own skin again – even if it was the same skin that took part in things you’d like to forget. With Post Traumatic Stress Syndrome, you can fight, flee or freeze. I often wonder why I didn’t “fight back” against my molester, say no, or just run in the other direction. But I symbolically ran – I left my body and froze – I couldn’t allow myself to think I was being abused in this way, that my innocence was snatched up in a heartbeat. Unthawing my soul once again and feeling it in my body has taken much time and patience. And now that I feel like me again – but older, wiser, and stronger – I can feel.
Coming out of my numbness, my dissasociation, and allowing myself to confront life again head on has been difficult, and some truths have been hard to face. But ultimately it has been a blessing. I’d rather feel everything than nothing at all.
Amy Oestreicher is a 28 year old actress, musician, teacher, composer, dancer, writer, artist, yogi, foodie, and general lover of life. Surviving and thriving through a coma, 27 surgeries and other trauma has inspired Amy to share her story with the world through her passionate desire to create and help others. Amy has written, directed and starred in a one woman musical about her life, “Gutless & Grateful,” has flourished as a mixed media and acrylic artist, with her art in multiple galleries and mounting dozens of solo art shows, and continues to share her story through her art, music, theatre and writings. More information on her unique story, as well as her creative ventures can be found at www.amyoes.com. She can also be found via her blog here or at her Etsy shop here.