It was a simple question in response to Domenic’s request for help overcoming her mysteriously growing, incapacitating fear. But Domenic was stunned by the query and involuntarily blurted out that she had been sexually abused repeatedly as a child. Now in her 50s, she had told no one except a visiting Catholic priest who’d come to her Yup’ik village church many years ago.
“When I was 11 years old, I told this priest about the abuse [suffered at the hands of a relative]. Instead of helping me find a way to stop the abuse, he absolved me of my sins and told me to say five Our Father and five Hail Marys. I decided then that it was my fault and it would be a secret I would take to my grave,” she says.
When she had blurted out her secret to the elder she unexpectedly found herself transported back in time, reliving the abuse. “I was right there with all the smells and feelings. Suddenly I started crying and puking,” she recalls. “The elder reassured me that it was okay. She said to me, “Rose, this is how sick this trauma has made you. Now, the sickness is going.”
Gradually, Domnick found she was able to allow her body, mind and spirit to process the trauma. The progression of her healing, although gratifying now, has been difficult and painful. The first two years after she began acknowledging the abuse were the most challenging; seemingly unrelated events or experiences, sounds or smells, would trigger terror and/or anxiety that she later learned were related to her childhood trauma.
Domnick, Yup’ik is Director of the Yukon Kuskokwim Health Corporation (YKHC) Behavioral Health Prevention Department and leader of Calricaraq (Healthy Living), a trauma intervention effort modeled on traditional Yup’ik ways. Based in Bethel, Alaska, YKHC serves 58 Yup’ik villages on the delta leading out to the Bering Sea.
Sharing her story with Calricaraq clients is not only part of her work, it is part of her ongoing healing. The Calricaraq team responds to village requests for help in addressing trauma in their communities. The team, including Domnick, sit down with clients and share their own stories of overcoming trauma.
“The elders have told us that the best way to guide others through their trauma is to talk about what we know. We must each tell our own healing stories,” Domenic says. “If I’m able to openly share my story, it can help others to talk about their experiences that also carry a lot of shame. Hopefully they can then feel safe enough to open up and gain some understanding about what has led to the dysfunction in themselves and their families.”
The details of Domnick’s trauma and its impact on her life are agonizing to hear. Resolutely, however, she does not shrink from sharing uncomfortable details not only of the trauma but also of her healing process. She describes her realization that the abuse affected not only her but also her husband and family in terms of her treatment and relationships with them. “It was excruciatingly painful to look at how I let the actions of that man who had molested me so many years ago hurt my family,” she says.
Before her breakthrough with the elder, the trauma had prevented her from being intimate with her husband for several years. “I saw that I was allowing this man who hurt me, even from his grave, to kill not only my but also my husband’s spirit.”
Domnick dealt with the trauma by trying to fearfully control everything in her life. “I blew up at everything. I would go all crazy if the toilet paper was not hung in the right direction. In the end, I was so fearful I didn’t want my husband to go hunting or travel,” she says.
Shortly after telling her secret to the elder, she blurted it out to her husband. Caught off guard, he turned to her and asked in disbelief, “Who are you? I don’t know you. What other secrets have you been hiding?”
“I completely broke down crying,” she says.
He embraced her and asked her, “What can I do to help you, how can I help you get better?”
“I taught him how to help me,” she recalls. Her husband learned to listen to her without reaction. “I was filled with so much shame that I took every response as a judgment,” she says.
The process, however, has not been easy and has taken several years. Even today, something will trigger an unpleasant memory for her but she has learned to talk about what is bothering her. She owes her progress to learning traditional Yup’ik ways of healing and dealing with life. “Our ancestors gave us tools to navigate through the tough times of life. They taught us to take bad experiences and turn them inside out, examine them, talk about them and understand how they have affected us.
“Our elders tell us if we don’t attend to our pain and troubles we will take on a way of being that is like a bottomless pit and we will always be hungry. Never satisfied with anything we will continue seeking relief in one more drink, one more bingo game or other addiction,” she says.
In her work with Calricaraq, she and her team help guide others through this process and gain more insight into their own lives. “We are also finding that our elders are recalling old unused Yup’ik terminology that describes these tools for living and healing,” she says.
Since so many of these old terms are associated with traditional Yup’ik spirituality, the church suppressed them, Domnick explains. People forgot these important guiding tools that although not written on paper or supported by western clinicians, are an effective means for self-healing according to her. “The beauty is that all the answers are within us. We are our own experts. When we talk about our experiences we lay them all out on the table and can see how they’ve shaped our lives. We can see what we’ve become and learn what direction we need to take to begin healing.
“I tell people that once they take the first step in sharing their secrets and their stories there is no turning back. The healing gets wider and deeper and you feel better. You want more and more,” Domnick says.
For a long time she was ashamed to talk about her family. Her parents were often intoxicated and neglected and sometimes abused Domnick and her siblings. Since she has begun to work on her own healing and that of her clients, she finds that she can now remember the good things her parents taught her. “I talk to my mother when I’m out berry picking. [Both of her parents have now passed on.] I had so much resentment and anger at her,” Domnick says, “but now I can talk with her about the wonderful things she taught me.”