Can you heal from abuse? What do I do after leaving my narcissist? What does a healthy relationship look like? These concerns cross the minds of over 20 people every minute; over 28,800 people every day. And the sad fact is, we still don’t talk about it enough. Healing from Emotional Abuse isn’t a bandaid situation. But it doesn’t have to be a five year process either. Millions of other survivors around the worlds entire lives have been impacted by their narcissist. Yours doesn’t have to. To show you how to live a free, confident and peaceful life, your host and Founder of the Healing From Emotional Abuse Philosophy, Marissa F. Cohen.
Marissa: Welcome back to Healing From Emotional Abuse. As you know, April is Sexual Assault Awareness Month. And every week this month, I’ve had an interview with a strong, amazing champion, and I’m so excited to bring on my friend Sarah today. Sarah is an incredible, strong, beautiful champion and advocate, she has overcome her own personal traumas and paid it forward by volunteering with local rape crisis centers. She’s a passionate advocate and wants to give every survivor their voice back. Hi, Sarah! Thank you so much for being here today.
Sarah: Hi, Marissa. Thank you so much for having me.
Marissa: Of course, I’m so excited to talk to you. So let’s get started. Sarah, would you mind telling us your story?
Sarah: Not at all. It’s been about 20 years, we’re going to round it, since my assault. And I was a going on a single mom of three kids. I was married at the time. This was an acquaintance of myself and my husband. Someone that we were friends with, both he and his wife. I was put into a position of being alone with someone that I did not trust, and did not listen to those little hairs that stood up on the back of my neck, and was alone in a car and was violently assaulted.
Marissa: Oh, my God.
Sarah: I was in the process of a divorce and being separated at the time. I had three young children at home under the age of eight or nine, all three at home, that I was responsible for and taking care of. And unfortunately, not that every assault isn’t but, the assaults to a very violent turn. And I had some major medical issues and definitely needed medical attention and was unequipped, I think emotionally, to share what had happened or expose what had happened to anyone. I didn’t for a while, and meaning a while during that day, I sat in the shower for many hours. Sitting in the shower, trying to figure out what to do. And ended up going to a work event and collapsing on the ground from a migraine. Just told everybody made my parents come pick me up that was outside. They picked me up brought me to a treatment center, not like the emergency room, but like an emergency treatment center that was 24 hours. I think they definitely knew and had made some suggestions to see if I wanted to disclose anything at the time. And I was very adamant in “nothing happened.” And I’m just sick. And I had some, you know, medical issues at the time anyway, and was not going to admit to anything, because if I didn’t admit to it, and my young brain at the time, it wasn’t true, and it didn’t happen.
And I kind of went about the next almost six years with that mindset.
And I worked with children with behavioral issues, and many of them came from very difficult situations. And a lot of times abuse was brought up. And I realized that I was obviously not handling the situation very well within myself and started to disclose then to some trusted people. And I worked closely with a police department and disclosed to a friend of mine, and wanted to know what to do. Because one of the things that I struggled with the most was that I did not report and that was a huge, huge struggle for me. My assault resulted several years later, in a full radical hysterectomy, due to injury, as well as, I was susceptible before but due to injury from the assault. I attempted to report five or six years later, more for my healing process. I’d gone to many therapists at that point in time and wasn’t ready to be honest with myself until I had one that finally said, “Okay, cut the shit and let’s talk about your trauma.” And I think it took me a while well over 10 years to really talk about what happened to me and the story and disclose everything.
I obviously didn’t date for a very long time, being single at the time and going through all that, I needed to focus on my kids and me and being super mom and doing all those things that you needed to do. And I really thought that that was what was going to heal me. And it didn’t, it blew up in my face, which I think happens, and you know, you kind of move on, and I think I’m the healthiest I’ve ever been emotionally with dealing with the trauma.
Marissa: Thank you so much for sharing all of that. That’s so heart-wrenching, you know, going through that and just the person that you are now and the person you’ve become, in spite of that, and after that it’s so eye opening, and I’m so proud of you.
Sarah: Thank you.
Marissa: Of course. You said you threw yourself in parenting and being super mom. Did that give you any sort of relief? Or how did the kids handle it? I know that your kids still don’t know.
Sarah: My daughter is aware. My sons are not. Okay, my now husband is well aware. I think in my situation. One of the things that I didn’t mention was the relationship that we had with my rapist. I felt very, very betrayed by my husband at the time for putting me in a known, risky situation. And I take full ownership of putting myself in that situation. But I also have a lot of anxiety and anger towards him for that and I’ve since, I think, let go of that. But I couldn’t I guess at the time, I couldn’t emotionally focus on anything but my kids. I kind of just tried my best to put it out of my mind. And I’m very thankful for having my kids there, because it’s I think the only way I really survived it.
Marissa: That’s beautiful. How did it feel when you finally started talking about it? Like did it give you a sense of relief? Or was it terrifying?
Sarah: Yes, is the answer to that question. I think I was so overwhelmed with all different emotions, fear and relief and anger and going through kind of a mourning period of trying to figure out who I was. And I was doing that anyway, with going through a divorce and going from being someone’s daughter, to someone’s wife to someone’s mother to never really finding who I was. I think all of that although was a good distraction, there were still things that were difficult to disclose and difficult to deal with at the time. And sometimes even now, I mean, there’s things that still trigger. You just can’t turn those off. You can recognize them, but you can’t turn them off. And as hard as you try to do that there’s always going to be things and I think I feel more guilty now when some of those come up. Because something will remind me of that person and it’s not the other person’s fault. This poor stranger who’s walking down you know, the, the hall in the mall is not at fault for wearing the cologne he’s wearing, and that has acted for a trigger for me.
Marissa: That’s really, really common that your sense of smell is directly linked to your long term memory. So it’ll be the most likely to trigger somebody or to bring back a memory. So I’ve actually spoken to a lot of people that have said the smell of cologne will trigger them because a certain cologne reminds them of someone.
Sarah: And I think for me the confusion lied that, I didn’t realize what it was that was triggering me and didn’t realize that I was being triggered. I just felt panicked. And trying to deal with those feelings and recognize them to take a breath and say, “Okay, this is what it is, you know, you’re not there, you’re not in it. Get away from it.” Is so important for me now. And they happen fewer and farther between and I think when I was dealing with it, one of my fears of dealing with it and facing it, believe it or not, was forgetting details.
Sarah: Which coming from the background that I come from I find really interesting. I spent all these years trying to forget and then was fearful of forgetting because then they weren’t going to have to take the responsibility of knowing that it happened if I forgot.
Marissa: What do you mean?
Sarah: In my head, I, and I remember saying this to my awesome therapist that finally did help bring this out. I was afraid that I would forget dates or details or times. And that would like, somehow let him off the hook. Okay, in my, in my brain, let him off the hook, like it was okay, because if I don’t remember it, then it’s okay. Oh, they’re so into thought process.
Marissa: Okay, that’s so interesting. So at the end of the day, like you were focusing on making sure he was held accountable without realizing it was kind of at your psyches expense.
Sarah: Exactly, and I think that was part of my I struggled and struggled and struggled with the guilt of not reporting, and for so long and was not treated very well, obviously, five or six years later, when I did try to report it was it was not received very well. And I did it more for me and my therapy and therapeutic purposes. And it kind of blew up in my face. But I was glad that I did it. Now I can say I was glad that I did that. And I know he was held accountable for something else in the future. And that gives me I think, a little bit of peace of mind, knowing that someone else had the courage to do what I couldn’t do at the time.
Marissa: And that’s okay. I hope you don’t beat yourself up about that, because you only about 5% of cases are actually reported.
Sarah: Right, I’m getting better. I think that I’m forgiving myself a little bit in the sense that my focus had to be my children. And I don’t think I could have done both.
Marissa: It would have been a lot to handle three kids as a single mom, and oh, you know, all the emotions that spring up I was going through a divorce,
Sarah: I was going through medical issues that were exacerbated by the assault, and it was just my life was crumbling down. You know, as far as I was concerned, and I just needed to keep my head above water.
Marissa: Exactly, you got to do what you have to do to keep yourself safe and survive.
Sarah: And that’s what I did. And you can’t go back. But you can can’t change the future, but you can certainly change the ending. And that’s what I’m trying to do. And I think it enables me to support other survivors and warriors to do what they feel is right for them in their heart because there is no right or wrong answer. And you can’t live with those regrets in your, in your heart or in your head.
Marissa: I love that. That’s a really strong statement. You can’t survive with those thoughts floating around you. You know you have to heal in order to get yourself sound and stable and take care of yourself. So speaking about healing, what did you do that really helped you heal? You went to therapy and found a therapist that you love.
Sarah: I found a therapist that has since retired. How dare he?! And was very surprised that the therapist that I did find that helped me tremendously was a man. I thought oh, how is this ever going to work? But he was fabulous and just really delve in and was patient yet firm with getting me to deal with the things I needed to deal with. I was a big journaler always have been always wrote things always wrote stories always wrote poetry I always wrote, began writing letters that I never send.
Marissa: That’s my favorite thing to tell people to do.
Sarah: Yep, began writing letters that I never send begun. Alternate things to get me grounded when necessary. I had a great support system that I didn’t always lean on with my husband now, because sometimes that’s hard. And that’s no fault of his that those were my issues. And I think for me, the journaling and the therapy, for sure, was huge. And allowing myself to move forward and deal with the fact that you can you can’t go back to the past and you can’t change the past. And one of the things that I found the most interesting that the therapist ever told me was, I once went and you know, we all deal with stuff on a daily basis. And you know, we have a blended family now, which I adore and we have struggles. You know, their life is a struggle. It’s a beautiful struggle, hopefully most of the time, but it can be a struggle. And I remember having a challenging issue, I think medically and said, You know what, I don’t understand. I’ve been through all this stuff in my past and I have really suffered and really, you know, made great strides to move forward in the future, and now I’m being knocked down again. And he kind of said to me what gives you the right, what makes you think you have the right to think that the world stops for you? And I thought, well, that was mean you’re supposed to be on my side.
But it resonated with me and it was something that kind of helped me ground myself and say, okay, you’re not always what the world revolves around. And just because you’ve struggled in the past doesn’t make you immune from struggling in the future, and use the struggles to make you stronger, not knock you down.
Marissa: Yeah, I have a friend who just put out a book about how failures, the beginning of your success. And I think that’s so interesting. And I think it kind of connects here where everything that happens, yeah, everything that happens in your life is, is a test. And it’s either going to make you sink or swim. And the point is to make you swim, to give you that power, and to make you stronger, and give you the strength and courage to get better, you know, to keep pushing and keep swimming.
Sarah: Absolutely. And I never bought into that, especially after this happened, they never bought that everything happens for a reason, because there isn’t a reason for this to happen. But you have to make the best of what you have. And you have to move forward, there aren’t choices in that. You need to move forward, and you need to get stronger. And now being a parent of adult children, I always parented with a thought in mind, you don’t raise children, you raise adults. I have daughters, and I look at how I would want them to react and you know, sometimes I’ve learned as a parent also that your kids don’t necessarily learn from your mistakes, they have to learn from their own. But you have to lead by example. And I may not have done what I felt was the right thing in the long run at the time, but I had to do what was right for me in hopes that they see the strength that I had to get to where I am now.
Marissa: If you’re comfortable answering this question, I’m curious, how did you tell your daughters, what did you say to them, because they’re older, now they’re in their 20s, or 30s.
Sarah: They’re in their 20s, I told so we have a blended family. So my daughter, I consider them online. So I do have a daughter and a stepdaughter, the only one of our children, that nose is my daughter, I actually ended up sharing with her when I was doing my training for becoming an advocate. And she was going to come with me, we were going out of town for this training session for a week. And she was going to come with me and I felt that I didn’t want it to come out any other way other than from my mouth. And she had also had recently at the time, and this was quite a long time ago, had recently come out of an abusive-type relationship in college. And we were getting her on the road to health again, both physically and emotionally. And I felt that I owed it to her to be honest with her. It was a very quick but difficult conversation to have. There are many details she does not know and I don’t feel that it’s necessary for her to know. She’s never really asked, but as always been very thankful of me for sharing.
Marissa: Thank you for sharing that I feel like a lot of people struggle with not knowing how to tell their kids. I think it’s really important that that they do my parents Well, my mom shared with me a an abusive situation that she had when she was younger, but not till after I had already experienced mine.
Sarah: I had the same experience actually.
Marissa: Right. And as helpful as it is after the fact like, Okay, I’m not alone. And you do understand where I’m coming from thinking back me probably maybe because like you said, you know, sometimes kids have to experience things for themselves to truly learn. And this probably would have been one of them anyways, but maybe I could have been better equipped to handle mine. Or maybe I would have shared more with her about it, had I known that she would have understood what I was going through? So I don’t know, I just don’t think there’s any specific system. I think that it’s important that we share though.
Sarah: I think I was glad that I shared. I didn’t share with you mentioned your mom, I didn’t share with my mom until many years later when I ended up having my hysterectomy. She was in the office with me with my doctor. And the question came out. I hadn’t shared really much publicly, and it was basically in the parking lot of the hospital.
Marissa: Oh my god.
Sarah: And I’m glad that it did come out. It was that was definitely a relief feeling. But it was obviously not what I had anticipated. That being or looking like at the time and very supportive and was wonderful through it. But wasn’t I mean, I don’t think it was until recently maybe within the last couple years that my sister even knew, because at this point, it’s part of my story. It’s not who I am.
Marissa: See, I like that and it doesn’t define us. I find that generally our families are the last people we tell because we want to protect them. Or we’re afraid of their reaction or, I mean a myriad of reasons for the same reason we don’t tell certain people, but I only told my mom because I started writing Breaking Through the Silence: The Journey to Surviving Sexual Assault. And technically, I’ve still never told my dad, but I mean, he owns my book. So I’m sure he knows. He’s a smart man, he knows what I do for a living. So I think that sharing the story is good. I think it’s definitely scary at first.
Sarah: I spoke at an event for an Advocacy Center. And I think that’s when my mom disclosed fully to my dad. I think he knew something went on, I don’t think he knew stuff and my dad is my father’s 84 years old. So he’s not and wasn’t at the time, but still was older and you know, very doesn’t want to hear that stuff. And my mom was very adamant in telling him because they were going to be at this event. It was a fundraising event, and I was speaking in a way I, you might want to give him a heads up. So he’s not shell shocked when I say what I have to say. So it’s weird, and we never really discussed it. I’ve discussed a little bit with my mom, and you know, our relationship is, we have a good relationship. I’m very cautious protective of my feelings in our relationship, I think so. It’s not something that, you know, we sit around and discuss every day, but it’s not something I you know, I have adult sons that, I don’t know, if I will ever have that conversation. I’m just not sure
Marissa: And that’s okay. It’s all a comfort thing. I’m in the mindset of the more we talk about it, the more power we take away from abuser, I say, you know,
Sarah: I definitely agree. And I think that I hopefully did not raise dumb children. And I’m sure that they realized that there’s something there. But I am just not comfortable with it. At this point, you know, I don’t want to add to their stress of their daily lives, and it’s not something that they need to worry about or think about,
Marissa: Right. And you’re okay, you know, you you’re a solid, stable person, it’s not like you are wishy washy or all over the place, or emotionally unstable, like, you’re okay. And they don’t have to worry about you,.
Sarah: Right. I think even when I was going through the hardest times with it, when I wasn’t dealing with it, and it was kind of coming to bite me in the ass, so to speak, I always was able to maintain, and felt that I needed to maintain that, “I’m okay, you’re okay, and everything is fine,” stability for them, because they didn’t have that anywhere else. And I always wanted to be that soft place to fall for my kids. And I needed to make sure that even though there were times that I don’t think I really was okay, that I was okay enough to handle it on my own and on my own terms.
Marissa: You’re amazing. Thank you for all the work
Sarah: You do what you got to do.
Marissa: That’s true. I mean, you’re like Superwoman, you like jumped into action when you needed to, and you were that soft place to land for them. And they probably didn’t know any of the details of what was going on, which is an extremely strong attribute. And I hope you pat yourself on the back. Of course. What advice would you give to survivors listening?
Sarah: That’s a question that has been asked so many times through advocacy as well. Number one, realize it’s not your fault, which everybody tells you and it’s a tough thing to swallow when you’re in it in the moment, because I will tell you I didn’t believe that nobody else would believe it. Nobody else believes that when you tell them that, but it’s not. And it’s allow yourself to heal allow yourself to grieve because I think for myself, I went through a grieving process. Because although it doesn’t define who we are, it does take a piece of you away and I think that I was grieving that loss. It was just like all this Coronavirus stuff is going on now. And this is new territory for everybody in the world that was very new territory for my world. I didn’t expect it. I didn’t know it. Nobody gives you a heads up, hey, this is what’s going to happen. And it turns your world upside down. But know in your heart that it will get easier. It doesn’t go away. But you learn different methods to incorporate that into a new norm. And rely on the people that are there to help you. Lean on people as much as you can when you are ready to talk. Talk. There’s advocacy centers out there, there’s strangers, there’s online things and if you feel you have nobody write it in a book, put it down, you know, not necessarily in a published book, but write it down. And if you are afraid somebody is going to find it, burn it. But get those feelings out. Get those thoughts out. Put them down on paper, talk to yourself in the mirror, scream into a pillow. Get those feelings out. Don’t bottle it up inside you.
Marissa: Thank you so much. I love that. And I really like the comparison to Coronavirus. In my head and it’s so true. Nobody knows. I don’t know what to do. Everyone’s lost every new use and in crisis mode and that’s exactly how you feel when you’re surviving. So that was really awesome.
Sarah: You go into that, like you said, into crisis mode, you go into that protective. Now what do I do, because I don’t know what to do. So now what, so you just have to take it minute by minute, sometimes not even day by day and just kind of move forward with how the new norm is going to work itself through,
Marissa: Exactly got to take care of the basic necessities first. And then when everything is stable, it’s like the hierarchy of needs, you know? When your shelter and necessities are stabilized, then you can move on to the next one and the next one, next one. And then you can heal and rebuild yourself.
Sarah: And find a place for you, internally and externally that you can go and it’s just your quiet retreat, whether it be a small little place in an office, a closet, a bedroom, make that place your comfort zone, make that place your spot where you can go and just breathe when you need to
Marissa: I love it. Thank you so much, Sarah, for being here today and for discussing all of these actually, like very insightful, great topics. And I really appreciate everything that you said and your willingness to share and all the advocacy and beautiful work that you do with me, in my businesses in my nonprofit and in the community. You’re amazing and you’re so strong and I am so inspired by you every single day.
Sarah: Well, thank you for all the work that you do. And thank you for sharing it all with me and allowing me to be a part of it.
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