Monday, January 4, 2016

Breathe. Live. Be.

Molly Boeder Harris
Over the last decade, Molly Boeder Harris has worked in community-based rape crisis centers as a medical and legal advocate, provided crisis support and prevention education for students on college campuses and has directed a campus Women’s Center. During that time, she also became a certified yoga instructor and has since been teaching yoga at rape crisis centers, yoga studios and social service agencies. In 2012, Molly founded The Breathe Network, a non-profit organization that connects survivors of sexual violence with sliding-scale, trauma-informed, holistic healing arts practitioners in the United States and Canada. Molly holds a Master’s Degree in International Studies and a Master’s Certificate in Women’s and Gender Studies. Most recently, Molly began training in Somatic Experiencing, the trauma-resolution method developed by Dr. Peter Levine, with the intention of synthesizing her work as a yoga instructor teaching trauma survivors with this revolutionary and transformative healing technique.

Here’s her story.

Could you start by sharing your story, to the extent you are comfortable and deem relevant to the work you do?

I began exploring holistic healing modalities and trauma resilience theory in 2003 after being raped and sexual assaulted. It wasn’t the first time I had survived sexual violence, but for various personal reasons and the specific nature of the event, it was exponentially more traumatizing to me than past experiences. The rape created a total split and a sense of irreparable chaos within my physical body, my brain and my soul. It completely dismantled the view I had on the world and my sense of who I was in it, and it disrupted nearly every relationship in my life. At the same time, I started working with the trauma in a variety of ways, through yoga, holistic psychotherapy, acupuncture, massage and art therapy and within those sessions, I was uncovering not only my rage, my shame, my fear, and my grief, but also, tapping into resilience, power, beauty and a sense of inherent self-worth. I had not known those aspects of myself prior to the event of my rape, which made me incredibly curious about the process of addressing healing – and mental disturbance, physical pain, and psychic unrest in this holistic way, through all the various channels of the human system. How could it be that during the darkest time of my life I was beginning to tap into and cultivate a sense of compassion, purpose, love and faith?

I stayed with the healing process, treating it like a full-time job where all of my energy, effort and resources went into the work of healing. I trained as a volunteer advocate for survivors in 2006, and within a year, I started working professionally as an Advocate, which I would continue to do for the next 8 years. During this time, I also earned my 200-hour yoga certification and began teaching yoga to colleagues and volunteers at rape crisis centers to promote sustainability and self-care. Eventually, I was teaching trauma-informed yoga classes specifically for survivors of sexual violence. I am now training in Somatic Experiencing, which for me is one of the most powerful method and theories of how we can call upon the internal resources we have within to pave the way towards embodied healing, balance and wholeness. I am synthesizing my yoga teaching with all that I am learning through my Somatic Experiencing training and I have already seen this have a profound impact on the survivors I work with individually. The two approaches are such natural complements!

What inspired the birth of the Breathe Network? How did it come about?

I worked for many years in the movement to end sexual violence as an advocate, a first responder to Emergency Rooms, police stations and eventually, on college campuses with survivors, and I found the work to be tremendously toxic for me. My system was crashing due to the nature of being constantly on-call – essentially waiting for the next trauma to happen – and it took a major toll on my physical, emotional and spiritual health. It became clear that it was also having a negative impact on my ability to continue moving further along with my own healing process since due to the depletion I was experiencing, and the countless stories of rape and horror I was exposed to daily, many of the symptoms I had worked so hard to heal were returning. I began to see the ways in which my clients’ stories were mixing with and catalyzing the intensity of my own.

I was told by every supervisor I had that I was too sensitive to do this work, and that hurt me deeply – like they were implying something was wrong with me or that I wasn’t strong enough. I truly believe that it is my sensitivity that enables me to be compassionate, honest and present in the way I show up for people whether they are in crisis or they are in my yoga classes. I realized after a series of difficult work environments that perhaps I was trying to fit into a system that wasn’t meant for me, and that it might be worthy to investigate how I would want to do the work. That is when I knew I would create The Breathe Network.

I laugh sometimes because I think I have created a network where people’s innate “sensitivity” – the thing that I was told was impeding on my capacity to be effective in “the movement” – is basically the essential ingredient in providing quality, safe, trauma-informed care. I also wanted to tell a wider truth about the non-linear journey of healing after sexual violence, that I wasn’t reading or hearing about anywhere else. There was a sort of blueprint that was implied – victim, to survivor to thriver – and it didn’t really speak to the ebb and flow of healing, the scope of that process that emerges and recedes, causing disruption and breakthroughs at different points in the trajectory of a person’s life. I wanted to find a way to make space for all of that. I wanted to support people in being liberated from abstract notions of a timeline for healing. I wanted to keep liberating myself from that belief that had been placed upon me. Ultimately, the combination of my personal experiences utilizing the healing arts to recover and what I saw through my professional experiences providing medical or legal advocacy services, inspired me to create The Breathe Network. It is a place where my passions for anti-violence advocacy, holistic healing and trauma resilience have all naturally aligned and can grow.

Can you tell us a little about the work that TBN does?

The Breathe Network’s primary purpose is to connect survivors of sexual violence with sliding-scale, trauma-informed, holistic healing arts practitioners. To support that mission, we offer training for healing arts practitioners and health and wellness providers in understanding the nuances of sexual violence – what it is, the prevalence of sexual violence, the many barriers to healing, how it impacts people physically, mentally and spiritually, etc. We teach techniques and share recommendations from members of our team about how to make one’s healing arts practice more trauma-informed, how, when and why to provide referrals, and how to collaborate with a variety of systems of care as well as how to collaborate with the strengths and resources of the unique system of the person in front of you!

We have a very dynamic and thorough website where survivors can identify healers that are either near them geographically, or that provide distance healing. We have 75 practitioners spread across the United States and Canada, and we would like to have a couple thousand! We have an active blog where we explore some of the more common themes related to sexual violence – navigating relationships, forgiveness, trauma and the body, rape myths and stereotypes, facing anniversaries, vicarious trauma, self-care and more. We also host monthly and bimonthly educational teleseminars where one of our practitioners will shine a light on how their modality is uniquely situated to help survivors heal, how it works, ways they have adapted it to be more trauma-informed. We’ve hosted 14 so far, including topics such as meditation, color therapy, EMDR, art therapy, trauma-informed yoga, as well as issue and identity specific topics like trauma’s impact on the brain and nervous system and how to create culturally sensitive and culturally affirmative healing spaces. As I mentioned we host a number of trainings for healing arts practitioners, and also for members of the advocacy community – legal, medical, social services – exploring and describing how our work complements and enhances their wok. We really see our work as vital to the movement, that in fact, if the movement calls itself trauma-informed, it would be a best practice, a most ethical practice, to intentionally link survivors with alternative healing to support them physically, emotionally, energetically and spiritually while navigating these various systems and healing in general. We know enough about trauma as a culture, let alone as a movement to recognize that it impacts all aspects of the human person and that it doesn’t heal in a linear way nor in a matter of weeks or months, or even years.

You use holistic healing modalities in helping survivors - could you talk a little bit about holistic healing and what it entails?

Holistic healing addresses the whole person – their physical health, their emotional health and at times, their energetic or spiritual wellness. It can be part of traditional medical intervention, and it can also be complementary to such interventions. A holistic healing arts practitioner, whether a naturopathic doctor, a yoga instructor or a chiropractor, will acknowledge and be able to support the connection between the body and the mind, and for some, the spirit. This is really important because we can experience an emotionally traumatic event that manifests in physical pain and discomfort. When we work with a holistic healer, they are inclined to identify that connection, to validate the person’s unique response and to find ways to address both the emotional injury and the physical manifestation of pain. It can also be that a physical accident can lead to mental distress and so it is important to see that there are all these entry points in to how we heal. For survivors, it is incredible important to have choice and a range of options. Some will be comfortable addressing the trauma by talking about what happened, whereas others may want to focus on the way it shows up in their body with a movement based practice. Sometimes seemingly unrelated events or experiences in our life can trigger or stir up past trauma – and holistic healers understand that well and can validate and normalize a survivor’s response.

What is really wonderful about the healing arts is they recognize that working in any one realm can positively influence and support the others. This way of viewing people resources a survivor with more tools for how they choose to direct and engage in their healing. It also doesn’t privilege one channel, say the body, over another channel of healing, which could be through the mind. Holistic healing is about returning to balance from the inside out, and it recognizes that the various imbalances that manifest in the wake of trauma, loss, and toxic stress are natural and normal reactions to difficult experiences or life circumstances. This enables us to maintain a sense of compassionate curiosity about ourselves, to remain fluid and present with our dynamic journey and to cultivate gratitude for the insights we will discover when the next layer of our wound emerges.

What have your challenges been, so far? How have you overcome them?

A big challenge is that we are a new and small organization that is attempting to really innovate and transform the way our movement, and our society as whole, responds to the trauma of sexual violence. There are a lot of very large organizations that have such a long tradition of doing the work and a big presence in the movement – which can make it a bit harder to be seen and heard. Additionally, people tend to create a hierarchy of which resources or which needs matter and they try to universally apply their belief to all survivors, which isn’t ideal. They may look to our work – holistic healing arts resources – as less important, less urgent, less necessary. We know that this is contrary to survivors’ experiences and that our work is vital to giving survivors the tools, options and resources that they can carry with them throughout the lifelong journey of healing.

No other non-profit organization is doing this work on this scale which to me is exciting and an opportunity. We are trying to build the organizational capacity to make holistic healing accessible for survivors across the United States. So, what is in some ways our biggest challenge – being innovative, being new, being different, is also our greatest resource. It is obvious that people are ready for a different way of addressing and responding to sexual violence. We are actively naming and treating the way trauma lands in the body and gets stored in tissues, memories, sensation, behaviors and imagery. We speak openly about the terror of having an out of body experience during sexual assault and wondering if and how you could ever fully bring your spirit back inside your shape. We explicitly discuss the nervous system response to trauma, the physiology of trauma and how it creates a set of responses that up until now, society has somewhat demonized and marginalized – when in fact, these responses are brilliant lifesavers and they are cause for celebration.

We are partnering with holistic healers and trying to join the trauma resilience movement intentionally with the advocacy movement. We offer trainings that introduce and train advocates and service providers in understanding how the healing arts work, how they enhance all the other conventional systems we offer in the movement, and how they are vital to comprehensive, trauma-informed care. We are really honest about the fact that healing after rape can be really difficult, and that for some, it could be a life endeavor, while at the same time emphasizing that it is worth every ounce of energy we dedicate to it. The resilience that is borne out of this intense work to fully face the darkest moments of the soul, can be the nectar that gives you your life back and this aspect of the movement – survivors healing – is as essential as any other work we could possibly do. We are also clear that our work and our role is not just complementary to existing systems and services, but rather, it is a vital, and formerly missing, component of a sustainable, effective and transformative movement to end violence.

What is the Physiology of Resilience?

The physiology of resilience is my way of framing our innate capacity to survive and to overcome trauma and great loss. We talk about trauma and its disturbance on us, yet we could focus more on the wisdom that is born in the healing of trauma. This phrase, the physiology of resilience, encapsulates what I have discovered through my own journey to navigate post-traumatic stress symptoms, alongside my study of yoga and Somatic Experiencing. Many trauma survivors have a very intense experience of how their nervous system functions, adapts and responds to trauma and its aftermath. It is an experience that we don’t often get to share about, and then we are alone with this enormous and unsettling embodied memory. Many of us experience freeze or fright paralysis during trauma and while it is a brilliant design from nature to protect us, and an attempt to ensure our survival, there is also a way in which the confusion surrounding these various primal responses can lead to a sense of shame. We may berate ourselves, and society will often blame us for not preventing what was done to us, not doing more to stop it – completely ignorant of the fact that we cannot override our nervous system’s power once it begins moving in the direction of trauma response.

For me, instead of judging those survival responses in a negative way, I think we should highlight and celebrate the capacity to survive and to overcome tremendous terror and loss that these very responses enable. I think of freeze as a reservoir that we can tap into when we get to a place of safety – physical, emotional and or psychic, for future resilience. That may be within a few weeks, or it might be months or years. There is intensity stored within us for sure, and it can get lodged in our tissues, our nervous system, our subconscious – yet, when we work with healers who understand the nervous system and trauma, we can use the same physiology that prepared us for death – which is what freeze can feel like – to actually restore us to full functioning in our life. When I think about resilience, I think about all the symptoms and challenges we face physically, mentally, energetically and spiritually as an integral part – not separate from – the process of our healing, rebuilding and repair. For me, the symptoms and signals our body sends us – however uncomfortable they may be, are like messages that together can create a map for us to follow in our work of recovery. If we embark on identifying all the ways in which the trauma has impacted us, if we can pay close attention to those symptoms or imbalances we experience, we can then discover the right “medicine” if you will, that is required to facilitate our healing.

In your work so far, has there been a particular milestone / achievement / success story that you'd like to share?

I feel like there are milestones on a daily basis. When I hear from a survivor that something on our website helped them feel less alone, when a nurse practitioner across the country asks me how to bring trauma-informed principles into their practice, when people show up to study with our members at a sexual assault training – it all adds up, one by one, each person approaching trauma healing in their own way, and I think that this is how we change the world.

I will say though, that for years I wanted to design a national sexual assault study that would specifically explore the impact and use of alternative healing methods on survivors’ lives, and this year, that dream became a reality. This is really key to the growth of our organization, and also influential on what will be possible in our movement. Up until now, society and also, traditional funding resources, haven’t fully embraced the importance or value of holistic healing arts. Some people are still a bit wary and maybe even skeptical that yoga could offer justice, maybe a kind of embodied justice, to a survivor, comparable if not more meaningful, than what they’d find by engaging with the criminal justice system. We are still shy or uncomfortable with things that we cannot touch, see or feel, so when we talk about spirit and energy, well, that is still somewhat edgy terrain. However, for those of us who have grappled with the intensity of this experience – we really have to start naming it and demystifying it. We have left a lot of the nuance of trauma out of the conversation around sexual violence.
The results of this research study, that I co-wrote and implemented with a colleague, will help us to learn which of the healing arts are most impacting for survivors and why they are helpful, what symptoms they treat, what barriers might have gotten in the way to accessing them, what their practitioner did that made them feel safe, what has been most challenging in healing and so much more. I think it will surprise people when they see the results of the survey and it will also really inspire people when they see the responses we have gathered in our in-person interviews. These conversations with survivors have been the most incredible ones I have had in a long time, and a reminder that we need to start asking the more difficult and more nuanced questions of survivors of trauma if we really seek to uncover how to help people heal. Survivors have such incredible insight to share with us. Their responses have been powerful, unfiltered and raw. They have voices and perspectives that haven’t been centered in the movement, and we are privileged to gather this data and these stories together for the future publication of our findings. The data doesn’t lie. It points the way clearly towards greater social, financial, institutional and political investment in treating the wounds of the body, mind and spirit through the healing arts. I am looking forward to all that will unfold with this unprecedented project, including an expansion of trauma-informed, holistic healing resources for survivors.

You may follow Molly’s work online here: