Trigger Warning: This post discusses responding to sexual assault.
There was a time, just after I stopped sharing a bedroom with my sister, when I became… not afraid of the dark, exactly, but leery of what I couldn’t anticipate, what I couldn’t see. I never used a night light though I burned through the bulbs of several flashlights for after-hours reading purposes. I didn’t have nightmares, fear of bedtime, or insomnia.
But I remember always, always sleeping with my back to the wall. And I mean wiggling right up against the wall, which was cool and practical in summer but kind of shivery in winter. Additionally, if I needed to flip sides during the night — say, from right to left — I’d also flip head-to-foot on the bed so I could keep my back to the wall. As long as I could feel that no one or nothing — back then, I’m not sure if I was afraid of people or of monsters under the bed still — could sneak up behind me, I slept fine.
Mostly, folks just accepted this as an idiosyncrasy of mine; I have many and gradually grew out of this one anyway. A parent once commented casually about it, to which I just said, “This is where I’m comfortable.” It was at least part of the truth, and it’s a surface explanation I’d accept, except —
There was a time, just after I was raped, when I became afraid of what I couldn’t anticipate, what I couldn’t see.
This time, my back-to-the-wall vantage point expanded beyond my bedroom. I sat sideways in chairs in class and on the bus, with my back to a side wall, so that I could always watch out for whatever was there. Walking across campus with others, I found ways to be at the back of the pack. Walking alone, I checked regularly over each shoulder. At social gatherings, I found ways to tuck myself into corners so I could watch everything and every one — because now I was sure people were scarier than monsters.
I’m not sure how much these actions interfered with my ability to enjoy life, but the actions were symptomatic of fear, and the fear was entwined in everything I did, pervasive.
Which was why, when I was learning ustrasana (as part of a process of reclaiming my body and mind after my assault), it wasn’t just scary for me. It was downright triggering. Entering ustrasana, or camel, quite literally means dropping backward into what I cannot see. Even though the floor or my feet (or the wall or blocks or a chair or whatever I used as a prop) has never disappeared out from under me, there’s a difference between knowing my support is going to be there because, duh, that’s logic, and knowing my support is going to be there because I can always see it. Especially for someone who has not so logical reactions to the world around her, the difference between trusting my eyes and trusting my mind is huge.
Maybe aside from when I was first working to build the base amount of necessary muscle, I’ve always been more limited by my emotions than by my body in this pose. My body will bend back into kapotasana if I let it, but my fear relinquishes its hold in small and hard-fought increments. I’ve gone from camels that keep my hands on my pelvis to camels that use a chair to to camels that reach for my raised or lowered heels to camels that start reaching overhead for the ground behind me. It’s been years — eleven since I was raped and maybe nine or ten that I’ve been working with camel — and every time I begin in my kneeling shape, that wave of fear still hits me.
But I know now that the wave will ebb, not completely away but back to where I can move again. I know how to sit with my doubts and my terrors until they’re no longer coursing out my ears. I know how to acknowledge rather than fight my fear. I think, though I’m still not sure, this might be what people mean when they talk about cultivating courage.
The courage I’ve found from and in ustrasana is the emotional foundation of all my subsequent arm balances, the poses where I almost certainly have to fall on my face at least once. It’s the courage that lets me try headstand in the middle of the room when I know I have the strength and balance but really want to see the wall. It’s the courage that lets me talk about my experiences with rape and rape culture, to people who may well be unclueful or hostile, without seeing ahead of time what the response is likely to be. And it’s one factor in why I no longer sleep with my back to the wall.