This will be the first in a series of interviews with authors, activists and other individuals who are making a difference in the lives of individuals, their community and the world at large.
Today, I am talking with Matt Atkinson, author of Resurrection After Rape and a therapist specializing in the treatment of trauma related to abuse and assault. He has won national awards for his expertise in the treatment and prevention of sexual violence. By way of disclosure, I should mention that I am a rape survivor and include Resurrection After Rape as part of my healing and support network. In addition, I am a member of the discussion group associated with the book.
In short, Matt is not a random stranger, but someone I trust and respect for the work he is doing to help those of us who struggle with the effects of trauma in our daily lives.
Let’s get started.
How did you become interested in working with trauma survivors?
Originally, I intended to just work with Indian tribes here in Oklahoma. My focus during graduate school was Native issues in social work, right down to my thesis on incorporating traditional culture into client care. I started working with some of the tribes here to develop cultural programs in Indian housing communities, and these programs were very successful. Just as funding cuts killed our local program, tribes across the country began requesting me as a trainer, and I traveled to other reservations and tribal colleges to teach community leaders how to recreate the very program we'd just ended back home. One thing I noticed in that work was the high prevalence of intimate partner violence (Indian women have the highest rates of victimization of any group in North America), and while tribes have been innovators in anti-drug and anti-alcohol programs, IPV had been almost invisible in tribal grants and services.
It was by chance that I saw a job posting that sought a person to develop and direct domestic violence/sexual assault prevention education programs in Oklahoma. They wanted someone with experience teaching youth, ability to speak in public, cross-cultural experience, and familiarity with research. What they hadn't expected was a male applicant, and the notion was scandalous at first. I began working as a staff director for a DV/SA crisis program in the 1990s, and at first my job was routine: go into schools and present a scripted curriculum. I found, though, that my real education about intimate partner violence, including sexual assault, happened after classes when school students would ask, "can I talk to you alone?" Teen girls were crowding around me day after day, divulging stories of physical, sexual, and emotional abuse in their relationships. For many, I was the first person they had ever told. These became the real-life faces and voices that transcended the raw statistics I'd memorized but never emotionally comprehended before.
The more I heard, the more I realized that simply educating for prevention was a step too late. It was already happening. People needed opportunities to talk and question, and to trust the information they were getting, because they were confused and ashamed. As time passed, I found that this problem overflowed the stereotypes we have all learned. It was happening to every age group—including the seniors at churches where I spoke. It was happening to boys and men, too. It was happening to gay and lesbian people. It was happening to members of every background I could see. One psychiatric hospital began inviting me in to do presentations for their groups of patients, and every time I referred to dating violence or sexual assault there was always widespread relevance. I think that is where I finally saw the need to cross over from basic education to specialized counseling for victims of trauma. I saw people who were lumped under diagnoses like Major Depression, Panic Disorder, Personality Disorder, PTSD…but what they almost always had in common was violent trauma. Therapists were treating the effects, not the causes.
What is your philosophical approach toward healing?
Aside from all the clinical symptoms of trauma, I see one major, fundamental wound that pervades sexual assault: the sense of being personally severed from the rest of life. Victims of sexual assault tell me in the best terms they can that they feel expelled from the "circle of life" by their trauma. Cast out of the garden. Disconnected. Amputated from the body of humanity. Rejected even by God. This senses of being personally extracted from a place of belonging in the web of life isn't something you can quantify with a diagnosis; it's a deeply personal, spiritual wound. I think that traditional therapies fall short because they fail to help the survivor reintegrate him/herself with life. There is something wrong when over 90% of rape victims say that traditional therapies just didn't cut it. The mainstream approach to counseling is so constricted by a lack of innovative care, fear of risk, and the economics of insurance that the more existential forms of healing are not only omitted, but seen as "weird" anymore. The truth that compassion must play a role in the relationship between counselor and client is taboo; the importance of symbolic ceremony to commemorate healing is missing in most therapies; treatment is oriented toward stabilization of symptoms rather than restoration of power, wholeness, and connection to life.
My idea is that the power, honor, and status of healing belong to the survivor, not to the therapist. I become very uncomfortable when I am flattered by a client, because while I appreciate that they value my role in their healing, ultimately it is their work to do, and thus their honor that results. The older Freudian notion of the therapist wielding power in the treatment relationship is horrifying to me, especially when working with a survivor of trauma who most needs their power and authority restored. So my philosophy is treatment of rape is a deeply-collaborative process of restoring the survivor's strength of body, mind, emotions, and spirit.
Socially and politically, what do you see as the most urgent challenges faced by today's survivors of rape, sexual assault and abuse?
Socially, we continue to be a victim-blaming society. The first fear felt by rape victims moments after the assault is, "Oh my God, nobody will believe me!" Our cultural stories about rape mislead us into myths that rape could be prevented if women simply changed their lives to avoid men's violence, that victims of rape are always female and always guilty of "putting themselves in that position," that rape is an extreme form of sexual behavior. Most peoples' concept of rape is that it is something very bad done by psychotic creeps, so it's a good thing it's rare. The truth is that it's increasingly perpetrated by men we would regard as "normal" in any other way, responding to constant conditioning that links sexuality with power and domination, and it's very common.
Politically, I find that rape treatment and crisis programs are in constant danger of being de-funded, because resources for rape victims are seen as optional privileges rather than matters of social and moral justice. I also think politicians are prone to the misguided notion that resources for trauma survivors—shelters, community education programs, law enforcement trainings, medical trainings, therapist trainings, and clinical care—could just as easily be provided through charity at the local level. Sadly, we have seen that is just not true; sexual abuse and assault programs always enjoy sentimental support in the public mind, but without corresponding material support. That's why before 1994 there were only 15 women's shelters in the United States, and women had to pay for their own medical rape examinations. Following 1994—the Violence Against Women Act—the number of shelters has jumped to around 2,000 and medical care, including forensic examinations, are funded. These services simply would not exist if there had not been the political will to create and sustain them. James, I share your left-libertarian views on the rights of people to make personal choices over their lives. Support for resources like these are one area in which I think public funding (read: "government") is simply essential, because these resources vanish otherwise. I think it reasonably falls under our responsibility to uphold personhood, rights, liberty, and property.
What inspired you to compile and publish Resurrection After Rape? What is unique about this healing resource compared to other offerings available to survivors?
I had worked with over 500 rape survivors, both men and women, in counseling. And without exception, they were remarkable people with amazing strengths and stories, even if they did not recognize those strengths themselves at times. I have read nearly every book currently in print about rape trauma, plus countless research articles, and participated in dozens of trainings. What I noticed, though, was that over and over the research, workshops, and guidelines were produced in the voice of the academic or counselor. For years, I heard psychologists and social workers offer training seminars on their research, or read books by therapists about their agenda. What was missing were the voices of survivors! We had tons of research, but survivors remained invisible and mute throughout. The irony is that all of this research and training was somehow supposed to equip us to "empower" survivors, and yet the actual form of the work continued to deny survivors a lead position. When I wrote "Resurrection," my plan was to include the writings, stories, and even artwork of survivors so that their lives, in their own words, would become the predominant demonstration of empowerment, rather than yet another book by yet another therapist writing only about their techniques. Dozens of survivors enthusiastically offered abundant writings and artwork, and it became apparent that survivors wanted desperately to share their achievements, but had been waiting for any way to add their voice to the field of rape work. What was amazing is that as word of the project spread, survivors approached me to ASK for their stories to be included; I did not have to recruit a single contributor. It was as if being able to share their stories for the benefit of others was a long-sought form of healing as well.
Also, there are a lot of topics that continue to be "taboo" even in clinical research, and yet real-life survivors struggle with the daily. For example, hardly any book about rape recovery addresses issues like promiscuity after rape, or having a physical sexual response during rape, or anger at God after rape, or self-injury and sexual trauma. And yet these are issues that many survivors try to cope with. Their absence in books only contributes to the survivor's sense of shame that their secret struggle is perhaps "too grisly" for rape recovery books to even discuss. In some cases, books on rape recovery have even been so gentle, so "chicken soup," that survivors can't relate. Rape recovery is a terrifying, exhausting, bewildering, and sharp-edged process; it's not poetic, pastel, and dainty. Resources that perfume rape recovery are easier to read, but ultimately not helpful. I'm intrigued by the number of readers of "Resurrection" who have written to me that they have hurled the book across the room in fury, avoided it, cursed it ("that damned book!"), and then come back and resumed the work. To be that pissed off and yet continue takes real courage.
What other projects are you working on or planning in the next few years?
In my career, I'm about to start a new project where I'll be planning and creating fifteen new rape crisis programs across my state, from the ground up. In rural areas where there are no services for rape victims, I'll be working for the Oklahoma Coalition Against Domestic Violence and Sexual Assault to develop medical resources, law enforcement trainings, education curricula, and counseling programs.
I'm working on two new books. In "Resurrection," everyone's favorite section is the "letters to future survivors" at the end. So I'm going to develop a book just of those. Rape survivors, male or female, will be able to write personal letters of encouragement and advice to the "next wave" of victims who need to know they are not alone and outcast. A whole book of these letters will be a tremendous resource. And I'd like to expand the project to other books for survivors of other struggles: breast cancer, loss of a child, depression, families of suicide, etc.
The other book I'm working on is called "The God of Wounded People." It's an eclectic—meaning "weird"—book because it's partly my own spiritual autobiography, partly a workbook, and partly a manifesto about the innate worth of people who have survived trauma. Since so few therapists are comfortable including spirituality in clinical work, this book will look at the role of spirituality in healing from trauma.
Suppose that you had millions of dollars at your disposal from an anonymous donor with the sole caveat being that you must use it as you see fit for the betterment of sexual trauma survivors. How would you use those funds and what type of programs would you implement?
Is this a hint? Do you have a check for me, James?
Seriously, this would be my dream. My own dream: A residential resort setting (NOT hospital in-patient) in mountains, with nearby trails and lakes. People come voluntarily and stay in a safe, secluded setting with other survivors. An emphasis is placed on social aspects of recovery, such as group bonding and activity. Canoeing, horseback riding, hiking, campfires at night, and fun activities (the real kind, not the "cut out construction paper" crafts you do in a hospital. I'm thinking, midnight broom hockey! Gab fests!)
Therapy is done in group work with lots of available individual attention. With mountain air all around, being asked to journal is not a chore–just find a tree and sit in the mountains and write.
Therapists would be creative and unconventional. The mindset of therapy is equality and collaboration with the client, not authoritarian counseling. Therapists would be encouraged to participate in all aspects of treatment, including the group work AND the social experience, joining cadres of clients for coffee, roasting marshmallows over campfires with them, joining them in the sweatlodge, sitting in circles with them to talk and joke. The term "boundaries" would refer to conditions over use of touch or harmful action, rather than a term that segregates client and therapist from a holistic collaboration in all aspects of recovery.
The use of art and creativity would be primary. Mural paintings, collages, medicine bags, and other right-brained processes would not be excluded form the work. Clients would contribute to the maintenance of the treatment grounds: caring for horses, assisting in meals and cleanup, etc. The program would be available on a sliding fee scale, so that unlike other "resort treatment" programs it does not exclude all but the wealthy.
This is my DREAM. Other people may crave riches for personal gratitude, but I wish I had a couple of million dollars to start this kind of facility. Nothing like it has been tried, and I believe it would become the world's model program for survivors.
Finally, what would you say to someone who is reading this interview and wondering how to take that first, brave step toward healing?
1. Forgive yourself for how difficult the recovery process is. This is not like getting over a cold. Recovery from sexual trauma is the most difficult thing you will ever do in your life, and it is so worth it! When people pressure you to “get over it”, don’t feel guilty—they just don’t understand that this is a wound that can go all the way to the soul.
2. Find a way to start talking about what happened. Hiding your experience makes it feel like something shameful, something you can’t handle. Little by little, come out of hiding and begin to speak about your experiences. This can be a therapist, one honest friend, or an online support resource like dailystrength.org.
3. Journal! Hand-write rather than typing, and write at east 20 minutes a day. Don’t use your journal to endlessly describe feeling ugly, weak, or shameful; use your journal to fight back against darkness and purge those things onto paper.
4. Take good physical care of yourself. It’s hard to re-conceive of yourself as a powerful, worthy person if you are depriving yourself of nurturing. Eat healthy, sleep, take medications properly, free yourself from abusive relationships, and respect your body. Do not use food, drugs, or self-harming behaviors to avoid difficult emotions. Recovery is not a beauty contest, but it is a process of finding your worth again.
5. Seek and study as much information as you can find about your trauma. Find the best books and gather information, because it makes the symptoms of trauma less frightening and more manageable.
I would like to remind readers that while you may not personally have been forced to endure a traumatic experience, you do know someone (most likely several people) who deal with PTSD and other emotional and physical symptoms related to such experiences. Healing is not an easy task, but rather a committed and difficult journey with many steps, detours and sometimes – dead ends. There is no such thing as simply “getting over it” or “leaving it in the past”. The effects, even decades later, can continue to manifest themselves in the lives of trauma survivors in ways visible and hidden.
Countless individuals and organizations who give of their time and expertise to help those of us on the healing journey are so important and I am happy to have been able to take a moment to highlight the wonderful work of one such individual. Thank you Matt for agreeing to participate in this interview series and for all of the work you do on behalf of survivors everywhere.
For those readers interested in learning more about the resources mentioned above the following links have been provided:
Resurrection After Rape (official website of the book) – http://www.resurrectionafterrape.org/
Resurrection After Rape Discussion Group – http://www.dailystrength.org/groups/resurrection-after-rape
Daily Strength – http://www.dailystrength.org
Oklahoma Coalition Against Domestic Violence and Sexual Assault – http://www.ocadvsa.org/
Violence Against Women Act – http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Violence_Against_Women_Act