“You may encounter many defeats, but you must not be defeated.”
These words, first spoken by the great Maya Angelou, appear in Tricia Barker’s memoir ” Angels in the OR” and, as Tricia takes us inside her life’s journey, we begin to see- and experience- exactly why she chose this particular quote. I came to know and understand this beautiful woman on a much deeper level than I expected and I rightfully came to the conclusion that her story wasn’t one of defeat or denial or loss. It was, instead, a story filled with light and joy and hope for the future. Complex trauma is part of her story-and suffering through the myriad of issues that come with sexual assault and the steps necessary for healing-isn’t an easy task! It takes courage…Tricia found that courage and learned how to live again.
TRICIA’S COURAGEOUS STORY
1. You had a profound spiritual experience in 1994 when you died on the operating table during emergency spinal surgery. A few years later, you experienced sexual assault. How did the deep spiritual knowing from the other side help you make sense of this challenging experience?
I was an agnostic college senior when I died for two and a half minutes during surgery and experienced the healing power of angels, a life review, my deceased grandfather’s comfort, and the all-loving presence of God. This moment revolutionized my way of thinking, and I understood that the unconditional love of God can heal all wounds and sorrows of this earth. I never thought of my near-death experience as a dream or hallucination, and decades later it stays vivid in my consciousness.
Although I didn’t expect to experience sexual assault a few years later, I believed that a spiritual perspective on suffering would bring greater healing. In the afterlife, a higher consciousness told me to remind people to go to nature for healing. To experience greater healing, I climbed mountains and prayed to God to give me the strength to help myself. I took natural supplements to help with depression and anxiety. I realized that love in action would be my greatest healer, so I stayed busy being of service to others who were wounded by life. Trauma is common in many lives, and we heal quicker in community.
2. Why was it important to write about your survival of sexual assault in a foreign country?
National Geographic Magazine interviewed me in 2016 about my near-death experience. This interview happened around the time the #metoo movement was gaining public attention. I understood that people gravitate to the topic of near-death experiences out of curiosity and often because they are grieving the loss of a loved one or longing for a greater spiritual awareness; however, it had not occurred to me until that interview that a spiritual perspective on how to heal from sexual assault might be necessary conversation.
I wrote my memoir Angels in the OR: What Dying Taught Me about Healing, Survival, and Transformation, which was published in 2019, to spread greater healing at the individual level and societal level. The #metoo movement has brought a lot of attention to the prevalence of sexual assault in this country and around the world, but I would love to see more conversations centered around creating safer societies and how trauma survivors might experience profound healing. I know that spiritual healing can accelerate healing at the physical and emotional levels.
3. Do you recommend that survivors write and share their story publicly?
Writing and claiming one’s voice gives survivors power. Journaling and creative writing can be extremely beneficial, even if these writings are private or only shared with a counselor. There are closed groups where survivors can share writing and support one another through the healing journey. Many creative writing students chose to write about sexual abuse or sexual assault, and creating art from pain can be empowering act.
However, sharing a story publicly is a personal choice. If telling the story adds to your trauma, don’t tell your story publicly. I waited over 20 years before I decided to write publicly about the experience of rape. I wrote Angels in the OR for the women and men who might not ever write their story. I hoped to say something valuable about healing and transformation. Transformation arrives when your story doesn’t make you cry. Your story becomes something that you can use to help others, to spread awareness, and to create change.
4. What can family members, friends, partners, and spouses do to support a sexual assault survivor? What do you want to say to anyone who is reading this article who is a survivor or is close to someone who has survived sexual assault, stalking, or harassment?
Deep listening and empathy can be extremely healing for survivors. Talking and walking in nature can begin to override some of the horror of a traumatic event. If you are a parent of a survivor, don’t make this moment about your pain and anger about the event. Focus on what you can do to empower your daughter or son. If you are a friend, partner, spouse, or parent of a survivor, ask what you can do to make your loved one feel safer in the world. Consider taking self-defense courses with your loved one or weapon training courses. And, most of all, focus on the positive moments the future can hold for the life of the survivor.
Treating the person holistically is important, and long-term healing might require working with counselors, naturopaths, spiritual healers, minsters, shamans, and those trained to help others release trauma. I want survivors to know that healing has stages just as grief has stages. Don’t beat yourself up for taking years to make progress, and don’t compare your response to the response of others. Just keep working on your healing and believing in a personal breakthrough. Dedicate time and money to your healing because you are worth it. Meditation or a spiritual practice can also be a reminder that our consciousness extends beyond the physical realm.
5. What types of counseling and spiritual healing practices were most beneficial for you?
A year after sexual assault, I went to hear speakers at college campuses talk about recovery from rape, and I sought help at the rape crisis center. I took day long meditation classes, and I worked with traditional therapists and those trained in EMDR (Eye Movement Desensitation and Reprocessing). I read books by trauma survivors, and almost every self-help book on the market. I also read books by Coorie ten Boom and Victor Frankl who wrote powerfully about surviving concentration camps during WWII because I wanted to understand those who found spiritual answers to the cruelty of this world. I refused the idea that I would be sentenced to a life where I might never recover from this moment.
I understood I would never be the same after sexual assault, but I also knew that sexual assault is common in this country and around the world. There are healthy responses to trauma which require us to dedicate time and money to our self-care. As a teacher and later as a professor, I had the opportunity to talk students who suffered sexual abuse or sexual assault and point them in the direction of healing. These young women and men needed me to be an example of healing and to provide them a clear path to healing.
The greatest moments of spiritual healing came from simply surrendering my woundedness to that powerful loving force I knew from my near-death experience and asking that this unconditionally loving power help me and others experience greater healing in our lives. I hope that every survivor might experience those moments of great unconditional love and spiritual healing.
Tricia Barker’s memoir, Angels in the OR: What Dying Taught Me About Healing, Survival, and Transformation, tells the story of her near-death experience, teaching mission, and eventual triumph over trauma in her past. Her story has been featured on I Survived: Beyond and Back, National Geographic Magazine, Women’s World Magazine, and The Doctor Oz Show. Tricia is a graduate of The University of Texas at Austin. She also received her MFA in Creative Writing from Goddard College. Currently she teaches English at a beautiful community college in Fort Worth, Texas. Tricia interviews other near-death experiencers, researchers, and spiritual teachers on her YouTube Channel. Her website address is https://triciabarkernde.com/