BY KARLA PETERSON COLUMNIST
MARCH 14, 2019
The photo Michele keeps to remind her of the life-changing weekend she spent at last summer’s Sunlight Retreats for rape survivors shows her standing arm-and-arm with her fellow attendees. She can’t see their faces because the photo was taken from the back. But she can feel the love and support that radiates from hand to hand and from life to life. “For me, that photo shows the amount of trust we had and how well we bonded over just three days,” said Michele, a nurse who suffered from PTSD after years of sexual abuse. “I keep that picture as a reminder of the support I received there. It really was like getting over a year of therapy in a three-day weekend.”
The third edition of the Sunlight Retreats weekend for rape survivors has been expanded from three days to four. It will be held Aug. 22-25 at a private residence in San Diego. As it has in previous years, the retreat will give rape survivors a full slate of mental, physical and emotional-support activities in a soothing setting. With the help of donations and the contribution of professionals who are offering their services on a volunteer basis, the cost for the weekend is $300, which includes meals, snacks, liability and overnight accommodations. The cost for survivors who won’t be spending the night is $250. Online applications for the retreat — which can take 25 overnight attendees and an additional 20 day visitors — will be open from March 15 through April 15. The applications are available on www.sunlightretreats.org. Sunlight Retreats was founded in 2017 by rape survivor Brittany Catton Kirk of San Diego, who was inspired by her weekend at a YMCA women’s retreat to create a healing experience for fellow survivors still struggling to deal with the fallout from their assaults.
The first retreat was held here in January of 2018. It was a two-day session that included visits by therapy dogs, multiple workshops with trauma specialist Dr. Shiva Ghaed, acupuncture treatments and classes in yoga, self-defense and healthy cooking. The second retreat was held seven months later. It ran three days instead of two and, in response to feedback from earlier participants, included extra sessions with the Love on a Leash therapy dogs. The 2019 retreat will be much like its predecessors. Dr. Ghaed will lead multiple sessions exploring how traumatic experiences change the way your brain works and what you can do about destructive thought patterns that can derail your life. Nutritionist Erica Fowler will talk about the care and feeding of the stressed and anxious body. Stehly Farms will be providing healthy meals and licensed clinical acupuncturist Catherine Austin will be returning for her third Sunlight Retreats stint. The popular Love on a Leash dogs will now be part of the welcoming committee, which Kirk hopes will make the attendees feel comfortable from the moment they walk onto the grounds. Now that it has been expanded from three days to four, the 2019 retreat is also giving its survivors the added benefit of more time. That means more free time between sessions so attendees can process what they’ve learned and more time to absorb the feeling of peace, support and safety that survivors desperately need but aren’t always able to get. “It is really important to make survivors feel safe and comfortable so they can open up. It can take awhile for them to really understand that they can trust you and that you care about them,” Kirk said. “It is such an exhausting experience to process your rape and to deal with the trauma that a nice, relaxing setting helps offset some of that unpleasantness. It makes it easier to write in your journal and work on your workbooks do what you need to do.”
The extra day also gives survivors more time to get to know each other. After the retreat, the survivors can continue to communicate through a private online page, which provides an instant support network to help them survive and thrive outside the comfort of the retreat bubble. The Sunlight Retreats only last a few days, but when survivors carry the torch with them, they help each other keep the darkness at bay. “The retreat was a place of intense healing. This was a group of women that had similar histories where they understood each other from their past assaults. It was a place where you could just freely open up and not be ashamed and embarrassed about the history you had,” said Michele, who came to last summer’s retreat after spiraling into a depression so severe, she hadn’t worked in 19 months. “I have absolutely kept in touch with the other women. We have an online forum and we talk. Sometimes daily, sometimes monthly. I credit the retreat with a lot of my healing and with my success in returning to work and doing well. I know I’m not ever going back to that place of depression.”