• Charna Cassell, MFT

Is Trauma a Life Sentence?

Trauma isn’t the province of an unfortunate few but the greatest public health crisis we face today.  As a trauma survivor and therapist who has spent the better part of two decades helping myself and others heal, starting at fourteen, I tried to understand the impact of complex developmental trauma on my own sexuality through painting, research projects, writing, reading, making videos and volunteering as a peer counselor. 

Through my early twenties, panic attacks ensued if someone so much as called me beautiful. Hearing the words “I love you” was followed by me fleeing. Flashbacks struck me everywhere from voice class to being in bed with my girlfriend. After watching my stepfather abuse my mother, I vowed I’d never be controlled by a man and didn’t choose to have sex with them until my late 20s. I lived with PTSD and the debilitating anxiety and cyclical depression that often accompanies it. Meanwhile, physical ailments assaulted me: adrenal fatigue, chronic G.I. distress, ovarian cysts, you name it. My body was a minefield, my brain was hijacked by distress, and I had no idea where the trauma stopped and I began.

Trauma creates sediment, a literal hardening in the tissues. Start with the ancestral trauma you inherit in your DNA; add developmental trauma, where you are unsafe in your family; include social trauma, where you are unsafe in your culture; insert incidental trauma, such as an isolated act of violence, and you’re left with a body that has become at once toughened to sensation and sapped of its vitality.  Survivors often question, who was I to begin with? And is this state of being a life sentence?

The answer to this last question is an emphatic no, which I reiterate often to the individuals and couples I treat at the Center for Passionate Living—a private practice geared towards helping people overcome trauma, cultivate resilience, and enhance their sexuality.

I was born in Nepal to a charismatic but vacant mother and a father who was incarcerated until my early-20s. My childhood was rife with neglect and cruelty as my mother ping-ponged from one violent partner to another, escaping a volatile relationship with a speed-balling lawyer in Marin only to take up residence with a sexually abusive contractor in L.A. By the time I was ten, my body’s reaction to prolonged fear manifested in “unresolvable” chronic health conditions—in short, my body was breaking down for reasons MDs couldn’t identify. 

It wasn’t until I was introduced to the concept of somatic therapy while working at San Francisco’s famed, worker-owned sex shop, Good Vibrations, that I began to see the unequivocal link between brain and body. Years of talk therapy hadn’t uncovered the fact that my health conditions were palpable indications of unconscious reactions to trauma. Somatic therapy, on the other hand, provided me with the language I needed to articulate the lack of safety I experienced and my aversion to sex and sensation—feelings I thought I would always experience in my body. 

I also began to see that the body can function as an instrument for recovery, and that healing it can influence our nervous system and transform our perception of security. I started to understand that you don’t always have to remember in order to heal, and that you don’t have to remain paralyzed as you wait to have a clear image of your history. Decades of schooling, counseling, and treating others with this in mind allowed me to draw a blueprint for a holistic, body-based method of healing from trauma, all of which I share in a book I am currently writing,Swimming Through Glass: 6 Steps to Sexual Freedom.Part memoir, part self-help, and part reportage, it not only charts my growth from a trauma survivor to a trauma therapist but also broadens the predominant view of the causes behind sexual trauma and our responses to it.

To offer resources to a broader audience I also started recording a podcast, LAIDopen, which explores sexual freedom, whether that means choosing to actively engage in sex or pressing pause for as long as you desire. What enhances and hinders sexual freedom? 

LAIDopen will answer your questions about intimacy, emotions, and relationships, offer practical exercises and feature some of the leading personalities in the fields of somatics, trauma, attachment, mindfulness, healing, and the arts.

Email your challenges and curiosities about sex and sexual trauma as a 30-second voice memo (if you are okay with your voice being used) or an email (for complete anonymity) to laidopenpodcast@gmail.com.

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