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Advocate and sexual abuse survivor Lauren Book encourages us to dig into our pain to regain power and create change.
[0:13-0:38]: They say when you’re in a moment of crisis or trauma you’re likely to develop one of three reactions: fight, flight, or freeze. For which of these three F’s are you fated? Which way will the pendulum swing? There is simply no way to predict until you find yourself faced with the unthinkable.
[0:39-0:52]: During acts of terror some have the natural instinct to fight. Adrenaline kicks in, clarity is found in chaos, thoughts connect to action and well you simply fight like hell to survive.
[0:53-1:06]: Others have a natural urge an instinct tending toward flight to literally remove themselves from the traumatic situation by any means possible. To get the F out.
[1:08-1:38]: The third F: freeze. You tune out, blackout, your mind leaves your body behind. Or sometimes the experience, the thoughts, the feelings and the senses become heightened but you are stuck—paralyzed— unable to react, frozen waiting for the pain to end. That was the case for me.
[1:40-2:12]: Let me take you back nearly two decades to the place where it all began. Picture me: then a sassy eager-to-please 11-year old girl, young looking for my age, fine blonde hair and a wispy ponytail tied back with a velvet scrunchie, working late in my mom’s chocolate shop to help with the holiday rush. I was as usual chewing, popping, and snapping my gum as I worked away in the shop alongside a trusted and well-loved caretaker my nanny who we called Waldi.
[2:13-2:49]: While I’d come to love Waldi, in the months since she entered our home it certainly didn’t start out that way, quite the opposite in fact. She was a big hulking lady, not the Mary Poppins type nanny I dreamed of, nowhere near it. I didn’t like her. Not at all. Not one bit. And I made it quite clear I did not want her to join our household. But being 10 at the time I was completely overruled, and like I said it didn’t take long for those things to change.Begrudgingly at first, I started to like having Waldi around.
[2:40-3:49]: She made me feel safe, loved, and cared for. And by that December she’d begun to fill a real void for me, a mix of a mother, friend, and big sister always giving me the front seat―something very coveted in a family with three kids―letting me stay up later than my siblings and giving me extra dessert without even having to ask. My parents trusted Waldie―she made our somewhat dysfunctional family work.
[3:22-4:12]: Now back to that day in the chocolate shop. We were working side by side when Waldi asked me to stop chewing my gum like a cow, and act like a lady. ‘Oh yeah, what are you gonna do about it?’ I replied, hands on my hips as always in my oversized denim overalls, my favorite ones with the shiny silver buttons and velvet detailing to match my scrunchie. From the moment Waldi stepped toward me I knew something had shifted the way she was looking at me with a gleam in her eye that made my stomach turn and my gut told me something awful was about to happen, but I loved Waldi and my parents did too she was my family still I knew something was wrong.
[4:13-5:05]: Having no guidance on how to react when I felt unsafe, I froze. While it couldn’t have been more than three seconds, these approaches felt like an eternity. I remember every drawn out moment, I remember the sickness in my stomach, I remember the beating of my heart so loud, so hard, and so fast like it was going to jump right out of my chest. I remember the screaming in my head, the silence in my throat and the taste of our shared saliva. But most of all I remember the lead in my feet by the time she reached me standing far too close for comfort, a lion in front of a lamb I was completely frozen paralyzed.
[5:07-5:38]: And then it happened. She proceeded to take the gum out of my mouth with her tongue―my abyss, my abuse, my assault it had all begun. This was the first moment, the first time, the first day that would come to define me for far too long. I will never forget the clink thud of my gum hitting the bottom of the metal trash can as Waldi spit it out and walked away.
[5:40-6:02]: On the car ride back to my house I was unable to speak. Unable to think, unable to move, unable to comprehend what had just happened; or what in the world, what in the universe I―an 11-year old little girl―was going to do next. All I did know was that I couldn’t tell anyone. Fight, flight, freeze. I had frozen.
[6:09-6:39]: And then I felt the most sinister ‘F’ of all: that this was all somehow my fault. Now it’s important to understand that survivors of trauma usually have no conscious choice of how they will react, but that doesn’t stop the conscious mind from feeling shock, shame, blame or guilt about these responses. This is one of the reasons I knew I couldn’t tell anyone about what had happened.
[6:40-7:08]: And what continued to happen for six very long years. Physical, sexual, emotional abuse, which occurred every day before school, after school―often times when my parents were in the very next room, or while my brother was in the very same bed. It happened on family vacations, and in store dressing rooms. There was no escape.
[7:09-7:39]: I felt ashamed of, and trapped by, my initial normal reaction to an abnormal situation. Every day that went by without my disclosure, the more trapped, isolated, and hopeless I felt; and the deeper into the abyss of abuse. I felt like Alice in Wonderland but the rabbit hole I’d fallen down didn’t lead to a world of wonder quite the opposite in fact.
[7:40-8:03]: Waldi was a skilled predator, and would say things to feed into these feelings of guilt and self-doubt ensuring my silence, my submission, and her complete control. ‘If you tell no one will believe you’ she’d say, ‘they’ll send you away’, ‘they would be so ashamed of you, you don’t want that baby do you’.
[8:05-8:31]: Today I know these things to be false statements made by a predator looking to keep her prey in and under her control. But I was a child, I felt trapped, I thought I was the only one in the whole world in a situation like this and that ‘F’ loomed above me every morning, noon, and night fall.
[8:33-8:55] Now I want to put my experience into perspective: you may be looking at me, a blonde haired, green-eyed, upper class girl whose private gated neighborhood couldn’t keep out a monster living in my own home. I am one of 42 million survivors of childhood sexual abuse living in the United States today.
[8:57-9:20]: The World Health Organization estimates that 150 million girls, and 73 million boys are victims of child sexual abuse worldwide. Right now about one in three girls, and one in five boys will become victims of sexual abuse before their 18th birthday.
[9:21-9:43]: Let that sink in. 223 million children a silent epidemic. Millions of children worldwide suffering right now, and millions of adults living with unresolved effects of childhood trauma. I am part of that statistic.
[9:48-10:11]: One of the millions. And chances are very very good that you know someone, love someone, share a life with someone who has also experienced childhood sexual abuse. Someone who is or was fighting for their life for control of their body for survival.
[10:13-10:33]: Because true surviving is more than just living through something, that’s only the beginning of a long and painful healing journey. After six long years I found my voice and disclosed the abuse I had been suffering at the hands of a monster that we all knew.
[10:34-10:52]: There’s a lot that I remember from that time: my parents asking if they should hug me, or if they shouldn’t touch me, the tearful frightened look in my sibling’s eyes, and the hateful and hurtful whispers of cruel former friends.
[10:53-11:21]: But there’s a lot that shifts in and out of focus. Like the drip, drip, drip of the IV while I was hospitalized battling in anorexia and self-harm; sleepless days and nights delusional with fatigue; but too terrified to close my eyes for even a second for fear I would see Waldi staring back at me.
[11:22-11:47]: Battling PTSD (something I still struggle with to this day), recovery, survival is often three steps forward, and ten steps back. But with the help of trauma counselors and the support of family and friends I fought my way back from victim, to survivor, and then thriver.
[11:49-12:04]: I got past my abuse I was finally able to let go of that insidiary ‘F’. The abuse I suffered had become my ‘X’ but was still struggling to figure out the ‘Y’.
[12:05-12:28]: I Continued on my path. I went to school to become a teacher, because I wanted to protect children in ways I was unable to be kept safe. I looked closely at my students and tried to figure out the root causes of their challenges. I began digging a little deeper and asking ‘Y’ for them and for me.
[12:29-12:58]: One day after a lesson that began with reading readiness and had naturally evolved into a discussion about body boundaries and safety, one of my students, a little girl bounded towards me excited to tell me about a game she and her daddy like to play: shucky. At the end of a very long day I thought, ‘okay great, her father is engaged in her development and is playing with her at home, how wonderful’. I went home feeling warm and fuzzy.
[13:00-13:19]: Later that evening, I did what I’ve been training myself to do―not only as an educator or protector of children but also as an advocate―to think twice, to think a little deeper, and analyze things one step beyond to ask why.
[13:20-13:52]: The next day I asked the little girl to show, or tell me, how she and her daddy played shucky. She began to explain ‘we only play shucky when mommy isn’t home,’ ‘it doesn’t even hurt me anymore, daddy says that means I’m getting better at it’. But then a look of panic crossed the little girl’s face, and she started shifting from one foot to the next, nervously wringing her hands as she disclosed a secret she knew she wasn’t supposed to tell. Their little secret.
[13:53-14:23]: “Please don’t tell, Miss Lauren. Daddy will be so mad.” My heart broke for that. My heart broke in that moment, and it has for every child who has disclosed to me since. I wish that I could say cases like this were unique, that they never happen. But the reality is they happen every day, every hour, every minute to a child somewhere in the world.
[14:24-14:55]: In that moment―and all moments forward, I realized I no longer stood for abuse, but rather advocacy. My own abuse had become my ‘X’ and caused me to continue to ask ‘why?’ I’d realized my life’s purpose, my life’s work, that’s why I founded Lauren’s Kids, a foundation dedicated to the protection of childhood and prevention of abuse.
[14:56-15:30]: Because what comes naturally to most―a visit to the dentist, a hug, kiss or caress―you can send me down a path where I, the 31 year old thriving survivor you see in front of you is simply not recognizable if I’m walking down the street. One simple smell, a single smell out of the blue can trigger a flashback, a movie I cannot turn off or escape. I have to remind myself,
[15:31-15:51]: Talk to myself, to stop me from spiraling back to that place when I was a powerless child in way over my head, too afraid to use my voice, and remind myself that today I am 31, whole, and safe.
[15:51-16:14]: Why do I continually and consistently reveal these scars? The ones that may not be physically visible, but are very, very real? Because I’m unsure I’m able to create life, or carry a child to term though my husband and I are trying hard. That choice may have been taken from me from us.
[16:16-16:44]: And the trying, even though it may be fun, is also a challenge. It can be triggering during something so special, so sacred, Waldi’s face sometimes swims into focus. Because of the things I’ve experienced, I’ll wake up in the middle of the night screaming and clawing my way out of the darkness, fighting to stay alive, fighting to stay safe, and to escape her.
[16:45-17:12]: But then I’m pulled from the darkness. Awakened by my husband and reminded and reassured I am safe in our bed, next to a man who loves me more than all the stars in the sky, and fish in the sea. That I’m okay, I’m having another night terror, one of many before and many (I am unfortunately certain) are yet to come.
[17:13-17:40]: So I ask myself, and I’ll let you ask me again: why do I do what I do? Because I want to be a part of worldwide systemic change in which we can (and do) teach our children how to be safe. Because if it means saving one child like me: letting them know that it’s okay to tell, and that it’s okay to heal, then it’s worth it. That’s my ‘Y’.
[17:41-18:23]: Maya Angelou, who is also a survivor, said: we delight in the beauty of a butterfly but rarely admit the changes it has gone through to achieve that beauty. Some of the most incredible and impactful people I know have also survived some sort of trauma and lived to tell about it.
[18:25-18:45]: For many it’s this place of unthinkable pain that’s become the ‘X’ that’s driven them to create some sort of pivotal and incredibly meaningful change. They’ve had to dig deep―asking, seeking, questioning, and discovering the ‘Y’ to be as effective as possible, and true agents of positive sustainable change.
[18:47-19:21]: So before I leave you, I have some final thoughts on finding your ‘X’ and ‘Y’ lessons for current and future world changers in this room and beyond. Face your dark. Don’t run from dark places, don’t be afraid to dig into the painful and uncomfortable things you’ve experienced. And to ask ‘why?’ that just could be where you find your power your ‘X’. Remember your story is unlike anyone else’s―embrace it, let it empower you, be authentic.
[19:22-19:45]: Even with vulnerabilities, not everyone will get you. Not everyone will like you. Accept that it does not matter, use your power to change the world in ways that are meaningful to you. Decide what is unacceptable in your world, or your life, that you can change, and change that because you can find your ‘X’.
[19:46-19:54]: Recruit a team to make your vision a reality. Get other people excited and ask why with you.
[19:56-20:33]: If you would have asked that 11-year old little girl in oversized overalls and fear in her heart if she’d be standing in front of you―a crowd of academics and professionals, of learners, leaders, and doers, and probably more survivors than any of us would care to realize―I’m not sure that she’d believe it to be possible. But she had no idea her abuse would become her ‘X’, her driving force or that it would transform into something new: advocacy rooted in the continued need to find the ‘Y’.
[20:35-20:50]: So what’s my ‘Z’? Stay tuned. We’ve covered ‘A’, ‘F’, ‘IV’, ‘PTSD’ and ‘X’; so for now let’s all stick to digging a little deeper and challenging ourselves to ask ‘Y’?
Friends and family who want to be there for a loved one dealing with the aftermath of sexual assault sometimes don’t know what to say or do. The Joyful Heart Foundation helps survivors heal—and they shared these tips on how you can help a loved one cope with trauma with empathy and compassion.
Writer and activist Ione Wells says we need a better approach to use social media for social justice. After she was the victim of an assault in London, Wells published a letter to her attacker in a student newspaper that went viral and sparked the #NotGuilty campaign against sexual violence and victim-blaming. In this moving talk, she describes how sharing her personal story gave hope to others and delivers a powerful message against the culture of online shaming.