I have spent two lovely days (out of five) working with the clients and staff at Transitions to understand how the body reflects stress and trauma. It is my hope to give them simple but effective tools to help create a culture of body awareness.
I am often eager to share the anecdotes from my days but it gets so tricky as this work is highly personal and private. The girls' stories are not mine to share. Nor are the staff stories. There is a shorthand narrative that will have to suffice.
From 1975 to 1979 an estimated 1.4 to 2.2 million people were executed in Cambodia during the Khmer Rouge under the leadership of Pol Pot. Yesterday marked the holiday that celebrates the end of Khmer Rouge. At this moment, there is much political turmoil and unrest. A young Cambodian woman I met yesterday told me she was afraid. She said, "I was born after Pol Pot but when they had the elections last year, my family was afraid it would be like before and so we packed everything to leave."
For most of us, the scary stories we heard as children reflected a reality far from our own. Hansel and Gretel. Campfire slasher tales. Wizard of Oz monkeys. Here, in Cambodia, each family narrative comes with a horrifying, real-life history of violence, death, encampment and isolation. It is a trauma culture and the "body" of the country is neither grounded, centered nor oriented. The flight, fight, freeze responses are at the ready.
I do not condone violence but I understand it. In a land like this you will likely become victim or perpetrator. It represents the same sad thing - dissociation from any reality except that of fear, whether numbly internalized or aggressively externalized.
Depending on age, the Cambodian staff at Transitions either survived Pol Pot or are first generation after Pol Pot. They have suffered their own traumas and work every day in close contact with girls who are survivors of sex trafficking. Part of the healing process is to work through the trauma narrative - bringing slow light to what has happened to be able to work through it. We are empathic beings down to our marrow. Each cell responds to what we hear and see. So each staff member gets a daily dose of visceral reminders of what it is like to live in a body that has been taken hostage and violated. It is called vicarious trauma or "compassion fatigue."
The girls. Oh, the girls. There are currently 15 or 16 girls in the house. I didn't take an exact count. They range from the ages of 12-18. It is sometimes hard to know their age exactly.
They are sweet, they sing songs, they work on their English, they do their chores.
They also must go to court to confront a man who abused them. They ask to take the screen down because they are brave. And they fall apart, crying, shaking, falling to the floor.
Horrible things have been done to them and they persevere in ways that are hard to fathom.
Somehow, thanks to the vision and constancy of James and Athena Pond and the many, many people on staff and elsewhere who have supported these girls, the fatigued heal the broken, one humble day at a time. Yesterday the staff shared it is so hard to put together a long term treatment plan and watch it crumble. They rebuild the plan and in turn, rebuild the girls. Hopefully, they also heal themselves a bit along the way. It is a slow process, this reconnecting. This is my fourth year and some girls are just now coming into themselves, embodying a fullness and hopefulness for the future.
I come equipped with tons of information to share - loads of documents and solid science and experience.
In the end, I bear witness to each and every beautiful soul here. We breathe together. I put my hands on their feet. We twist and shout. It becomes a somatic kindergarden. And that is exactly where we all need to be.