The healing process of sexual trauma is gradual. It can’t be forced, and it’s not necessary to dredge up the memory of the trauma in detail—though sharing the experience is powerfully healing. It takes the shame which hides in the shadows and brings it to the light. Storying trauma doesn’t require retelling every bit of the rape or sexual abuse, or even remembering everything that happened. The need to know everything beyond a fraction of doubt is the mind-set of the courtroom, not the healing attitude of recovery. Rather, in recovery, what survivors need is the experience of what psychiatrist Daniel Siegel call “feeling felt” by another, sharing what is felt and having those feelings validated. Without this experience of “feeling felt,” there’s the possibility of further falling victim to the sense of self as shameful. But the taboo and stigma surrounding sexual violence is real, and openly telling others about sexual violence, without anonymity, can be compromising, even dangerous for some survivors.
Healing is most successful when joined with personal efforts at creating safety and peace in daily life. However, it could get frustrating when it’s slow. Here are 3 things to keep in mind if you’re struggling in the healing process:
1. Struggling isn’t Failing….Healing Isn’t Linear.
Survivors of sexual trauma often avoid support, while some who seek support sometimes get the wrong kind of support, or do not receive appropriate services, as a result of this they aren’t always told how sexual violence impacts the body and mind, which is very vital. This information is actually best received as close as possible to the time of the rape or sexual abuse. Knowing what to expect can decrease self-judgement, especially the belief that the survivor should be over the incident already, which is a feeling that commonly creeps in, along with thoughts of self-blame. So if you are a non-victim who is in the habit of thinking that survivors of sexual violence should get over what happened to them or its effects already…you should know that they are already agonizing, or have already agonized over having not gotten over it before you knew to have the thought. Awareness of common reactions to a traumatic event and what to expect in the journey to recovery can also help manage expectations- there will be good days and bad days, but you should know that you’ll always be moving forward. And as you move forward you’ll learn to cope better. Struggling to work through trauma is normal, it isn’t fun, but it’s not failure either.
Be patient with yourself. Always remember how far you’ve come. When you look at the bigger picture, you’ll appreciate the progress you’ve made. That progress is worth celebrating, even on your rough days.
2. You’re the Only Person You’re Healing For
No survivor owes their recovery to anyone: not to family, friends, followers, lover, or anyone else. Most of the time, survivors are encouraged to talk about their trauma in order to inspire and help others. Sometimes, this puts survivors in an uncomfortable position where they feel that they have to heal for others instead of for themselves. However, it is important to remember that you don’t have to inspire anyone; knowing this would take the pressure of trying to recover quickly to show strength off. It’s also a reminder to approach your healing with tenderness and authenticity because what matters isn’t how you look to everyone else, but how you’re feeling.
3. Healing Looks Different for Everyone
No one can anticipate the impact sexual violence is going to have, although anticipation isn’t usually needed, since reactions to sexual violence appear rather quickly. When these reactions are ignored, over time they become the ‘new norm’ as the person the survivor was before the rape, and the survivor’s prior way of being in their body and the world, begin to recede. These reactions can manifest in many different ways, so no one survivor reacts or is affected the same way. Hence, the healing journey is different for everyone. Some may start by forgiving their perpetrators, while others may not entertain the thought of forgiveness for a long time to come…some may jump back into living, consumed by work and activities, while it might take others a while to get back into things or find a new way of doing things seeing as no survivor goes back to who they were before the incident. A survivor who’s healing might recover by talking about their trauma openly, while another might want to keep it personal. That’s also perfectly okay. It is important to remember that there’s no universal measuring tape that marks how much a survivor has healed, so don’t compare your healing to others.
Rather, take the time to consider what healing means to you, think about the milestones you’ve reached in your healing, and remember that your recovery may look different than others’ recovery process.
It’s perfectly normal to feel frustrated at having to deal with some of the effects of the trauma that seem to linger or persist, but slow recovery is still recovery and slow progress is still progress. Getting back to ‘ordinary life’ begins with being aware of limiting beliefs, overwhelming emotions, and disruptive sensations as defense reactions, and then creating conditions that increase feelings of body safety, emotional safety, and safety in the environment. Remember to surround yourself with people who support you and would give you the space you need to take care of yourself. Hold out for full recovery (it’s possible).