We all have strength and resilience. At times we need to set aside feelings of vulnerability and push ourselves to act stronger than we may feel. Preparing to testify two months after the assault was one of those times for me. My practice and focus ahead of time enabled me to stay conscious and not go into collapse in court.
I thought through and set up the whole process strategically. In court, you need the support of people who help you stay strong. This is not the time for sympathy or for people who want to protect you and reinforce feelings of being a victim. I asked my partner to be with me and also to help me stay strong and anchored. I recognized that it would be difficult for her to see this man, to hear the testimony and to see me go through this ordeal. I would be fully engaged with taking care of myself. Having your support team take care of their own emotional needs before and during court leaves you free to focus on your own.
I explored what I wanted from this process of testifying. What did I want to say and why? I wanted the court to know what happened to me, how scary it was and the impact it had on me and my family. I wanted to testify to the pain he caused at the time and in the months following as I struggled to heal from PTSD and resume a normal life.
Just thinking of testifying terrified me. The psychologist and I explored why in the weeks leading up to the trial. What was I scared of? A big fear was that I would collapse, break down and not be able to testify. The day of court, I didn’t feel completely ready but I knew this was my opportunity to speak up.
I panicked thinking I would be re-triggered when I saw the man who assaulted me. The psychologist assured me that if I did get really re-triggered, I’d go into shock and would be fine to testify anyway. Seeing him again most likely would not have that affect. I explored my options and decided to ask for what I needed. I would testify first, then identify him. I looked for and found several points of anchor and stability. I had a friend check out the court room and tell me where the accused would be sitting. I had a plan to focus my eyes on the prosecuting attorney and not look at that area.
In court, the first question the prosecutor asked me was ‘is the man who assaulted you in this room? If so, please identify him to the court.’ Because I was not surprised by the question, I kept my eyes on the prosecutor and said “I would prefer to identify him at the end of my testimony”. She was fine with that and moved onto her next question. A potential trigger was avoided and I felt strong moving into the main part of the testimony.
Another fear was that he would hurt me again, threaten my life. I asked and was assured that even if he was found not guilty, that he would not be let out right away. So I would not be facing him without a barrier. I reminded myself that he could not hurt me there. This time the police and courts were with me and would protect me.
I practiced my testimony until I had memorized what I wanted to say, the words, the sequence, and where to stop to breathe. I printed out the main points and took it with me so I could refer to it if I blanked out. The main point here is to practice enough to know in your conscious mind what you want to say and don’t have to re-experience the event to tell about it. A few days before court, I practiced once with my psychologist then gave myself a few days off. This practice was hard and triggered some anxiety but getting through it also created feeling of confidence that I would not be ambushed in court.
Some techniques were helpful in avoid being re-triggered by testifying. I practiced ‘telling’ it while focusing my eyes. In court, I looked at the prosecutor’s throat. When the eyes move upward and to the side, you are accessing memory and emotion. I practiced keeping my eyes steady. When I noticed my gaze was drawn upward or to the side, I started again until I could go through the testimony with my eyes focused on one point ahead of me.
I devised some anchor points, places where I could get grounded. I broke up the testimony into sections, and stopped for two or three deep diaphragmatic breaths after each. First I set up the scene, then breathed and relaxed. I then described seeing him come up from the river bank. Each section was three or four sentences. At these little breaks, I checked in with my body and relaxed tense areas. Sometimes when I am nervous I talk too quickly. Here I reminded myself to talk slowly.
In Canada, the witness stand is just that – you stand. Tadasana, the standing yoga pose, is strengthening and familiar and comforting to me. I often stand perfectly still in Tadasana for twenty minutes while guiding relaxation practices. I knew standing would anchor me.
I recognized early on that relaxing the belly and focusing the mind on the breath at the belly was sometimes not helpful. Often through the healing process and also in court, I visualized the heart center. Sometimes I would visualize a blue white light at the heart center and see my fear and trauma dissolving in the light. Sometimes I would breathe through the heart center. I found this helped stabilize and calm me.
A week before court, I recorded some suggestions, key thoughts, relaxations and points of focus onto my mp3 player. I took this with me so I could listen if I felt myself getting off track. I included alternate nostril breathing which balances the emotions, blue star (31 point) for healing, yoga nidra breathing from the eyebrow center to the heart center with special attention to the throat center for speaking clearly. I worked with heart center meditation to remind myself to dwell in the vast portion of the mind that is not disturbed by this trauma, that is silent and still and full of love and light.
I am normally moved easily to tears and my voice quivers with emotion. During my testimony, my voice was strong most of the time. My partner said everyone in the room was moved by my testimony. The judge, a semi-retired grump wasn’t taking it too seriously at first. When I described the man’s fist, the tensed muscles on his arms and shoulders, the judge had a visible reaction. I said everything I wanted to say. That I was terrified for my life. That I knew he was capable of killing me. How I screamed. Heard the witness scream. How she called 911. My psychologist observed that there must have been a clear and immediate sense of ‘someone could die here’ or both the witness and I would not have screamed that way.
After I described the incident, I turned and looked at the man who assaulted me. Up to that point, I did not think I would recognize his face. As soon as I looked at him, it was clear to me that I would always know that face and that I had been blocking it out.
I observed my reactions as I listened to his testimony. He is so clearly dealing with mental illness. He does choose to not stay on his medication. He does choose to add street drugs to his mental condition. He is responsible for those choices and ultimately he is responsible for hurting me. I don’t feel forgiveness or non-forgiveness is the issue. It is more that I feel compassion for someone whose mental state is so painful and contracted and permeated by fear.
The prosecutor took him through a list of his priors and jail time. He minimized everything and had an excuse for everything. He complained at one point, “calling it assault with a deadly weapon sounds so extreme. It was just a pair of scissors.” Talking of his assaulting me, he said “the two women were screaming and I thought ‘oh here we go again. Overreacting.’” At that moment I realized that if the witness and I hadn’t both been screaming, he probably would have come after me! I had not been overreacting to the danger I experienced that morning. I was in danger of losing my life.
After court, I was so proud of myself. I said it all! I found the courage to stay present and had the commitment to persist with the intense hard work of preparing myself to testify.