Article: Moving Forward Together (Recovering From Sexual Assault)

I am a survivor but, gods, do I hate that term.

I don’t know why – something about it just hits me the wrong way. If I were to be perfectly honest it’s probably because it means I have to admit that I’ve been a victim: Admit that I’ve faced trauma in my life. But who hasn’t? And, as a sad reality, so have many others.

The recent situation with Harvey Weinstein and the #metoo campaign may have highlighted this issue but it’s not, in any way, a new development.

The sobering truth is that 1 in 4 women and 1 in 6 men are targets or survivors of rape of sexual abuse (and that doesn’t even factor in trans or genderqueer individuals).

Those are some grim as fuck statistics.

They’re violent and pierce right at the heart of anyone who has faced any kind of sexual assault in their lifetime. What’s more is that such statistics (and any big news outburst dealing with this topic) can so easily trigger flashbacks, physical reactions, and a sense that a person’s assault has come back to confront them once more. It makes survivors ask ‘Will I ever be free from these feelings?…Can I ever escape what happened to me?’

There is no clear answer to those questions.

The Insidious Invasion

Once sexual assault has happened it’s happened and there’s really no getting around it. The experience becomes part of that person’s life and tends to stick in the mind as a permanent fixture. From a personal perspective I’ve reconciled my emotions concerning my experiences, can easily talk about them most days (if needed), and rarely even think about what happened. But that doesn’t mean that, from time-to-time, I won’t still have moments where what happened to me hits and hits hard, and this is typically the case.

These emotions are worst for those who are recent survivors of assault – who may still be reeling from the experience and be tackling (or finding themselves overwhelmed by) a swirl of emotions that are hard to separate from and ultimately reconcile in a manageable way. In this way the acts of sexual assault continue to touch a person’s life even after the act. It kind of really sucks.

What To Do?

But, if this is the case, then is recovery even possible?

Of course.

We may remember the time that we got pushed over by someone else and broke our leg when younger. We may even feel a twinge as we relive the pain in our minds and think of the jackass bully that caused our injury, but we have recovered from the incident. Our lives go on and they are, for the most part, fine.

Physical and mental wounds are always directly interchangeable, but I do find the above a useful analogy.

So what can someone do to start (or maintain) the healing process after sexual assault? Here are just a few suggestions that therapists and healthcare professionals recommend.

Recognize That Trauma Comes In Stages (And Identify Where You’re At)

 People who are sexually assaulted will typically go through various phases of recovery.

The initial stage is known as the Immediate or Acute Phase and typically lingers days or weeks after the assault. This can include feeling stunned or dazed, perhaps even numb. There may be a desire to block out the experience or deny the gravity of what has happened. This can also be accompanied with anxiety, difficulty sleeping, intrusive thoughts, flashbacks, trouble with food, self-blame, shame, guilt, or anger.

In this stage there is often a desire to rationalize the abuse away and, for many, not report it, but this is generally seen as an unhelpful approach to managing this phase. I get it – reporting sexual assault is scary and there are many horror stories out there, but you owe it to yourself (if you can) to report the crime that has happened to you. We’re living in the Hollywood shadow of many people regretting not doing so themselves.

If you cannot report, however, please never beat yourself up. It is a common reaction, as per the acute phase, and you are not at fault for how your body and mind try to cope with what has happened.

The next phase is the Outward Adjustment Phase, otherwise known as the ‘RECOIL’). During this phase realistic problems may start replacing the emotional turmoil: Things like trying to return to normal, daily living when, inside, you’re struggling with a huge emotional trauma. Work has to be considered, friends, family, and co-workers approached, and time will have to be spent (and managed) around the general public.

In this stage the initial anxiety and emotions of the event may have subsided, but being confronted with life may lead to its own problems, and perhaps make the survivor inclined to make drastic lifestyle changes. Anything too contrarian to what you know if your normal behaviour should be considered more than once. Impulsive decisions in a moment of anxiety, depression, and anger may seem right but they are rarely helpful. In this stage it’s useful to gain support from others and to make sure you have people around you that will help with any difficulties you may face on your terms.

Finally comes the Integration Phase, where (believe it or not) things have settled down enough in life to allow a survivor to address any unresolved or particularly strong physical or emotional sensations that still linger from the abuse. This stage can take years and is an ongoing process of introspection, self-forgiveness and healing.

The integration phase is what all survivors are hoping to come out the other side of and it can be intense, but the rest of the advice in this article should help.

By identifying what stage you’re in you can better consider what your immediate needs are and what help will serve you best. It also allows you to guide loved ones who know about your situation to methods that will best help you. Speaking of which…

Tell Someone

Abuse is hard in any instance, but even worst when you try to manage it alone.

As hard as it is to tell others about such a horrible violation, your friends and family love you and you know that, deep down, they would want to help you, so give them that opportunity.

Of course, you don’t have to open up to everyone – perhaps just a single trusted person, if that’s all you feel comfortable – but trust me when I say that verbalizing your situation and identifying people who can help you through your trauma is an invaluable step to recovery.

If you feel that there is someone you’d like to talk to but you’re not sure if they could help you then consider helping them help you by providing them with resources that you consider to be educational and applicable to your personal struggles. This will avoid the chance that accidental conflict occurs.

A support system makes everything easier, even life events that seem unfathomably difficult.

Talk To A Professional

That support system includes your friends and family, but would also benefit greatly from a healthcare professional or therapist.

Pretty much every professional recommendation out there on sexual trauma strongly advices seeking accredited help to allow you to work through you trauma and deal with the mental symptoms that it might have caused.

Cognitive behavioural therapy may suffice but, if you want a more targeted experience, trauma-focused therapy will be the main type of help that you aim to seek. Having a professional that is specifically trained in sexual assault, and its effects, will come with immediate benefits that a more general treatment may not.

From there your health professional will hopefully be able to help you work through various methods to help process your trauma and manage the ways it manifests. The key element being to…

Identify Positive Coping Tactics

Identifying positive coping tactics for your symptoms and being able to effectively implement them during difficult moments is a very important part of moving forward with your life.

Equally, it’s useful to recognise if you’ve developed any negative coping tactics while in the acute stages of your trauma and to work of reprogramming your brain so that it doesn’t rely upon these instead.

Coping tactics are available for literally anything: including panic attacks, anxiety, anger, depression, sleep issues, flashbacks, confidence, guilt, and more.

Your therapist (or self research, if therapy is not an option) will help you identify areas where you struggle and will give your coping tactics to try for each one. Not all of them will help, but that’s part of the process – much like trying on new shoes or clothes.

By putting coping tactics in place you will be able to move forward in an effective way, all the while proving what an utter badass you are and building up your self-esteem.

Just remember to find coping tactics for all areas of your life: mentally, physically, emotionally, and (if it is a part of your life) spiritually.

Don’t feel pressure to address all at once but don’t short change yourself either. What happened to you was unwarranted and unprovoked and you have a right to heal to the fullest extent. No If’s or But’s. Nurture yo’ self!

Note that, here, I’ve picked those I think are most helpful and that this is a layman’s perspective (I’m a doctor but I’m not that kind of doctor).

Still, I hope they can serve you in the same way they serve me because, ultimately, I think that this can be the most helpful tool of all: Survivors coming together and trying to help each other in the best way we know how. So, please, take care of yourself during this potentially difficult news time. Stay safe and exercise a generous amount of compassion if any negative feelings or memories remerge. I believe in you: You’ve got this.