"I feel like what happened was my fault. Like I did something to deserve it," is a statement that I have heard frequently in my work as a therapist who specializes in helping survivors of trauma. I have spoken with numerous survivors whose families and friends asked them, "Why can't you just get over it?"
Awareness of the impact that trauma can have on an individual is spreading, however there is still a lot of misinformation and stigma that many survivors experience. Although everyone copes with trauma and the healing process differently, the following are some universal truths that I wish every survivor of sexual trauma could hear.
1. What happened to you was not your fault.
I know you may have heard this before, but that it might be difficult for you to believe. You may think to yourself, "If only I hadn't gone to that party, this wouldn't have happened" or "I didn't tell anyone what was happening, so I must have wanted it."
First off, I want you to know that this is a common reaction to sexual trauma. Your mind wants to make sense of a situation that ultimately was out of your control. Therefore, many people wrongly believe that they must have been responsible for what happened to them.
When someone is sexually abused, the only person who is to blame is the perpetrator. You did the best that you could, with the coping skills that you had at the time. No matter what party you went to, if you had a drink, if you didn't fight the person off, if you were dating the person, if you were aroused and regardless of any other circumstance -- it was not your fault. You were not responsible for this and you certainly did not deserve it.
Think about what you would tell a friend who shared with you the same experience. It is unlikely that you would tell your friend that what happened to them was their fault. You deserve to give yourself the same compassion that you would give to a friend or loved one who went through a trauma. If you are struggling with intense feelings of shame and guilt following trauma, it could be helpful to consider reaching out to a therapist-preferably one who specializes in trauma.
2. Your responses are normal reactions to an abnormal experience.
Some people who experience symptoms of post-traumatic stress feel that they are "going crazy." When someone experiences trauma his or her body naturally goes into "fight or flight" mode. This reaction to a stressor in the environment, developed as it was evolutionarily advantageous and protected our ancestors from imminent danger.
According to The National Institute of Mental Health,"This fight-or-flight response is a healthy reaction meant to protect a person from harm. But in post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), this reaction is changed or damaged. People who have PTSD may feel stressed or frightened even when they're no longer in danger."
Not everyone who experiences trauma will go on to develop PTSD. However, if you are experiencing symptoms of post-traumatic stress or have received a diagnosis of post-traumatic stress disorder, it is important to note that you are not "crazy."
First off, I find it offensive to label any individual as "crazy." Secondly, you experienced something that no one should have to go through. Your body and mind may be trying desperately to make sense of what happened. No matter what symptoms you may be experiencing as a result of your trauma, you are certainly not alone in experiencing them.
3. Healing and recovery is possible.
There are numerous individuals whose lives serve as examples that healing and recovery following sexual trauma is possible. Erin Merryn is one woman who is an amazing example of resilience following sexual trauma. Erin is a mother, wife, author, activist, and Glamour Magazine 2012 Woman of the Year, who has been featured in numerous media outlets. She is also a survivor of childhood sexual assault and went on to create"Erin's Law," which "requires that all public schools in each state implement a prevention-oriented child sexual abuse program." In her book entitled, Living for Today: From Incest and Molestation to Fearlessness and Forgiveness, Merryn stated,
As I faced each tragedy in my life, I learned to reach into the depth of my soul for strength and determination. Through this healing process, I discovered perseverance and resilience. I could not go into the past and use White-Out to erase any events; instead, I had to find a way to use my pain to help me heal and grow. I had to stare darkness in the face and accept that I could not change the past, but I could build a better future.
If you or someone you know has been affected by sexual violence, it's not your fault. You are not alone. Help is available 24/7 through the National Sexual Assault Hotline: 800-656-HOPE and online.rainn.org, y en español: rainn.org/es.
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