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Healing, holistically

One student offers her story of surviving sexual assault

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Correction appended November 10, 2012

Deep breath – push. Doors drag open to a sterile stretching hallway, patched up elevator panels. My stomach drops with the upward pull. Rigid titles spell out Dr. Med. Phys. and a block-lettered command to S.V.P-sanitize-your-dirty-grubby-hands. Sitting on melted plastic chairs, transfixed by speckled tiles and inhaling recycled air, while information, name, DOB, address are regurgitated like peanuts out of a dispenser. Finally, a pallid, blank face says without looking up: “sit down, you’ll be called when we’re ready for you.”

The discomfort of the waiting room complements the intrusive pap test I’m about to be subjected to, as well as the brick wall I’m about to hit when I reveal that yes, I had sex without a condom, but it‘s not like I was the given the choice, if-you-see-what-I-mean. Though Quebec may have a far more accessible healthcare system than most of the world, it’s easy to get lost in the grid-like world of mega-hospitals, to become faceless among the masses, to risk turning healing into a one-dimensional standard procedure.

A year earlier, at the age of 17, I luckily found myself in a far more hospitable space. In this case, the door to the waiting lounge was kept wide open, and a breeze played with a dream-catcher hanging on the window. There were 15 of us waiting, sometimes dipping out into the late afternoon light to grab a lemonade and pass the time, each thinking we would probably be called last. I was at Head and Hands, a community-oriented physical and mental health centre, dedicated mostly to youth.

I was there to get tested, standard procedure. Except that at that point I had never been tested before, so I didn’t exactly know what standard procedure was. It was six or so months after I had been sexually assaulted, in the midst of my “black-out phase,” where I don’t remember thinking or speaking about my experiences. I only discussed what happened in the event of the extreme but repressed panic I felt while having somewhat safe, albeit drunk, and “casual” sex with a couple of friends. In order to cope and just be “normal,” I had somehow found a way to erase my first sexual experience from most of my day-to-day consciousness.

Head and Hands aims to provide non-judgemental, holistic, preventative, and educational support. They offer everything from legal advice, to emergency food security for those in need, to sexual education. When you walk into a Head and Hands drop-in period, you are given a card with a famous activist’s name, and they call out your new pseudonym when your turn to see a physician is up.

I was flipping through some zines when I was finally called, definitely in the third tier of patients. The assessment health worker, who was young and casually dressed, called me into a room that looked more like my parents’ living room than medical purgatory. We chatted for a few minutes, then she began asking me questions like: “When were you last tested?”– never have been. “When was the last time you had your period?” – three weeks ago. “Is your period regular?”– not always. So far, fairly easy to answer, not stuff I would consider too personal. “Are you on birth control?”– no. “Have you ever had unprotected sex?”– no. No, wait  – back up, hold on, fuck. I felt like someone had wrapped their hands around my lungs and my brain had just short-circuited. I had just blatantly lied to myself and this woman, and had wholeheartedly believed every word. She looked concerned and leaned forward in her chair toward me. I opened my mouth with the intention of speaking, tried starting the sentence from different angles, but it was no use. Finally, somewhat brokenly, it came out that the first time I had had sex was unprotected, except I was never given the choice whether to be safe or not. In fact, everything about it had felt unsafe.

I didn’t know what to expect from this stranger. After it happened, I didn’t go to the hospital to get a rape kit like you’re supposed to, nor had I reported my assault to the police. I didn’t know the words to explain what had happened to me. I had never had sex before, so what could I compare it to? I didn’t even consider taking the morning-after pill because, well, I just couldn’t think it through that far. I braced myself for a lecture on “responsibility.”

In that little living room at Head and Hands, I was not made to feel like an idiot, a liar, or a slut. She assured me she believed me, and that rape happens so much more often than I would think. During moments where I struggled with words, she was patient. When I had a question, she took her time to answer. She gently told me about the support services that Head and Hands could provide, just for my information, for when I felt ready, whenever that may be. I didn‘t feel like I was being lectured, or that I had to prove anything. Most importantly, I felt safe.

* * *

A negative experience at a clinic – a regular check up, or test – can set a survivor far back in their journey toward healing. After surviving assault, you want to feel like a person, not like a problem, a nuisance to your doctor, or something to be purified. At Head and Hands, Andrea*, who is trained in intervention and support work, is usually the first in contact with a call-in or drop-in. “We try to be empowering to youth, and support them in figuring out what will be best for that individual, to help them find the resources they need,” she told me in an interview. Unlike this method, the more mainstream response to sexual assault, which may include prescriptions for anti-depressants and a set therapeutic period.

Head and Hands offers a more holistic approach to healing. “We don’t try to deal with a singular issue, we try to deal with a whole person. We work around people’s schedules or commitments, such as being young parents or responsible siblings… people’s realities.” Besides being free, Head and Hands does not put any limitations on the time it may take for a survivor to heal.

One of the services they often refer people to is the Sexual Assault Centre of the McGill Students’ Society (SACOMSS). Here, survivors and their allies can find support groups and attend educational workshops.  The two local organizations follow a non-judgemental and “non-directional” mandate, in which they let the survivor set the terms of their own healing rather than directing them in any way. For groups like them, all survivors’ experiences are different and each person has the capacity to make meaningful decisions for themselves. Before I went to Head and Hands and met people like Andrea, I didn’t have the confidence to choose my own path. My healing only began when I was given the space to determine what my own journey would entail, because I was treated, in Andrea’s words, like “an expert on [my] own needs.”

After having reached out to others about my experience, I started to hear stories about the traumatic results of directive, rather than holistic, approaches. Last year, at the height of finals, feeling depressed, confused, and overwhelmed, Michelle* decided to seek help at McGill Mental Health. As a survivor of sexual assault, she was hoping to find support and compassion, but told me that her experience was discouraging. “I tried to explain to [the psychiatrist] what I was going through, hoping for a referral or some course of action as to how I could go about starting to heal. I immediately felt like I was judged with suspicion, that she didn’t fully believe my experiences. I remember her offering to prescribe an anti-depressant after five minutes.”

The issue with institutional practices, such as McGill Mental Health’s, is the emphasis on biochemical approaches to mental health. As a survivor of sexual assault, you don’t want to feel like you’re just naturally fucked up, or that it’s your own fault you don’t feel okay, as if there was no perpetrator involved. Although prescription drugs do help some people, Michelle didn’t feel it addressed her situation. “I would have preferred a more open environment focused on experiences and a sense of validation.” What separates Head and Hands from larger institutions is its ability to offer personalized support, along with prescription medication and other more traditional approaches.

SACOMSS and Head and Hands also have a strong understanding of anti-oppression, and their training enables them to work with the entirety of somebody’s situation. Both features set these organizations apart from conventional medical establishments. For example, SACOMSS is pro-survivor, pro-feminist, anti-racist, anti-ableist, anti-classist, queer-positive, and trans-positive. Even if you’re not a student at McGill, their services are open to anyone who feels like they have been effected by sexual assault, whether through their own experience or through someone they know. Large-scale, clinical institutions sacrifice an in-depth understanding of structural violence to keep the flow of patients moving quickly. “There are a lot of assumptions about who is sexually assaulted, and what sexual assault is,” said Andrea. “That comes back to issues of societal perceptions and structural imbalances.”

* * *

Months later, after slowly beginning to process what had happened to me, and hesitantly sharing with others, I began to think of ways I could start to actively heal outside of conversations. I wanted to help something come alive, to use my hands, to feel useful. I needed something life-affirming to counteract the destructiveness of abuse. When I felt myself deflating, and when I felt my life spinning away from me, I needed to feel close to growth to remind myself of the power of positive energy. I kept craving walks in the forest, tranquil and still, where my feet, used to the hard cement of the city, would bounce softly off of moss, rocks, and tree trunks. I have a garden in my home, and I almost intuitively gravitated toward it. I started slowly – weeding, creating space for new buds to breathe. As I moved on to planting new bulbs and vegetable seeds, I began to feel more relaxed, productive, and revived.

As it turns out, gardening is not such a bizarre hobby to turn to for survivors of emotional and physical violence. Like Head and Hands, horticulture therapy orients itself around holistic healing, and there has been significant success in the treatment of Post Traumatic Stress Syndrome, social and domestic violence, isolation, childhood trauma, and even war-related trauma issues. As I was researching horticulture therapy, I kept noticing the analogies made between natural growth and human growth, like the cycles and interconnectedness of life. In partnership with the earth and imbued with ecological responsibility, I felt empowered and connected, a feeling so different from the violence, oppression, and domination that I associated with my worst memories. While I’m lucky to live at home and have a garden to myself, more and more urban gardens are sprouting all over Montreal. Santropol Roulant has rooftop gardens open to volunteers, or alternatively, there are local community plots in many neighbourhoods.

* * *

I had expected to be whisked off and out of the way as soon as I told the truth, but the Head and Hands nurse surprised me and took the time to listen. She told me not to apologize, she waited for me to mop up my face. When I was given a card with the name of a counsellor I could call, I was encouraged to take my time and call only when I felt ready. At this point in my journey, I wasn’t able to articulate my rape. Having someone who I considered a professional treat me like a person, however, was precisely what I needed.

You don’t necessarily need to be raped to feel as though your body is under attack. Some days we can ignore it, some days we can forget it, some days we may feel crippled by it, some days we can transform it. Alongside gardening, writing about my experiences has also been an invaluable part of my journey towards body positivity and self-love. Without the validation and community I found at Head and Hands, I may never have been able to open myself up and express how I felt. Everyone deserves the freedom and space to discover their own avenue toward healing. There may be no universal cure out there, but there are safe spaces we can turn to, and alternative, creative methods of healing that can rekindle our sense of personal possibility, keep our bodies vigorous, and keep our hearts in bloom.

*Names have been changed. 


Excerpts from theis feature were origionally published in the author’s zine. If you would like a copy, email claudia.alexander@mail.mcgill.