“I laughed, I smiled, I cried so happily. It felt like 21 years of my family’s shame had been zapped away by my magical potion of speech,” said Kelsey*, a “Speak Out!” speaker.
The WINGS Foundation, located in Denver, Colorado, hosted donation-based event “Speak Out!” on Saturday April 14 from 1 p.m. to 4 p.m. in Hampden Hall where six adult survivors of childhood sexual abuse publicly shared their stories in front of a packed, community audience.
A culmination of an 8-week workshop, participants met for two hours weekly with their group members and facilitators – a therapist or a therapist in training – to prepare speeches for the event “open to friends, family members, clinicians, and community allies,” according to the WINGS Foundation site. Those who felt ready and strong enough in their healing process to share their story signed up to perform at “Speak Out!”
“This event is not easy.
It is not easy for the survivors telling memories of their most vulnerable moments.
It is not easy for the audience members who are there listening,
but the event has been one of the most transformative events I have had the honor of attending.” said Janie Contreras Johnson, The Strange is Beautiful’s on-site reporter of the event and survivor of childhood sexual assault.
Admirably, the WINGS Foundation provides tissues, stress balls, as well as grounding and breathing exercises for all attendees. On top of this, staff and volunteers are present to assist anyone who feels triggered during the event. It is through this type of challenging discomfort that powerful collective healing takes place.
One of last year’s speakers, Kelsey*, 27, explained why “Speak Out!” was the opportunity she needed to tell her story in a bigger way than just one-on-one to a friend.
“Sitting with someone over coffee and guiltily mumbling my story no longer felt like enough. I wanted to scream it, and I didn’t know how,” she said. “‘Speak Out!’ provided me the platform to express all that energy.”
Though the workshop’s writing exercises prepared her tell to her story to many people, she realized it was meant for one person.
“Once I began writing, I realized for whom the shouting was meant, and by the time ‘Speak Out!’ approached, I was no longer shouting, but crying…for myself. It was important because I deserve to be cried for.”
The three most challenging things for her to say turned out to be the most empowering statements. Thinking of them caused a physiological response – her stomach muscles would tighten, her breath and heart rate quickened, and her voice would become absent. Because it was so difficult for her to say out loud, she knew she needed to share them.
“1) I needed to say the word ‘incest’ with people in the room;
2) I needed to rid myself of the shame that it physically felt good at times during the abuse;
3) and most importantly, I needed to admit that I was and am afraid of my father.
This last one was the most important to me. I don’t have visual memories of any abuse from my father (even though I remember it from other perpetrators), so I often question whether it really happened. Regardless of whether it happened, I knew I needed to say, ‘I am scared of him, and I am scared to know whether or not it was him.’”
When asked how preparation for “Speak Out!” felt, Kelsey said, “Awful.” To her, it felt like training for a sports game or a marathon – again, taking a physiological toll on her body. She worried of all possible reactions she might have during her performance. Another speaker, Bobbianne Elizabeth Stambaugh, 35, felt alike.
“To do something like this, I had to go through several years of hard therapy work plus participating in group therapy for a year at the WINGS Foundation. I also had emotional support from my husband and a non-stress flexible day job,” said Stambaugh.
“I would not recommend just going online and just releasing your story to the world. Telling your story to your loved ones for the first time and then to speak it out loud to a room of 200 strangers takes a great deal of support,” she said.
An artist, advocate and survivor of childhood sexual abuse (CSA), assault with a deadly weapon survivor, Posttraumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), and college date rape, Stambaugh started a business selling her art, a portion of which is donated to help survivors. She calls herself an “art victor-rite,” in reference to “The Hunger Games.”
“In ‘The Hunger Games,’ victors did not out run their trauma, they fought their predators and won yet, had to accept their scars. As I write this today, I write this accepting all the parts of myself. I am not just a victim or a survivor or an advocate or an artist. I am an artist. I am a victor. I am an advocate. I am an art victor-rite. I am all these at the same time,” said Stambaugh.
“We must understand as a society, it takes years of treatment to even admit the abuse to yourself and then even longer to speak publicly,” she said.
Our on-site reporter, Johnson, has attended “Speak Out!” for the last two years. Encouraged to express themselves however they want, she’s seen participants do so in multitudes of ways. Some use poetry and one particularly memorable speaker created a seance with her childhood self. Kelsey used a metaphor to Peter Pan to tell her story.
“I related with Peter Pan because I didn’t want to grow up. Oh, how great it would be to fly to a new world with no worries. It was already so scary to be five. If only Peter was the boy coming into my room at night! Just to play!” said Kelsey.
“Since Peter never taught me to fly, I taught myself to dream. I dissociated myself past the second star to the right, out of my parents’ home, and straight on till morning. I’ve been a lost boy, a pirate, an Indian…I lived in Neverland, dictated by Peter, because that was safer than recognizing my feelings, my reality. I can’t tell you much about ages 7 through 12 because I don’t remember them,” she said.
Using a different approach, Stambaugh utilized powerful data to help the audience understand how common childhood sexual assault is.
“In the first part of my talk, I provided statistics and created an education experience. In the auditorium, on every fourth chair, I placed a pink piece of paper. I had those audience members stand. This group represented the 1 in 4 girls that will experience CSA.”
She continued with more colors of paper representing other statistics to enhance the impact.
“Every sixth chair had a blue piece of paper. This group stood up and represented the 1 in 6 boys that experienced CSA. On the rest of the seats, there was a white piece of paper that represented that only 38% of CSA cases are reported,” she said.
While each experience is distinct, it is apparent how trauma affects survivors in similar ways. For example, one speaker described having spotty memories – a common issue for survivors of trauma. She can easily recall minute details of what the doorknob and floors looked like during the attack, but cannot remember specifics about what was going on in the room. For those unfamiliar with trauma, it can be hard to reconcile how a person might not remember everything.
Another revealed how the cycle of abuse is present in many families. Both he and his parents had gone through it. The culture of silence around intergenerational trauma can make someone more likely to be put into an unsafe situation.
Others conveyed the complicated family situations that arise with healing. Some said their parents did not support them through therapy. Many felt “split,” successful on the outside but self-loathing and ashamed on the inside.
On top of needing to hear these stories, seeing each speaker is critical too. Seeing all genders, orientations and ethnicities on stage represented gives faces to the issue of childhood sexaul assault. There is a lot of stigma around this type of trauma, and many stay silent because they believe it’s only happened to them.
“We must move beyond stigmatized words that never see light like molestation, incest, rape and the list goes on,” said Stambaugh.
Participants transformed that stigma into a well deserved strength. As one survivor put it, “I am brave, I am capable, I am a fucking miracle.” On top of ridding of this negativity, these publicly spoken anecdotes help strengthen each survivor because the room full of people wanting to listen is a statement to them that they no longer have to carry their burden alone.
“I looked to my WINGS group facilitator, and I whispered, with a huge smile on my face, ‘They’re crying for me,’” Kelsey recalls.
“It was the moment I’d waited for for so many years, the moment I never received from those closest to the abuse. I laughed, I smiled, I cried so happily. It felt like 21 years of my family’s shame had been zapped away by my magical potion of speech.”
Three pieces of advice Stambaugh gives to anyone struggling is:
- “One of my therapists once told me, ‘There is no such thing as ‘healed.’ There is just healing. Healing cycles like the seasons. This season will pass too.”
- “My best advice is to seek help. Help is always there and you deserve it!”
- “Also, know that you are not alone. I am here. I may not be there physically, but I am here in the world and I exist. I think one of my favorite artists explained it best:
‘I used to think I was the strangest person in the world but then I thought there are so many people in the world, there must be someone just like me who feels bizarre and flawed in the same ways I do. I would imagine her, and imagine that she must be out there thinking of me too. Well, I hope that if you are out there and read this and know that, yes, it’s true I’m here, and I’m just as strange as you.’
To learn more the WINGS Foundation, visit their site here.
*For the comfort of the speaker, her last name was left out.
Written by Janie Contreras Johnson and Shannen Roberts. Reported by Johnson.
Janie Contreras Johnson, The Strange is Beautiful’s Staff Community Outreach, is a Mexican-American feminist working constantly to overcome sexual and childhood trauma.
DM her on our Instagram @TheStrangeisBeautiful.
Read her posts here.
Shannen Roberts is The Strange is Beautiful’s Founding Editor-in-Chief and a Peruvian-American writer, musician and yogi.
Learn more about her here.