Lisa woke up from pressure and nausea. Pinned down on a stranger’s sofa, in an unfamiliar room she realized what was happening to her. Her eyes focused on a man she barely recognized, an acquaintance who moved on top of her. His eyes were shut and he seemed completely unaware of her existence. She felt less than objectified and even subhuman. Naked and humiliated, she stared at the exposed brick wall next to her. She counted them as her mind moved in and out of dissociation. She didn’t struggle, she couldn’t move, no sound came out of her mouth. Tears streamed from her eyes as she stared at the bricks. She screamed inside, I don’t want this.
Lisa survived that night but something intangible and important had been taken from her. She never talked about that night with anyone, and tried not to think about it. She felt ashamed about how much she had been drinking, and couldn’t conceive that she had really been raped. Her friends commented about how much her look, and vibe had changed. From their sideways glances she could tell they didn’t mean in a good way. The romantic, who loved art history, with plans to become a curator, had faded out.
Dirty and damaged were the words Lisa focused on to describe herself. She felt the disintegration spiraling through her, but she couldn’t stop it. She tried to wash away the disgust by drinking travel coffee cups and aluminum water bottles filled with vodka. The tag of alcoholic was easier than victim. She blamed herself. Always had alcohol within her her grasp, like a new security system that worked to numb the stress and keep other emotions at a safe distance. The worst part of her day was the beginning. She hated waking up.
As a trauma therapist, I’ve met many clients who have shared stories very similar to Lisa’s. The recently released book, The Essence of Resilience: Stories of Triumph over Trauma, was inspired by the brave voices of survival. The book is dedicated to the resilient spirit of trauma survivors and includes a compilation of stories along with clinical strategies to heal, and find resilience. When clients have the opportunity to tell their stories a shift of reclaiming power begins to take place, just by breaking the cycle of secrecy and giving voice to the truth. Sexual assault and rape can be very challenging and painful experiences to speak about. Shame can become a silencer. Many clients initially don’t identify with problems of sexual trauma. Sometimes mood disorders like anxiety and depression, relationship conflict, or addiction are the reasons for scheduling sessions. For clients and for all of us, what we don’t say is often more important than what we do.
Once clients share their stories of surviving sexual assault, they start making connections regarding how they view themselves. They see the residual loss of their self worth that occurred after the violation, and led to patterns of self-sabotage, turning their pain and anger inward. Voices inside that have become a ruminative spin, can be challenged instead of repeated like; I’m damaged, I will never feel whole again, the only peace I can find is through my addiction, I can’t trust myself or anyone else.
One of the original meanings of the word rape is to seize or steal, or to strip away resources. What I have witnessed working with survivors of sexual assault of any form including rape is loss. Loss of the use of their voice, loss of choice, loss of time, loss of calm, loss of innocence, loss of intimacy and energy.
What vastly differentiates sex from the perpetration of sexual assault is consent. Power differential determines how much choice a person has to give consent. A child cannot give consent, a person in an unconscious state cannot give consent. Often what is emphasized in the discussion about consent is a person’s ability to say no. Often trauma survivors blame themselves, even when they had no choice, and no option to consent. Saying no outlines boundaries to live by, and offers structure to create feelings of safety. After a sexual assault a common belief that survivors internalize, is that they have lost the right to say no.
But if you can’t say no, you can’t say yes. One of the more insidious costs of sexual assault is the loss of the ability to say yes. Yes to trust, yes to risks, yes to dreams, yes to moments, yes to consensual sex, yes to love and living fully. One of the most precious gifts to grab back to heal sexual assault, and find resilience is to say yes again.
After years of suffering aimlessly and losing her desire to live, Lisa had enough. She was tired of the secrecy, the drinking, and the emptiness. With the support of her friends and family she started therapy. Eventually she found the words that had been lost for so long. She expressed no to the sexual assault, and to all the events that occurred afterwards. She said no to drinking, and living a life that wasn’t her own.
Lisa started to feel more neutral about mornings. She still felt anxiety waking up, coupled with a growing momentum of enthusiasm. Some of her energy returned as she learned how to articulate what she wanted again. The dread that hovered over her when she walked out the door began to diminish. Now when she stepped outside and encountered the day she whispered softly, and fiercely, yes, yes, yes.
Need help? Visit RAINN’s National Sexual Assault Online Hotline or the National Sexual Violence Resource Center’s website.