Episode 3: Shan
Ayahuasca, Child Sexual Abuse, & Rheumatoid Arthritis
In episode 3 of the season Laura interviews Shan, a tattoo artist and survivor of childhood sexual abuse. Shan talks about her experience healing with Ayahuasca and the unexpected effect that the medicine had on her Rheumatoid Arthritis. You can see Shan’s tattoo work on Instagram @needlesiren
Inside Eyes n°1 with Shan
Transcript by CHC & Nell
You are listening to Inside Eyes, and I'm your host, Laura Northrup.
Hi everybody, welcome back to Inside Eyes. I'm your host Laura Northrup, and this series is about the use of entheogens and psychedelics to heal from sexual trauma. Starting with today's episode, we're moving away from speaking with professionals about entheogens and psychedelics, and moving toward what the bulk of this series will be, which is talking with individuals who have actually successfully used these medicines in healing from sexual trauma. I'm very excited to share these interviews with you, starting with the one you'll be hearing today. In today's episode, I interview Shan. Shan is a tattoo artist in New York City and is going to talk about her experiences healing from childhood sexual abuse with Ayahuasca, and about the unexpected impact that Ayahuasca had on her rheumatoid arthritis. Two things to note about this episode. One, I recorded it on location in New York, and didn't have a lot of control over the background sounds. So, you will some faint sirens, car horns and the sad, repetitive cry of a smoke alarm battery that wants to be changed. It's not too distracting, just letting you know what that noise is. And two, a word of caution: not every episode in this series contains graphic content, but this one does. None of these episodes are suitable for children, and, please, take care of yourself as a listener. Ok, our conversation starts with Shan talking about her life, and how she came to a place of trying out Ayahuasca.
Shan: So, when I was born, my father was addicted to drugs, and we lived with my grandparents and my uncle — this was my mother and myself, my grandparents and my uncle. My father was in and out of the picture, and came back when I was about five and, you know, I was always sort of a troubled... troubled kid, dreamy, anxious, had a lot of... sort of self-harming tics. I’d bite my lip until it bled... I had like a permanent scar... Never really did well in school until fourth grade, when my uncle passed away, and my dad left in the same month. And, then, sort of overnight, I went from being a B/C student to straight-A, you know. Sort of A-type personality, which I never was before. And, from that point on, it was this continuous cycle of... you know, we moved a lot and... be placed in gifted programs and, you, know... sort of rewarded for my achievement and then I would go through these periods of breakdown. And that continued through high school. I went to a magnet high school, so I had to apply to get in, and started of, really, high-achieving, high-functioning, and... When I had sex for the first time as a teenager, everything sort of got complicated again. So, I went back to skipping class, getting As, getting Cs, you know, did really well in the SATs but then did poorly in all these classes I basically never went to, so... That continued through college. I had been dating someone that I knew from high school, and we did end up getting married, but he raped me one night when he was drunk and high. And that blew the door off on all my childhood issues. For years, I've being suffering of these intense physical symptoms... Joint pain, neurological problems, you know, fogginess...
Laura: When did those start?
Shan: I'd say, I was like 14/15, so when I had sex again, you know, for what I thought then was the first time. They thought I had juvenile rheumatoid arthritis, and the tests were negative. We never did anything when I was in high school. And then finally in my early twenties, I was diagnosed as having rheumatoid arthritis and put on this battery of medications. The medications themselves were brutal, I mean, the side effects were almost as bad as the disease itself… And I went through the process of getting divorced, and was increasingly sick, and... Now, in my twenties, dealing with my early childhood trauma, and just... I really thought I was gonna die, you know. If I didn't kill myself, the disease would kill me, like, I really felt that. I...
Laura: Where you suicidal?
Shan: [sigh] That's always such a hard question to answer, because I've wanted to die… since I was a little kid, I've had that feeling, like, "I wanna to die, I'm gonna die, I'm not gonna make it past thirty” — like I really believed that. I remember thinking, as an eight year old, like, "I'm not gonna live past thirty". I have never attempted suicide, but I think for me, the thing was always when I was driving, so you know, in New York, New Jersey, we drive a lot... I was always just dreaming of veering into the incoming lane of traffic. That was sort of the thing. And I was in a lot of car accidents, I mean, some were my fault, some were not, but I think I sort of manifested that desire to die, you know, in whatever passive ways that I could. Even including, you know, my body just destroying itself from the inside with this autoimmune disease.
I got divorced and started to try to figure out, you know, what can I do, like, how can I live... How can I live in... How can I live the way that I am, you know? I had started dating this guy who wanted to try Ayahuasca. He said "I'm gonna do this, do you want to do this?", and... I thought... Fuck it, like I'm gonna die anyway, I might as well try. And I had to get off of all the medications I was on, you know, low-dose chemotherapy and an immunosuppressant and Prednisone and pain medications, all these things. I had to get off of them in order to take the medicine.
Laura: How was that, for you, to come off of those things?
Shan: It was both scary and a relief, I mean… leading up to taking the medicine, um, so the first month off of my immunosuppressants, there was just like a subtle shift, like it takes a while for it to sort of clear your system. As it got towards the time that I would take Ayahuasca, the achiness was coming back, the stiffness, so things like that were starting to return...
Laura: So you were really feeling not the side effects of the medication anymore, but the actual experience of the rheumatoid arthritis?
Shan: Yeah. But then after I took the medicine I never needed... After I took Ayahuasca I never needed my Western medicine, and I haven't since. Which... [exhales] is insane [laughs] to me, I mean... I never thought... you know, I never thought that would happen.
Laura: Could you say more about what that first experience was like, for you, when you took the Ayahuasca?
Shan: Mmm-hmm. I went into it — and I think this was to my advantage — I was completely defeated as a person. I was just, felt like nothing. I felt... I had given up on... I had just about given up on life. I was in a transitional period career-wise where I was just beginning to tattoo, and I had no skills that I felt I could use. I didn't feel that I could provide for myself, I didn't feel worthy, I didn't like how I felt, I didn't like who I was. And I was just broken, you know. And this is coming off of a 2/3 year period where, you know, I was starting to interface with my early childhood trauma and... And that took an incredible toll on me, I mean, I was basically a hermit for a year. I moved upstate and I taught some kids’ music classes — that's what I went to college for.
Laura: This is before or after Ayahuasca?
Shan: Before Ayahuasca.
Laura: Before, yeah. And when you said "childhood trauma", were you aware of the sexual abuse before the Ayahuasca?
Shan: I always knew there was something wrong. I always knew that there was something wrong and that I was sexually abused. I had ascribed it to an experience that I had when I was seven — six or seven — with a girl who was four years older than me. So, after we moved away from my grandparents' house, we moved away from my uncle, we lived in sort of like a low-income, just, apartment complex. And the neighbor girl reenacted her own sexual abuse with me, so we would play this games and we had an imaginary friend who would tell us what to do. And invariably, he told us to make me take my clothes off and I would masturbate for her, basically. She would just, you know, watch me do this, you know, instruct me on how to do this. And I thought for most of my life that's why I was so messed up, was that experience. And that experience was always troubling for me, even as a child, I knew that this wasn't right, but... There was that, you know, my true trauma hiding underneath it, protected by this sort of veil of idealization, I mean I idealized my uncle, my abuser. Because when I was a kid, he was the only one who paid any attention to me, really. You know, my father was in and out, struggling with his drug issues, my mother was working all the time. But my uncle played with me, and he bought me birthday gifts, and he read to me, and he actually cared about me, you know, I felt was the only one that really paid attention to me. So, yeah, I didn't want to give up that... the warmth of that attention that he gave me, you know. For me to connect that with the fact that he hurt me, I mean, it would take away the only safety that I did feel in my childhood, you know. He was the one that hurt me, more than anyone. But he was also the one that sheltered me. So, I sort of had to give that up. I had to give up that memory of that nice, safe, loving place. You know, I had to sacrifice it to the truth — which was that it wasn't a safe place, it wasn't a loving place, it was an abusive place, you know.
Laura: I'm really glad you're speaking to that, 'cause I think a lot of people who, especially as a kid — a lot of sexual abuse happens when the people who get the closest, and kind of... There is a lot of abuse that happens through the realm of giving attention and being "loving" and gaining the level of trust to abuse and, you know, betray a child like that. And I think that's a really... It's just a really hard path to walk, as an adult, to be able to sit with the complexity of that.
Shan: Oh, yeah, because, you know, it's not just... I say it's not one-sided — it is one-sided because he, as an adult, abused me as a child. But, you know, we're all human and we all want love so, you know, I would cling to him, like, I would run to him, I would want to be around him, like, I loved him, I idolized him, you know. He... He gave me what I needed — desperately needed. And I became complicit in protecting the secret of his abuse of me. Partially because he told me that my mother would die if she ever knew, and I believed that, I really believed that. But partially, because I didn't wanna lose the only place where I was really special and valued, you know, I felt, at that time. So...
Laura: In that first Ayahuasca journey — I’m imagining that you have done more than one journey.
Shan: Yeah [laughs].
Laura: Yeah. In that first journey... Could you talk a little bit about what happened for you?
Shan: It was tremendous. It was... Because, prior to that point, I hadn't identified my uncle as my abuser. He died when I was ten, and that was incredibly hard for me. I'm one in thirteen cousins, you know, my mother was one of eight children, and... Out of everybody, he left everything to me. Everything that he had, which wasn't a lot... but his personal possessions, like, everything was for me. What little money he had, he left to me. And everybody my whole life was, like, "He loved you. You were so special to him". And I wasn't able, prior to that point, prior to trying Ayahuasca, I wasn't able to identify him as the person who did those things, 'cause it was too painful. But that first experience with Ayahuasca... I'll tell you what happened, because I have such a clear memory of it, I mean I felt... I was the only one in the room who was completely still the whole night. I didn't purge, I didn't have any... I was just completely still, like, like a mummy, I was sitting with my arms crossed — laying on the ground with my arms crossed. In that pose I felt all my muscles, like, sort of contracting and pulsing, like, I was working this thing out, and there was this sensation that I was laying on a bed of dead leaves, you know, in the jungle. And a woman appeared above me and I knew that she was a doctor. And the only thing I did do physically throughout the night was I kept turning my head back and opening my jaws, really, really wide. And every time that would happen I had the sensation that she was shoving her arm down into my throat, down into my stomach. And in my stomach she would grab these... leeches — they were like, black, oily leeches, huge slugs, you know. And she would pull them out of my stomach and pull them out of my mouth. And every time that she would do that, I would relive a memory. Every slug was a memory. So I went, and I relived every moment that was really horrific for me. And I would — me, the adult me, as a third party observer — would go back to that memory and see what happened to the child me. And at the end of every memory, she — the doctor — would crush the slug. And then I — the adult version of me — I had a gun. And I would go over to my child self that was suffering and I put one bullet in my head. And kill myself in that moment. Lay it to rest. And that happened for... I think it was like eleven or twelve really pivotal moments that where incredibly painful for me. And, at the end, after I had killed myself in all of those moments, I felt her gather up my dead body, you know, and she laid me on a pile of leaves, and covered my body with leaves. And then I saw myself being eaten by maggots and worms, and it was calming and comforting. It was this incredible sense of relief. And while that was happening, there was a part of me that was riding on this panther... that was almost like... it was like it was made of wind, it was flying around, and it went back to him and it blew poison into his lungs.
Laura: Him meaning your uncle?
Shan: My uncle.
Shan: He died when I was ten. He died suddenly of pneumonia. He was forty-two, you know... Had been clean for a couple of years at that point, so wasn't abusing drugs. My mother says he didn't have AIDS, which another of my uncles that passed did, and I knew he was an intravenous drug user, so it was possible, but she swears he didn't have AIDS. He just got sick one day, and got a cold, and refused to do anything about it, and then it got so bad that he just slipped into a coma, and by the time they brought him to the hospital it was too late and he died. And I felt both that I had — that me, I was responsible for killing myself, my childhood self, laying that to rest, and that I had killed him.
Laura: You felt that during the...
Shan: ...during the Ayahuasca experience —
Shan: — that was sort of the culmination of everything that had happened, that in that moment I completed the cycle where I... I went with with this panther back and I blew that poison into his lungs. And he died and I felt finally that it was complete. That whole bubble of events was complete in that moment. And when I woke up in the morning I felt alive again, I felt reborn, I felt: I can live now.
Laura: I know that a lot of sexual abuse survivors feel afraid of what they might see...
Shan: Oh —
Laura: ... in their ceremonies...
Shan: — it’s horrible.
Laura: ... and I know that, you know, it sounds like you when you said it helped, that you were a defeated person, that you were just, like, ready and willing to do whatever. But I guess I'm wondering, you know, what you're describing, reliving and re-witnessing, I'm imagining that could have gone either way, and I'm wondering what in you was ready to surrender to that and what made it not — it sounds like it was not retraumatizing, that it was healing. And I guess I'm wondering if you have a sense of what it was going on for you, or inside of you, or how you approached the medicine that allowed it to be that way.
Shan: Again, like I said, because I was completely defeated, it honestly felt, when I was laying on this bed of leaves and that doctor woman was standing over me, it felt like emergency surgery. Like when you're brought into the ER and all these people are standing over you, and there's this bright light in your face, and they're like... "well, you know, there's a 20% chance that if we do this surgery, she'll die, but... you know... she'll definitely die if we don't do the surgery”.
Shan: I had no spiritual — psychic, whatever you want to call it — I had no psychic energy to fight what was happening. I knew that I would die if I didn't get help. I knew it. I felt it, going into the ceremony. I was like, I am dying and this is my last chance. This is my last hope.
Laura: So you really were — it sounds like you really were in a complete state of surrender.
Shan: Yeah. I was completely surr… — I had nothing in me to resist. There was no fight left. You know? There was no fight left. And it helped. I needed to be there to... I think the power of that treatment — the power of that emergency intervention, you know, was proportional to the... proportional to my need, you know.
Laura: Can you say more about how it helped, in terms of like — sounds like you woke up the next morning and... there was a lot of relief…
Laura: Yeah, and I was just wondering can you say, yeah, next morning, next day, but also...
Shan: It felt… honestly did feel like recovery from surgery, because I woke up, you know... grateful, tired. With that sort of post-ceremony, there's — I wouldn't call it a glow, but there's some sort of energy that stays with you, and has with me for every ceremony that I've done. For a couple of days, maybe a week after... And then, the real work started, because it's like once the glow faded, it's like I was discharged from this psychic hospital and I had to then do the real work of unpacking everything that I seen. You know, and that involved... you know, this whole time I've been in therapy...
Shan And I've been with my therapist for six, seven years now. I trust my therapist, and that's been... I don't... I think if I didn't have that to fall back on, it would've been incredibly hard to integrate what I did see.
Laura: Yeah. So that was a big part of...
Shan: Big part of it.
Laura: ... the process.
Laura: Or is continually.
Shan: Yeah, continually. Both in preparation for it and also unpacking information. And my partner at the time, you know, was supportive and helping me move through those difficult memories. And it was a lot of work, it was a lot of personal unpacking, a lot of work in therapy, a lot of breaking down, and then a lot of work with my family. It became a sort of project: to tell my mother, tell my father, deal with their reactions, try to understand them as people and what led them to realize, or not realize, what was happening to me at the time. You know, both my parents have early childhood trauma, so... I understand why they missed all the obvious signs — now. I was angry my whole life at them for never protecting me, you know. Because other people noticed. I mean, I was always... In school, would get called down to the guidance counsellor and they would ask me if everything was ok at home and... You know, people knew something was up, but nobody asked the right questions, you know. And nobody ever expressed to me that my body was my own, you know. So, of course I wasn't gonna say "oh, you know, somebody hurt me", because in my mind he wasn't hurting me, even though it was incredibly physically painful. In my mind, it was something else. I didn't have the vocabulary or the concepts to describe what was happening to me, so, when people would try to ask about it, you know, when concerned adults would sort of... try to figure out why I was the way I was, I didn't know how to talk to them and they didn't know how to ask me. So, so nobody really got to the bottom of it. You know, even though all the signs were there — I mean, I was difficult, you know very isolated as a child, I couldn't play with other kids, you know, had recurring nightmares my whole life, and when I began to unpack them as an adult, it was very clear that the symbolism in the nightmares was incredibly representative of what happened to me. But yeah, it was a lot of work — it was unpacking the nightmare, talking to my family, you know... trying to learn how to give myself what I needed to survive, which, on some days was to not leave the house, or not go somewhere alone, or make myself leave the house, or make myself go somewhere alone. It was an incredibly long process. And I took the medicine — pretty much have taken the medicine continuously ever since, you know. Every four months, every six month, I’ll feel that need to go back and get another treatment, you know, get a little more work done, and... you know, I'm lucky that I'm in a position where I could do that.
Laura: I'm wondering if you could say a little bit more about what has happened to your symptoms around rheumatoid arthritis and, just kind of generally, how you feel about your life at this point?
Shan: Yeah, totally. So, I'm not a doctor or a scientist. I went to music school [laughs]. I haven't taken any post-high school science classes, but I've read about the interrelation of stress — and trauma-induced stress — this sort of prolonged stress responses that people who have experienced trauma entered into. My rheumatologist told me, you know, people with early childhood trauma are some, you know, significant factors more likely to develop autoimmune issues later in life than the average population. And that's because, you know, the essence of post-traumatic stress disorder is that your body doesn't know how to leave that excited state where you're trying to react to trauma. From what I understand, you know, it's particularly bad for people who where both prolonged to exte... exposed to prolonged trauma so... It's just not one single event, you know, it's multiple events over a long period of time where you have no recourse, you have no ability to escape. So you're physically restrained, or you're physically dependant upon the person that's abusing you.
You know, all of those thing were true, I was, you know, extremely vulnerable as a three- to five-year old child, dependant upon the adults around me for basic survival, you know, and abused by one of my primary caregivers. And on top of that, when he would abuse me, he would physically restrain me. And because of that, I think I most often get stuck in the freeze mode — you know, there's fight, flight and freeze — and that stress, that cortisol overload... just like, you know, your adrenal glands are blown out, like, whatever you're... your body is just on hyperdrive all the time. And I experienced that my whole life. It sort of, like, give me a funny inside into children with autism. I mean, I worked with children with autism for a long time. I taught them music, and I worked at a school for autistic children. And, you know, people with autism get hyper-stimulated, they don't know how to necessarily filter the intake of information. And I experienced that myself, because I wasn't able to turn off my hyper-vigilance. I was always... My head was always on a swivel, looking for danger. I don't have a sense of white noise, so, you know, sounds that will fade into the background for most people will just continue to be in my awareness, and I get so overwhelmed and frazzled by just the basic sensory information of life. And I felt it in my body, you know, my pain, my stiffness and all these things... Most people with autoimmune diseases have flare-ups during times of stress, and it's because the body stress response is directly relate to, you know, your immune system.
I think the reason why I was able to stop taking Western medicine after taking Ayahuasca is because I was able to neutralize the threat. And now, after having, you know, all these experiences with Ayahuasca, I have a much greater ability to turn off my stress response if I get triggered by something. So now I have actual periods where I don’t… I'm genuinely not in a trauma-informed stress response mode, you know, where that was my default mode my whole life.
Laura: Yeah. You were living that everyday that whole time.
Shan: Everyday, yeah. Everyday. Your body can only recover when it's in recovery mode, when you have the safety to relax and to recuperate. I’ll still feel, you know, joint pain and stiffness in times of stress, you know, if I'm overworked or if there's things going on in the news that are incredibly distressing, like there is right now. I have been pretty achy lately. But I know now, it's, you know, related to my stress level and my… I’ll know when to step back, and I have other plant medicines that I can call on when I need that break from stress. When I need that sort of cleansing from this trauma mode, you know. You know, with my Western medicines, the immunosuppressants and the steroids, were all for the symptoms of my disease. But the Ayahuasca helps neutralize the cause of my disease, which is prolonged stress.
Laura: You also mentioned, when we were prepping and talking about the interview today, that tattooing is something that's been a really important part of your process, and I wonder if you could say a little bit about tattooing and healing, and how you think about that.
Shan: For sure. Yeah, I’ve never had any, like, "conventional" self-harm habits, other than, you know, just sometimes nervous, like, skin-picking or, you know, when I was a little kid, when I would bite my lip until it bled, or things like that. But, you know, other people who have experienced trauma would be familiar with that sort of, like, totally numb, dissociated, just disconnected, feel-absolutely-nothing state. You know, I'd go through these cycles where the stress would build and I would feel this incredible tension and anxiety, and then I would reach some sort of breaking point, and then I would be numb for a period of time. A lot of people with early childhood trauma, or trauma in general, turn to cutting, because when you're in a completely dissociated mode, the only times that you feel alive are when you're in like physical or, you know, emotional danger. And I think that's the drive that's behind, like, repetition compulsion, where, like, people who have been abused end up in abusive relationships later in life, over and over and over again. Because when you're dissociated and you feel numb inside, the only time you feel alive again is when you get that trauma reaction.
And for me, I didn't cut but I discovered getting tattooed. And this is maybe a little graphic for, you know, most people but, this is part of my experience, so... You know, being a young, small child... When an adult man rapes a young child, it's incredibly physically painful. It's... It's annihilation-level pain. I mean, you really think you're gonna die. You think, ”Am I gonna die? This hurts so bad. I think this will kill me.” You know. So, it's physical torture on top of the psychological torture. And, you know, this is like... Sounds kind of crazy for me to say, as a tattoo practitioner, but tattoos are physically painful, it's a physical trial. You know, it's a sort of a torture that you subject yourself to. Yeah, and I would get a sort of high, a sort of lift when I was getting tattooed. Because that extreme physical prolonged agony would trigger this bodily stress response, and then I would feel alive again, because suddenly, you know, the adrenaline or whatever is pumping, and then my sensors are awake and I'm embodied because I'm being physically harmed [laughs] to a degree, you know.
And that became a sort of ritual for me that, I guess, took the place of what could have been more plainly destructive habits. But the aftermath of it was a secondary high, because every time I would get a tattoo I would be as though I was laying claim to that part of my body again. You know, like you write your name on your stuff, you know. I'm writing my name on my body, like: this is mine, this is mine, this is mine. I'm taking it back. And you can see now that it's mine, because I've put my mark on it, you know. You tried to put your mark on it, but no, I'm putting my mark on it now, you know.
Laura: Yeah. Wow... It's really beautiful to listen to you describe the complexity [laughs with Shan] of that and the healing aspect of it. And you are a tattoo artist?
Laura: It sounds like this is a part of the value system and belief system that also goes into your work.
Shan: 100%. Not only because I believe in the power of tattooing for people, with or without trauma, to interface with their bodies and to take ownership of their bodies. But it's also influenced my practice in general, because I'm hyper-aware of that sense of physical violation. So, to become a practitioner, you know... It was really hard for me, in the beginning, to know that I was inflicting pain on people, or you reach that point where you can tell that people don't really wanna be there ‘cause it hurts, and then you, yourself, have to push through to finish the piece. But I try to make people feel that they have agency at all times, to pause if they need to, or take breaks, or whatever they need to get through that experience. I try to make it collaborative, and not be retraumatizing. Because I have had experiences being tattooed where I felt physically uncomfortable, and it was retraumatizing. So I've had more redemptive experiences than retraumatizing experiences, but yeah, any time you submit yourself, any time you submit your body to the care and the manipulation of another human, I mean, there is incredible trust involved in that. And I think there is room, there is room in the practice to be healing, to be... It's not just an aesthetic practice. I mean, I think it is a transfigurative practice. It can be, you know.
Laura: So, something that I've been asking people in these interviews is specifically about healing that they experience around people who were not necessarily the abuser, but the other people in your life who, obviously, are intimately connected to the experiences you've had. Because there can be so much wounding around that, and you mentioned earlier about the anger of...
Shan: [softly] Yeah…
Laura: ... you know, “Why aren't my mom or dad noticing what's going on, or, you know, responding.”
Shan: [softly] Yeah...
Laura : And I wonder if you could speak to that, if there has been healing that's come through the use of Ayahuasca in terms of your relationship with those kinds of people in your life.
Shan: Definitely. There definitely has... It's still a process... ongoing process right now... I may have mentioned earlier, you know, both my parents experienced early childhood trauma. My father was adopted and spent some time in an orphanage which, in the fifties, was... You know, in Hudson County, New Jersey, was... Probably a pretty insane place. And my mother... That whole side of the family, I mean, there is just so many issues to unpack. Probably too many to, kind of, go into detail about, but, basically... You know, this trauma is intergenerational, and it's passed down. It's a cycle that's passed down and passed down. And in one of my later Ayahuasca ceremonies I remember having a sensation that my whole, like, genetic history was like a huge tree, like an inverted evergreen tree and the point of it was planting directly down the top of my head. Like, you know, this is generations and generations of abuse. And I had to push back up against all of that to stop the cycle, say like, "no, we're not gonna keep doing this, we're not gonna internalise this trauma and, then, replay it again. I'm not going to allow my early childhood issues to interfere with my ability to stop this trauma going forward.” And I know that that's what happened with my parents when I was young. You know, they couldn't connect to the fact that I had been sexually abused, because it was too painful for them. I mean, to connect to that, they would have to connect with what happened to them when they were children, and they weren't equipped for that, you know. They didn't have this medicine, they didn't have the space, they didn't have the money, or the luxury, or the time. You know, they didn't have therapy, they didn't have any of that, so... In talking to my parents, you know, they have revealed so much to me about what they've gone through, and they've, you know, it seems, like, begun, to maybe like look back at some other stuff they've had in a box on a shelf for their whole lives, you know. It's helped my relationship with my mother in particular, because... You know, not only was I angry at her for not protecting me, but she looks like my uncle, because that was her brother. I mean, they had a similar voice, they had similar mannerisms, so... I remember times when, like, she would say and do things that reminded me of him and I would, just, hate and fear her for that, you know. And I think it's been really freeing to take… to ascribe that pain and rage to the right person, you know, and to sort of contextualize and really integrate all of the factors that led to the things that happened, you know.
It's made it easier for me to see my parents as humans — complex humans, and not just these monolithic figures that either failed or didn't fail me when I was little, you know. So that's been tremendously helpful, for sure. Yeah, if my mother was in better health I would definitely want her to experience these medicines, but everybody has to come to it on their own way, you can't just, you know... You can't be like, “ Here, take this, this will be great for you." Like, it has to be a self-driven thing, like I was drawn to it, I knew, because I needed it, and it came into my life right at the right time, you know. Maybe she doesn't have to take it directly because I took the medicine, and then I'm trying to feed that out through the relationships in my life, you know.
Laura: Yeah. It sounds like it, it sounds like the healing work you're doing for yourself is also in turn supporting the healing of your family, regardless of what do they decide to partake in Ayahuasca or other kinds of healing practices.
Shan: I mean that's so important, because it's that system, I mean it's this huge network of idea and culture and, just, human cultural practices of denial and dissociation are what allows these cycles of abuse to continue, so, like, we have to push back into our families, we have to push back into our social networks. Otherwise what happened to me is just gonna happen to more and more people, and then it's gonna happen to more and more people after that. So, yeah — nobody is a bystander. There is no bystanders in a system of abuse.
Laura: Mmm-hmm. Mmm-hmm.
Shan: You know.
Laura : Yeah — meaning, yes, we're all a part of it.
Laura: Yeah. Yeah yeah yeah yeah. This leads perfectly into the last thing that I wanna ask you about, which you’re sort of already talking about but — I was really moved by your reasons for wanting to do this interview and share your story and I wonder if you could just say a little bit more about that.
Shan: Yeah, I mean... I suffered tremendously from what happened to me, you know. And I know that what happened to me is happening to thousands and thousands of people right now — children, you know — and that some of them are gonna grow up to be like my uncle… you know, if they don't have that intervention, if we don’t as a species kind of wake up, and put aside our own difficult pasts, you know, or integrate those difficult pasts so that we can see what's happening in the present.There were so many times that people could have intervened, I mean... If I describe it now, like, you know, financially burdened mother; drug-addicted, absent father; you know, uncle, drug addict, lives with his parents at age thirty-whatever, never had any real relationships. Do you wanna leave your kid alone with the drug-addicted weirdo, antisocial person, because, “oh, they're family and it's normal and it is fine”? Or do you wanna, like, get in touch with your senses, analyze the situation, like, trust your instincts about, like, "ooh, something bad could be happening here, this doesn't feel quite right"? I remember so many times when I... I... I have these memories of looking at people and sensing that they knew something wasn't quite right, and then they didn't have... They couldn't push past that “being polite" or being… whatever you wanna call it, they couldn't push past it to intervene, you know. And it would have been so easy to intervene. All somebody had to do would be to say to me as a child, like... Something simple, like, “If somebody is hurting you, no matter who they are, tell someone.” Or: "Nobody should hurt your body.” Or: "Nobody should touch you there.” Or: “That's, that’s a..." — I don't know. There are so many things that people could have said and done that they didn't because it's uncomfortable to talk about, it’s uncomfortable to hear about, it’s difficult to navigate. And we’re so repressed as a culture that we just would rather ignore it and let it happen, you
know. "Well, it's not happening directly to me, so it doesn't matter to me, so I'm gonna shut it off 'cause I don't even like to think about it.” And when you do that, you leave that child in the care of that person who is gonna go home and rape them, you know. You take away the lifelines. Our connections to each other are lifelines, so when we shut off from each other, we sever those lifelines, you know. And that leaves a lot of us out to sea alone. So I think we need to talk about it, we need to have a conversation about it. 'Cause what shocked me the most about my own recovery from my childhood sexual abuse is how many other people have experienced the same thing. It's... It's shocking how many people have experienced the same thing. If it's happening to all of us, if it's so ubiquitous, like why isn't anybody talking about it? Like, we need to talk about it. It can't stay in the shadows. If it stays in the shadows, it's gonna keep happening.
Laura: Many thanks to Shan for sharing her story, and thank you for listening. If you would like to check out Shan's tattoo work, you can find her on Instagram with her handle @needlesiren. If you enjoyed this episode, please subscribe to the podcast.
To stay connected and find out about my other projects, you can follow me on Instagram, @lauramaenorthrup. And finally, many, many thanks to Joey Seward at Left Field Studios for volunteering a lot of additional audio engineering to make this series possible. If you need an audio engineer, he's excellent. You can find his website in the show notes. Until next time.
Many thanks to CHC & Nell for volunteering time to make this show more accessible by creating transcripts.