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I Relived My Rape Every Single Day — Until I Met the Wolves

Sarah Varley, 28, was battling an eating disorder and crippling anxiety when she stumbled upon her unexpected path to healing.

It was only after I spent time with wolves that I began to feel human again.

I was attacked and raped when I was 19, during my second semester of college. I developed posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and had nightmares and panic attacks all the time. The rape happened in a car, so I avoided driving — and leaving the house in general — as much as I could. I ended up dropping out of college.

sarah varley before

I had always had a phobia of vomiting and germs, but it got much worse, and by the time I was 21 I had become a complete germophobe. I was terrified that anything I ate could make me sick.

I was nauseated all the time. I would cut down on food because I felt sick. Then I wouldn't be sure whether I was nauseated or hungry, so I would default to nauseated and eat less. It was a terrible cycle — everything in my life revolved around food. I lost 30 pounds. At my lowest, I weighed 94 pounds. (I'm 5-foot-7.)

My life was cut into two parts: before the rape and after the rape. It set off a chain of destructive events that transformed me into a person I didn't recognize. Before the rape, I cared about people and wanted to help them. But after the rape, I became this very dark, angry, and self-destructive person. I was so depressed and anxious, and being surrounded by triggers made it so much worse.

On the rare occasion I actually went outside and drove, I'd usually have a panic attack. Being near the police station where I had reported the rape or even just driving down a road that looked similar to the route my attacker took would trigger terrible flashbacks. It was a battle just to get to the end of each day.

At the same time, I knew I was lucky: I sought treatment from a great therapist, my family was wonderful, and my boyfriend at the time was incredibly supportive.

Raised (Up) by Wolves

It was a total coincidence that I ended up visiting my cousin's wolf sanctuary. She had just opened it with her husband and I remember thinking, 'I love animals, why not go see it?' My family has always been a little eccentric, so it wasn't out of the ordinary to go meet some wolves.

That first day, I stepped right into the enclosure with a wolf standing on the other side. I felt an immediate sense of calm. Before that moment, I had been constantly reliving the past in the present. I was obsessively aware of all the things that could harm me. But in the enclosure with the wolf, my brain had a chance to focus on one "real" threat — all the potential triggers faded away.

I wasn't scared. It was more a feeling of uncertainty — wolves are really skittish. And it wasn't like this 90-pound animal was running up to greet me.

But at that moment, I knew this needed to be a major part of my life. I brought it up with my therapist: 'I met this wolf, I felt so calm.' He suggested I bring a journal with me the next time I went to see the wolves and record how I was feeling. So every time I went to the sanctuary (about once a month), I'd write down what I was thinking and bring it back to discuss with my therapist.

After a while, my therapist suggested I try a mindfulness practice while I was around the wolves. He told me to repeat affirmations: 'I'm safe.' 'I'm here.' 'This wasn't your fault.' 'You didn't ask for this.' Being able to say these things helped me first process and then accept what had happened to me. I wasn't stuck in that endless loop of fear, rage, and sorrow anymore.

Licking My Wounds

I was starting to feel better. The PTSD had lessened and the flashbacks and nightmares were less frequent. So, in 2014, my fiancé and I decided to move to New Hampshire to work at a wolf sanctuary. We lived in a 200-square-foot cabin and I spent all of my time with the wolves and wolf dogs.

And another unexpected thing happened: My germ phobia started to lessen the more time I spent with the wolves. Wolves greet each other by licking each other's teeth, so when I was in an enclosure with them they would want to lick my teeth. It's a diss not to let them do that, so I found myself doing it — I had already put so much energy into bonding with them — even though I knew they ate raw meat and chewed on dirt.

It's still kind of incredible to me: I'd gone from having an all-consuming fear of putting contaminated food in my mouth to letting wild animals lick my teeth! If that's not a breakthrough, I don't know what is.

I think I was just living in the moment. For me, at least, when I get caught up in anxiety or when I have time to dwell on something, that's when the fear comes back. But when a wolf comes toward you, you don't have a chance to think, 'Be careful, you might get sick!' It was more instinct than anything else.

We ended up spending a year and a half at the sanctuary. Now we're back in California and this has become my life's work: My fiancé and I are starting a sanctuary that focuses on mental health and connecting therapists with animal sanctuaries.

I never thought I'd be on the road I'm on right now. Yet it feels so tailor-made and destined. The first time I spoke publicly about this on an online women's forum, I got so much feedback — I suddenly felt I had a purpose and a drive. I knew that if this had helped me so much, it could help others.

When I think back to the younger version of me, I remember being such a little diva. Now I spend my days constantly covered in mud with these animals. It's such a departure, but I'm so happy and I'm so grateful. I found 'wolf therapy' by chance. I know now that it's effective. It shouldn't be just by a stroke of luck that someone can find healing, so I plan to share it with the world.

To learn more about Sarah Varley and her sanctuary, visit www.sarahandthewolves.com, and be sure to check out her YouTube channel for more wonderful wolf videos.

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