Some survivors find unorthodox routes to restoring mental and physical health. Later in her life, McClure, the 93-year-old abuse victim, began speaking regularly on abuse issues to groups of doctors, social workers, and police departments. The advocacy “has certainly dulled the pain and given me a sense of pride in the fact that I have been able to turn my disgusting story into a tool to help others,” she said.
White, the woman who documented her teenage dieting and bulimia in journals, was diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder in her 20s. After suffering an anxiety attack, she called the health center at her college, which referred her to therapy. She would ride the bus to the therapist’s lily-white, immaculate office twice each week. “I used to refer to it as paid-for parenting,” said White, who is now 49 and living in Weymouth, Massachusetts.
The therapist was warm and welcoming. Eventually, though, White felt it wasn’t enough to simply talk about her emotions. Her abuse had left her feeling like an amputee, she said. Talk therapy was like retracing the question, “How do you feel about the fact that you can’t get up the stairs?” she said—when all she really wanted was a ramp.
In her 30s, she enrolled in a writing workshop. She and dozens of other people, many of them survivors of trauma, would sit in a room, compose essays about their pasts, and share their work with the group. At first, being open about her childhood felt awkward. But after each of the four sessions, White found herself feeling better for months.
It was around that same time that she began regularly practicing yoga. That, too, was fraught initially. For a survivor of sexual abuse, lying down in a dark room with strangers, as most yogis do at the end of a class, was scary. Gradually, though, the practice helped her once again feel safe in her skin.
Decades later, the days of seeing her body as tainted are finally over for White. She still believes she’ll be keenly sensitive to stress for the rest of her life. But now, when something triggers her—like her home flooding a few years ago—she turns to a relaxation technique called guided imagery to manage her symptoms. She’s become an advocate for abuse victims, and in 2014 she opened her own writing workshop.
She says the abuse will always tug at her, but today its power is diminished. “That’s just stuff that happened to you,” she said. “It isn’t you.”