Dear Survivor: An Open Letter From A Therapist


Dear Survivor, 

I hope this letter finds you when you are ready. I hope you know that your story is valid, and that your worth is not defined by your experiences or the things you did to cope. 

I see your pain and it’s big. But I also see your courage and it’s bigger. We can do hard things” -Glennon Doyle

I have sat across from so many of you and every time I ask myself,  “What do I need to do to stop you from continuing to find yourself sitting across from me? What do I need to change in our world so your stories don’t keep multiplying? How can I put myself out of a job?” But I am also you. I have held your tears while fighting back my own. I have listened to your stories feeling every emotion more intensely than I care to admit. I have held your rage while my survivor self raged with you, and my therapist self jumped for joy that you regained access to your fight. I felt your shame and helped guide you back to your power and pleasure. Survivors, this letter is for you; as no survivor I have met has ever been comforted by silence. 

My story is not uncommon, I grew up relatively sheltered (catholic if you are wondering) and thinking it wouldn’t happen to me, until one unfortunate night in undergrad it did. It would be a few more years till the #MeToo movement blew up so at the time I didn’t know I could talk about it. I blamed myself. I thought I was now damaged and unlovable (special thanks to purity culture and the patriarchy), and I thought for sure I had done something to provoke him. So I tried to hide it…but I was a dance major so I didn’t last long before nearly punching someone who came up behind me and having panic attacks in class. It would be another two years before I started to feel like myself again, where I could feel real joy. On the two year anniversary I presented my undergraduate thesis in front of an audience. This was the first time I told my story and the myth that silence is “better” began to unravel. Telling my story became an act of resistance. 

The second time I shared my story was on facebook with the #MeToo. The flooding of stories and hashtags on my newsfeed reignited my desire for change and confirmed that silence is a trap with which the powers that be use to control survivors. This led to the third time during my graduate internship, when a client asked me if sexual assault was something I had experienced (insert thoughts running a million miles a minute because everything thus far in my training as a therapist had told not to disclose this kind of information). But I answered the client’s question with the word “yes”. The client went on to tell their story, and I later found out from my supervisor this client had not shared in this much detail before. The acts of resistance continued. I went on to write my graduate thesis which explored the role of the survivor therapist which was significantly lacking in the sexual assault literature (not much of a shocker here…maybe some disappointment). 

So here I am now, a few years into my career as a therapist, in midst of a PhD which I told myself I had to get so people would listen to me when I advocate for change (and yes, this is possibly a very expensive trauma response to being silenced). I have heard well over a hundred stories of sexual assault and still, the facts remain. We are not comforted by silence, as survivors are usually being silenced. The act of being silenced breeds more shame as we learn to say “it wasn’t that bad,” or “I shouldn’t have had that drink” or “worn that dress” or any other statement of misplaced blame and guilt. We find excuses where there are none. We begin silencing ourselves for fear of being shamed. The fear begins to do more damage as society has trained us to feel shame and minimize our experiences. But we need to tell our stories, we need to be heard and believed. As Peter Levine states, “Trauma is not what happens to us, but what we hold inside in the absence of an empathetic witness.” 

So I leave you with this, my commitment to you as a survivor therapist…

I promise to always be your empathetic witness.

I promise to keep telling my story when you cannot. 

And I promise to do my very best to put myself out of a job.

-Johanna Hayes, LCPC

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