#Healing: Life beyond abuse

How do we end gender-based violence? How do we heal? How do we create change?

Angelique V Nixon and I have been asking these questions over the past few years through our co-created art and reflection projects on gender-based violence (GBV) in the Caribbean. This year, we decided to focus on breaking silence and healing.

It is a very fitting theme given the widespread participation of women and girls in the #lifeinleggings movement. (See #lifeinleggings hashtag on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram).  Women from across the Caribbean region and Diaspora have been sharing their stories of public harassment, sexual assault, abuse, molestation and rape.  The posts have been intensely gut-wrenching. Those who have chosen to participate by sharing and by reading these stories have all been having deeply emotional and psychological responses, to the horror of other women’s experiences and remembrances of their own past traumas.

Angelique will be hosting a workshop in San Juan, Trinidad, on the evening of December 9 (see Facebook for details), open to survivors of GBV, including LGBTQI persons.

My own version of this healing workshop was conducted a few weeks ago at Rutgers (New Brunswick, NJ), and I hope to  a second session next semester. This workshop was not specifically for victims of GBV but was conducted with LLEGO, the LGBTQQIA People of Colour Organisation at Rutgers University. In this post, I want to share some of the strategies we employed and practiced at the workshop, where participants consented to have some of what they shared there, be used in this post.

We began with an exercise in unmasking, by making masks that showed the side of us that we share with the world, and the insecurities that we hide.  Here are some examples:

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“This mask is myself. I generally come across as calm. I like making people laugh, cheering people up, being there as a friend and as support. But on the other side, I am smaller and less happy. While I have other people’s backs, the majority of the time, I don’t have my back. I’m in the process of learning how to do that and take better care of myself”.

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“I project confidence, determination and courage. This is not what I am, but what I want to display. Not that I am a fake, but these are what I aspire to. But inside, I battle these things – fear, longing and guilt. I have a tendency to idolise people and I feel like everything is perfect with them and not me.”

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“This is me and all the little things that comprise me. I tend to hide behind my hair and my school work. I have a lot of interests, that’s what this grab box represents. But I’m a star. I am intimidated by vulnerability, like this exercise itself was one of making oneself vulnerable, so I am uncomfortable doing it, but I still want to. I feel insecure about my body and about my intelligence when compared to peers, especially because my personality is ‘out there’, so I’m not perceived as smart. I have a hard time relating to straight women, like… even just communicating with them. And lastly, I had a difficult childhood and I’m still battling with that.”

Twelve masks were made that night and each person shared their stories of trauma, of losing loved ones and friends, of being too scared or anxious to face the world. The making of the masks brought up emotions, both positive and negative, so the next part of the workshop sought to help us work though these emotions.

Sitting cross-legged in a circle on the ground, I talked us through an exercise using the breath to pump emotion, tension and energies into, through, and out of the body. With each breath, we drew energy up from the floor, pulling positivity into our bodies, and breathing out negativity. Any stress, anger, fatigue or frustration is exhaled with the breath.  The full exercise can be found here.

There were more tears as each person went through their own journey of release and replenish. We did not talk about the particular events and circumstances that people were carrying.  Instead we talked about how they felt, and how they can work on dealing with those feelings. Doing the exercise together helped amplify the energy in the room.

Lastly, I wanted to encourage a spiritual practice of community, and the idea that we are can help each other to be strong, without having to face our obstacles on our own. What strength or gift do I have that I can share with someone else? What strength do they need now in their life? How can we contribute to the overall health of our community?

Still sitting on the floor, we placed out hands to our hearts in the mudra for receptivity and drew one of our own strengths and shared it with the person beside us, slowly taking the time to connect with that person, share and strengthen each other.  Gifts included compassion, optimism, self-confidence, empathy and kindness, people to love you, respect, peace of mind, and being a “bad bitch”.

These exercises brought the participants in the LLEGO group together in a different way. They already knew each other and were building friendships through their weekly meetings, discussions and activities. This healing exercise saw them unveil parts of themselves that they hid even from this group. Also, by ending with a sense of community and connectedness, it served as a reminder that we are all on this journey together.

This type of work is not done once and is over. This labour of self-preservation and community building must be part of our every-day praxis. Mindfulness of how our actions, words and thoughts affect us and others. It may be utopian and unrealistic to expect others to steadily engage in an ethic of care towards us, making it even more important for us to perform this labour ourselves – a labour of care for self and for community.

 

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Over the last two years, for the #16Days campaign, Angelique V Nixon and I have engaged in art and activism projects on social media. In 2014, our three-part project, Outrage, Body Power and Change comprised original poetry, artwork and music, including a video with our voices.  Last year, in 2015, we attempted to build on this project instead reaching out with questions on Facebook and Instagram, to stimulate conversation about how we can end gender-based violence and the systemic power relations that sustain it.

If you are in Trinidad and are interested in participating in the upcoming workshop (December 9, 2016), facilitated by Angelique V Nixon, please see Facebook for details and registration.