#9 Melissa Barker: Sexual Violence and How to Heal
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Melissa Barker: The way that my mind basically was trying to protect me from the bigger, oh my gosh, this was an assault, like I was just assaulted, was to just push it away from me and create this story, this narrative that I was dumped because I cheated on my boyfriend.
Ashley Rivard: Hey guys, I'm Ashley Dawn Rivard, and you are now Into The Dawn, a provocative podcast that looks at all things taboo, such as suicide, grief, sex, addictions, and more. Each week I talk with experts who successfully investigate their areas of interest. And if you like what you hear, please remember to subscribe.
Ashley Rivard: One in three women, 47% of transgender people, 47% of lesbian women, 61% of bisexual women, 40% of gay men, 47% of bisexual men, and one in six men have experienced some form of sexual violence in their lifetime. Melissa Barker is the founder and CEO of The Phoenix Project, a social impact startup in the Bay area, focused on empowering survivors of sexual violence, while connecting survivors to healing resources and community. Melissa is a survivor herself and is building Phoenix to make trauma informed healing and care, more accessible to survivors everywhere. I want to go back to, I know when you were 17, you said you had your trauma and I know we had discussed, you were raped, correct? Can you dive into what the repercussions were emotionally, psychologically and even physically, what happened to you?
Melissa Barker: Yeah, I was 17 at the time and I was drugged and assaulted and it was pretty traumatic. The use of the drug, like did not, I didn't really know where I was. I don't even know how I actually got back to where I was trying to get back to. It's all very blurry and there's a lot of missed pieces of the story that to this day, I'm like, what 38 now? So, to this day, I still don't have, but in the moment I knew that I needed to talk to someone I trusted and so I called my then boyfriend. I mean, this is me at like 17, called my then boyfriend and was still under the influence of these drugs and wasn't really probably making sense. Didn't know how to say, talk about what was happening. I just knew something bad had happened and I wanted support.
Ashley Rivard: Mm-hmm (affirmative).
Melissa Barker: And when I told him, however, I told him again, I don't totally remember, all these memories are very jaded, sorry, or jagged. When I told him, he broke up with me on the phone immediately-
Ashley Rivard: Yeah.
Melissa Barker: And it just destroyed me. The assault was one thing, but my brain could not process the assault. I went into a trauma response, where my body was doing everything it could to basically push that part away. And so I went into just, "Oh my gosh, my boyfriend just broke up with me." And I immediately internalized, it's because I did something wrong. Something's wrong with me. I am bad.
Ashley Rivard: Yeah.
Melissa Barker: I am wrong. I am dirty. I am shameful. And he broke up with me because of who I am as a person. That story, in that moment, it's like it just fused through my entire system, and it has taken years to unravel that and unpack that. It's still a piece there because that's the thing with trauma, it creates this like print on you and it is really, really hard to get it off of you. And I also did not tell anyone that I was assaulted. Gosh, I think it was like two, almost three weeks later, when I finally told someone and I told one of my best friends, because she just was like, "Something's not right. What actually happened?" And we started talking and then she actually mirrored back to me, she's now an incredible therapist, which kind of makes sense, but she mirrored back to me, she's like, "I think you were assaulted and you need to tell your mom and dad."
Ashley Rivard: So you didn't even know that you were raped?
Melissa Barker: I just kept thinking that I had done something wrong. I was like, "I did something wrong. Something's wrong with me. I asked for this. I put myself in this situation." Yeah, I had no, like I knew on like a deeper level something wasn't right, but the way that my mind basically was trying to protect me from the bigger, "Oh my gosh, this was an assault. I was just assaulted," was to just push it away from me and create this story, this narrative that I was dumped because I cheated on my boyfriend.
Ashley Rivard: Is that what he told you?
Melissa Barker: Mm-hmm (affirmative). That's exactly what he told me.
Ashley Rivard: Oh, wow.
Melissa Barker: And so I believe that. Again, I remember working with like eventually when this all came out, like working with a rape crisis counselor and she was explaining to me, she was like, "No, this is what can happen, this is what happens when the trauma happens. It's normal to blame yourself." It's a very normal thing for survivors to blame themselves because in so many ways, your whole world has just, you've lost all control and consent. And so what can you control? You can control parts of the story. You can control the way that your brain processes the information, and it's just super normal for survivors to go into this deep place of self hatred, self shame, and really thinking, "I'm the problem here. I'm the one that did this."
Ashley Rivard: Did you ever get thoughts of suicide from this?
Melissa Barker: I did. I did, actually. There were a few instances. I actually, the day after this happened, I was assaulted on Kauai. I was there with my family, on a family vacation and I had taken a surf lesson and the surf instructor ended up drugging me, assaulting me and essentially leaving me on the side of the road. So when I say, I didn't know how to get back, like I wasn't even home. I was on an island. So the next day I grabbed my surfboard and paddled out into the middle of the ocean, with the intent to drown myself. Very dramatic at 17, but, still had the intent. I was like, "I don't want to be here anymore. I don't want to experience what I think I'm about to experience."
Melissa Barker: So I came through it. I actually had this aha moment when I was in the middle of the ocean that that was not what I wanted. Then I ended up having the most dramatic way to get back into the shore. I ended up like getting a ton of waves and I don't know, it was kind of like this bigger, like conscious moment, I guess, but I didn't really, I did a little bit of therapy, but I didn't do enough. I didn't get into the trauma, I mean, until I was like, gosh, I mean, it was like 10 plus years later, until I really dug into the trauma side. So I was just like, band-aiding it. There were just band-aids put on, it was really not getting to the heart, the core of what was going on.
Melissa Barker: So I tried to kill myself again when I was 18, because I had had a traumatic experience that re-traumatized the trauma from being 17. Then that was actually the last time. So it was 17 and 18. So I'm fortunate that I kind of got through that part quicker, on the front end of my story, but I have definitely cycled through some really dark moments. People will call them the dark night of the soul where you really don't know if you're going to make it through the next hour. So when I think of Phoenix, in everything we're doing and building, I sit with those shadows of myself, like I actually, I've worked very hard to be able to engage with those parts of myself and not get re-triggered, but I have to remember, what did I feel like in that moment at 17? What would I have needed? And that's the problem we're constantly trying to solve. We have ideas.
Ashley Rivard: Well, why in your mind, if you could remember, was suicide the only option versus speaking out?
Melissa Barker: Sure. Yeah. That's a really good question. Going back to like that 17, 18 year old, this was like, what, '90, '99, I want to say. Climate wise, were people really talking about assault? No. If people did talk about it, there was so much stigma. I also, I grew up in a "good home." This stuff didn't happen to people I knew. It wasn't talked about, and if it did happen, it was usually framed in a way of like, "Well, she is a slut," or, "She was drunk," or, "She asked for it," or, "She was in a bikini," or, "She took that surf lesson. What did she think was going to happen?" So it was always placed in this way where it was victim shaming and I, at 17, there was no way I had the capacity to see outside myself in that moment. I mean, 17 year olds already can't, there's like, you can only see so much as a teenager. That's part of the whole thing. Like you're in this intense growth period and there's so much happening in the world.
Melissa Barker: But also, you add the trauma lens to that, and I mean, I could not admit, on a deep level to myself that this had happened. And then it's like, when I started to realize, "Okay, no, this did happen," I couldn't get past the shame. Like I just, I cou-, I wore that like a cloak of armor, for a long time. And in some ways like it was a protectant 'cause it kept me closed off. It kept me from opening up those parts of myself that I just didn't have the capacity to be with.
Ashley Rivard: How did that impact your intimate relationships?
Melissa Barker: Oh yeah. That is a loaded question. I can probably talk about that just on a single podcast interview. Hugely impacted hugely. I mean, to be 17, this was my first love, my first everything, and of course, again like 17, like first love. Everyone has that or has that experience, that's a bad breakup, no matter what, but I had this feeling that I was like, well, I was so happy with him. I was so happy and I trusted him and everything felt so magical. Like we would go surfing and we just kind of had this incredible first love experience, I feel very fortunate, but then it ended in this deep, dramatic, heavy way, that I, on some level, thought, "Well, I don't know if I'll ever be happy. I don't know if that's in the cards for me." And then, you fast forward to me at 38 and I have been single for a chunk of time, like years now, and there are some big, big trust pieces there.
Melissa Barker: It's not that I don't want a partner or I don't believe in relationships. I think that partnership and relationships can be so fulfilling and incredible, but it takes a lot to where get through those layers that I have, and it takes a lot of trust building for me. Trauma survivors tend to, we're hypervigilant. We watch everything, because again, like we've been in a situation where our worlds have literally crumbled, so we watch absolutely everything, and so I have had that problem in relationships where I'll pay attention to these minute details, but to them maybe like, doesn't have any weight to it or intentionality, but to me, I'm like, "Wait, you said you were going to call at this time and you didn't, and you did that a few times and now I'm feeling like I can't trust you, and I'm wondering," you recreates that-
Ashley Rivard: I mean, when you say that example, I hear that, I mean, in every woman.
Melissa Barker: Yes. That's also like every woman, exactly.
Ashley Rivard: I don't know if that's specific to trau-, like sexual abuse, 'cause I'm like, "No, I have that too."
Melissa Barker: Yeah, I think like if you add the trauma lens to it, there's this extra weight that comes with it, where you create the worst case scenario, like automatically.
Ashley Rivard: Are you having feelings of abandonment, like you're afraid to be abandoned? Are you afraid to be intimate? To sexually get intimate with someone and you feel just, you don't even know what's going on in your body? I don't know. I'm just curious what comes up in those?
Melissa Barker: That is like, for me, no, not at this juncture, but I have done a ton of trauma therapy. So I've done a lot of EMDR. I've done like somatic work, I've done tapping, I've done these things that actually move the trauma through the body. So I actually am able to stay very grounded and very present and very in my body. But there were definitely times, in my experience, when I was dating, when I was younger or having like sexual encounters where I would disassociate, I would actually leave my body because that was how I protected myself, and that took me a long time to fully understand what was happening and took a while to, it's like a new talent you have to figure out like, "Okay, how can I keep myself in my body? How can I tell myself that I'm safe?"
Melissa Barker: So it's a combination I would say, yes, there's a little bit of abandonment and that's definitely part of my 17 year old story, that's weaved in, because I was abandoned at such a crucial moment. And I think, he did the best he could, he was also young. I don't blame, at all, at this point, but there is that abandonment piece, but there's also, that bigger part of saying, "Okay, I'm safe right now with this person. I'm safe in my body. I trust this person to not go further than I'm comfortable with or to listen to me." But it's a nuanced topic because I've heard and read stories of survivors that didn't vocalize, "No," but their body language was saying no and the person wasn't reading that, and that's where people get, they're like, "Oh, but she didn't say no, or they didn't say no, they didn't specifically vocalize that they wanted things to stop." But when you have had trauma, you can freeze, you can flee, you can disassociate. They're all these different things and so, that person's experience may have been traumatic, even though they weren't saying no.
Ashley Rivard: Right. Absolutely.
Melissa Barker: Yeah.
Ashley Rivard: Yeah. So, I think you already touched on this, but I know why you stayed silent. You felt a lot of shame. Do you feel that is a proper generalization for most people who experienced sexual abuse on why they stay quiet?
Melissa Barker: I think there's numerous pieces here. I can speak to my story and my experience, which definitely was heavily rooted in the shame piece and a lot of that was a cultural piece too. I grew up in a Roman Catholic family. So this was a cultural thing too. There was shame if you had sex outside of marriage. There was stigma if you were a woman and assaulted. These were the bigger pieces at the table. But I think like when you think about a survivor's experience, all of them, all of the experiences are unique in that that survivor is experiencing it in their way, and the constructs that shape how that survivor experiences their story or these moments are shaped by bigger constructs, like cultural, history, socioeconomic, race, class, all of these pieces. All of that comes in to the moment a survivor does or does not feel safe speaking out.
Ashley Rivard: Mm-hmm (affirmative). Yeah. That absolutely makes sense. So what are some ways that you can share for people who've gone through sexual abuse to heal their scars?
Melissa Barker: Yeah. Yeah. Again, like, I want to name every survivor story is unique and a big first step is to understand that the survivor should be at the center of their own healing, so however that looks for them, that's what they need in that moment, even when outside, it might not look like what is "needed." So just that part of where you're helping that survivor reclaim even the slightest bit of their own agency and self-leadership, is huge. I think also, with Phoenix, one thing that the hypothesis we've been working within for awhile, is that one of the first steps to healing is to just be seen. So like a witnessing, like you've witnessed that person. You don't have to have them go into their trauma. You just witness them. I think that's why me too was so powerful.
Melissa Barker: It was this global witnessing of people that have been silenced for so long, but also, so you witness, but then also offer a moment of connection, from someone that has the capacity to be in that connection and that's where there's this empathy piece that's built in with survivors. I've seen just incredible experiences where you just get a room of survivors together and we don't go into the story, unless we're called to, unless that's something that we want to be part of, we rarely lead with the like, "Hi, I'm a survivor and this is my story." It's usually like, "Hi, I'm a survivor. Cool. Let's get to work."
Melissa Barker: There's just that built-in automatic piece of empathy where we witness each other, we see each other, we hold space in a way that is very unique because we understand without even saying a word, each other's wounds-
Ashley Rivard: Yeah, absolutely.
Melissa Barker: And we just see each other and we see each other in that moment. There's a lot of conversation about why people stay with their abuser and what's wrong with them and this and that and to that, it's so nuanced and there's so much to dive into there, but when you have survivors in kind of a supportive circle, that part doesn't always come in, because again, we there's this understanding that your experience is your own and we're here in it with you. We're not here to judge or frankly cause more trauma.
Ashley Rivard: Yeah, absolutely. Yeah. So it's really, one of the first steps is just finding the support to feel safe, to speak out, however that looks.
Melissa Barker: It can even be, you could not even be at a place where you're not even ready to talk about it, let alone think about it. So sometimes it's just knowing this space exists, and that is my hope for Phoenix that we can be like, again, I go back to my 17 year old and if she knew, on some level that this place existed, probably wouldn't have signed in day one to Phoenix, but when I had told people what happened, two to three weeks later and then started this process of going through normative rape counseling, I would have loved to have known that Phoenix just existed, just so I could have even have just been in the room, and that's a digital room.
Melissa Barker: So we think there's also safety or healing and just knowing that these types of resources are out there and there's a community there for you, when you're ready. I've seen this happen where I've done, I mean, right now we're not doing anything in person, but I've done healing circles where I've had survivors in the room that are openly named that they're survivors, and like, "Hi, I'm a survivor. I'm here to like share." And then there's people in the room that don't want to share that part of themselves yet, and every time there's someone that comes up to me after and says, "I wasn't ready to name that I was a survivor, but I needed to just be in the room and know that you all are here." And there was power in that. They said it helped them, they said, "I think I'm getting closer to moving into my own healing and whatever that looks like," because every journey is unique.
Ashley Rivard: Yeah. I love that. I think that that's really powerful because there is so many steps we all go through in our evolution.
Melissa Barker: Yeah, exactly. And it's just so unique. I think that's, like if I were to just have one message, it's like the healing process is unique to everybody, but if you engage on it, in even the smallest way, that's beautiful.
Ashley Rivard: So basically you have started this Phoenix Rising Project movement resource place for people to come, who have gone through sexual abuse, trauma. What caused you to do this?
Melissa Barker: In 2016, I kind of hit my own wall where I could just no longer out run my trauma. I had at the time, been working at UC Berkeley and had gone to work one day, got an email from the chancellor that we all did, it was just like a standard, this is what's going on on campus type of email, opened it without thinking anything of it, and it was a picture of the man that had assaulted me when I was a student, the university was looking for him because he had assaulted one of his students and it just brought up all of my trauma and I just kind of hit my wall. I couldn't hold it in anymore and I remember having this very vivid moment with my therapist where I said, "I think I really need to like dig into my own trauma healing, and I need to do my work here."
Melissa Barker: So that kind of kicked off my healing experience, but a year plus into it, this is now like spring 2017, I got really frustrated because I was like, "This is ridiculous. There's no access to this type of healing. It doesn't exist anywhere. It's not easily found. It's very hard to navigate." And a lot of ways I felt like my world and my life had to burn down and I get to push this point of extreme to even know what trauma therapy looked like or that it even existed, and I kept scouring the internet, looking for digital tools and digital resources and some sort of actual solution that I could access from the comfort of my home and the safety of my home, and I really could find very little for what I was looking for.
Melissa Barker: So come January, 2018, I decided to start my own thing called The Phoenix project. We started with the intention to first just empower survivors, help them be heard, help them be seen and witnessed, so they didn't feel alone, and they knew there were others of us out there. And then, as that kind of progressed and we rolled into some big watershed moments in our own history, I really saw the impact of not having access to trauma healing when Dr. Ford testified, during the Kavanaugh hearings, and I believe, at the time, there was an increase of calls, up to 700%, the day after Ford spoke, and it just put this shot through my body where I felt like this is what I've been looking for and it doesn't exist, and this is validation that it doesn't exist, and that's when I kind of spoke into reality that I wanted us to bring in the technology piece and actually create an app for this need.
Ashley Rivard: I love that. Well, thank you for sharing that and-
Melissa Barker: Of course.
Ashley Rivard: Where can people connect with you?
Melissa Barker: Yes, absolutely. So we are also, COVID-19, we're in it with like everybody else. So our app is delayed, at this moment, but that's okay. We're making do. We have our website, iamphoenixproject.com and we have up there a page that says our response to COVID-19 in it. We have been crowdsourcing digital healing resources so people can access that guide. It's completely free. The majority of the tools are things you can use now and for free. We also are building a community. We are actually playing around with some different ideas so that'll be launching in the next couple of weeks, but there's a sign up there, if people are interested and want to join this community, when we do roll it out and we're offering right now completely free digital events, and all of them are centered on making healing more accessible. You can also reach out to me on Instagram. Our Instagram is IAm_Phoenix_Rising, all linked through our website also.
Ashley Rivard: Awesome. Well thank you for sharing. I think your information is very valuable and a lot of people can relate to it, and like you said, whether they're ready to talk about it or not, there are resources out there to support them in their journey, even if they want to stay incognito.
Melissa Barker: Exactly. Exactly. It's like a choose your own adventure when you dive into your healing and we're here to meet people where they are, on their journey.
Ashley Rivard: Awesome. Well, thank you so much.
Melissa Barker: Thank you so much. I love what you're doing. I think this is fantastic.
Ashley Rivard: Thank you. I appreciate that.
Ashley Rivard: That's it for today's podcast. Thank you so much for taking the time to listen today. Please let me know what you think. Leave a comment, share, and we'll be back next week with a new episode.
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