I broke my silence about being an incest survivor. The article was written for survivors, advocates, teachers, doctors, therapists and loved ones. I wanted readers to know that “the sooner someone speaks, the less damage is done over the course of a lifetime.” I went on to say “I propose we start a new revolution and come together as a society and help people be less afraid to come forward about abuse done to them.”
After I released that article, I attended both Cosby trials and his sentencing. I spoke to reporters about the pathology of a predator and the impact his alleged victims suffered for decades. I continued to speak out about the importance of believing survivors. I continued writing about the process of healing in the aftermath of tragedy. I have been determined to share messages of hope that comes from speaking up and asking for help after living through any type of trauma.
As part of my series about “authors who are making an important social impact”, I had the pleasure of interviewing Shari Botwin, LCSW. She has been counseling survivors of all types of trauma in her Cherry Hill, New Jersey private practice for over twenty-three years. Her second book, “Thriving After Trauma: Stories of Living and Healing, Rowman & Littlefield,” (Rowman & Littlefield, November 8, 2019) deals with overcoming trauma including physical and sexual abuse, war-related injury, loss due to tragedy or illness and natural disasters. Real stories and practical tools shed light on how to let go of the shame, guilt, anger, and despair after a traumatic experience. Shari has conducted Keynote presentations for Monte Nido, International Association of Eating Disorder Professionals, Complex Post-Traumatic Stress Organization, Hoftstra University and Bay Path University. She has given expert testimony on breaking stories related to trauma (Covid-19) on a variety of international media outlets; including, NBC Nightly News with Lester Holt, The Today Show, CBS This Morning NBC News Now with Dr. John Torres, NBC Stay Tuned, ABC News, CBS News, MSNBC Live, CTV News, CP-24 News, CNN, Sports Illustrated, Prevention Magazine, The New York Times, Newsbreak, Greatist, The Associated Press, Philadelphia Magazine and Radio Europe. Shari has also published feature articles in Thrive Global, Medium, The Philadelphia Inquirer, The Toronto Star and Sage. Botwin has dedicated her life’s work to helping survivors after living through years of childhood abuse and multiple traumas in her early adulthood.
Thank you so much for joining us in this interview series! Before we dive into the main focus of our interview, our readers would love to “get to know you” a bit better. Can you tell us a bit about your childhood backstory?
I grew up in an upper-middle class Jewish home in the suburbs of Jersey. I decided very early in my life that I wanted to remember and share events I experienced during my childhood. I am a childhood sexual abuse survivor. I developed Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder and Major Depression before I hit puberty. I journaled a lot during my teens and I kept these entries in a safe place. When I was growing up I spent a lot of time dancing and performing in musical theater. I never felt like I fit in with my peers. I gravitated towards adults who seemed caring and interested in what was going on in my life. I watched a lot of television, mostly family sitcoms.
I did not understand what was happening to me or why I felt unsafe at home. Most of the abuse I endured happened in the middle of the night. I could not process or find words to what was being done to me. I started watching movies about sexual assault and incest before I went to middle school. I remember running to the mailbox every Thursday when the TV guide arrived for the next week. I searched through the pages looking for television shows and movies that I could watch to help me feel better. I had a couple of good friends growing up. Unfortunately these relationships were not healthy because I transferred my need to be heard and protected onto kids who could not take on that kind of responsibility.
I moved into the dorms at Hofstra University my first year of college. My freshman year was terrible because I was so insecure and distrusting. I found my way into a sorority my sophomore year at Hofstra. I developed connections with women who were like sisters. I began to open up about my poor-self-image and struggles with depression and anorexic behaviors. My recovery began during college. I did not know it at the time, but when I was at Hofstra I was building strength so I could face my trauma when the time was right. I knew I wanted to help people. During my childhood I searched for kids who needed help. I wanted to find other people that could relate to the pain and shame I was burying deep in my physical and emotional being.
Within a year after I graduated with my Masters in Social Work from Rutgers University, I began working in the psychology field. I knew I needed help. Rather than just focus on my career and helping others, I found myself the best therapist in the world.
When you were younger, was there a book that you read that inspired you to take action or changed your life? Can you share a story about that?
During my childhood I was constantly searching for books and television shows that would help me feel less alone. I wanted to read about people who had suffered adversity and made it through. I wanted to know that there was hope, and how people kept fighting through circumstances that were unimaginable. When I was around eleven years old I was assigned the book, “Night,” by Elie Wiesel for Hebrew school. (https://www.amazon.com/Night-Elie-Wiesel/dp/0374500010) At that time the isolation and confusion about my home life was beginning to take a toll on me. Thoughts about suicide and wanting to give up became a daily occurrence in my world. I felt like such a misfit and I could not tolerate the changes happening in my body as I was facing puberty. I was also ashamed to tell people that I was Jewish.
In Hebrew school we watched a lot of movies about the Holocaust. Teachers did not talk to us after we watched these films. I was left with harrowing images of hatred, violence and inhumanity. I did not feel safe at home. I did not feel safe at school. And, I was terrified to walk into my synagogue. At first I did not want to read Elie’s book. I was afraid to hear about more stories of horrible things happening to Jewish people. From the moment I began reading “Night,” I was hooked. I noticed Elie’s strength and determination to be heard. About a year before I read his book I promised myself that “Someday someone will hear me.” I was standing on the playground in the 4th grade. I was apart from most of my peers who were doing inappropriate sexual behaviors at the bottom of the hill. I did not want to participate in what I began to understand as an adult was normal sexual experimentation. I felt hopeless and alone. I did not have the words to describe my abuse. At that time and for many years to follow in my childhood, my brain stored many memories of my abuse as a way to protect myself from going insane. My brain was unable to shield me from the layers of pain and shame I felt in my body almost every day. When I read Elie Wiesel’s book I felt affirmed. I remember thinking to myself, “If he found a way to stay hopeful, so could I.” I felt grateful for my ability to create a sense of safety at school and in my dance classes. I tried to understand how he could survive in a concentration camp while being ripped away from his family. I was intrigued by his story telling and his determination to make sure his story was heard. There were a couple of quotes from his book that stuck with me!
“There’s a long road of suffering ahead of you. But don’t lose courage. You’ve already escaped the gravest danger: selection. So now, muster your strength, and don’t lose heart. We shall all see the day of liberation. Have faith in life. Above all else, have faith. Drive out despair, and you will keep death away from yourselves. Hell is not for eternity.” “…I believe it important to emphasize how strongly I feel that books, just like people, have a destiny. Some invite sorrow, others joy, some both.”
When I read Elie’s book I had no idea I would become an author or a trauma therapist. I did know I would find my voice. I knew when the time was right I would begin sharing my story in the hopes I could help hundreds or thousands of others understand that it is possible to live a full, happy life after surviving incest.
Can you share the funniest or most interesting mistake that occurred to you in the course of your career? What lesson or take away did you learn from that?
Through the years I have had many bloopers or mistakes that have happened during therapy sessions. Just a few weeks ago as I was conducting a tele therapy session and one of my pictures fell off the wall and practically landed on my head. Rather than be embarrassed I cracked up. My patient was anxious and we had just met a couple of weeks before this happened. It actually broke the ice because my patient could see things happen and therapists are human too. Another moment I will never forget during quarantine happened during our first snowfall this winter. My almost ten-year old kiddo was so excited because it has not snowed where we live in 655 days. He was finishing up at home school and I was still conducting sessions in my “home office.” I was talking to a teenager about her home life and she was telling me a story about feeling judged by her dad. Tears were rolling down her cheeks as she told me about an incident when she felt like, “no matter what I do, I will never be good enough for my dad,” As she was telling me this story my almost ten-year old knocked on my “home office” door. He entered the room and said, “Mom I have a surprise for you.” Seconds later he threw a big fluffy pile of snow on my head, face and desk. I was so mad for one second. Then, I burst into laughter. My patient looked at the screen and said to me, “Now that made me feel better.” She laughed as I brushed the snow off my glasses and laptop screen. We talked about my reaction and she told me how amazing it was that I did not scream and holler at my kiddo. This moment reminded me of the importance of having safe, trusting connections through childhood. That was healing for my patient because she gained more understanding about her father and how his judgments on her are more about him!
Can you describe how you aim to make a significant social impact with your book?
I started working on my book in 2015. I spent two years putting together a book proposal and seeking representation by a literary agent. Like most authors, I faced a lot of rejection by agents and publishers. I held onto my goal of getting my voice out into the public, with the hopes I could reach survivors of trauma. Rather than get discouraged I worked my bum off, reaching out to journalists and writing features for a variety of online platforms. On the two year anniversary of #Metoo I published a feature article in Thrive Global. I broke my silence about being an incest survivor. The article was written for survivors, advocates, teachers, doctors, therapists and loved ones. I wanted readers to know that “the sooner someone speaks, the less damage is done over the course of a lifetime.” I went on to say “I propose we start a new revolution and come together as a society and help people be less afraid to come forward about abuse done to them.” (https://thriveglobal.com/stories/metoo-turns-two/) After I released that article, I attended both Cosby trials and his sentencing. I spoke to reporters about the pathology of a predator and the impact his alleged victims suffered for decades. I continued to speak out about the importance of believing survivors. I continued writing about the process of healing in the aftermath of tragedy. I have been determined to share messages of hope that comes from speaking up and asking for help after living through any type of trauma.
I will never forget the day I signed my book contract with Rowman & Littlefield. I felt like my dream had come true. I flashed back to moments when I stood on that playground in the fourth grade promising myself “someday someone will hear me.” My book released worldwide in E-book, audio and hardcover on November 4, 2019. Within weeks of the book’s publication I went on social media platforms and I began hearing from therapists, survivors and journalists from all over the world. I was booked to do a feature presentation on abuse recovery with Judge Rosemarie Aquilina (Judge who sentenced Olympic doctor Larry Nassar to life in prison after being convicted of sexually abusing hundreds of young women) and renowned book author Abigail Pesta on March 12, 2020 at The Wing in New York City. Two days before the scheduled workshop the country shut down due to COVID 19. Rather than sit in the disappointment about that event being canceled, I shifted my focus onto online outreach. During the last year I have continued to publish articles and give commentary on the impact of the pandemic, especially for anyone with trauma histories. Readers and listeners from around the world have asked me to share more about how someone can move into a life of thriving after living through domestic violence, childhood abuse, sudden loss, war-related injury, child loss and related issues.
One of the reasons I wrote “Thriving After Trauma,” was “to unite all of us: survivors, family members, bystanders and helpers. No one walks away from trauma feeling the exact same thing. There are things we have in common and things we cannot comprehend. It is not about understanding exactly what someone feels or remembering every detail. It is about hope. It is about acceptance. It is about understanding the impact of our traumas. And it is about fighting for our right to live fully and freely no matter how horrific the trauma or our experiences were.” (https://rowman.com/ISBN/9781538125601/Thriving-After-Trauma-Stories-of-Living-and-Healing, Discount code RLFAND30 for thirty percent off hardcover or E-book
Throughout the last year I have been going on a variety of podcasts, IGTV Live and Zoom events for the public. All of these events have been free of charge. Topics of focus have been on staying sane during insane times, domestic violence, childhood abuse prevention, suicide awareness, intimate dating violence and eating disorders. I have been connecting with therapists, lawyers, doctors, teachers, doctors, nurses and loved ones seeking support, encouragement and education. During the Pandemic, more people have been coming forward about their mental health issues and asking for help. In August I spoke out about my suicide attempt at age 14 and the long-term impact of PTSD. I appeared on a podcast, “Understanding Suicide,” (https://anchor.fm/paula-fontenelle/episodes/Ep–37—Healing-from-trauma-even-if-you-dont-remember-them–Interview-Shari-Botwin-eifkus/a-a30mblc)
The podcast host focused on how to cope with suicidal ideation and helping loved ones support family members with severe depression and Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder. Earlier this winter I started a Video cast series with Judge Rosemarie Aquilina which focuses on the legal and psychological aspects of domestic violence and childhood sexual abuse. During the next several months we will continue to offer free, Live Zoom’s which can be accessed via YouTube, Facebook and Instagram. (https://youtu.be/QXYAZwRaGn4)
Can you share with us the most interesting story that you shared in your book?
That is a hard question to answer! I loved writing this book and sharing stories of men and women I have met through the years that have overcome enormous challenges. The hardest chapter to write was the one that focused on my abuse recovery journey. At times I found myself welling up with sadness and anger as I wrote about the impact of my abuse. The most healing part of this chapter was writing about the birth of my first and only child, almost ten-years ago!
What was the “aha moment” or series of events that made you decide to bring your message to the greater world? Can you share a story about that?
My “aha moment,” arrived within weeks of giving birth to my son. As I observed myself parent my son I realized that I am so much more than an abuse survivor. I remembered times when I changed his diaper or gave him nebulizer treatments for his asthma as an infant. I felt so much love for this little bundle of joy. When he smiled at me my heart exploded. The last thing I wanted to do was anything that would scare him or make him feel unsafe. I took notice to his vulnerability and could imagine the thoughts of a pedophile. At first I was terrified when I pictured my abuser and what kind of crazy thoughts were going through his mind when he abused me. In therapy I had many conversations about the differences between how I parented versus how I was parented. The light bulbs went off as I realized it was in facing my abuse that I could make different choices. I have met many people through the years that never had children because of their abusive past. Patients have told me they were convinced they could not be good parents after some of the events they survived as young children. My heart would break for these patients before I became a mom. I did not give birth until I was forty-years old. I always wanted a family and I was not going to let my history of incest and trauma stop me from having a family. Months after I became a momma I decided I wanted to tell the world about all the miracles that could come from facing our worst fears. I wanted to scream from the rooftops that it is possible to break the cycle of abuse. During these last ten years I have had many more of these “aha moments” as a parent. If I could I would tell millions of people that anything is possible if we believe in ourselves. I wished childhood abuse did not exist. However, I would not change a thing about my past and how I use my story to help myself and others move into a life of thriving!
Without sharing specific names, can you tell us a story about a particular individual who was impacted or helped by your cause?
During the last twenty-five years I have met many people in the psychology field who have made such an impact. I have had the opportunity to talk extensively with colleagues and mentors who have been a steadfast support from my earliest moments of breaking my silence. The person who has had the biggest influence on me has been my therapist. I met Dorothy when I was twenty-five years old and I stayed in treatment with her throughout my journey. When I met Dorothy I sensed she had a huge heart and that she would not judge me, no matter what I shared with her. It took me a couple of years of sitting in session with her to find the courage to tell her what happened to me. Dorothy stood by me during turbulent, dreadful times of my life. She never gave up on me. She never told me I was crazy. She accepted my feelings and reinforced the importance of sitting with my feelings so I could move into a place of acceptance about my past. I have internalized her words of support and love and I think about things she has said to me every day. I learned how to be a better therapist and how to access my voice. I learned the importance of setting boundaries and that I had the right to say no. Dorothy became the biggest gift I received after surviving years of abuse. I learned that there are good people in this world and that not everyone wanted to hurt me. After years of sitting in her office and sharing my heart I learned to trust myself. Recovery is a lifelong process and at times I have slipped into old ways of thinking and feeling. Rather than beat myself up for these moments, Dorothy taught me how to use the mistakes I have made to be a stronger and happier woman moving forward.
Are there three things the community/society/politicians can do to help you address the root of the problem you are trying to solve?
There are many things the community can do to prevent trauma and abuse. For example, holding mandatory trauma-informed workshops could be incorporated into programs geared towards healthcare and education. Politicians need to re-evaluate the legal system and offer more rehabilitative support to people charged with crimes of sexual assault and abuse. Many criminals have come from families where they have dealt with neglect, abuse and abandonment. There are people sitting behind bars that will continue to repeat cycles that are familiar to them if they are not given the chance to get some type of therapy or intervention.
How do you define “Leadership”? Can you explain what you mean or give an example?
Leadership is about taking your strengths and helping others learn from your prior mistakes. It is not about using your power to control those around you. A true leader is a flawed human being that uses his/her experiences to make a positive impact on others.
What are your “5 things I wish someone told me when I first started” and why. Please share a story or example for each.
- That I need to develop a host of self-care strategies to keep my energy and avoid burnout. I love my job and sitting in sessions with patients. At times colleagues ask me how I can work with so many people who are in trauma recovery and not suffer from vicarious trauma? Through the years I have developed a variety of self-care strategies to rejuvenate and release the tension in my heart and body. My Peloton Bike, which I have named “Polly the Peloton,” has become my best friend when I am not working or helping my kiddo with is homeschooling.
- That it takes persistence and hard work to get the message out. At times I want to see instant results. I have learned that being a published author requires determination, especially after a book is released.
- That being self-employed requires ongoing-PR in addition to providing therapy and writing articles.
- That being a single-parent and owning a business is like having two full-time jobs. I knew that owning a business was a risk once I became a momma. However, I did not learn how to manage my time and schedule until my kiddo arrived almost ten-years ago. I love having the freedom to make my schedule around my kiddo’s activities and I love being my own boss! No one can tell me I cannot leave work early to attend one of my kiddo’s sporting events. To this day I have only missed one of his basketball games. And I hated every second of not being there. Moving forward I do not plan to be at work when I could be at the soccer field or basketball court watching my kiddo smile, dance and run down the field going for his next goal or basketball hoop.
- That I will always need mentors and colleagues to share my work with to manage the stress and challenges. I still remember sitting in a workshop being run by one of my favorite colleagues. At the time I had only been working in the psychology field for three years. She told her audience, “Always have someone to consult with. You are never too experienced to need help.” I heard her that day and have given myself permission to reach out to colleagues when I am overwhelmed or dealing with a situation that is causing me stress!
Is there a person in the world, or in the US with whom you would like to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might just see this, especially if we tag them. 🙂
I would love to sit down with Dr. Brene Brown. She has spent the last couple of decades studying feelings many trauma survivors grapple with; such as, shame, vulnerability and distrust. I would love to know her backstory and what led her on this path to help millions break free from feelings that lead to self-destruction and isolation. Shame is the biggest obstacle to moving into a place of acceptance and self-love. I would love to sit with her and pass on her messages to patients, friends and colleagues.
How can our readers further follow your work online?
Readers can follow me on all of my social media platforms listed above and also on my website www.sharibotwin.com
The best way to stay up to date with my work is to follow me on my social media platforms. I have also created a website to highlight media interviews, online events, speaking engagements and publications on www.sharibotwin.com I can also be found on the following social media handles
This was very meaningful, thank you so much. We wish you only continued success on your great work!
About The Interviewer: Growing up in Canada, Edward Sylvan was an unlikely candidate to make a mark on the high-powered film industry based in Hollywood. But as CEO of Sycamore Entertainment Group Inc, (SEGI) Sylvan is among a select group of less than ten Black executives who have founded, own and control a publicly traded company. Now, deeply involved in the movie business, he is providing opportunities for people of color.
In 2020, he was appointed president of the Monaco International Film Festival, and was encouraged to take the festival in a new digital direction.
Raised in Toronto, he attended York University where he studied Economics and Political Science, then went to work in finance on Bay Street, (the city’s equivalent of Wall Street). After years of handling equities trading, film tax credits, options trading and mergers and acquisitions for the film, mining and technology industries, in 2008 he decided to reorient his career fully towards the entertainment business.
With the aim of helping Los Angeles filmmakers of color who were struggling to understand how to raise capital, Sylvan wanted to provide them with ways to finance their creative endeavors.
At Sycamore Entertainment he specializes in print and advertising financing, marketing, acquisition and worldwide distribution of quality feature-length motion pictures, and is concerned with acquiring, producing and promoting films about equality, diversity and other thought provoking subject matter which will also include nonviolent storytelling.
Also in 2020, Sylvan launched SEGI TV, a free OTT streaming network built on the pillars of equality, sustainability and community which is scheduled to reach 100 million U.S household televisions and 200 million mobile devices across Roku, Amazon Fire TV, Apple TV, Samsung Smart TV and others.
As Executive Producer he currently has several projects in production including The Trials of Eroy Brown, a story about the prison system and how it operated in Texas, based on the best-selling book, as well as a documentary called The Making of Roll Bounce, about the 2005 coming of age film which starred rapper Bow Wow and portrays roller skating culture in 1970’s Chicago.
He sits on the Board of Directors of Uplay Canada, (United Public Leadership Academy for Youth), which prepares youth to be citizen leaders and provides opportunities for Canadian high school basketball players to advance to Division 1 schools as well as the NBA.
A former competitive go kart racer with Checkered Flag Racing Ltd, he also enjoys traveling to exotic locales. Sylvan resides in Vancouver and has two adult daughters.
Sylvan has been featured in Forbes, the Wall Street Journal, the New York Times and has been seen on Fox Business News, CBS and NBC. Sycamore Entertainment Group Inc is headquartered in Seattle, with offices in Los Angeles and Vancouver.