After working in the mental health field for nearly a decade, you would think that there are few things that could catch me off guard. One particular area though always plucks at my heartstrings; Listening to stories of sexual violence always carries a heavy punch often followed by a time period to decompress.
The most recent instance of this was a young lady I have been working with for about four months. She suffers from auditory hallucinations, paranoia, and persecutory delusions. The content of her psychosis surrounded the belief that she coined “ambient assault.” She believed that others could sexually or cognitively assault her telepathically. As rapport developed between us, there happened to be some truth to her delusions. While she may not have been hurt telepathically, it came out that she was raped on two different occasions during college. When she started talking about it, her entire demeanor changed. She froze. Her eyes widened. Her voice grew quiet and shaky. It was as if she was experiencing these feelings for the first time and reliving the entire event. She said this was the first time she had ever spoken of the events to anyone. Her psychotic symptoms developed as a way for her to cope with the trauma.
Unfortunately, this experience is all too common for the victims of sexual violence. I am all for the prevention of sexual violence, but we seldom address what to do once an individual becomes a victim of such a horrid act. As I have never personally experienced sexual trauma, I decided to reach out to individuals who had. I put it across social media asking for individuals to anonymously answer a few basic questions about their trauma. About a dozen individuals responded and openly discussed their experiences. Check out some of the responses below (Note: Each individual’s response is separated into new paragraphs under each question.)
What feelings did you experience following the event?
“Right after, I didn’t know what happened. I had never had sex before, and couldn’t process whether it was right or not. It was my boyfriend, and I was devastated, but didn’t know if it was rape because he was my boyfriend. I turned on my side facing away and cried for an hour. I felt lost, confused, violated, and hurt.”
“None. I was numb for some time. I think it was about a year before I felt anything. I felt angry (at myself, mostly) and betrayed. I remember wanting to feel sad but I couldn’t at that time. It was years before I got to feeling sad. When I was angry, I wrote bad poetry, I drank a large amount of alcohol, I smoked some weed, and (very regrettably) I cut myself. I did all of these things in rotation for about the first year after. I did also see several counselors (off and on) with no great success, mostly because I wasn’t ready to stop being angry.”
“I felt like it was a normal occurrence. Like there wasn’t anything wrong with what happened at first. Then in thinking about the events that lead to the attack I recognized it was not normal. And that I felt at fault for having “led him on.” But in further review, I recognized that I had in fact been quite clear with my attacker. He actively refused to respect my desire to return home after saying no. Those recognitions resulted in anger and resentment. And then to an added hatred toward the entire male gender because of other past trauma’s and experiences with men. I couldn’t look at a man without demonizing him for a few weeks. Eventually I realized that their faults in these events were a result of faulty wiring in their own minds from their own life’s events. And I felt pity for my attackers. And then forgiveness. And an acceptance for the nature of this messed up world because one person cannot change the wiring issues in all of mankind. So I built defenses psychologically, energetically, as well as physically.”
“Destroyed, humiliated, a failure, like a sex object and not a human. I felt like I was being judged by everyone even strangers although I never told anyone about what had happened until way after. I felt used and disgusted with myself for not being stronger or smarter etc. I still to this day doubt every choice I make after the last few times and don’t view sex in the same passionate way, especially certain positions and feel that any guy who is interested in me can only be for sex and nothing more because I’m not worth more.”
“I was in high school. The assailant was a classmate of mine. I remember being in a bit of a fog at first. I suffered a broken nose, and 2 black eyes. I was SO embarrassed and scared that people would find out (particularly the boy I liked who had just asked me to prom). So I told everyone I got hit with a softball at practice, including my parents. The boy I liked did find out and he called off our prom date…honestly I’m pretty sure everyone in my school knew after a couple of days. I guess mostly I felt embarrassed at first, and as time went on, frustration. When the attack started, there were two other boys in the room who left after I started yelling. For years (and even today) I am arguably more upset that those two could have stopped it and chose not to. Also, this is an unusual thing…but for years after it happened, the assailant would always come out of the woodwork around the anniversary to taunt me. So I was away in college and he would create a false Facebook and send me messages, or visit friends who went to college and text me from phone numbers I didn’t know. I developed a lot of anxiety and depression and ended up on several antidepressants. During the month of March to this day I still get very nervous and jumpy wondering if/when he is going to pop up again. I wish SO much that I had gone to the police immediately after it happened. Looking back, I would have rather endured the embarrassment then rather than spending years losing sleep and looking over my shoulder.”
“So my first experience was with an abusive boyfriend and I was very young. I was 15 the first time. I was confused, a lot of self-blame. I did feel betrayed by him, but I also couldn’t completely justify my feelings towards him because I was in that cycle of abuse. The second was with a male friend in college who assaulted me while I was blacked out. I had to hear about it from a friend. So it was complete shock, disbelief, then a lot of anger. Definitely resurfaced a lot of stuff from the first assault too.”
“Hmm…. intense shame, fear, caution, an innate feeling of worthlessness, disgust, self hatred. I’ve been in therapy for almost 10 years and that’s still a question that stumps me. How am I to know what brought on those feelings? I’d imagine part of it was an already established low sense of self from growing up in a physically and emotionally abusive household. Internalizing the badness instead of feeling strong enough to see them as the one who did wrong. But then again, my first encounter was at age 5, ongoing until 9…. And then again at 14 by my boss at knife point. Feeling unlovable was something I internalized from life at home. These experiences seemed to confirm it.”
“Anger. Without even realizing what had happened at the time, I was still angry. The sexual assault occurred over a period of time, 4 years. I just kept getting worse, as time went on. Everything ticked me off, I couldn’t concentrate on school, kind of angry at my mom for hiring the person as a sitter. I realize now, I’m pretty angry at myself for the simple fact that I didn’t stop it sooner.”
“Empty and used. Dirty like there was a hole. I guess vulnerable is more of the word. Because if he could do it, anyone could.”
What did you do to finally confront your feelings?
“I didn’t talk about it for 6 months. And when I finally did, I lost my mind and hysterically cried on the side of the road because I was driving. I got triggered by something, and it all came flooding back. I repressed it and didn’t deal with it. My friend was in the car with me, and I was forced to talk about it because of my breakdown. So when I spoke to her (and she was really helpful) I felt comfortable talking about it. A few years later, I worked on research with a professor about campus sexual assault, and had to find people to interview. So I spoke to them about mine, and they spoke about theirs. And I realized that I wasn’t alone, so I talked about it more and more.”
“Honestly, I think I just ran out of anger. That’s what it felt like. At that point I was way more receptive to counseling. I can’t think of any one moment, thought, activity, person, or anything that helped me move past it. I just ran out of anger.”
“I’m not completely over it still. I am in the process of attempting to see from my perpetrator’s perspectives because I have multiple perpetrators. I faced my father directly about it. He denied everything which inspired great anger and despair because I expected resolution to come from my perpetrators. That led me on a journey of facing the reactions of my trauma within my own personality. So my behaviors I started to recognize were stemming from these events. And it takes so much time to move through each different behavior and reaction.”
“I’ve thought about them plenty and it never gets easier for me when thinking of it. I just try to push the thoughts and situations out of my mind. Having my boyfriend has helped a lot because I’m starting to trust him to have sex and do things that I previously couldn’t do with anyone else because it brought back too many memories. But mostly I try to forget and distract myself.”
“For my earlier experiences, no. I didn’t even tell my parents because I was scared of getting beaten and was filled with such shame. For my boss, I told a friend and she minimized it…which left me withdrawn and isolating. Later, after some work in therapy, I took some steps to find him to confront him. But he had died a couple years prior. I never went to the authorities. Fear of being shamed. I haven’t gotten that far in my journey yet. Those feelings are still internalized, which impacts my place in the world, who I attract, my inability to allow people to get too close to me.”
“I ignored the threats and just dove into school work and actual work. A male friend talked to me and told me,’It’s not your fault that someone is f***ed up in the head and did this to you. It wasn’t your actions. It was his’.”
What role do you think self-care can play in one’s recovery from such a traumatic event?
“I didn’t “self-care” for a long time. I used some really bad coping mechanisms. And in turn, became incredibly depressed and my overall mental health really suffered. When I started to get my act together and address it, self-care really helped me learn to love myself again. It showed me the strength I have, and gave me the ability to express myself. I am a stronger me because of it.”
“It helped me more with the sadness that came next. Once the anger faded, I battled insomnia and grief. The self-care that worked for me…1. Warm tea, milk, and honey. 2. Quiet. I am not a person who usually enjoys silence, but silence helped me sort through my feelings that I spent so much time avoiding. 3. Creating music and masks. 4. And last, taking care of my body. After abusing it so long, I took special care of everything, my nails, my hair, my skin. Just took good care and babies myself physically.”
“Taking the time for myself to face my own demons rather than expecting others to save me from myself and my own pain. But that is challenging to do when that level of trauma happens at such a young age. The child version of you needed someone to step in and protect you. And so that carries into adulthood because nobody took on that responsibility and so you still yearn for that protection from someone of power/authority. And that fundamental need for protection feeds poor behaviors into adulthood. Self-awareness and time with one’s minds is key to overcoming this level of trauma.”
“I think the biggest help would have been developing supportive, healthy relationships and talking it through. Even if the other person couldn’t relate at all, it helps to have someone you know and trust understand where you’re struggling and be there to catch you when you fall.”
“So I started therapy at age 16 – both individual and family therapy. I also got involved with sports and exercising because my father is a firm believer in the holistic approach to things. I dealt with the first traumatic experience in a pretty healthy way thanks to my parents and school staff who noticed a complete shift in my personality and school work. The second time I pushed off confronting it as long as possible. I bottled that shit up, which in turn led me to never leaving my house. My grades dropped. I lost a lot of friends, and my relationship suffered. It just got the point where I knew I couldn’t maintain it. Again went for individual counseling this time the approach was a little more DBT and mindfulness because my anxiety and reactions to even the little things were off the chart.”
“If I was receptive to it, I’d imagine that it’d allow me the opportunity to learn to love myself, to learn to self-regulate and be able to take action when self-care is needed to prevent burnout or dips into depressive states. It’d probably even help open the gates to grieving. If I was receptive.”
“I’m not sure. It wouldn’t have held me to the point of toxicity. I don’t think I would’ve started drinking heavily or using drugs. I think it would be a little easier to let people in.”
What would you tell someone in your situation?
“You’re going to need to heal in your own way, in your own time. Just know that you’re never alone, and talking about it makes it feel better.”
“If I could give advice to myself, it would be to recognize the anger and find better outlets. Others may have more trouble with the sadness. Also to recognize the real object of the anger is the person who assaulted, not yourself. To find ways to repeat that to yourself enough times and in different ways until you are convinced. It’s easier to see in retrospect than it is in the moment.”
“I think it sucks that our culture spends so much effort convincing us that with the proper training and planning that we can prevent these things from happening. I think that contributes to the self-blame. When it happens it is so hard not to blame yourself. I think the best prevention of self-blame is to have family and/or friends that you are sure would never blame or judge.”
“Counting on another to save you is futile. Finding your own strength within yourself will save you. Go back into your past and comfort yourself. Save yourself never expect another to save you. You will always be disappointed. And when someone comes along to support you accept it with love and receive it well. But don’t take more than another person is willing to give.”
“That’s difficult. Everyone’s story is different and how they respond is different. Mostly to let them know it’s not their fault and how to move on and feel normal again because not everyone will take advantage.”
“I would tell them that as difficult and scary as it seems, get help immediately. Go to the police, go to your doctor, talk to a family member or friend. The longer you wait to do those things, the harder it gets to talk to someone. Not to mention the emotional scars are that much harder to heal.”
“That it gets better I was able to cut that person completely out of my life. I blocked him on all aspects, which made it easier after time the memory fades and it starts to hurt less.”
“Find support immediately. In a professional. There’s so much help out there, and there’s too much of a risk to fall into something unhealthy. Trying to bury it or numb it will only prolong the pain.”
“Hmm…. that’s another tough question. I’d probably want to tell them that they’re worthy of love, that there’s hope for healing. But then I’d see myself as a hypocrite… so I’d change it to telling them that I understand the inner turmoil and that I hope they’re able to take the steps that I’ve been too afraid to take in order to heal.”
“Everyone is different. Some are resilient. Others can’t let go. I guess the pain will always be with you. The reminders will always be there. Try to put it towards something that will ultimately put you in a better place. Focus the energy on something positive, constructive. Don’t let it destroy you.”
“Confide in someone who won’t feel sorry but will help you see that the animal who did this is at fault. It is not because you wore or said anything. It’s okay to work through what you feel. Just don’t stay in that place. You may never be “over it” but you will realize you’re not the only one. There’s more assaulted people out there than you think.”
I want to personally thank all of the amazing individuals who shared their stories, feelings, thoughts, experiences, and advice. They all did this in hopes of shedding light on a much needed topic. You are some of the bravest individuals I know.
-The Caring Counselor
One thought on “Sexual Violence and Self-Care”
I had to deal with this too–my wife was frequently and without warning, assaulted by an older half-brother up to her age of 10. Was always at night–to or from the outhouse. The family basically would not discuss it until more recent years–after thee perpetrator died. We are both strong in our Christian faith, but it’s been a challenge! We’ve come out the other side…b ut i can’t be away in the early hours of morning.