Column | For rape survivors, one weekend can change everything
By Karla Peterson, The San Diego Union Tribune
JULY 25, 2018, 2:25 PM
In many ways, San Diego’s first Sunlight Retreats session looked like any other women’s getaway weekend. It was held in a bucolic setting. There were yoga classes and acupuncture treatments. There were lessons in healthy cooking.
There were also visits by therapy dogs. And multiple workshops with trauma specialist Dr. Shiva Ghaed. And classes in self-defense.
In fact, the first Sunlight Retreats weekend — held in January in an undisclosed location — was not like anything its 15 attendees had ever experienced before. The retreat was designed for rape survivors by a rape survivor, and the goal was to jump-start a healing process that founder Brittany Catton Kirk knew from experience could be a long time in coming.
“I feel like I was swimming in quicksand for the first year or two after the rape,” Kirk said of her assault, which happened in 2012. “My progress was slow. I gained 60 pounds in one year. I couldn’t leave the house. I was just shutting down.
“You hear about these tech start-up environments where people can come together and grow their ideas in a much more accelerated way, and that is what my hope and goal for Sunlight Retreats is. You can experience all sorts of services right here. We jump-start things so people don’t feel stuck in their PTSD and where they’re at.” Kirk came up with the idea after attending a YMCA women’s retreat in Maryland.
As great as it was to get away from the stresses of everyday life, Kirk was finding there was no getting away from the trauma of her assault. But what if you combined the serenity and togetherness of a weekend retreat with a full-immersion healing experience?
It seemed like the thing Kirk herself was looking for. And if she was looking for it, surely other survivors would be looking for it, too. On Aug. 3, 2017 — five years to the day after she was raped — Kirk posted an interest list on Facebook to see if she was right.
“I think without the retreat, I would have felt alone, like, forever,” said Aly, a former San Diegan who attended January’s event. “To be surrounded by people who get it, that helped me get it. I feel like I can actually move on with my life. I have never felt the same since that retreat.”
Because of lodging limitations, the first Sunlight Retreat was limited to 15 attendees. The at-cost fee was $250 for the weekend, which covered food, lodging, insurance and liability, and workshops and training sessions. It was such a success, Kirk has organized another one.
The second Sunlight Retreat will be held Aug. 24 through 26 at a private home in San Diego County. While the August retreat runs three days instead of two, the fee is still $250. The overnight slots have been filled, but there is still room for a small group of day visitors at a discounted rate.
Scholarships are available. Kirk has also opened up an interest list on her website for a male-only retreat. As with the retreats for women, trans and non-binary participants are welcome.
The August retreat will be a lot like the January retreat. There will be restorative yoga, acupuncture and classes in cooking for PTSD, depression and anxiety, all provided by practitioners who are volunteering their time. Dr. Ghaed, a San Diego-based clinical psychologist who specializes in trauma and anxiety disorders, will talk about the science of trauma and how to start the recovery process.
There will be tears and laughter and a-ha moments. Thanks to feedback from earlier participants, there will be an extra session with the therapy dogs from Love on a Leash, San Diego Central Chapter. And there will be breakthroughs. Lots and lots of breakthroughs.
“For me, when Dr. Shiva talked about the patterns of behavior that survivors have, that really struck me,” said Aly, who said she found her dream job and got back into working out and volunteering after the retreat.
“I did all of the things she discussed. Things like throwing away all of my clothes. Crazy things that I laugh at now. I felt like I had all of these strange things that I was doing, and having her confirm to us that all of these things are normal, that was the most eye-opening thing. It changed my life.”
When she founded Sunlight Retreats, Kirk was hoping some transformative stories would result. She wasn’t expecting to be one of them. It’s a bonus she didn’t see coming, and yes, it changed everything. “I felt like I was doomed to suffer for the rest of my life, and I don’t feel that way anymore,” Kirk said. “If we don’t do anything with the pain, then it is just wasted pain. I think trying to make something positive out of it will help us all.”
For information on Sunlight Retreats, go to sunlightretreats.org.