Long-term healing for the whole self

Riley Head is a senior Philosophy, Politics and the Public and gender and diversity studies double major. She is a guest writer from Louisville, Ky.

Not long ago, I found myself in the grief section of my local bookstore. Almost two years after my assault, I was overwhelmed with the feeling that I had used up all of my resources. I had no clear picture of what the future of my healing would look like. I skimmed through books about mothers losing daughters and sons losing fathers, but the question struck me: What if the person you lost was part of yourself? Building a new sense of identity is labor intensive, but when it is an identity it is also exhausting—something you cannot separate out from the everyday activities of getting coffee or socializing with friends.

The longer I looked through the grief and self help books, the more I felt the need to define what long-term, healthy healing looked like that wasn’t just “time.” This is one of the experiences that lead me to this project, creating a road map that would inspire intensive, mindful healing—not only for survivors of sexual violence, but secondary survivors, perpetrators and the American culture that upholds systematic sexism and devaluing of women’s experiences.

This summer, I had the opportunity to continue the research I started last summer through the College of Arts and Sciences. Last summer I, along with a research team, looked at the link between hookup culture and sexual assault on Xavier’s campus. Exploring the link between the two led us to some key root causes for understanding why sexual violence is happening at Xavier. Those root causes were toxic masculinity, enforcement of traditional gender roles, a culture of silence and moral relativism. This opened up an honest and fruitful dialogue in campus administration about how to expand preventative efforts and protect students in the future. We advocated for a new position in the Title IX office and we have more plans in the works to continue to expand outreach into all corners of campus life.

While getting the upper levels of Xavier’s administration involved on a deeper level was a life-changing opportunity, my heart called me to return to the survivor experience on Xavier’s campus. As the discourse around sexual violence continues to grow in America, there are astounding studies and statistics that seem to come into the news cycle almost every day. The one-in-four statistic is wallpapered through college awareness campaigns, survivors are encouraged to share their stories through social media and groups on campus push awareness campaigns. But when planning for the long-term healing of survivors, there seems to be little to no research about what the future looks like for those who have experienced sexual violence.

There are testimonies of those struggling with their assault generations after, and the widely shared statistics that survivors are more likely to develop post-traumatic stress disorder, depression and anxiety. But what exactly does that stress disorder look like two years after the assault has taken place? What form does depression look like in the face of everyday life? How does a survivor maintain a long-term support group with that anxiety? Talking about the long-term future can be overwhelming and unclear. In the current political environment, people find it difficult to take stances about assault as they are faced with it in the moment. For some, talking about long-term care for the whole person can be enough to shut down dialogue completely.

These questions call for a more holistic look at what it means to be a survivor of sexual violence–of how to truly care for the whole person. My research this summer has taken a much different turn. Instead of meeting after meeting, I have been looking into the theories and psychology of healing. Trying to heal through care for the whole person is no easy task. It is time and labor intensive—it requires intentional communities that truly are men and women for and with others. But it can be done. On a campus as small and intimate as Xavier’s, no one is untouched by the issue of sexual violence. The university has shown ongoing support for exploring this issue deeply, in intentional ways, and I am excited to see how that shapes the campus community for years to come.