Please click on any of the subject headings below for information about recovery.
Sexual Assault Survivors' Questions: Why Did I Wait This Long?
The Benefits of Counseling for Sexual Assault Survivors
Take Care of Yourself
Survivors of sexual assault have expressed a spectrum of fears, and a legitimate concern for their safety. These fears are normal, and each person will need her/his own time to heal and to feel safe again.
Some people are afraid at home (whether or not the assault occurred there), and some may be afraid when they go out. They may fear being alone while at the same time feel a need to isolate themselves. Others feel mistrustful of others; this is especially true if you know your assailant. These feelings may go away, but it will take time for them to subside. Staying with a close friend or supportive relative for a while may be helpful. Talking with a sexual assault counselor can be a vital connection that can help you through this difficult time.
It is not uncommon after a sexual assault to want to purchase a weapon. Weapons can foster dependence on an external object for protection or can be taken away and used against you. Some people, especially those who are trained in the use of weapons, find this to be a viable choice.
A more empowering alternative to weapons may be to enroll in a self-defense course. This can help turn fear into anger and then into action. You can learn how to use awareness, assertiveness, and physical action to defend yourself. Learning self-defense is one way of dealing with fear and anxiety. It can empower you and help you heal more quickly from the assault, especially if you were assaulted by someone you know. Look for a class which is recommended by your local sexual assault crisis center.
Becoming familiar with self-protection strategies and being alert can help you regain a feeling of safety inside and outside your home (see below).
Another effective method for calming these fears is called systematic desensitization. With the help of a partner or close friend, make a list of the things you are afraid of doing. Put the things you fear least at the top of the list and end with activities you fear most. Take a few deep, relaxing breaths, and then imagine yourself doing the first thing on the list. Try to keep your body relaxed as you visualize successfully completing the activity. Proceed to the next activity on the list only if you feel relaxed and able to do so. Take as much time as you need to work through each listing.
The next step is to try the activity, first with a friend, and later alone, if you feel it is safe to do so. Confronting each fearful situation at your own pace will help empower you to live without the fears and constraints that naturally occur following an assault.
Fear and mistrust are a very normal, natural, and common reaction to a sexual assault. Many survivors look for quick solutions, like the suggestions that follow. Sometimes reading these suggestions can create a sense of guilt. You may think you could have prevented the assault. But, the responsibility for sexual assault lies with the offender, even if you knew him/her.
Source: Adapted by GMU Sexual Assault Services from the L.A. Commission for Women
Try not to punish yourself for not having dealt with the abuse sooner. There can be many excellent reasons why you didn't do it until now:
- The abuse was still too fresh. You needed time and distance to regain your equilibrium and again enough perspective to begin your recovery work.
- You hadn't defined it as abuse. It takes time and correct information to undo lies. What might be obvious to an outsider is not necessarily apparent to someone In the midst of a situation.
- You were still caught by the ways that the perpetrator got you to keep silent. It is difficult to question what we learned as children.
- You were afraid. Although the abusive situation is over, it can still feel dangerous. Even a dead perpetrator's presence can be felt strongly.
- The time and place weren't right. Not everyone is ready to hear about sexual abuse. You were right to wait until you found a safe and supportive environment for recovery.
- You didn't know that you had options. Women and men have only recently begun to work on the sexual abuse recovery. This is a brand new area for people.
- You were feeling weak, battered and helpless to take action for yourself. Or you felt like such a terrible person that you didn't feel deserving of anything better.
- There was too much else going on. When you are dealing with daily crises and a basic struggle for survival, there are few resources and little energy felt over for anything else. You had to get your life under better control in the present before tackling the past.
This list could go on, but you get the point. Forget about self-blame. The reality is that you couldn't have done what you are doing one minute sooner. The time wasn't right, and for whatever reasons, you weren't ready. Punishing yourself about it isn't realistic. Neither will it decrease your recovery time. If anything, it will get in the way of your progress. There are solid reasons why most survivors don't begin to deal with these issues until they are in their thirties, forties, or fifties. People in their teens and twenties usually are still locked inn denial and confusion to take much action on their recovery. If you stated this work in your teens, you're off to a good start. But don't worry if you didn't. People start their recovery in different ways and at different points in their lives. We have no choice but to work in the present. The future is promising. You are exactly where you should be in your recovery process.
Defining an incident as sexual assault.
Many victims of sexual assault are left feeling confused and unsure of what actually happened, especially if the perpetrator is an acquaintance or dating partner. Counseling offers an opportunity to review the incident in question and become more clear about whether it actually constituted a sexual assault.
Making decisions about legal and judicial options.
Very often, the victim feels unsure about how to proceed in terms of reporting the assault to police, pressing criminal charges, or initiating campus judicial proceedings. In counseling, she or he can discuss various options and arrive at a decision which will be most likely to promote healing and resolution in her or his individual circumstance.
Enhancing academic and social functioning.
Sexual assault is a traumatic experience that disrupts the victim's life and may temporarily make it difficult to function at her or his usual level. Counseling can help the survivor develop effective coping strategies that make it more possible to pursue school, work, and social relationships during the period of recovery.
Minimizing negative effects of the assault.
Victims of sexual assault typically experience a wide range of feelings, including anger, depression, guilt, and fear. In addition, there may be physical symptoms, difficulties with memory and concentration, nightmares or "flashbacks" of the assault, and disturbances in interpersonal relationships. Generally, counseling provides assistance with "working through" the trauma of sexual assault, with the goal of minimizing negative psychological and social effects so that the survivor can move on with her or his life.
Building social support.
A major goal of counseling is to help the survivor build a support network of people who can help her or him through this difficult time. For many, a support group can be an instrumental part of the recovery process. Talking with others who have had the same experience can greatly decrease feelings of shame and isolation. Also, counseling can include one's partner or family members, as they may need help understanding how to be supportive.
Protecting one self from further victimization.
Although sexual assault is never the victim's fault, some people are targeted by perpetrators as "good victims" because they lack assertiveness and have difficulty trusting their own self protective instincts. Through counseling, the survivor can develop confidence and skills that may decrease her or his likelihood of being assaulted again.
Re-experiencing of the trauma is common among women who have been assaulted. For example, you may have unwanted thoughts of the assault, and find yourself unable to get rid of them. Some women have flashbacks, or very vivid images as if the assault is occurring again. Nightmares are also common. These symptoms occur because a traumatic experience is so shocking and so different from everyday experiences that you can’t fit it into what you know about the world. So in order to understand what happened, your mind keeps bringing the memory back, as if to try to digest it and fit it in.
- Strategies for Coping with Flashbacks
- Stop what you are experiencing (if possible). For example, stop playing the music, stop the car, stop reading, etc. What is happening?
- Calm yourself so tat you can experience grounding and a sense of boundaries (e.g., talk to yourself, take a few deep breaths, or go to another room).
- Affirm and reorient yourself to the present through the five senses. What do you feel, see, touch, hear, or smell in the present? (e.g., I am with my partner in my home. I am an adult, not the child that I feel like in my flashback. I can hear the reassuring words from my partner.)
- Take Action. How do you interact or not interact with this experience (trigger) in order to feel safe? (e.g., talk to your partner, call a friend, speak with a counselor, focus on being in the safety and security of the room, take time to write in a journal, or remove yourself from the situation such as not watching the movie about abuse.)
- It is important to care for yourself after a sexual assault. Eat well and get exercise to help keep your strength up.
- Try to do the things you have always enjoyed.
- Don’t look for simple answers to explain what happened.
- Know your rights and how to get the help you need.
- Say positive things to yourself to help restore your sense of well being. Use phrases like “I’m strong,” “I did not deserve this,” “I am taking back my personal power,” “I am healing each and every day.”
- Be patient with yourself. It takes time to move on. Healing is physical, emotional and psychological.
- Believe in yourself and know that you will get through this.
- Consider seeking professional help. It is often helpful to be able to express your thoughts and feelings in a neutral setting where you do not feel that you have to protect the listener or be concerned about how the other person is feeling.
- Some survivors find it helpful to tell a trusted friend.
- It is more important to focus on what you are feeling than on the actual details of the assault.
- It is not necessary to talk about the incident all at once. Take your time and do so in a way that you feel comfortable.
- If talking is difficult try drawing or writing things down.
- Some people find it useful to keep a journal, or write stories or poems.