Every month, dozens of people reach out to AHA Foundation for help. They are people who have survived or are in danger from dangerous traditional practices – honor violence, forced marriage and female genital mutilation – in the US. Namele, a therapist at the AHA Foundation, answers these requests and when needed, directs the girls to appropriate resources and additional sources of support. In this blog, Namele Gutierrez speaks of what it takes to open up and seek help, stigma that surrounds mental health, and what she hopes to achieve in this field of work where needs are many and overwhelming.
“Please help me.” This is one of the most courageous statements I have heard from clients in my therapy office and from women and girls who email me.
When we ask for help, we take the risk of showing our vulnerability, the rawest parts of ourselves. This is no small feat considering that many of these women and girls have taken this risk and have been repeatedly rejected, invalidated, and hurt. Women and girls take this profound risk every single day when they contact us in hopes of taking a step toward personal peace and freedom.
The road to peace and freedom is not always an easy one. There are countless barriers women and girls who have suffered from honor violence, forced marriage, and female genital mutilation (FGM) face especially when seeking therapeutic help. When it comes to the experience of trauma, there can be a deep feeling of shame and a belief that a therapist or others in general will not understand, so survivors can feel extremely alone. Trauma can also shift or reinforce core beliefs, such as “others cannot be trusted” or “the world is unsafe” or “I am unworthy.” These deeply held beliefs, which have been created through life experiences and have been useful in surviving, can also be barriers to people seeking therapy and healing their past. These beliefs can become unhelpful when we take them into areas of our lives that no longer include the people or events that lead to the trauma.
In addition, there is significant stigma toward therapy. There is sometimes a strong belief that what happens in the family stays in the family and that by sharing your family’s “dirty laundry,” you are betraying them. This is especially true for cultures that highly value honor and are willing, by any means, to maintain that honor. It is incredibly frightening to go against one’s culture and not doubt oneself in the process.
To women and girls who are suffering or have suffered from these abuses, I encourage you to reach out to someone who is safe – a friend, a mentor, a therapist, or an organization. You do not have to be on this journey alone. It has been an honor for me to walk side by side with my clients and with the women and girls who have contacted me through the AHA Foundation, and I know there are others who feel similarly. When women and girls reach out, they find someone they can speak to, someone who is willing to listen and understand, someone who is prepared to go through “the ups and the downs,” resources they can be connected to, and an unexpected network of people who would like to help either financially, legally, or psychologically.
People often ask me if therapy helps. I think author and poet, Stephen Levine says it best, “Healing comes when we meet our wounded places with compassion.” Therapy is a safe space where we can face difficulties with someone who cares, learn new ways to cope with our difficult thoughts and feelings, learn to water our self-worth and self-love, forgive ourselves and others, be celebrated in our successes, learn how to create healthy relationships, and create meaningful lives. As a therapist, I have witnessed transformation in front of my eyes, and I have read about the difference it makes for someone to hear a response from the AHA Foundation when they reach out. Many women and girls are surprised that we respond, and I have read their words of relief, gratitude, and hope.
At times, it is easy to look at complex, societal issues and think that we cannot make a significant impact. Even if we are bold enough to think we can make a difference, we often are at a loss of where to begin. It can feel overwhelming. What helped me begin many years ago was considering the well known starfish parable:
One day, an old man was walking along a beach that was littered with thousands of starfish that had been washed ashore by the high tide. As he walked, he came upon a young boy who was eagerly throwing the starfish back into the ocean, one by one. Puzzled, the man looked at the boy and asked what he was doing. Without looking up from his task, the boy simply replied, “I’m helping these starfish, Sir.” The old man chuckled aloud, “Son, there are thousands of starfish and only one of you. What difference can you make?” The boy picked up a starfish, gently tossed it into the water and turning to the man, said, “I made a difference to that one!”
What I have found is that when we are with people during their most difficult moments and help them tap into their innate resilience, they are then able to do the same for someone else. It is my hope that in helping women and girls in their times of despair, that they will be empowered to proliferate this healing beyond themselves, thereby creating a ripple effect in the world at large.