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I Am Not Just a Survivor, I Am a Thriver

Dr. Ginger Garner

It has been a little over two years since I made the decision to speak publicly. I am a sexual assault survivor.

It took a lot of courage for me to speak up. To even write that is an understatement. It took even more to pen some of the story in the Preface to my first book, Medical Therapeutic Yoga. But I felt it was necessary. After all yoga, in large part, was what allowed me to move from survivor to thriver, from victim to victor. 

To be completely honest, speaking up was the hardest thing I have ever had to do. Or to write. My heart goes out to all of you who are victims of sexual assault; and are trying to recover your voice. You can do it. You are strong enough to speak up. I, along with so many others, am standing right beside you.

Speaking of other “survivor thrivers” I recently ran across the story of Jessica Smith, a licensed professional counselor and yoga practitioner. Her story is inspiring and empowering. It reminded me about my own history of overcoming the stigma and personal hell of being a victim. It occurred to me then that I had never shared my story outside the pages of my book. Honestly, it was so hard to even reference the story in my book, I couldn’t imagine speaking up in a bigger way. Until now.

You can download a copy of the preface here

In the era of #metoo and in solidarity with all of you out there who think your voice doesn’t matter, or that your story doesn’t matter, I’m speaking up because I think every woman’s (or man’s) story is important. So I am going to share it here in hopes that it will embolden others to speak up.  

The Hardest Thing Ever

Speaking up, telling this story, is just as hard as overcoming the trauma associated with it. Beating down the shame, rising to realize I am worthy of love, of acceptance, of leading a charge to help other women find justice through using their voice, I consider one of my greatest accomplishments. 

Moving past sexual assault and the trauma related to it, let’s face it, takes enormous work. So I applaud all of you out there who have been able to make, or are currently making, that journey. I know how hard you worked through blood, sweat, and tears, to get to where you are today. If you are reading this, I am your biggest cheerleader and fan. You are not a victim anymore. You are a victor. 

Moving From Victim to Victor*

Toward the beginning of my 2013-16 journey. I can persist (my word of 2019) only through standing on the shoulders of those strong trailblazing women who came before me. Meditating over my handy book on the history of Quotable Women. ©2014.

*This is an excerpt from the Preface to my book, where I share my story. But I feel it’s very necessary to share it again outside the pages of my book. 

I wrote my first book through, and in spite of, great trauma. During the years (2013-2016) I cleared the mountainous obstacles of overcoming chronic pain, a hip reconstruction, recovery from childbirth trauma, and most bittersweet — receiving my son’s special needs diagnosis. All of this happened while I was a postpartum mom for a third time, maintaining my day job of teaching, blogging, advocacy work, traveling to give lectures, seeing patients, being a CEO, and last but not least, working on my doctorate and penning my first book. Being able to accomplish all of that is my present day testimony to my victory, via yoga, over trials, trauma, and the demands of everyday life. 

My past life, in hindsight, includes what was likely PTSD coupled with HPA Axis dysregulation and a cocktail of systemic comorbidities — infertility, polycystic ovarian syndrome, adrenal burnout, and weight management issues, just for starters. The implosion of my life early on put me on a track as an abused wife, both sexually and emotionally. My self-esteem was so low, and my idea of healthy relationship so skewed, that I let myself languish for over a decade in a situation I thought I could fix, but what really resembled trying to force dancing in a burning room. I needed to get out, and it took me far too long to figure that out and finally muster the courage to leave. 

But the saddest part of my early adult story was that it only mirrored my previous history as a witness to and victim of sexual abuse, a history suffered alongside a deep-seeded sense of low self-worth and confidence that subjected me to men who thought violence against women and the marginalization and objectification of them was okay. 

Pinned In By Culture & Country 

My future trauma is societally induced. My advocacy work and research in maternal health overwhelmingly points toward America as the most shameful, neglectful developed country in the world toward its mothers.

In the US we have:

  • no maternal or paternal leave policy, 
  • no universal paid leave, no healthcare standards postpartum to aid in recovery, 
  • no universally acknowledged importance of postpartum depression screening or physical therapy; and,
  • we are still nowhere near achieving equality in leadership or pay. 
This past year when I picked up the torch of equal rights and decided to run for State Senate. I’m pictured with Bea, a local champion of the (still to be ratified) Equal Rights Amendment, dressed as a suffragette. The ERA went to the floor of Congress shortly after 1920, and still has yet to become a part of the US Constitution. ©2018. All rights reserved.

You see how many times the word “no” is used when it comes to women? This little snippet sounds just like the message mothers have been getting from America as a whole since its inception. America’s message is this, “No, mothers you are not important enough to America to safeguard your health or the well-being or future of you or your children.”The statistics on maternal health clearly reflect the truth of this statement, and in essence America is then saying this about its own future, “America, we don’t care enough about our national security or our future to support our own female citizens or their families.” 

That should register as a slap in the face to every man and woman in America today. Don’t we deserve better than that? I believe we do. 

Cultural conditioning is also a giant hindrance to women’s health and protection. On a daily basis TV, magazines, books, and popular culture tell women to simply “lean in” in order to fix thousands of years of bias against women. A culture that believes women are inferior and less capable, and that research** continues to make bald-face plain. 

The lie of gender-biased cultural conditioning would have all women think we simply just need to work harder, longer, and smarter in order to get that pay increase or secure that managerial role or partner status. Until we have policy and people that support the treatment of women as human beings, we simply cannot achieve equality. “Leaning in,” while well meaning, is an inhumane request. It puts mothers in a vice grip of pressure; telling us “we can “do it all.” And it is made far worse because the quip ignores this important question: How are we supposed to “lean in” and “do it all” with the absence of common sense policy to support mothers?

What Do We Do? 

This lack of policy and support exacts a devastating effect on my family and my recovery from sexual assault, and on entire generations of women and families. We live a forced existence in a society that lacks partnership and instead functions in an antiquated system that favors one gender over the other.

This is why women and men’s work on cultural transformation toward partnership and ending violence against women, like Riane Eisler’s work in Caring Economics, is so incredibly important. It is why I’ve spent decades experiencing and studying the impact of the voice on well-being and health, and why I believe the Stephen Porges’ Polyvagal Theory is transforming how I and many other women, men, and children can overcome and heal from trauma. I see, as many women and men do, the clear and present danger that inequality is to our democracy and to our society. To borrow my favorite words from Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., 

“In a real sense all life is inter-related. All are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly. I can never be what I ought to be until you are what you ought to be, and you can never be what you ought to be until I am what I ought to be…This is the inter-related structure of reality.”

~ Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

Becoming the Victor 

So how did I get to where I am today through all of my traumatic experiences in life? Yoga isn’t a cure all, but it has carried me, empowered me, and has done this very important and seemingly trivial little thing that is often overlooked: It strengthened my faith. Becoming the victor wasn’t about the yoga postures or the breathwork (even though the latter is especially important in overcoming trauma) or traveling to India or studying under some guru.

Yoga, for me, was about yoking my faith and beliefs to my lifestyle choices actions and practice. Yoga was also about allowing me to practice an art AND a science – to be creative in using yoga as therapy. Specifically, to use music and sound as a creative expression that, for me, held enormous healing power. Some of you know I sing, and quite a bit; so the use of yoga, sound, my own belief system (I’m a practicing Christian for those of you who are curious), and lyrical voice during troubling times – have ultimately allowed me to birth my children, my business, my first book, and the incredible courage it took simply to write this post. But yoga & music isn’t the whole story of recovery for me. It also takes relationship. Relationship steeped in faith and unconditional love. 

I am sure of this, especially in listening to the words of Professor Anita Hill at Elon College mere weeks ago as she gave the MLK Commemorative Address. She said these words: “Many people have asked me over the years, and I tell them this: I have never regretted speaking up. Not one day since then have I regretted speaking up.” I was also encouraged when I heard the words of Dr. Christine Blasey Ford in her testimony in front of the Senate Judiciary Committee, because I know, Professor Hill knew, We Are Not Alone.

A speech with a view. Professor Anita Hill and her courage at the MLK Commemorative Address in January of this year.
©2019. Ginger Garner. All rights reserved.

I am not alone in how and what I suffer through, and my suffering has never been in vain. Through it I have found the courage to use my voice – spoken and in song – to help others through similar struggles, and through their own pain, experience, trauma, and triumph, just as sure as others have helped me. 

Just as we all want to strive for love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control, the Fruit of the Spirit I learned as a child, relationship and mindfulness can allow us to resurrect the creativity & joy in our soul. Yoga is, for me, combined with music and sound and my spiritual faith and foundations, how I completed my journey of healing, and how I continue to heal. 

Partnership & Safety: It Should Be Our Collective Mantra  

Today I believe what I do in policy and healthcare is both an art and science. That may seem unimportant, but I think it is a critical piece that nurtures truth and healing. Though science is important and cannot be ignored, it also cannot dominate. The art of policy and healthcare, or any industry, is what allows us to create and innovate and thrive as a human race. 

But above all, creating better policy and better healthcare for women must be an art and science of compassion, and our creativity and hard work that goes into doing so MUST be defined through masculine and feminine traits. One cannot exist without the other. They, We need relationship. 

In fact, we should look at the delivery of any skill or service through the lens of embracing positive masculine and feminine traits. 

Because here’s the truth bomb — our society and culture need traditionally feminine traits, traits of nurturing, compassionate caregiving, power-with, & peacemaking, in order to create and sustain life. It is those feminine traits that will sustain our country, our world, and preserve or improve our future. Without it, we will destroy ourselves with aggression, tightly wound self-interest, fear-based decision-making, and war mongering. 

My 6 year old son William. He scaled this giant boulder over 20′ up, before I even realized he had left my sight. When I found him, this is the view I had, of him
atop Split Rock on Grandfather Mountain sitting quietly in meditation.
Our Children Are Listening. ©2013. Ginger Garner. All rights reserved.

Though masculine traits of aggression, strength, stoicism, and power-over are sometimes necessary to survive, they are not the way to solve the world’s problems. We can obviously see what hypermasculinity has caused when we look at the predominant male leadership in our world. 

We can begin to change the dialogue though. We can begin to change the marginalization of women and women’s issues.

We can stop the weaponizing of language that uses feminine traits to degrade and insult others (i.e. run like a girl, woman driver, dumb blonde, cry like a girl…unfortunately the list is long and unfortunately, women even insult other women by ironically demeaning their own sex).

We can step in and kindly stop someone when they are being offensive toward women, and we can adopt a no tolerance policy toward violence against women. 

First though, we need to start in our own homes. 

The change we want to see with treatment of women begins in the dialogue we have and share with one another at home.
My Three Sons. ©2016. All rights reserved.

We must talk to our sons and partners about getting involved to stop the violence against and marginalization of women. If we believe the words of Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. I shared above, then violence against another human being or against our planet is ultimately violence inflicted against our own body and our self. And if women are losing the battle of equality in our world, then we are all losing. 

It’s in making these reflections about our own interconnectedness that allow me daily grace toward myself and toward others. To forgive, but not forget. To heal, and continue to grow stronger through life’s steady stream of delivered tragedy and triumph. 

The intentions of this post are simple:

  • To help other women find their voice. 
  • To strive for unity, for compassion and creative determination to fight for policy and healthcare that saves women’s lives. 
  • To encourage our society and culture to define creative innovation and potential NOT by just masculine terms. 
  • To encourage our society and culture to stop defining success and creativity based on outdated patriarchal-industrial revolution-driven modes, but by feminine ideas and definitions of success and creativity as well. 

This passion for equality – which is at the heart of feminism and that is the simple belief that women are human beings, drives our creative potential and our potential for healing as a society. Together we can serve as a beacon of hope and light to allow those who have the same intention — to be able to live and work and create and thrive in a sustainable, compassionate environment of partnership and safety that values everyone.  

Resources – Research on Bias Against Women

  1. Gender bias in healthcare may be harming women’s health – https://www.today.com/health/gender-bias-health-care-may-be-harming-women-s-health-t133583
  2. Study finds bias against women and girls when intellectual ability is sought – https://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2018/12/181210165115.htm
  3. Troubling disadvantages, including bias, against women in business, study finds – https://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2018/09/180904093805.htm
  4. The Unconscious Bias Women Have Against Women – https://www.forbes.com/sites/leliagowland/2018/06/25/the-unconscious-bias-women-have-against-women/#2181d00eca64
  5. Bias against research on gender bias – https://link.springer.com/article/10.1007/s11192-018-2667-0
  6. Gender bias in research: how does it affect evidence based medicine? – https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC1761670/
  7. Breaking Barriers: Unconscious Gender Bias in the Workplace – https://www.ilo.org/wcmsp5/groups/public/—ed_dialogue/—act_emp/documents/publication/wcms_601276.pdf
  8. New Study Reveals Perceived Gender Bias Against Women is Dominant Factor in College Major Choice for Females – https://www.nyu.edu/about/news-publications/news/2018/january/new-study-reveals-perceived-gender-bias-against-women-is-dominan.html
  9. Gender bias in peer review of research grants may penalize women – https://www.reuters.com/article/us-health-research-gender-bias/gender-bias-in-peer-review-of-research-grants-may-penalize-women-idUSKBN1HU2FZ
  10. Research on gender bias receives less attention than research on other types of bias– http://blogs.lse.ac.uk/impactofsocialsciences/2018/05/17/research-on-gender-bias-receives-less-attention-than-research-on-other-types-of-bias/

About the Author

Ginger has spent 20+ years helping people (mostly moms!) with chronic pain as a physical therapist, athletic trainer, and professional yoga therapist. Ginger is the author of Medical Therapeutic Yoga, now in its 4th foreign translation, founder of ProYogaTherapy Institute, codirector of Living Well Yoga in Healthcare, and most recently ran for State Senate in NC.