Lessons From Sara Ku, A Sexual Trauma Survivor Who Learned To Go Beyond The Shame
"I’m worthy of having a full, loving, and beautiful life," she shares
There's a quote that goes, "We accept the love we think we deserve."
Never mind that it's from YA novel The Perks of Being a Wallflower. If you ponder on it long enough, you'll find that it applies to experiences outside of teenage romance, juvenile relationships, or first heartbreaks and high school drama. It speaks a universal truth for all human beings—no matter how badly our souls need to be cared for and how freely love is given to us, we may reject the kindness, understanding, acceptance, and warmth from others if we've convinced ourselves that we are unlovable and unworthy.
The resulting feelings are of isolation, pain, loneliness, never-ending emptiness—emotions that can be shooed away if only we let others come to our aid with their offers to love us. The cycle continues, as you see.
So why do we reject love, why do we feel unworthy, why do we push people away when what we need is for them to hold us close?
Trauma is a common culprit. Deep-seated trauma brought on by experiences in the past might have been powerful enough to distort our personal gauges of our worthiness, terribly even more so when the trauma was sexual in nature and brought on by repeated exposure to the wrongdoer.
What do you do when you live with this for the rest of your life?
According to Sara Ku, a US-based Filipina social entrepreneur whose adolescence was marred by sexual abuse, the journey towards the answer is long and steep and full of detours, but the answer itself is clear: It is knowing that "it is not my fault and that I’m worthy of having a full, loving, and beautiful life."
It is also about remembering that we accept the love we think we deserve—and we must always think that we deserve love at its finest.
It will never not be difficult for Sara.
For four summers from when she was 13 to 16 years old, she would come face to face with a family member who would repeatedly take advantage of her naivete and fear.
"I was confused and silent—even to myself," she begins.
"It was such an out of body experience and it was the first sexual encounter I ever had as well. The next couple of years, I was emotionally manipulated by this person into thinking this was a start of a relationship. This confused me even more because when I tried to find online what this situation was, what I found were experiences of rape that did I did not identify with in my situation. I thought, 'Okay, it didn’t happen from a stranger, it didn’t happen with a gun to my head, so this isn’t abuse.' It made me doubt my discomfort, and I stayed silent for longer," she shares.
Sara then took the familiar and dangerous path that sexual abuse survivors often begin with; she was choked by wondering if she had contributed to her situation, if she was overreacting, and ultimately if anyone would believe her, protect her, and bring her abuser to justice.
She eventually told her parents. But what a teenage girl believed would be the courageous act needed to end it all, turned out to be a cry that was met with deaf ears and backs that were turned.
She recalls, "I just kept saying I didn’t want to return [to the Philippines]. After meeting no support, I remember I said his name, and it was because of him, and just bursted out crying. That was as far as I could go. Nothing changed, and it happened one last summer."
There were little to no attempts to reveal what had really happened with her family after that first attempt. Months and months would pass before Sara had deemed someone trustworthy enough to be her confidant, and it turned out to be her then boyfriend. This time it was different; he was understanding and open-minded, and finally someone was angry that this had caused her so much pain. It was a reaction which, had it come sooner in her life, could have helped Sara begin her journey of healing.
But even with a support system like that, even with unburdening herself of her secret, it was no longer enough. Too much for too long had happened, and the trauma had taken its hold on Sara. Unable to find solace in anyone, she felt small and helpless, fearing that she would forever be in the grip of her past.
"There were times I started to open up and feel the pain of this, I had no words for how I felt but just remember there were times that I would just uncontrollably cry," Sara continues.
"But any time that happened, I would close up again because I didn't want to ruin the relationship I had with my family. That’s what it felt like. I didn’t want to share this with anyone else either; it was a mixture of feeling it wasn’t important, I didn’t want to be looked at differently, and I was afraid of not being believed," she reveals.
Trauma is initially processed by survivors like Sara in different ways, but sadly, many of these ways are destructive and unproductive, and they off a spiral of bad habits that correct a wrong with even more wrongs.
For Sara, it was an unhealthy pursuit of perfection and control. She believed that if she could excel in other areas of her life and keep that up at maximum capacity, it would be enough to compensate for how out of her control she felt about her trauma.
"I desperately needed this to compensate for the pain I was feeling inside that felt shameful, and that I was a failure. It allowed me to distance myself from it," she says.
It worked for a few years—all the way until Sara was in her 20s when she had become a full-fledged adult who had moved away from home and was laying down the groundwork for her professional life.
And as if it was destiny's hand at work, Sara found herself returning to the Philippines where she joined a non-profit organization (the same one that would become her partner in her now successful social enterprise). There, she became friends with three other women and in the course of many conversations, they found themselves comparing life in the Philippines with life overseas.
"One of the girls made a comment—how it must be good because certain things didn’t happen [abroad]... I asked her what she meant by it, but I had a feeling I already knew what she meant. And I was right. She didn’t speak of any personal experiences and spoke in general terms, something I know too well. I felt a lump in my throat, I was becoming disconnected with my body. The trauma in my body was getting triggered," Sara narrates.
Until today, Sara expresses frustration over not saying more. She still feels disappointed in herself for not being more comforting and more available for this woman who appeared to share her experiences of trauma.
"I responded with a general remark, something about how this happens as well all over the world, and she quickly moved on from the conversation," she says.
From time to time, she thought about how that minutes-long exchange was enough to bring her trauma back to the surface and make the wounds fresh again; only then did she acknowledge her need to seek professional help and was grateful for 21st society's growing movement of acceptance of mental health care. Without society seeking to normalize therapy, Sara doubts that "healing," "recovery, " or "trauma triggers and triggering emotions" would have ever entered her psychological vocabulary.
It's at this point that Sara wishes to share how she took back control of her life and her experiences that other survivors can learn from.
First things first: Professional help is important, perhaps more important than many realize.
Being Filipino, it's almost a reflex to believe that close family ties can solve practically any problem. But what happens when the problem is family? And not only that, but what happens when one's family is one that equates psychological assistance with a feebleness and craziness, two things that bring shame and dishonor to the clan?
Sara says to not have any of that. If you believe that professional help is necessary to help you reach clarity, and more importantly, peace within yourself, that is your decision and yours alone to make. No one else should be allowed to dictate how your trauma can best be dealt with; that is part of your journey to taking back your life.
"It still took me over a year to bring myself to my first session. My strong need of control and making life perfect with its different little boxes made it look like my life was functioning very normally. So, I took any excuse to delay this journey," Sara says.
"I think it’s important to be kind to yourself and go at your own pace. In the journey of healing, I find it similar to what I hear in the journey of recovery, where you have to want it for yourself and that takes time. But at the same time, going through this journey with a professional is so incredibly necessary. It’s really important to find the right therapist and the different modes of therapy that are available for trauma and healing," she adds.
Don't be discouraged if your first attempt at therapy doesn't feel right, either. Keep trying until you find someone your heart and mind are at ease with, as it will all pay off.
Filipino or not, family is certainly important. However, there are questions, activities, and realizations that only a trained professional can help facilitate. A family can support you and cheer you on, but should you ever feel the need to submit your mental health to care of a professional, it is important to allow yourself to do so.
Choose to be around people who understand and will be there for you—and be especially discerning of romantic partners.
It is a myth that individuals who have gone through sexual trauma can never find themselves in the arms of a significant other. While it might be more difficult for them to welcome intimacy into their lives, it is untrue that Sara, and other men and women with experiences like hers, can never be happy in relationships because of being "damaged" or too "complicated."
In fact, it is these experiences that might even allow them to make better choices in romantic partners. They know that who they choose to be with is required to have a bottomless well of patience, a willingness to help carry their emotional baggage, a heart that is kind and non-judgmental, especially on days when the trauma resurfaces. And if a partner with these qualities and more isn't a keeper, we don't know what is.
"When we started getting serious, I started to get triggered with my trauma and struggled with trust and felt unworthy of a loving relationship," she shares.
"I remember feeling so down on myself, because I had been in therapy for a year already. The perfectionist in me was thinking, 'Oh I’ve focused on this so much with reading this and processing this, so I must be basically healed.' Having to be so vulnerable in this relationship felt like it set me back to I don’t even know where... I remember wondering when was I going to be done with processing all of this, so that other areas of my life could begin... So, even though it was extremely painful to have this side of me come out with someone I cared deeply about, we also became even more committed to the values and incredibly honest on what a healthy relationship meant for the both of us," she adds.
Sara is married now. She plans to start a family with her husband, soon.
Allow the trauma to flow through you, should it ever resurface. Its presence in your mind and body is temporary.
It sounds counter-intuitive, but Sara makes an excellent point of reflection.
"I’ve also realized that this is something I have to constantly work on. At first I ignored [the trauma], blocked it, but reacting in that way didn’t put me in control and didn’t serve me and my life," she describes.
"I’m getting better (will never be perfect) at recognizing my triggering factors and the different rituals that help me feel grounded and release the trauma in my body. A quote that sticks with me that I heard from Cleo Wade at one of her events in LA, is letting the trauma flow through you—it is temporary. So, yes, that is giving yourself the permission and space to feel it, however that looks like for you," Sara continues.
There are accessible resources that she recommends for those who wish to learn more about this: The Body Keeps the Score: Brain, Mind, and Body in the Healing of Trauma by psychiatrist Dr. Bessel van der Kolk, as well as GOOP podcasts.
Collectively, these learnings are what allowed Sara to realize that the abuse was not her fault. It was through this that she discovered healthier ways of regaining the control of her life that she so badly wanted.
"The fear of feeling stupid I discovered was rooted in me thinking it was my fault that this abuse happened to me, that I should’ve seen it coming or that I somehow caused it, it was a feeling of shame and stupidity... I think it’s so important to go at your own pace to let it digest," she says.
There will be setbacks, and they may involve those you expect to be there for you.
Healing and recovery are not linear paths. You can go back and forth, even side to side, and on some days you might even feel like you've taken three steps back for one step forward. This applies as far as your expectations of your closest connections who you'd like to always know the right things to say and do, but that is rarely the case.
Don't be distraught by this, and don't be weighed down by it. Include it in your learning to accept and forgive.
"When it comes to the journey of healing and my family, I am honest in sharing that it is not perfect and there was very little turnaround and at times. [There are] still very harmful remarks made that add to my trauma. I think it’s important to share this because even though this is the case with my trauma, I am very close with my family and speak to them every day," Sara divulges.
"As I’ve grown older, I’ve learned that in my case, my parents will not be there and because of their own upbringing and a lack of interest in growth, they aren’t in the position to be that source of protection as it relates to my trauma, and that’s okay... For me, it doesn’t serve me to operate in extremes. I don’t judge anyone who feels that is best for them and also this can always happen depending on the stage of your life. Instead, in my healing, I focus on the sources that help me," she reflects.
Approach happiness differently.
It's an interesting piece of advice for those dealing with trauma: don't use happiness to determine if your life is going as planned, and if it's finally put together. Feeling happy is not the end all, be all of finally ridding yourself of trauma.
"I feel happiness can come and go, and relying on it to feel like your life is put together is a slippery slope. For me, I believe it sets me up for failure, because carrying this emotional trauma will forever be in my body. So, I can’t have the goal be countless happy days," Sara explains.
Instead, be realistic. Healing from trauma does not mean that there won't be difficult days in the future; it just means you're finding your back to life as it was always meant to be lived, and know that that life includes happiness plus a host of other emotions. Not being happy on one, two, or three days does not mean that your trauma has won; it just means you're human experiencing very human things.
And when those not-so-happy days come, Sara has a shield for them, too: a gratefulness exercise.
"I dedicate some time at night to think about one thing I’m grateful for that day, or in general... I have so many friends that practice the gratitude journal every night and it has had such a positive impact, so I encourage you to really find what works best for you!" she says.
But if Sara could be brief about what she wishes to say to others who have gone through and are going through what she has, it's this: you are worthy.
That life you dream of that is beautiful, full of experiences, and filled with love, that is still your life, no matter what your trauma tries to convince you to believe, and no matter what other people have to say about it. Learn to put yourself first in the times when you feel like you are second best.
For the family, friends, romantic partners, and members of the social institutions expected to help those who've experienced trauma, Sara has some thoughts for you, too: be better.
Dealing with trauma is two-pronged process; as survivors find it in within themselves to rebuild their lives, those around them must also take up the responsibility of providing a supportive and just environment that allows healing to take place.
The #MeToo movement was just the beginning, one that came decades-late, even. In the Philippines, the #HijaAko began by Frankie Pangilinan, daughter of Sharon Cuneta and Sen. Kiko Pangilinan, was born to mirror the same sentiment. Sara acknowledges that although these have been great moments of transformation in societies' attitudes towards sexual abuse ad its victims, it is far, far from enough.
And yet, parallel to her ongoing journey of surviving, healing, then thriving, change needs to start somewhere. However small, however limited, however basic, change starts somewhere.
And she's got a pretty good idea of where to start, too.
Start with yourself. It's the only thing you have true control of.
Manifest this in yourself you'll find that you'll attract this type of energy and support from all around you. Believe that you are worthy of the love and the happiness you think you deserve, because you deserve so, so much. And sooner than later, the world will believe this too.
Photos courtesy of Sara Ku / Additional images from @sarakuconut