Welcome guest blogger and one of The HEAL Project’s Advisory Board Members, Hyunhee Shin.
Hyunhee is a queer survivor of child sexual abuse, family violence, and sexual assault. As a person with psychiatric disabilities and the child of working class, Korean immigrant parents in rural Pennsylvania, Hyunhee brings to this work her personal experiences of violence in the context of intersecting issues of race, class, immigration, gender, sexual identity, and disability.
TW/CW: child sexual, physical, emotional Abuse/ PTSD
When I started learning about child sexual abuse four years ago, I was working at a feminist foundation fresh out of college. I didn’t realize I was a survivor of CSA at the time, but I did hold onto other childhood traumas — physical and emotional abuse from my father, the pain of growing up poor immigrants in rural Pennsylvania, navigating mental illness.
I didn’t know at first, but as I delved deeper into the subject matter, I was being triggered just by doing my job. I knew I was a survivor of abuse and that I identified on a deep level with the survivors I was reading about. It wasn’t until half a year in, my memory as a child of being sexually assaulted by a group of neighborhood teens surfaced and I realized that what happened to me was child sexual abuse.
One of the fascinating things I learned about the brain is that one of the ways it protects you from trauma is to hide those memories away. That sometimes, despite your brain’s best efforts to keep them concealed, a steady hammer of triggers can break the walls down and reveal your past trauma to your conscious mind for the first time.
Reeling from this repositioning of memory in this new context, I waded through the mud and haze of PTSD in the months that followed. I navigated coming out as a survivor to my employer while struggling to focus on a project that had me immersed in readings and research looking for practical tips on preventing CSA. My supervisor was warm and supportive and patient. I couldn’t have asked for a better support while working full time on an issue area I didn’t realize would trigger me.
I went back to therapy and worked hard to get a baseline handle on my wellness. I sought support from a tiny handful of friends I trusted — it felt too soon to talk about the abuse in more than a whisper to many others. Once I felt confident that I wouldn’t stomp all over professional boundaries, I slowly started reaching out to survivors I knew in the field. Learning with them and diving deep into the ways trauma impacted my life was incredibly transformative.
In the last few years, I’ve learned a lot about trauma and how it affects my life. There were the obvious things, like classic PTSD symptoms — avoidance, hyperarousal, anger, guilt, insomnia. There were the ways in which my PTSD made best friends with my bipolar disorder and sought to pull the rug out from under me whenever possible. There were the myriad distortions I believed about myself and how I related to other people that I could now trace back to childhood trauma. One of the many things I’m grateful for is the realization that I was not an inherently shitty, mean, and unfeeling person.
Trauma threw my heart in a thick glass box and gave me a toothpick to chisel it out. It’s not that I lacked empathy because I was some sort of sociopath. I just had a harder time accessing those feelings largely because of what happened to me. Once I cracked the code of my emotional inner life, I started working hard to chisel out of the glass trauma box. I explored vulnerability with my therapist and tried connecting with emotions beyond rage and despair. I started dismantling bolt by bolt the iron fortress around me that I deluded myself into thinking protected me. I stopped seeing myself as an island, an independent person who could help and support others with their needs, but never needed help myself. I started to understand that acknowledging that I needed help and reaching out for support from loved ones isn’t a sign of weakness, but is a source of strength.
Over time and with the help of survivors in solidarity and loved ones, I developed my emotional intelligence and empathy. In holding space for myself, I learned how to hold space for others who were navigating similar journeys. I tapped into those particular feelings in my body and heart that helped me build trust and hold space with other survivors. I realized how powerful deep empathy can be in helping ourselves and each other heal. I took stock of all the times someone has said to me that they felt safe and deeply understood when we talked, or when complete strangers have opened up to me, or anytime someone shares something with me they’ve never shared with anyone else. It’s a power I’m learning to tap into and harness to help pay my healing forward.
Survivors of child sexual abuse are forced to bear the burden of violent experiences early in life. Post traumatic stress is well documented and researched. How might we build power together if we spent just as much time understanding post traumatic growth? And not in a way that undermines or diminishes the pain we suffer in the aftermath of violence. Just in a way that also uplifts those survival strategies that become great gifts. Survivors have a remarkable ability to take the pain that we’ve been forced to hold and forge it into an inner light that heals ourselves and those around us.
When I think of my favorite fictional characters, like Harry Potter or Avatar Korra, they were all kids who harnessed great power from the pain and violence they suffered. Our superhero origin stories stem from a root trauma. They grapple with the relationship they have with their power and the origin of it. These stories sound not so different from ours. We are the heroes we’ve been waiting for.
What’s your post traumatic super power?
Thanks so much Hyunhee for your bravery and superpowers!