An Interview with Svava Brooks, Child Abuse Survivor & Advocate
In this post, I’d like to share my recent interview with Svava Brooks, a survivor of child sexual abuse and co-founder of the nationwide child abuse prevention and education organization in Iceland called “Blátt áfram.” As a mother, teacher, and author, Svava has dedicated her life to ending the cycle of child abuse through education, awareness, and by helping survivors heal and thrive.
Rather than abbreviating our conversation, I decided to share the entire interview.
Svava’s courage is compelling. Her life sheds light on the vulnerabilities children face and the strength and resilience that is possible. She serves as a reminder that each of us can make a difference in the life of one and the lives of many. I hope that her work on behalf of countless children and survivors inspires you to stand up for kids and others who need it.
HF: Hi, Svava. Thank you for joining me. I really appreciate your taking the time to talk with me.
As we’ve all witnessed, recent news relevant to the #MeToo movement, widespread reports of sexual abuse by leaders of the Roman Catholic Church, and the confirmation of Brett Kavanaugh to the Supreme Court have brought to light the difficult journey survivors of sexual abuse and assault face. Please tell me about your own journey.
SB: My journey started back in my home country, Iceland, where I was born and raised. From as young as I can remember until I left home at 18, I was abused sexually, physically, and emotionally by my stepfather. There was domestic violence in my home, and I never went to bed feeling safe. The abuse was unpredictable. I never knew when it was going to happen and I was always hypervigilant. I was constantly on guard, hiding from my stepfather on the outside and hiding from my own shame and guilt on the inside.
Because the abuse happened when I was so young, I did not understand what it was, and I thought it was my fault. I thought I was bad and unlovable and that I had done something to deserve it.
I acted out as a young adult, as a way to cope with the pain and confusion. I would self-harm and find myself in risky situations that led to additional abuse by other men. And even though I was suffering, my main coping skill was to pretend I was okay. I was a straight A student and a good athlete. I practiced ballroom dancing and modeling and did my best to make everything look good on the outside but, inside, I was lost and in a lot of pain.
I made my way to the US to go to college when I was about 24 years old. It was only when I was 6,000 miles away from my home country that I finally felt safe enough to start healing. I was struggling with depression and physical pain that I think were symptoms of chronic stress and toxic tension in my body.
I was blessed to meet my husband just as I was finishing college and, with his support, I found the help I needed to start my healing journey. I found a peer-support group and spent five years with them. I often share that it was not until I was in that group that I started healing. I saw myself in the other group members and finally understood my struggles as I heard others talk about their own. I was a textbook example of an adult who had gone through abuse as a child. It was hard work but I was driven to figure out how the trauma had impacted me and my body, spirit, and life. It was brutal at times but I wanted to understand it in the hopes that it would give me the information I needed to finally start to heal.
The turning point in my healing process was learning about the Adverse Childhood Experiences Study (ACEs) in 2006. Seeing the long-term impact of toxic stress on my body made me serious about starting to take better care of myself. I had been an athlete my whole life but I knew that I had to make some changes in self care, exercise, stress release, and healthy eating. I was open to trying anything so my healing journey consisted of many integrative therapies. I started meditation early on in my healing process. And I learned about bodywork, energy healing, inner child work, emotional release, Reiki, breathwork, and more.
It still took a while to create healthy habits but I was making meaningful, lasting change. Regular exercise and meditation became routine and I was slowly learning how to eat healthier food. But getting connected to my body was the hardest part of my healing. I had disconnected from my body in order to survive, to cope with the pain and the shame that I felt. I kept at it, using mindfulness and self-compassion. TRE (Tension and Trauma Release Exercises) made the biggest difference for me, and it helped bring everything I had already learned together. I now use all of these tools on a daily basis.
HF: In your professional life, you also take a multi-disciplinary approach to ending the cycle of child sexual abuse. Please talk about some of the ways you work with others to prevent, end, and heal from child abuse.
SB: After about 10 years of healing, I wanted to contribute to ending the cycle of child abuse. I would like to think that if the adults around me had given me the words to ask for help, I would not have waited until I was an adult to get help. I found a nonprofit organization in South Carolina called Darkness to Light that had created a booklet for responsible adults on how to keep kids safe from abuse. It included information on how to talk to adults and children, where to go for help, how to respond to disclosures, and how to file a report. I received permission from Darkness to Light to translate and print the booklet into Icelandic and bring it back to my home country. I had an idea to send the booklet to every home in the country to help adults learn how to keep kids safe. I was certain that if good people knew what to do, they would do the right thing.
I did find backing and support for my project in Iceland, and we sent 110,000 copies to every home there. I was not sure what would come of it but I knew education played an important role in bringing awareness to the taboo topic of child abuse.
Soon after sending the booklet to every home in the country, I started receiving calls from people all over the country. They were very grateful for the information but shared that no one wanted to talk about it, so they asked if I would be willing to. I agreed to give a talk and soon after I started talking about child sexual abuse all over the country. I realized that what people needed from me was not so much the words I was saying but how I was saying them. I was showing them how to look someone in the eye with an open heart and talk about a topic that had rarely been discussed openly, if at all. I talked to thousands of adults all over Iceland and it made a big impact. Child abuse reporting rates increased, and people began asking for help.
Darkness to Light soon came out with an evidence-informed child abuse prevention training course called Stewards of Children, which modeled my own experiences. The training is designed to empower adults to take action to prevent child abuse. It focuses on the fact that we, as adults, need to be willing to take risks and ask questions we may not have asked before. We are more likely to ask those questions if we know that other adults support our efforts. Making a choice to speak up keeps our own kids safe and it also sets an example for other adults, toward ensuring all kids in our communities are safe. The two-hour training course equips adults with the information they need to recognize, respond to, and prevent child sexual abuse.
Over the last 14 years, I have travelled all over the world providing the Stewards of Children training, speaking publicly, and working on my own healing. I currently lead peer support groups for men and women, and I provide support as an abuse survivor coach and certified TRE practitioner. My approach is always to empower survivors with the knowledge and tools they need to heal themselves. No one is going to heal us; no one is coming to rescue us. We have to do the hard work of healing ourselves. With information and support, and knowing that someone believes in them, survivors can heal and restore their lives.
Most people that find me have been working on healing for a while. They often feel discouraged and stuck — like they have tried everything but continue to feel bad about what happened to them and that, no matter what, they are haunted by the past in their mind, body, and heart.
I tell my clients that I give them the same tools that I am using, to this day. I start with trauma education: what trauma is and how it impacts the body, their thoughts, and their feelings. We learn to reconnect to the body using TRE. After a few sessions learning to safely use TRE, they can use it on their own. Then we start focusing on the stories that they have told themselves to survive, the thoughts and beliefs they took on as a result of how they felt about what happened to them, feeling their emotions, connecting with their inner child, and using mindfulness and self-compassion. Throughout the process, we focus on self-care, self-regulation, and acceptance.
I work with people one-on-one and in online groups. In a group, individuals get to share their processes and experiences with other survivors and learn from their peers. The focus stays on sharing a healing journey, not just telling a story of abuse. Sharing parts of the story is important for survivors to understand themselves but it is more important to learn how to live in a healthy way and from the heart, not from the hurt.
HF: Please talk a little about your books and why you wrote and published them.
SB: When I was ready to make the shift from survivor to thriver, I was looking for resources — some kind of model with information that could show me the way in a wholehearted, inspiring way. But I couldn’t find the resources I was looking for. So I decided to create a resource that I wish I had.
After three years of blogging about healing after abuse and trauma, sharing my story and the tools I was using for myself and others, I had tons of helpful and hard-to-find information. I decided to create a workbook for survivors: a 365-day guide for survivors to make the shift from living a life focused on the past to living wholeheartedly, grounded, embodied in hope and health, and focused on the now and the future. I called it Journey to the Heart.
A year later, I came out with Releasing Your Authentic Self, another 365-day guide for survivors. The second book includes two questions a day, in which I invite the reader to go deep to find answers, hidden hurts, behaviors, and habits that can be explained by trauma. Using new tools and methods, I encourage survivors to break the cycle of trauma and free themselves from the burdens of their past. The aim is to help survivors achieve clarity and focus on making new choices based on their strengths. Ideally, they should be able to ask themselves what they want in life, who they are without the abuse, what feelings need to be expressed, and the self-care practices they would benefit from to change their lives!
The feedback has been wonderful. I hear from survivors that are using the books with their therapists, and therapists even go on to buy the books for their other clients!
To provide more support for survivors, I also have a closed Facebook group where readers share their daily journal entries and support each other. It has been a very powerful healing tool for many people that don’t have any other safe place to talk about or share the truth of who they are and what they have been through.
HF: When we met, you mentioned that adopting a vegan diet was part of your own healing process. When and how did you first make that connection?
SB: Yes, it was interesting how that developed. It was my daughter, Sabrina, who inspired the rest of the family to go vegan after she did. I did resist in the beginning but when I started to connect with my body in a deeper way, it created a more meaningful connection to all people, and it slowly started to make more and more sense to me that (nonhuman) animals feel like humans do. They feel pain, fear, and trauma just like we do. And the more you learn about veganism, it becomes clear that humans treat animals in ways that reflect how we treat each other. I started to listen to other vegans and read about the impact of industrial farming on our environment and the conditions that animals endure while being raised for slaughter. And it just became clear to me: Eating another creature was no longer an option. It was simply wrong.
I do not judge other people that still eat and use animal products. It was a process for me, too, and it took time. I did not see the truth until I was ready to see it. Any change can feel threatening. What we eat and our relationship with food are deeply ingrained in us. Our relationship with what we eat is a part of our value system, how we raise our kids, and how we socialize — so until we are equipped with the right information and support system, making a change in diet can be difficult.
Interestingly, since becoming a vegan, I have noticed many similarities in how people respond to statistics about child sexual abuse and arguments for veganism, including the unethical treatment of animals in farming practices, the correlation between animal farming and climate change, and the negative effects some of our favorite foods have on our bodies.
When people are not aware of the statistics of how prevalent child sexual abuse is, they are a bit shocked and they can be a bit defensive. One in four girls and one in six boys are sexually abused before they turn 18 years old, and these statistics cut across all social and economic groups. Ninety percent of kids know and trust their abuser. As adults, we often know and trust the person who is a potential threat! And it makes people just as uncomfortable to be faced with the facts that an animal had to die with the purchase of their meal, that an animal suffered when they didn’t have to, and that an animal product could actually be causing health problems. It isn’t something we want to hear because we love our food; it makes us happy!
The first step toward change is to be willing to accept facts and take action. It can feel a little uncomfortable at first. I believe people don’t do anything until they know what to do and when they have the support of others. But when people decide to take action, whether it’s for children, animals, or others, they can make a difference, create immediate change, and empower others to do the same. I find that people do want to be a part of the solution once they are aware of the existence of the problem and aware of the ability to help!
HF: From the moment I met you, you appeared very comfortable with embracing and sharing your own vulnerability. How can others do the same?
SB: It took a long time and lots of practice. All I knew for a long time was protecting myself, remaining on guard all the time, and expecting the worst from people, especially those closest to me that would be able to see signs of vulnerability.
I had to learn how the hurt I grew up with created my habits, thoughts, and beliefs about myself and the world. When I finally understood that the abuse I suffered was not my fault, my body responded accordingly. I stopped blaming myself and I was able to finally see that vulnerability wasn’t going to hurt me and that it will actually make my life better.
As I learned to get back in touch with my body and how to express my feelings in a safe way, and once I believed that I was a good human being who cared deeply about others, I found peace and joy in being myself. Finally learning who I was required becoming vulnerable and getting in touch with my heart and compassion. As I started to practice self-compassion, I also started to take much better care of myself and my body by honoring my needs and asking for support. All of these important aspects of being human come from being vulnerable and connecting to ourselves first, so that we can then connect to others.
Finding my way to vulnerability is also how I learned to love and respect myself, which then led to me respecting all creatures because I see myself in all of them.
We are all unique but we all hurt the same way. We struggle and suffer in isolation. In order to bring ourselves back to wholehearted living, we need the help of other kind, compassionate beings that model back to us kindness, compassion, respect, and warmth, which some of us may never have received.
HF: We live in a society that still discounts many children’s voices. Do you see a positive shift in the way people talk about and treat children today?
SB: Yes, I do see that it is starting to shift but we still have a long way to go. The old way of “do as I say, not as I do” doesn’t work, and I think kids and especially young adults are starting to push back on old parenting paradigms.
Young adults are growing up to have their own children, and they are exploring different ways to raise kids. I recently gave a speech in which I mentioned how kids learn and grow through each developmental stage with a healthy, loving, and supportive family or community. Kids that are treated with respect commonly respect themselves and others. Kids that are supported and encouraged also encourage others and know how to ask for support if they need it. Kids that are loved also love themselves and others. And with that same logic, kids that grow up with harsh punishment, over-competitiveness, and abusive behavior then punish and abuse themselves and others and never feel good enough. But I think things are shifting as society learns what kinds of parenting styles clearly work.
Over the last few weeks, I have been a part of a community dialogue in Oregon with more than 60 people that all work on providing services to children and families, using the appreciative inquiry model (focus on what works, not what does not work) to create community-wide change. The long-term process and vision focus on how to end child abuse by 2050 in one county. The heart of this conversation focuses on talking to and including children and young adults in every step of the strategy because they are the next generation. I think the realization that we need to include and work with younger generations to create change is happening in many communities in many parts of the world.
HF: I became teary-eyed and chilled when you mentioned ending child abuse in your community by 2050. I wish every community would make the same commitment. What can each of us do now to better protect children?
SB: There is a fantastic quote from the movie Spotlight that always sticks with me: “If it takes a village to raise child, it also takes a village to abuse one.” Abuse thrives because of fear and denial, not just in one person but in a long line of people behind a child that either don’t see the signs or refuse to hear them. We can’t expect kids to come to us to ask for our help if they don’t know what abuse is, what words to use, and why it’s bad, and that it is OKAY to talk about. When we do not openly talk about abuse with other adults and kids, we are furthering the silence that protects abusers. Kids are abused by people they know and trust, so we need to be willing to take risks, talk to all adults — even when it feels uncomfortable — because there could be a child waiting for someone to model that they are a safe person to talk to or ask for help.
If talking about child sexual abuse feels uncomfortable, get educated. You can learn online from resources like Darkness to Light. It just takes a few hours to complete a training course so you can become better equipped in preventing and responding to suspicion of abuse or filing a report if you need to. It is a very worthy investment in learning how to protect yourself, your kids, and your community. And make sure you spend time getting to know other parents, coaches, teachers, and community leaders around you. Don’t bury your head in the sand about those that spend the most time with your children and other children. Be proactive and don’t be afraid to ask difficult questions of the people you are trusting with your children. It is a lot of responsibility, and it is your job as the adult to make sure that every single adult that comes in contact with your child is safe, dependable, and trustworthy.
HF: That is such important advice for all of us — including those of us who don’t have children. On a personal note, how do you refuel and maintain your optimism and determination?
SB: I use the same tools that I teach other survivors who are learning to heal after abuse or trauma. I start every day with self care, taking care of my body, mind, and spirit.
Because I came to understand the toxic impact of stress on my body and wellbeing, I have made self care a priority. I also see it as my responsibility as a parent and practitioner. I don’t have any business helping others survivors or raising my children if I don’t practice taking care of and helping myself first. You can’t pour from an empty cup.
I exercise five times per week. I meditate and journal daily and always make sure to heal my body with plant-based and nutritious meals. I center my life around meaningful relationships and fulfillment. I have always been determined to understand myself and I love to learn new things. What keeps me going is the hopeful news that we can change. We are in a golden age of human transformation and I want to empower anyone who will listen that they can take charge of their life and wellbeing. We have a choice every day. We can choose what is best for us. And when we choose what is best for us, we also want what is best for others.
My journey is a spiritual one. I am here to serve as many people as I can. Sometimes it is one person or one creature at the time. Being fully connected and present with another being, engaged in conversation about life, love, and living wholeheartedly, makes my heart sing.
HF: Thanks so much, Svava, for sharing your story and such important information. Is there anything else you’d like to add?
SB: Thank you, Hope, for all that you do. Your book is amazing and your focus and information is important for us right now. Human and animals, we are in this together. You challenged my thinking. I love when that happens! In your book, you shared the important work being done by so many different organizations and people. You gave me hope. And for that I am eternally grateful.
HF: Thank you, Svava. And I am eternally grateful to you for all you do — especially toward the protection of children, who are so vulnerable in society. You are proof of how one person can make an incredible difference in the world.