Q: How can survivors maintain their mental health when interacting with family/friends that are unaware of a survivor’s experiences/abuse suffered?
Example: (when faced with comments such as, “I would never allow myself to be in an abusive relationship”, or “I would feel so broken if I ever experienced sexual assault”, or “I would have fought back if I was ever sexually assaulted”?)
A: Let’s face it; humans can be so insensitive to one another. Survivors of sexual violence are met with an array of emotions and responses to something that should never have happened to them. It should never happen to anyone! Sexual trauma and assault is a life altering crime in which the survivor feels powerless, helpless and overcome by shame, guilt and embarrassment. The blame should never be placed upon the survivor, as they did nothing to deserve being hurt and are not to blame for the actions of the perpetrator. Sadly, survivors most often do blame themselves. They have no control over what was done to them, but are left with the overwhelming task of rebuilding their lives with little support. Not to mention, not everyone has the gift of empathy or a factual understanding of sexual trauma.
Because of the complexities of sexual violence and trauma, survivors are fearful of others knowing what they have experienced. They fear that others will not believe them, or that they will be blamed for the assault or that their loved ones may retaliate against the assailant and could be hurt or get in trouble legally. These are valid fears for the survivor and often render them silent in their suffering.
The following are tangible suggestions for survivors to practice self-care when facing unaware family and friends:
- You have control over who you share your experience with and when/if you share. This horrible crime happened to you. You are the only one who should decide to share it with others. Your security system has been breached and your fears are understandable. Seek “safe” people to talk or share with, whether it be a close friend, therapist or a sexual assault crisis professional. As hard as sharing is, it can be cathartic for your healing moving forward.
- You Matter: What was your routine before the assault? Are you sleeping? What are you eating? Are you exercising? What are your daily routines? As you are physically healing, remember to take care of your body through sleep, nourishment, exercise and striving to get routine back into your daily routine of life. This is such a struggle (we know it is – UGH) but essential to your health and feeling stronger.
- If you have a close friend that you have confided in, ask them to go with you to an event (family gathering, work event) so that you won’t be alone. You could even have a pre-planned code word to use (or text depending upon the situation) when you need to take a break or have an “out”.
- Trust thyself: You as a survivor know what is best for you and your life. You know your limits, your strengths and what you are or are not comfortable with or what coping skills have been beneficial in the past. If you encounter a situation that is upsetting, excuse yourself and take a few minutes to digest it. Cry if you need to. Call a trusted friend. Go outside and focus on nature or take a short walk. Sometimes just having a small reprieve from a difficult situation can be helpful.
- “What If”: Sometimes the best we can do is try to mentally prepare ourselves for upcoming events. Play the “what if” game. Mentally imagine the people you will be around and the possible situations that may arise. Prepare yourself with imagined scenarios. Now imagine how you fear that you will react. Allow the worst case scenarios to play out in your mind. Now imagine how you would like to respond. This might help with any anxiety you might be feeling leading up to the event.
- Give yourself some Grace: We often are eager to give others grace. You deserve some grace too. You are doing your best to process the trauma of what you have experienced. You have every right to feel what you are feeling and you are responding normally to a horrific event. Be kind to yourself and give yourself permission to feel. Whatever that may be.
- Knowledge is power: When you begin to feel more self-assured and stronger, we encourage you to learn all you can about the prevalence, impact and factual information surrounding sexual violence. This can help in your own understanding of what you have experienced and can assist in the loneliness and self-blame you have likely experienced. Down the road, this can also help you have what you need to dispel hurtful comments or skewed mindsets about this crime.
- Keep trying: You are special. You are believed. You did nothing wrong. Life after sexual trauma is challenging in every aspect and relationships with others is exceptionally hard. Sometimes the best you can do is take it one minute at a time. And that’s okay. As you grow stronger, you will begin to feel more confident in knowing what helps and what doesn’t. Learn to trust what you need or want and keep moving forward.