I have been fighting for freedom from the consequences of childhood incest and illness my entire life. I was born with an uncommon digestive disease called Hirschbrung’s: a disorder in which the nerve cells that control muscle contractions in the bowel do not form completely, so stool can’t pass through. I had half of my large colon removed at 6 months old. Not long after, I was diagnosed with Idiopathic Epilepsy after having a number of grand mal seizures. They stopped when I was 5. My mother told me about my medical history when I asked about the scars across my lower abdomen, inner arms, and ankles.
The instances of incest, though, she didn't know about, and I had forgotten. This is common among childhood sexual abuse survivors; according to Betrayal Trauma Theory, victims dissociate with the abuse so that they can still bond with their perpetrator, who is also their caregiver. The visual memories of the event are lost, but the emotional impact remains.
Eventually, the stress of surgeries, seizures, and suppression caused me to experience paralyzing depression, anxiety, digestive ailments, and fatigue. My limbic, endocrine, and digestive systems had all been on overdrive for far too long and began shutting down. On my 22nd birthday, my mother picked me up off the ground nearly catatonic, and took me to the nearest urgent care center.
There, a doctor referred me to a few specialists, prescribed me with an antidepressant, and recommended I write down five things I'm grateful for each night before bed. These solutions all turned out to be unsuccessful. The gastroenterologist told me my symptoms were psychosomatic, while the medication made my fatigue and anxiety worse, and the gratitude exercises left me feeling angry. I felt crazy, gaslit, and misunderstood. So when the medical field couldn’t help me, I turned to spirituality instead.
At 21, I had graduated with my bachelor's degree in Catholic Theological Studies. During my final semester, Proverbs of Ashes: Violence, Redemptive Suffering, and the Search for What Saves Us by Rita Nakashima Brock and Rebecca Ann Parker was required reading. In it, the authors shared the link between their spiritual beliefs and experiences with sexual violence. Their pain felt strangely relatable. I began to wonder if the source of my suffering was sexual abuse.
A year later, I began a master's program in the same subject. As a part of my studies, I met with a spiritual director, who quickly noticed the psychological and physical pain triggered most whenever I went home to visit my family. She encouraged me to take space from them to break the stress cycle, so I stopped going home for the holidays and let myself rest as much as possible.
In an environment of safety, support, and security, my memories of incest could finally be recovered. There are many methods to retrieving repressed memories; mine resurfaced through imaginative exercises that I learned by studying the Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius of Loyola, the founder of the Jesuits. I would envision myself with my inner child and allow her to tell me about her life experience. As soon as I was able to give her a voice, the events of violence came out.
My father, grandfather, and uncle all raped me numerous times beginning when I was 2 years old. Surprisingly, when the memories of incest returned, I felt relief. This was the last piece of the puzzle that made all my symptoms align. According to Bessel A. van der Kolk, M.D., the author of The Body Keeps the Score: Brain, Mind, and Body in the Healing of Trauma, “Trauma is not just an event that took place sometime in the past; it is also the imprint left by that experience on mind, brain, and body. This imprint has ongoing consequences for how the human organism manages to survive in the present.” As a trauma survivor of both incest and illness, it made complete sense why my body wouldn’t function at the ripe age of 22. I wasn’t crazy after all.
Immediately, I began talk therapy. My psychotherapist diagnosed me with Posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD), a psychological disorder that can occur in people who have experienced or witnessed a traumatic event. She asked that I see her once a week to pour out and process all the memories resurfacing. She also encouraged me to cut off all communication with my family so I could digest the confusing new information I was remembering and strategize how I would share it with them. I called my mother and asked that she and the rest of the family not reach out for a little while, as I needed time to process some things, but my request was denied.
My parents, brothers, grandparents, and even some family friends contacted me a few times a week through emails, letters, and messages via social media. When I finally had the courage to tell them about the sexual abuse, they didn't believe me. Relatives responded with, “Forgive and forget,” “Let’s not talk about it,” “Are you sure it wasn’t just emotional abuse?” and, “No family’s perfect.” Additionally, many of my family members also shared their own experiences of incest with me. I realized the abuse is a generational problem my family system is not willing to address. It became clear to me that I would never be safe in this environment, so I never returned home and limited communication to a select few relatives who were willing to respect my boundaries.
Simultaneously, I began questioning my place as a strong feminist in the Catholic Church. According to the Vatican, I couldn’t be a Priest because of my sex, even though I was pursuing the same education as my male seminarian classmates. (Elite Daily has reached out to the Catholic Church for comment on women's career paths within the Church, but did not hear back in time for publication.) All Catholics are dependent on male priests to receive the Sacraments, the best way to grow closer to God. The entire Christian narrative teaches that humans are born sinful and dependent on a male deity for salvation. It became very clear to me that as a woman with a desire for leadership and a theological worldview who believed I could nourish a relationship with the divine without a male intermediary or messiah, I did not belong.
The more progressive wing of the Church was sympathetic to these challenges, but taught instead that service to the poor and marginalized was the means to salvation. I tried this method, too, by working in homeless and immigration centers, schools, prisons, and churches at home and abroad. But my inability to change people's circumstances in the long-term triggered the powerlessness I felt during my upbringing and contributed to my paralyzing depression.
At this point, I felt orphaned and exiled, depressed and dissociative, heartbroken and incredibly lonely. I wrestled with abandonment, trying to understand where I belonged after losing so much. I often asked myself if I should continue to live. Somewhere deep within, though, I feel a gentle and steady presence whispers, "Just keep going, Annie. It'll get better, Annie." So I did.
After graduation, I took a job as a teacher and campus minister at an all-girls Catholic high school. (Although my relationship with the Church was rocky, I had six years of education in theology and lots of ministry experience, so this position was still my best bet for employment.) Now that I was earning more income, I could explore new healing methods. As I discussed my traumatic background with friends and practitioners alike, they recommended I try lots of different healing techniques.
I started with Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing (EMDR), a specialized form of psychotherapy designed to treat PTSD. It saved my life. It felt like brain surgery — removing memories and nasty thoughts, replacing them with positive, confidence-building cognitions. For example, my abusers told me it was my "job" to meet their sexual needs and that I was responsible for their attraction to me. In response, I felt ashamed and dirty. During EMDR, I was able to teach my inner child that my abusers were responsible for their actions and that it was wrong for them to hurt me. My shame was replaced with an appropriate understanding of responsibility and I was finally able to feel clean and innocent.
Next, I tried acupuncture, which helped to release loads of emotional energy I held deep within. I worked with a women's pelvic pain center and was referred to a physical therapist who could massage my pelvic and upper back muscles to relax and break my neurological stress patterns. I researched energy healing and found a Reiki master to realign my Chakras. Chinese and Ayurvedic herbalists recommended various combinations of treatments to facilitate digestion. I continued spiritual counseling to heal my relationship with the divine. I practiced meditation to slow down my brain, as my body was too sensitive for numerous psychological medications. I also went on a strict elimination diet to detoxify my gut and relieve inflammatory symptoms. I joined a co-ed water polo team for exercise, community, and friendship.
I had to pay for a lot of this healing work out of pocket, as it wasn’t covered by insurance. This caused significant financial challenges and added to the compounding stress. I needed to earn a higher salary to afford my recovery process, so I shifted careers from teaching to sales in the interior design industry. I excelled and was able to build a life for myself while continuing treatments.
Eventually, I felt more energetic. My digestion strengthened. I began to create family out of intimate friendships and find the reverence and ritual of church in activities I loved. The more I was able to let go of the pain of my past, the more I could fill the leftover space with people and programs I was passionate about. Then, one fall morning, I woke up and everything changed.
In October 2017, the #MeToo movement founded by Tarana Burke in 2006 resurfaced. Immediately, my phone began to ring. Numerous friends asked how to manage their own emerging memories of sexual violence, where to go for support, and how to heal. Suddenly, my recovery felt so much bigger than me. All of the resources explored and wisdom learned in the last decade could now be shared to help others. So, I started a blog. I wrote and wrote and wrote about how I was recovering. As I wrote, others responded: Me, too. Yes. Thank you. More, please.
I decided to transform my blog into an inclusive women's trauma recovery collective called Blue&Lavender. In color theory, blue represents stability, trust, wisdom, confidence, intelligence, faith, and truth, while lavender symbolizes calm, creativity, and wealth — all values I want to convey to survivors. It’s a blog for survivors to publish, a podcast that explores healing modalities, and a peer-to-peer online support group. It offers a list of healing resources with links to local practitioners, as well as in-person events, from shared meals to retreat days to healing activities that bring people together to share their lives. Blue&Lavender is the creative expression of all the good I have learned in my recovery years. It's a place where the broke, the orphaned, the exiled, the depressed, and the dissociated can arrive, put their feet up for awhile, and feel at home.
Still, sometimes I wonder if I am healed enough or prepared enough to lead an organization for survivors. When my doubt arises, that same gentle and steady presence from all those years ago resurfaces, soothing me by whispering, "Just keep going, Annie. It'll get better, Annie." So I do.
The fight for freedom from incest and illness has been long, expensive, and deeply challenging for me. Starting my own recovery organization comes with a new set of obstacles, like ensuring I have enough financial resources to keep Blue&Lavender running and making sure I have enough time for my own recovery to continue. But that same voice that held me in healing continues to coach me by saying, “Just keep going, Annie. It’ll get better, Annie.” And I will.