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FEATURE - January 2019

Shifting Perceptions

By Julia Laughlin


It was a long time ago, but it clung like Velcro . . . the attack when I was 21, by an ex-boyfriend, who was a serial killer. I survived to testify against him, to take the witness stand and tell my story of being raped, beaten and tortured, not once, but twice. 

He was convicted. But rather than a big crescendo, it was a huge deflation, like air being let out of a balloon. For two years, I had shoved everything down, buried it, even as I fought to keep the case alive. I gave every ounce to stop him. But when it was all over, the conviction didn’t bring justice, or that other myth, “closure”. Rather, it left me feeling empty and forlorn.

For the next thirty years, I lived with the fallout, struggling to make sense of what happened and burying what kept resurfacing. I held tight to an undying hope that one day things would be better, even if I didn’t know when. Decades passed, and still that “one day” hadn’t arrived. By the time I was 51, hope gave way to despair, and I told myself: find a way to heal or that was it. I had reached the end, and I could no longer live this way.

Under the weight of that ultimatum, I left my home for an isolated seaside place in New Zealand that I had visited once before. There, facing the sea, myself, my past, the stories I had told myself, the myths I had created to explain what happened and why I had become the way I was, new questions came to me, ones I had never asked before.

“What will be enough for me to let it go and accept healing?” and “When will I know I have healed?” 

Asking those questions caused a shift, a reframing of what I was seeking. I realized that what I had been searching for all those years was a cure. A “cure”, by its very nature, implies something supplied by someone or something outside myself, something out of my control and dependent on some illusive benevolent source. It never occurred to me that the power to heal might already reside within me. 

It wasn’t that I hadn’t worked during those years to face the pain and all that went with it. I had, and I had made progress. Over time, my life did get better, and the periods of depression became shorter. But always underneath was that something that I couldn’t shake, that wouldn’t leave me. It was a constant current that ran through my life. Many times, I thought I had conquered “it” and that my life would get better, only to come crashing down again. The truth was that I hadn’t really connected what happened to me at 21 with the misery and pain of my life. 

But there by the sea, I asked myself those questions: What is enough? How will I know I’ve healed? Asking those simple, yet powerful questions became the keys to the first of many shifts in my perception that led to the realization that I had been confusing healing with cure.

I had been searching for a cure as though it were a destination I could reach or an item I could buy, and that once I did, I would finally be alright. Everything would be fine, my life would sail along, and I would be happy. I just needed to pick myself up, read one more book, meet the right person, work harder in therapy, or move to a new place. I had any number of magic remedies that were going to lead me to that cure.

With the empowering new insight that maybe the healing was already within me, the myths upon which I had built my life began to crumble. I knew then that what I had been searching for had been inside me the whole time. 

I began to understand that if I was going to feel better, I would have to accept what had happened to me, understand that it wasn’t going to leave me, and realize that I couldn’t unmake it, erase it or wish it away. It happened, and it would always be a part of my history. It was also true that while it did affect me, it didn’t have to define me. Accepting these things allowed me to move to the next level. I could take back my power and live my life free from the havoc my attacker had unleashed.

Finally, I understood what healing truly is. It is not a cure and not forgetting what happened to me but a learning to live with it. Healing is freeing myself from the control the past had on my life. Healing means I can’t make it never to have happened. Healing is knowing that while there will still be hard days, they won’t last and they don’t mean I’m not healed. Healing is knowing when it is enough. 

What was enough for me to know that I had healed? When I accepted what happened to me and how it affects me…and found out that I am still okay. 

Kansas City

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Julia Laughlin is a speaker, advocate and author of The River and the Sea: A Story of Forgiveness, about her path to healing. She is working on her second book about the two-year court case. Learn more at: or contact her at:

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