Written by Katherine Flynn, Australia
The year was 2003. I was about 24 and living in the UK when I was sexually assaulted by my flatmate, someone I hadn’t met until I moved into a shared apartment in Central London. I felt totally confused because I had been in my pyjamas watching late night TV, and I said “no” so many times. But he didn’t listen. And, in the week leading up to the incident, he had scared me into thinking I didn’t know what he was capable of.
By the time he struck, I felt powerless to stop him, but also grateful to be escaping with my life. I had only just moved out of emergency accommodation and he was leaving the country and so I didn’t know what to do. I couldn’t quite admit to myself that he had acted with so little respect for me but I eventually chose to confront him. When I did, he openly admitted he had done the same to at least three other women.
A month or two after he left, I finally got the courage to tell the police. By that time, there was little they could do. I felt I had nowhere to run. I wanted to get on with my life.
If I tell myself I’m okay, then I’m okay, right?
People often talk about “stinky thinking” when they refer to the negative thoughts we entertain in our heads. But I had the opposite problem. In the days following the episode, I didn’t realise how much I was affected. I told myself, “I’m okay, I can do everything. If my mindset is right, then I’m okay, right?”
My sparkly psychology meant I genuinely believed if I could focus on good, positive thoughts, I’d be able to recover, to be able to heal. I really believed I could out-think the pain and not be affected by being sexually assaulted, humiliated, and rejected.
But my body was telling me otherwise. I had moments of extreme panic when I felt dissociative and disconnected from my body. I would get tingly pins and needles, my mouth would be dry, and I would feel ill and get sicker more often. I wasn’t eating properly, and I struggled with basic self-care. I could nearly always get up and get myself together so that everything “looked okay” but I wasn’t able to do other stuff, like sleep well and even drink water. I ended up with a kidney infection and had repeated chest infections before landing in isolation with life-threatening pneumonia.
Looking back, I realise the physical signs that something wasn’t right were there quite early. One of the biggest giveaways was when I walked to the top of the stairs that led to the apartment where it happened, I would wet my pants in terror. I thought I had a bladder problem and I rang my GP to ask for a check-up. All the tests came back clear, but I insisted there must be something else wrong, physically.
The reality that my doctor was right, that there was nothing physically wrong with me, helped me realise that perhaps it was a psychological reaction to the trauma. I had heard and read about anxiety, panic attacks, and the like while getting my psychology degree, but I didn’t recognise it, because my thoughts were, on the whole, positive.
I was referred to a psychologist, and she made me believe my “sparkly thinking” was the answer. I was extremely convincing, and she believed in my positive thinking too.
By the end of each of my sessions, I told her I was fine. When you see a therapist, you get to talk about your feelings and that gives you a buzz. I would tell the therapist I was at an 8 out of 10 on the how-do-you-feel scale, but I would go home and have the same physical symptoms. Maybe I was dying? But surely, I did not have a mental health problem that just wouldn’t let up?
It took me a couple of years, after the incident, to realise what was going on, and how my psychological pep talks were actually damaging me and diverting me from the truth. I realised the stress of the trauma—the way my body was reacting to it—had nearly killed me, and I really had to get the help I needed.
It was not enough to tell myself I was okay
This realisation came about one or two years after the assault, when I was introduced to the work of a world-famous psychiatrist, Dr David Servan-Schreiber. At the time, I was working at the Mental Health Foundation UK and had an opportunity to review the manuscript of his book.
I printed David’s manuscript on giant A3 pages, and read it at home or on the train to work. One of the things that stood out was how 100% of the young people he had worked with had recovered from PTSD and 80% of the control group had it. So what was this seemingly miraculous intervention he had used with them? It was a practice discovered, almost by accident, by Dr Francine Shapiro, namely EMDR or Eye Movement Desensitisation Reprocessing.
I got to spend some time alone with David, peppering him with questions such as, “What is it about this EMDR that makes it work? Why is it so effective?” and what he told me would forever change my life.
Our brains are quite miraculous. Learning about the way our brain processes emotions and feelings made me realise that we are able to heal from physical and psychological trauma, as long as we include our senses in the healing journey.
EMDR is a fairly new, non-traditional type of psychotherapy. It’s particularly used for treating post-traumatic stress disorders (PTSD), which often occurs after experiences such as physical assault, rape, or accidents. EMDR does not rely on talk therapy or medications, but rather, uses the patient’s own rapid, rhythmic eye movements to dampen the memories of past traumatic events.
My Encounter With Jesus
The toll my trauma was taking on my health meant I couldn’t really run away from it anymore. About four years after meeting David, my career was crashing—I had left MHF UK to run my own dance business but I wasn’t coping with the latter either—and my personal life was also in tatters.
Thankfully, I had a very dear friend, who prayed by my bedside when I had returned from hospital after my near-death experience—having a temperature over 40 degrees and fading in and out of consciousness for days. It was a long road to recovery. And his faith was a comfort to me as I felt the stillness of his spirit in my presence and the midst of my turmoil.
Another memorable spiritual experience I had was when one of my dance students, an Iranian lady, invited me to her baptism. I had always loved her and found her to be one of the most colourful characters to ever enter my dance studio. I went with very little expectation, other than to support my Iranian friend, a single mother who had a child of wedlock. To my delight, I was completely swept off my feet with the love of Jesus.
I was moved to tears as I realised how many years of my life I had taken for granted, the blessing and freedom we have, personally and corporately to know Christ. . When they asked among the crowd if anyone else would like to be baptised at a later date, I didn’t give it a second thought. I was compelled to put my hand up. I now know what I experienced and realise that, for the first time in my life, I felt the Holy Spirit move.
In March 2008, I eventually moved back to Australia, less than a month after my friend’s baptism and not long after recovering from pneumonia. I wanted warmer weather, family, love, and time to recover after being away for seven years. When I got back, the grief I felt at leaving behind my friends and loved ones in the UK, combined with PTSD, meant I was an absolute howling mess. I went on to visit an EMDR therapist to help me through that period.
It has been 16 years since I was diagnosed with PTSD and 12 since I started the treatment that would relieve my suffering.
Healing can be found in Christ
From the time I understood I was a new creation in Christ, I believed in His healing power—I believed in miracles and I was open to receiving them. I also believed He wanted more for me. Far from feeling like He was holding out on me, in not giving me a swift miracle, I genuinely felt He was growing in me the knowledge of Him, and giving me the opportunity to renew my mind.
Walking with Jesus so far has looked deeply humbling. Next to Him, we are so aware of our flaws, our brokenness, and the many ways we try to quench the deep need we have for God with everything that is of this world. I reached a place I realised I didn’t want to go without Him. I started to see life as something to be shared with the lover of my soul.
And He showed up in my life in so many ways. It looked like kind friends who saw me in that state and didn’t turn away, but chose to uplift me in my suffering instead of stepping over me. Those who acted like Jesus. And sometimes it looked like those who realised I needed Him, more than I needed them. You see, sometimes we lose people, not because they weren’t meant for us, but because we need to know who our true lover is—the one who came to set us free.
It looked like prayer offered up by others on my behalf in total submission to His will for my life. And in that surrender, in that wrestle, in that mayhem, finally there was peace. I was called to worship Him.
Along with my spiritual healing, I did a lot of EMDR (Eye Movement Desensitisation Reprocessing—with Clinical Psychologists, and still occasionally do), completed SOZO sessions, as well as counselling sessions with Elijah House Ministries Australia and Christian Counselling.
All these helped me to turn my life around—step by step.
Contending for peace doesn’t end
There are times when I face contention for my peace. And at those times, I have learned, it is not a battle that ends. That we must stand and contend each day.
But through adapting my lifestyle, to one of fasting, prayer, and above all love, I have been able to find a way—paved by God, where He placed the right people and resources in my path.
There is a peace that comes when you accept God into your life but this was another level of peace. It was the peace of abiding in the Vine. Knowing I am to be pruned, nurtured, and that I have a place in the Vine.
A couple of weeks after arriving back in this country, I also started working in skincare retail. A customer handed me her business card and asked if I’d like to work with her at her local Christian radio station, which I eventually did in the end. And in a matter of weeks, I got baptised at her church too.
Each day, the Holy Spirit plays a huge part in helping me check in on myself and I find partaking of Communion regularly reveals to me the state of my heart. For a long time, God just let me know I was loved—He covered my shame—and I needed that time to just be loved.But after a while, as I grew in the revelation of where I still hadn’t forgiven, or may have judged, it became obvious to me that I had to forgive those who had offended me in the past.
Discipleship with those established in faith was also critical to me. I have prayer warriors around me who have been with me almost since the beginning of my time with the Lord. I can say, without doubt, that their prayers shift my life in ways I wasn’t capable of.
Bringing it back to Jesus—time and time again
Ultimately, it’s about bringing it all to Jesus and saying, “Jesus, where am I? How do I deal with this? How do I process this? Is this about healing my brain, my body, my soul, or all of the above?” and letting God show me and heal me.
People often think recovery means going back to what we were once, the person we were before trauma, but, it’s more about being “transformed”. I would say I have “transformed”, and I’m a different version of who I was before the assault, and battling with PTSD, depression, and anxiety. The strongholds we face, mentally, physically, and spiritually can serve to strengthen us, and prepare us for the challenges we will face in the future.
Before, I thought I had confidence and was strong; now I realise I am confident because of who I am in Him—that the joy of the Lord is my strength. Whether you are radically delivered and healed or not, is up to Him. But it is up to us to stay the course and choose the narrow path—that we may receive the crown of life and be free from the past.
Transformation can eventually become liberation, as once God has had His way in us, we are able to walk in the fullest expression of who He has called us to be: Christ in us, the hope of our glory.
Editor’s notes: To learn more about Katherine, visit her personal website here: https://www.heartspaceinternational.net/. To learn more about EMDR, visit EMDR Association of Australia: https://emdraa.org/
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