For years, the shame some trans and nonbinary survivors carry about harmful behaviors they’ve used to cope with victimization can outweigh their shame over the violence itself. It’s a difficult and long-term process to hold complex histories of behaviors like drug use, alcoholism, non –suicidal self injury, and disordered eating with compassion and even gratitude for how these behaviors helped the survivor adapt and survive what otherwise felt totally overwhelming. Often, folks cannot move gradually towards this perspective of expansive, gritty appreciation as part of their healing processes without engaging in community that models it for them: People need people, and in spite of how brains and bodies may scream the contrary, that includes trans and nonbinary survivors. As my therapist often reminds me, though the wound happens in relationship, so does the healing. Overcoming shame about behaviors requires trans survivors to be in evolving relationship with others, their bodyminds, and their core selves.
All survivors are at risk of turning to behaviors like disordered eating, non-suicidal self injury, drug use and alcohol, or any other numbing and avoidant behavior to cope with the intense emotional, psychological, spiritual, and physical sensations that follow sexual and intimate partner violence. It’s crucial to acknowledge and appreciate with compassion that these behaviors serve a need that is otherwise unmet, like:
- Soothing and redirecting physical, emotional, mental, and relational pain.
- Asserting agency over the body after feeling like one has lost control over what happens to it.
- Punishing the body if the survivor has internalized messages that they are inherently bad due to their victimization; deserved the violence; or experienced physical pleasure or arousal during the violence that the survivor feels is unacceptable.
- Short-circuiting emotional processing by keeping the brain, body, and therapy or other healing work focused on behavioral patterns over which the survivor has agency.
- Distract from the trauma itself by creating a perpetually unsafe relationship from within the self
for everyone to focus on instead.
- Controlling the body narrative by using self-numbing and injurious behavior to change what sensations the body feels and what the body looks like to the world. Some survivors use the body to communicate their pain when they don’t have words through non-suicidal self-injury or disordered eating that, in a way, makes the trauma story visible. Others may use alcohol and drugs to control the body narrative by numbing out sexual desire and desirability completely.
In addition to how these behaviors can provide relief to embodied effects of trauma, many trans and nonbinary survivors may use self-numbing strategies to cope with the additional somatic overwhelm of internal and external gender distress:
- Cope with complicated gender and embodiment feelings, regardless of whether or not they experience dysphoria. These complex gender feelings can be general in nature, but it’s not uncommon for gender and embodiment feelings to be uniquely impacted by sexual victimization, which can trigger abrupt changes in self-identity and expression for trans and nonbinary survivors. While there’s no question that these changes are all valid expressions of new or evolving truths about the survivor’s self, it is often hard for the survivor to recognize this and avoidant, numbing, and self-injurious behaviors are common ways of coping during the adjustment period.
- Manage valid distress about being misgendered, deadnamed, or otherwise disrespected and harmed by transphobia.
- Punish oneself for one’s gender identity, body, or how the trans or nonbinary survivor perceives their gender identity effects on their loved ones.
- Anxiety about coming out or transitioning, whatever that looks like for each individual, knowing that gender is often creative, flexible, and evolving and not all trans and nonbinary people feel the need to transition.
- Coping with minority stress about transphobic discrimination in housing, work, or healthcare that creates precarious living situations.
Certainly, the harm that survivors cause their bodies through these behaviors might best be thoughtfully redirected in time to coping skills that better support their core selves instead of avoidance, as is the focus of many therapeutic and mutual aid recovery interventions. However, their efficacy in keeping survivors alive through accomplishing the goals outlined above when staring trauma wounds and complex gender feelings in the face feels impossible to survive otherwise is worthy of compassionate support and affirmation by professionals and loved ones. These behaviors serve a necessary purpose and are worthy of care.
Typically, survivors are shamed and pressured into stopping the behaviors that helped keep them alive without being supported in appreciating them for their wisdom and resilience. Instead of holding difficult behavior patterns with compassion, many trans and nonbinary survivors are taught to view them as the enemy, something to overcome or fight. Best-selling books like Jenni Shaefer’s Life Without Ed, for example, describe disordered eating as an abusive partner one has to divorce and have no contact with in order to recover. While this book has helped hundreds and I’m glad for that, from my perspective as a survivor who does have to keep no contact with real life abusers, this analogy is sloppy and harmful: It personifies the behavior as a vilified adversary that is separate from the survivor’s sense of self and can’t be appreciated for the ways it was a useful tool when the world or the body felt too overwhelming to survive. Enemy and divorce narratives like this deepen shame when survivors return to old behaviors in times of heightened stress, when it would be more healing for survivors to remember that neuroscience shows that people are more likely to revert to their most entrenched neural pathways, messaging, and behaviors in a crisis than they are to remember and utilize their newer neural pathways/coping strategies. In other words, reverting to old coping strategies in a crisis makes neurobiological sense and doesn’t mean the survivor has failed or has fallen off track.
Body-based education can be more empowering to survivors than sloppy and shaming behavioral analogies. It hinges the good news that forging new, just as deep neural pathways does work. It works best when the survivor is supported in deepening compassion through community for old neural pathways and behavioral patterns of numbing and avoidance that no longer serve them than when the patterns are shamed, vilified, and exiled. Fighting old behaviors and neural pathways does nothing to redirect from the shame-based, self-harming groove that the behavior has made in the brain; when trans and nonbinary survivors practice compassion towards themselves and how those behaviors helped keep them alive, however, they are already forging new neural pathways that will make coping without self harmful behaviors that no longer serve their core selves more possible in the future. With practice and additional compassion for when slips happen, this will hold true even in times of crisis.
Changing old behaviors takes patience, compassion, and community. Community might be found in any creative combination of FORGE’s online and in-person groups, by connecting with organizations like the Fireweed Collective or working one on one with a Peer Mental Health Advocate through Project LETS, attending recovery events with MenHealing, by going to individual and group therapy, or through 12 Step meetings and Sponsorship- regardless of the source, trans and nonbinary survivors are worthy of relationships that will bear witness to and support them as they heal from violence (from others and themselves) and embrace their gender identities and expressions. Otherwise, shame will continue to dominate and new ways to numb and avoid will replace the old. Free of shame, survivors deserve and are capable of lives that are full, empowered, accountable, and connected.
One of my most valued skills for the often overwhelming task of confronting avoidant behaviors and creating new neural pathways that aren’t based in shame was shared with me early in my own sobriety. Someone suggested I hold tight to the mantra “As long as my head hits the pillow sober…” and live my life accordingly. Though it names sobriety, with a little self-substitution, this saying can be an invaluable tool for trans and nonbinary survivors healing any behaviors. It may not sound like a skill at first blush, but this saying is actually an incredibly wise treasure trove of practices that carve new neural pathways while holding compassion for the old:
- It highlights for the brain the survivor’s new, self-defined value of living their life differently than they were before. Repeating (internally and out loud) the values one wants to live by and taking action accordingly literally creates neural pathways that will make it a natural way of life over time, but it takes repetition and patience. Living this way allows the survivor to reclaim agency and autonomy over their life where maybe before a sense of chaos and powerlessness reigned.
- It creates an aspiration for the survivor who may have otherwise been hopeless that, no matter what, they don’t have to use their chosen behavior to numb out from their life for that day. They can break the pattern and lift the shame, today. It’s a short-term, repeatable commitment to practice being present and attuned with the bodymind and the world it lives in here and now, while also holding space for whatever comes up from the past without running away. It doesn’t make any long-term promises that feel heavy and impossible to keep, instead focusing on just how deeply the survivor can take a bite out of life without using numbing behaviors while they’re awake today.
- It sets the boundary that when the survivor no longer feels like they can safely live to this value without turning to other behaviors to numb out or avoid, they are going to let themselves go lie down and rest. Not only does this let the nervous system ease itself from a state of alarm, it also allows the survivor to feel a sense of accomplishment and pride at having “hit the pillow” without using the behavior, just like their value-led life aspires to.
- A crucial component of this part, as it was shared to me, is that it doesn’t matter when someone needs to go lie down and rest. There is no competition, no check point at which you earn that sense of pride and joy at your progress. If it’s a hard day and you’re up for fifteen minutes before you have to “hit the pillow,” rest assured knowing that it’s remarkable that you did all that work and you are just as worth celebrating in that moment as you are after a ten hour day.
This skill/mantra highlights what the survivor aspires to be and values (ex. sober) instead of focusing on overcoming a supposed adversary that was actually helpful to them in its own way (ex. drugs and alcohol). By shifting the focus towards what they want to be when they’re living their values instead of negatively zeroing in on behaviors they use when they’re in survival mode, this mantra empowers survivors to think more expansively and hopefully about what they’re empowered to do with their day to achieve their goals. Creating new neural pathways happens naturally because survivors are encouraged to think creatively about all the ways they are able to live their value-led lives and what that will then empower instead of focusing on “overcoming” or fighting the deep neural pathways that are already there and served an important purpose. The emphasis on having one’s head hit the pillow aligned to one’s goal is important because it emphasizes how this takes time and patience and requires rest, even time to bury oneself under blanket forts, and that the rest should be granted with softness, pride for one’s accomplishments, and kindness to the whole bodymind instead of pushed through. For so many trans and nonbinary survivors, this is a radical departure from a framework of trauma healing and behavior modification that is muscled through with adversarial shame and a fractioned off body and mind or a neglected appreciation for gender, embodiment, and pleasure in the recovery process.
In review, “hitting the pillow” is a practice that stresses that it’s never too late for trans and nonbinary survivors to come home to themselves again. Old ways of thinking and behaving, even if they were harmful or didn’t align with their core selves, served a valuable purpose that changed our very brains precisely because they were effective at helping us survive what otherwise felt like too much when alternative skills weren’t readily available. These neural grooves are deep. Many trans and nonbinary survivors experience deep shame when they find themselves returning to them (or even just having urges to act) in times of distress after years of hard work and healing. There isn’t enough education about how repeated behaviors and thoughts create neural pathways that don’t go away just because we’re no longer using them. It’s not someone’s fault or a sign of poor mental health to be triggered down a deep neural groove because that’s precisely how the brain tries to keep survivors alive when they experience distress that feels similar to past trauma, when the numbing behaviors were useful. This mantra is itself a small education in practicing self-compassion for old behaviors and ways of thinking that can be used to create new neural pathways to respond to stress with more self-kindness. It serves to remind trans and nonbinary survivors to practice giving themselves grace when they return to old behaviors or ways of thinking. As opposed to the narrative where it’s like returning to a terrible lover they swore off, this mantra can remind survivors that the behaviors aren’t “bad” or “wrong” even if they aren’t aligned with the survivor’s core values, they’re just the best or most familiar way to cope with deep distress in this moment so they can survive, heal more deeply, and “hit the pillow” again in the next.