Reclaiming Power After Sexual Assault with Guest Renee Marie Simpson

In this week’s episode the Mental Health Mamas are joined by Renee Marie Simpson, author of the book, “I Want to Go Home: Reclaiming Power After Sexual Assault”. Tune in to hear Renee talk about her remarkable journey, share the ways in which she has coped, and what we can all do to make the world a safer place.

Notes and Mentions

Visit Renee’s website: www.reneemariesimpson.com

Sexual Assault Support Lines 1-800-656-HOPE (4673) in the US 1-800-RESPECT in Australia or KidsHelpLine 1 800 55 1800


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This podcast is sponsored by: Better Help

Transcript

Serena: Hey Everyone, I?m Serena.

Tina: And I?m Tina and we are the Mental Health Mamas.

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Serena: Welcome to No Need to Explain, we are so glad you?re here.

Tina: First, as always, a quick disclaimer.

Serena: We come to you NOT as mental health professionals or experts in the field, but rather as the parents of kids who struggle with their emotional health.

Tina: If you or someone you love is experiencing a mental health crisis, please seek professional support. You?ll find a variety of resources in our show notes and on our website, NoNeedToExplainPodcast.com.

Tina: In today?s episode we speak very openly about sexual assault. So please take good care of yourselves around this extremely difficult and sensitive topic. So?.I?m gonna start the episode stating the obvious...what we experience throughout our lives shapes who we are and how we show up in every situation. Obvious, right Serena?

Serena: Yes, but how these experiences, especially some of the traumatic ones, affect how we feel and react in certain situations has been of great interest to us.

Tina: Absolutely. You might have listened to our episode (episode number 30) from last season about Adverse Childhood Experiences or what we call ACES. If you haven?t listened, please do it! It was very eye opening for us when we learned about it so many years ago and I am sure it will be for you too. And while traumatic experiences before the age of 18 can certainly cause physical and mental health issues, these experiences can also challenge our sense of safety, trust and our own sense of self-worth for our entire lives.

Serena: Our guest today, we?re so excited to have her joining us, she has had some life experiences that have shaped the way she shows up in the world and looks to make the world a better place. Renee Simpson has put some of her life?s experiences into a book called I Want To Go Home: Reclaiming Power After Sexual Assault. Renee, welcome to the podcast.

Renee: Hi Serena and Tina. I?m so excited to be here.

Tina: We are excited to have you! Renee, tell our listeners a bit of your story. Give them a teaser to your book. Talk a little bit about this part of your life.

Renee: Sure. I?d love to. I wrote this book about my early twenties when I accepted an invitation to sail a boat from Gibraltar to Phuket with no sailing experience. And this trip was no smooth sailing! Besides learning how to sail, I also had to face many challenges at sea like starvation, pirates, a category five cyclone, swarms of insects, serious mechanical failures, a romance and a skipper who absolutely resented me. But as I navigated each obstacle I came to realise I had to face the biggest one of all and that was that I had been running away from, which was the fact I had been raped by my best friend?s boyfriend a week before I flew out on my gap year backpacking abroad. This book is about how I reclaimed my power, my self worth, trust, sense of safety and confidence after what could have been a soul destroying adventure and experience.

Serena: Yeah, so I had the opportunity to read your book and it?s incredible. I?m going to start with that. It?s such a good story and I don?t mean that negatively. There?s so much that happens in your journey and I would say your journey was remarkable. I mean that both in terms of all of the mishaps that you mentioned that happened along the way as well as your own personal growth. I?d like to share a quote from your book. You write, ?I gave myself the gift of time to get curious about my pain. To explore it. To discover new insights. Yes, I ran away. It was the right decision for me. It gave me time to reflect. Time to myself. Time to break open. Time to lick my wounds. Time to transform. Time to heal. And the healing would continue. It was a lifelong process, one I was now committed to giving space, stillness, love, and time to.? I love this passage. Can you reflect on it a bit for us?

Renee: I still get a little emotional when I hear that. Yes, so all experiences of trauma can trigger our fight, flight, freeze or fawn responses during times of stress. And for me, I was quite stuck in flight for a long time - anything to escape facing the chaos within. I discovered life at sea required patience because there was a lot of space, stillness and time because there were no distractions out there that you would usually find on land that you could use to avoid all the hard stuff. And it felt so good to have this gift to just stop and just be with myself. And that?s something I?ve now found in other practices. But prior to this, I lived a very fast paced life, always busy with friends, parties, work, travel, family, events. I just never allowed myself the time to stop. Honestly, I don't think I realised just how exhausted I was and how desperate I was to return home to myself which is where I discovered the title from; I Want to Go Home. But I discovered this beautiful space to just be and to reflect on my thoughts and find new ways of thinking about my trauma and I had to feel it and it hurt but to heal I needed to be vulnerable. To own it. To understand what happened to me and that it was not my fault. That was the biggest thing for me. To forgive myself for trying to cope with it in the best way I knew how at that time. And to decide I was not going to allow this man to destroy me and find my voice and begin to rebuild the parts I realised had been hugely impacted by the rape.

Tina: And I?m gonna go on and read a little more of your beautiful piece of writing. On page 35 you say, ?It?s never the actual physical act of sexual assault that leaves the most prominent scars. It?s the emotional and the mental impact that does the damage, and that?s what we have to learn to survive.? And then you say, on page 162, ?Survivors don?t regain their power straight away. It comes in waves. Healing is feeling, and it takes time. And time heals.? In this moment in time, we are living with this Me Too movement and people are much more openly telling their stories. So I?m curious what advice you have for other survivors who are kind of struggling to find their voice?

Renee: Oh goodness, I have so much to say here! As survivors we must overcome so many complex barriers to finding our voice. Firstly, there?s stigma; attitudes like, we should just get over it and move on, if it happened a long time ago then our experience isn?t valid, we only want attention, we?re made to look like liars and we are made to look like we only want money. But the truth is, we?re afraid of what our friends, family and communities might think of us, we?re afraid of being blamed, criticized, judged, ostracized, we?re afraid of asking for help, afraid of being labelled for accessing support, we?re afraid we will be left vulnerable and unsupported, unloved, not to mention how the justice system and media treats survivors. We?re afraid to tell our stories.

On top of overcoming these fears, we have to deal with the very real long lasting mental, physical, emotional, spiritual, psychological impacts of our trauma. For example, the damage as you mentioned prior, the damage to our sense of safety, trust in ourselves is huge and in others, authority figures, institutions, men which can damage our future relationships, careers, income, it can affect our sense of worth because our bodies have been objectified, used and discarded, with no thought for our inherent worth. This can destroy our confidence and even sometimes our hope.

In addition, we do our best to cope in a world that might feel very unsafe for us to talk about what happened to us. So more often than not we might find unhealthy ways to cope which creates more problems for us and for the people around us.

So my message for survivors is let?s first acknowledge how much thought goes on behind this process in finding your voice and sharing our stories. It takes an enormous amount of courage and bravery which can take most of us a lot of time to muster.

Unfortunately it?s not an easy process. We can?t simply just get up after being sexually assaulted, put our clothes back on, put a smile on our face, feel powerful and just get on with it. I think that society and some men would like us to be able to do that because it would give them permission to do what they like with our bodies with no consequence but women are human beings and they are rising stronger together because women are supporting each other to speak up. To take back what?s in our natural birth right which is sovereignty and respect over our bodies.

Women have feelings, thoughts, hopes and dreams too. They are daughters, sisters, mothers, nieces, aunties, grandmothers, colleagues, friends and lovers and they are worthy of respect. They are the creators of life and that makes them powerful beyond measure. So to heal we need to feel that pain. It?s the only way through it. And unfortunately for many men they are taught not to feel and this is why we have men who feel so powerless in this world that they do think rape culture is acceptable.

So my advice to survivors is, your story matters regardless of where your trauma sits on the timeline of your life. What happened to you was not your fault. And it?s never too late to share your story because your story can change the world for others to learn from. And I don?t mean shaming women into taking on more responsibility. No! It?s not what I mean at all. Women should have the same privileges men do. To show up in the world however they like without fear of sexual assault. Men must learn not to use violence against women. I mean, when we share our stories with women and men, our girls and our boys, we change the narrative to begin acting as one humanity. By understanding how the actions of some impact on us, to build empathy and to give everyone permission to feel and to become better human beings means we can build a bridge of trust and protection between our genders and this requires big courage.

Tina: So well said! And I want to just repeat, your story matters. I could repeat all of it but that?s the only part I?m going to repeat now. Your story matters. So let?s dig in a bit and talk about how some of those experiences in your childhood and the sexual assault just before your trip had some lingering effects on your health and your life. Perhaps how the effects from these traumas come up in ways that you never expected.

Renee: Yes, sadly, I was also sexually abused as a child by a neighbour and I found during my pregnancy and becoming a first time new mum a particularly triggering time because our abuse experiences may leave us feeling that our bodies are damaged and untrustworthy. We might have learned that remaining in control is essential to safety and being out of control is a threat. Reminders during pregnancy or labour to relax and it won?t hurt, to surrender, to trust your body or do what your body tells you to do may have the opposite effect to the one intended, if we have learned to protect ourselves during abusive situations.

Serena: You?re absolutely right. Pregnancy is definitely a time in which our bodies feel totally out of our control. Can you share with us some of the ways that you were able to cope? And you mentioned some unhealthy coping before so you?re welcome to share that or perhaps healthy coping mechanisms. In other words, how have you supported your internal healing?

Renee: Sure. Well, some examples of how I experienced that trauma was I cried uncontrollably when I found out my baby?s gender was a girl. I had intense anxiety about her safety where 1 in 3 women will be sexually abused during their lifetimes. So for me, I threw myself into work to cope.

Serena: So I?m just going to interrupt you there for one moment and just say?1 in 3. That is, that is, I don?t even know what to say about that.

Renee: It?s a sad reality. Yeah, so some things I did that I?m not proud of; I kicked my partner out of the house and I just couldn?t deal with him and our relationship. I literally just closed down and became a workaholic. When I wasn?t working my nine to five, I pushed through the fatigue to work on other projects and literally just survived on takeaway food.

I argued with family and friends. I almost sabotaged my own baby shower because I was just so stressed and triggered. I was afraid of being abandoned, isolated, unloved and I did everything possible to push away the people I needed the most. It was my fight response.

Gratefully, my partner is a very patient man and asked me two great questions that acted as a catalyst for my quest to reclaim my power during that time.

And he said to me, ?What do you want? And what do you need from me??

It was an invitation to get honest and vulnerable with myself and with him. I wanted to feel supported. I wanted our growing family. I wanted to connect with friends and family in deeper ways. I wanted reassurance that what I was experiencing was ?normal?. I wanted to meet like-minded women who were experiencing becoming first-time mothers too. But most of all I wanted to feel safe. I stopped fighting and surrendered to receiving and I did a lot of research!

I decided to have a doula?(a birth assistant) to support me leading up and at my daughters birth. Someone I could share my fears and concerns with and she acknowledged my experience as normal and supported me every step of the way. She was my guardian angel.

I enrolled my partner and I in an online hypnobirthing course. It was actually super practical. I know there?s a bit of stigma around hypnobirthing courses being a bit esoteric, spiritual, but it?s actually hugely practical. It informed us about what to expect during birth and helped us to get on the same page about what he could do to support me. It helped me to understand what choices I had during birth and write out my birth preferences. This can be a flexible plan around your choices during birth in response to your fears. It helped me feel organised and prepared for anything. And ultimately it made me feel quite empowered.

I joined a ?mama-to-be? circle which is like a mother?s group and a prenatal yoga class to start building a community of like-minded mothers who I could relate to and share my highs and lows.

While it?s not possible to know exactly what will happen?during birth, many women find they can reduce?their?anxiety by preparation. And I truly believe knowledge is power. And I went on to have a beautiful 6 hour labour, a natural water birth with no medical intervention. And I honestly think it was the preparation.

Tina: Awesome. It gave you a little control I bet.

Renee: It gave me control. Absolutely.

Tina: It really sounds like you were able to (and I?m using your word) ?surrender? and ask for, find and get what you needed which I love that. I also love that you named the, kind of, self-sabotage is fight, right? You were fighting and that was very astute to say those very words. Amazing transformation and just like that you have a little person! We both know that being a Mum is hard. It?s a very hard job and you are never trained to do it, right? Tell us how you are trying to take good care of yourself, Renee.

Renee: Sure. We?re just coming out of lockdown here so Sophia literally was born into lockdown. Four months of being locked up. I have found that quite hard; the isolation. So to manage, I just finished a short course on breathwork and I?ve learned about EFT tapping which I?ve found really helpful to reset the nervous system. I?m working with a trauma therapist as well to unpack new parent triggers as they emerge. I?m leaning into a home yoga practice. I really love Yoga with Adrienne on YouTube.

Serena: Me too!

Renee: Love you Adrienne!

Serena: I?m right there with you. I love her too!

Renee: But I?m always really interested in learning different modalities. I think it?s a life-long quest to be exploring what works best for you. Sometimes we outgrow something, you know we?ll pick up other tools. I listen to a lot of relaxation music on Spotify. Spending time in nature with bub hiking or walks on the beach. I?m really finding meal prepping healthy yummy food really helpful to keep myself fueled. Self-care nights with a friend, I?ve just started doing that. So we?ll do some meditation and run a bath and have a nice long oil bath. Yeah, I think it?s just about enjoying all things self-care. I know even just enjoying doing those things with my baby; she is just?it just send her off to sleep too. Just trying to do a few things for myself each day which I think in turn is my gift to her. If I?m feeling good I know I have the energy to give to her.

Serena: Yeah, those are awesome! Thank you for sharing those. And it makes perfect sense to me that your little one relaxes and drifts off to sleep when you yourself are feeling relaxed! I think that?s something that is hard to?maybe it?s not hard to learn as a parent, but it?s hard to remember sometimes. Like us, the work you are currently doing in your community (or at least were before lockdown) seems to be channelling your need to take pain and make some purpose, turning pain into purpose. Tell our listeners a bit about what you do in your community and perhaps what we can all do to make our communities safer for our young people and really for all of us?

Renee: Sure. I have a background as a school counsellor and for the past few years I?ve been working in the youth & community development sector for local government. You could say, I?ve taken this role to the next level by becoming a bit of a thought-leader, a speaker, group facilitator, network coordinator and advocate for deep-level social change in societal attitudes and behaviour to support safer communities for women and young people. I do this by building partnerships between government, education providers, and support services and I create support programs that encourage help-seeking, skill development and build resilience in the people that need it most. So currently I?m actually working towards creating a workshop called, Right to Heal, so I?m really excited about birthing that soon.

What we can do to create safer communities for young people? There is so much to say. I would encourage you to follow my instagram as I?m always posting about this for parents. I?m going to really centre this answer around what parents can do to support a child who discloses sexual abuse.

If your child discloses they have been sexually abused, they will more than likely be very distressed. They might also tell you that a friend has experienced this. That might be one way that might make them feel a little bit safer talking to you about it. Your child might be teary, clingy, angry or in denial. Or your child might not show any outward signs of distress. There are things you can do when they are telling you about their experience of sexual assault. Listen to your child without interrupting. Avoid asking detailed questions. Just let your child talk. If your child doesn't want to talk now, let them know that you?ll listen whenever they?re ready. Nothing is so awful that your child can?t talk about it. Stay calm on the outside, even if you?re feeling many strong emotions - like anger, worry, guilt and so on - on the inside. It?s really important that you?re strong for them. Believe what your child is telling you. Tell your child that you believe them, even if what they?re saying seems so unreal or doesn?t make sense at first. Let your child know you love them and that they?re brave to tell you. Be there in case your child wants to share more. This might mean staying at home with your child, taking time off work, picking your child up from school, uni or work or so on. Check in with your child regularly. Tell your child it?s not their fault and they?re not to blame either. That?s super important. Don?t assume anything about what happened to them or how your child is feeling. Talk with your child about how you can help them feel safe and loved. Be prepared to do what your child needs you to do. To find our about support options and processes available following sexual assault, you can start by contacting a sexual assault support line. In Australia we have 1-800-Respect or Kidshelpline. Tina I think you have got a support line handy?

Tina: And for our US listeners, our sexual assault support line is 1-800-656-HOPE (or that?s 4673). We will include both of these numbers in our show notes so don?t worry about getting that down. And reach out wherever you are in the world. These are the two that we have provided but the internet will have all of the rest. So get help, get support, this is amazing, wise advice and we so appreciate you turning your pain into purpose and helping others like this. So we are curious if there are any more words of wisdom that you want to share with anyone who has had a similar experience?

Renee: Yeah, sure. I can sum it up with this quote by C joyBell C. They say, ?We can't be afraid of change. You may feel very secure in the pond that you are in, but if you never venture out of it, you will never know that there is such a thing as an ocean, a sea. Holding onto something that is good for you now, may be the very reason why you don't have something better.? To me this means it?s important we explore what serves our healing by moving out of our comfort zone. Trying new things, new ways of living in the world, new ways to move our bodies, new ways to express ourselves, meeting new people, being open to new ideas, visiting new places within you or even just airing out those places we?ve kept closed. It?s the only way to heal. So we need to stay open and stay curious and keep going the path. The healing journey is an adventurous one. It?s a huge mountain to climb but it's worth the view at the top.

Serena: Love that. Thank you for that. It?s beautiful. Before we bring this episode to a close, I want to make sure you have a chance to tell our listeners where to find you and how they can purchase your book.

Renee: Sure, thank you. You can find me on Instagram and Facebook under reneemariesimpsonauthor which is my handle. I also have a website www.reneemariesimpson.com and that?s where you can purchase my book ?I Want to Go Home: Reclaiming Power After Sexual Assault?. It?s also available on all major online bookstores like Amazon and Barnes & Noble, Book Depository.

Serena: So Renee, thank you so very much for joining us today to share your story. It?s a really big deal. We know that. We know that your bravery and vulnerability in telling your story will help others to find their voice as well.

Renee: Thank you so much for having me, Serena and Tina. I?m a huge fan of your work. Sending your audience big safe warm hugs. Please take care of yourselves.

Tina: And being a hugger, we send hugs right back at ya! So podcast friends, we are, as always, grateful for all of you listening and supporting us. You can help us out by visiting Apple podcasts, leaving us a review, subscribing and please share with others. You will find more content on our website, NoNeedtoExplainPodcast.com. You will also find our email address on that website and we would love to hear from you. And I will repeat what we?ve said in a few other episodes. If you have a story to tell that is hard to tell other people, we will help you hold the hard stuff in a very confidential way and sometimes you just need someone to lean on and we are here, right Serena?

Serena: Mmhm. Absolutely. And this is your gentle reminder to take good care of yourself while you are also taking care of your people.

Tina: Thanks again for listening!

Serena: Bye!

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