The Journey from Victim to Survivor
The Journey from Victim to Survivor:
Before discussing steps to self-care or offering guidance to someone who has recently been a victim of sexual violence, it is important to note that healing is possible. A victim of any form of sexual violation can live a full and healthy life, without the constant debilitating burden of the attack. The following steps are designed to assist with navigating this frightening, confusing and emotional event, and hopefully give you, or someone you know, some guidance towards a journey of healing. You can also follow this link to additional resources and support groups.
Steps to help you recover and rebuild your life after all forms of sexual violence
Being the victim of sexual violence can leave you in a state of emotional turmoil. It is important to grant yourself the opportunity to accept that what happened to you is not your fault. You may well feel a mix of emotions such as, anger, fear, guilt, sadness, confusion, numbness, frustration, loss of control, rage, panic, disbelief, loss of focus or you may have nightmares, trouble sleeping or a mix of emotions you are struggling to define. There is no fixed response to sexual violence, and may vary from person to person. Whether you feel the need to withdraw, be alone or isolate yourself, have perhaps developed a fear of socialising or being around people, have panic attacks, become angry or aggressive, or even choose to continue as if nothing happened – all these responses are valid.
However, these responses might not be healthy in the long term. Here are some tips that might help:
Reach out to someone you trust
Your first impulse may be to isolate yourself and retreat from engaging with what happened. This is a natural response to the vulnerability and powerlessness of trauma. We often think that if we ignore something it will go away, or that we can convince ourselves it never happened. If you think about a time-bomb, hidden in a concrete box, the time-bomb does not disappear, just because it is out of sight. On the contrary, suppressing your emotions and forcing the event away might make matters worse. It might be scary to open up to someone, so when you do decide to open up, be very selective and choose someone you trust. If you do not have someone you trust, a therapist or the South African rape crisis hotline (021 447 9762) will be able to assist. If you feel comfortable, joining a support group it might help you feel less isolated and alone.
Acknowledge feelings of guilt and shame
A sense of guilt and shame might be debilitating, even if you cognitively understand that you are not to blame for the attack. These feelings are not time-bound, and might surface years after the attack. It is normal to play over the events in your mind, and find reasons to blame yourself or to find missteps in your judgement. When confronting feelings of guilt and shame, you might wonder if you could have done more to stop the attack. Remember, in the midst of a traumatic experience, it is normal to freeze. It is normal to feel confused and uncertain of what to do in the moment. Do not judge yourself for natural responses to trauma – you did what you needed to survive. You are not to blame. Many perpetrators consciously try to make you feel guilty, so they can get away with their actions. If the perpetrator is someone you trusted, it is easy to try and shift the blame to yourself. You might want to beat yourself up, because you thought the perpetrator was a good and decent human being. If they violated you, their kind nature does not clear them from guilt. Even if you were drunk and unable to communicate consent clearly, if you have been taken advantage of, blame belongs to the perpetrator, not the victim. It was not your fault – repeat this to yourself as many times a day as you need.
Through negatively reinforcing guilt and shame, you might fall into a downward spiral of self-blame and depression. Good advice might be to remove yourself from the situation for a moment and ask yourself: “How would I react if a friend of mine was the victim? Would I blame them and tell them the perpetrator did the right thing? Would I shame and ridicule them?” Probably not. If you could speak to yourself like you were a friend, how would you treat yourself differently? Self-talk can be harsh and negative, but it can also be soothing, loving and kind. Be kind to yourself.
Many victims of sexual abuse feel dirty. It might even feel as if the dirt creeps into your inner being. You might have the constant need to clean yourself or find yourself scrubbing your skin for long periods of time in the shower or bath. This is a natural response. It might be hard to acknowledge, but you are not dirty. The event was dirty and unnatural – not you. The attack was an event that should never have happened, but it does not reflect on you as a human being. Try thinking of ways to isolate the event as exactly that, something that happened, rather than associating it with your identity.
Loss of control
During the attack, you might have experienced a loss of control. Control was not only denied, but forcibly taken from you. This might lead to the feeling that everything in your life is not under control. This can lead to confusion, emotional or aggressive outbursts, depression and many more responses. This can also lead to a total relinquishing of control or a search for control. Acknowledging the concept of control, how it might have been taken from you, and your unique journey to cope with these circumstances, might shed some light on your responses to the trauma. A good place to start is with making small decisions for yourself. This can include decisions, like what to eat or what to wear, where to park your car or how to spend your time. Little decisions may help you regain a sense of control. Be careful of life-changing and permanent decisions during this time.
Fear and mistrust are common responses to sexual violence. You might feel vulnerable and struggle to continue with regular activities without being afraid or constantly looking over your shoulder. You might be afraid of being alone, or of being among other people. Both these responses are valid. A loss of safety in your environment might make you afraid that the assault can happen again. It might be important to re-establish your sense of safety and comfort in your environment. This might be attained through changing your locks, taking self-defence classes, carrying a self-defence mechanism, such as a shock-stick or pepper spray, or temporarily moving in with a friend or family member. If your feelings of fear and mistrust does not subside over time, it might be a good idea to see a therapist or counsellor.
Being angry after an attack is appropriate. So much has changed after the event(s), an event(s) that you never consented to. Anger is important, but directing your anger at the right things are even more important. You have the right to be angry, but not when the anger is self-destructive or destructive to those around you. Find a healthy expression for your anger: physical activity, writing a journal, playing music, singing, dancing or moving your body in rhythm. These are all healthy ways to release anger. Feeling angry is a step toward healing and acknowledging that you are not to blame. Remember, when you feel angry, acknowledge this emotion and try to direct it into activities that support you, rather than harm you. Make a list of activities that might help to release tension, and refer to this list when your anger feels uncontrollable.
Memories and flashbacks
After a traumatic event, it is natural for the body and mind to remain in a state of shock and unease. As you grapple with the reality of the attack, you might experience yourself playing the memory over in your mind or, in severe cases, feel like you are transported back into the moment of the attack. This is called a flashback. It might feel like the memory of the attack becomes your reality. Flashbacks, nightmares and intrusive memories are common. Remember, a memory or flashback is not real, even though it feels real. Here are some steps to recognize and assist when these do occur:
- Start to know your triggers. Triggers are sights, sounds, smells, people or places that surface tensions, memories or feelings of unease linked to the attack. Walking past someone with the same deodorant or cologne as the perpetrator might, for example, remind you of the attacker. Hearing a voice similar to the perpetrator, or someone with the same stature and build, might have a similar effect. As you start to notice what triggers you, you will become better prepared to handle and unwind these triggers.
- The body responds to danger signals. Your body is a wonderful source of information. When you start to feel uncomfortable, sweaty or tensed up; notice you’re holding your breath or short of breath, experience dizziness, nausea, muscle tension or fidgeting, these might be signs that your body is in a level of distress. If you tune into these cues, you might be able to anticipate emotional attacks or flashes of memories.
- The following grounding techniques might assist you in moments of distress, in the event of a trigger, or during memory flashbacks:
- Find something in your immediate area with texture, a rock, a wall, a piece of furniture or a toy. Focus on the texture of the object and try to describe the texture to yourself.
- Focus on your immediate environment. Where are you? What colour(s) are the walls? What is the date? What can you see in your immediate environment? What can you hear? Describe it to yourself.
- Calm your breathing. Focus on deep breaths. With each inhalation, send a feeling of calmness through your body. With each exhalation, consciously release the tension in your muscles.
- Tense all the muscles in your body, hold the tension for a few seconds, and release. With each repetition, feel the tension ease.
- Start singing softly or dancing. Allowing the body to move and respond through expression releases tension.
- Notice where the tension is in your body, are you clenching your jaw? Are you tightening your lower back? Are your shoulders raised? Notice how the body responds, and allow yourself to calm your body through releasing these tensions.
- If these reactions persist, it might be important to see a therapist or specialist to assist you to cope with recurring triggers and emotional responses.
Intimacy after sexual violence
Intimacy with a partner after sexual assault and violence is a tricky subject. You might have several responses to intimacy. You might struggle to reconnect with your partner(s), experiencing flashbacks, panicking or feeling your body tensing up. You might experience the opposite, with a need for safety and closeness when being intimate with your partner(s). Alternatively, you can also feel the need to have multiple sex-partners, feeling that sex and sex acts have been devalued, or experiencing a sense of control when you are in control of your sexual experiences. It is important to recognise that even though some of these responses might not be healthy in the long-term, they are normal and natural in the context. The following might be helpful:
- Communicate with your partner(s). Tell them what you need and do not need. Communicate if you want to be hugged, or not, if you want to be held, or not, and if you are, or are not, comfortable with sex or sexual acts for the time being. Communicate your mental and bodily responses to intimacy with your partner(s) so that they can be aware and make the necessary changes. Your partner(s) cannot support you, without knowing what is going on.
- If flashbacks occur, it might help to have the lights on or off during intimate activities. This ensures that you can ground yourself in the present.
- Remind yourself that consensual sex, sex activities and intimacy, with someone who cares about you and respects you, are not the same as sexual violation. During non-consensual sexual interaction, you were a victim to someone taking your choices and control away. During consensual intimacy, you have the control to choose what you want to do, when you want to do it and with whom you want to do it with.
- Stop any time you need to. If you need a break, take it. You are not obligated to finish any sexual activity with your partner. Listen to your body, and do not force yourself to continue if you feel uncomfortable. Forcing yourself might traumatise you again. You are in control.
- If certain sexual positions frighten you or make you feel a loss of control, communicate this to your partner(s) and avoid these positions. You have the right to consent to any action performed with a partner(s).
- Take your time. You might not be ready yet, but that does not mean you will never be ready. Take engagement with intimacy slow. If you feel that you are not easing back into a healthy relationship with intimacy, it might be a good idea to see a therapist or sexual health professional to assist you in this venture.
Unhealthy coping strategies
- Alcohol and drug abuse
- Escapism through television, video games, fantasies and daydreams
- Detachment from others and isolation from the world around you
- Physically shutting down from feelings and emotions
- Risky activities and recklessness
Healthy coping strategies
- Talking to a trustworthy family member, friend, therapist or counsellor
- Socialising with people you trust
- Taking care of your body through diet, exercise, drinking enough water and sleeping enough
- Taking self-defence classes
- Managing media and social media consumption
- Mindfulness meditation
- Yoga, Tai Chi or Qigong
- Joining a rhythmic movement, dancing, drumming or marching class
- Writing and journaling
- Poetry, painting, drama or drawing
A step to healing
Remember, what happened in the attack was not your fault. You may not understand that yet, but hopefully one day you will. You did nothing wrong, and the attack was not fair. Be patient with yourself. Allow yourself to have better and worse days. Any of the reactions listed in this article, and even more, are completely valid. By acknowledging your triggers and the feelings that arise, you can start to manage them efficiently. You might not foresee that your life will return to normalcy soon, but step by step, you will be able to regain confidence and take control over your life. Allow yourself the time to heal. You might not ever forget the attack, but it does not have to affect your everyday life forever. The choice to take the step from victim to survivor is yours to make. Remember, you are not your abuse. You are strong and courageous and you can take the first step to healing.
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