Surviving sexual assault sets the survivor on a rollercoaster… I liken living with the effects of trauma to living in a snow globe. For the most part, things are calm, untill a chain of events, even a single seemingly small incident will shake everything up and it takes forever to be calm again. I recently came across a man who looked exactly like my abuser, and for the following three days was convinced that he had somehow found me and was afraid to leave my home.. That’s what the psyche of someone who’s survived trauma can be like.. It needs a pretty strong and resillient group of people to reassure the survivor that their feelings aren’t irrational, that they are real and a natural reaction to an unnatural set of circumstances.
When you are supporting someone, it’s good to know what they may feel,and experience. These feelings are not exhaustive, and each victim survivor’s experience is different, but these are some of the common feelings people have described, and I know that on numerous occasions, I have experienced.
Shame – the often interminable feeling that you are unclean, devalued and have become substandard due to what you have experienced, along with the idea that you will not be believed, listened to or understood SHOULD you speak up. Shame is a huge silencer, it is what keeps people from discussing their experiences and continues to be a source of power for the perpetrator. Shame can last for years, and is often one of the most powerful impacts of violence.
Fear. Fear is a very multifaceted impact. It can happen during the abuse and lingers on after.. Everything, everything, after violence has the potential to be frightening. The places that you once found a source of comfort can be a source of fear. Sometimes your own home can be a source of the most devastating memories. To this day i cannot go certain places, for the fear they engender. Fear can often precipitate days of crippling anxiety, depression and self hatred.
Guilt – this is incredibly hard to shift. The overwhelming feeling that you were at fault, somehow, for your own experience. The feeling you could have done more, been somehow better, fought harder, not worn that dress, had that drink or gone home with him. The feeling that as a child, you should have told someone, spoken up, or done something to stop what was happening. The truth is that you were not at fault. This is not a situation you caused, it is always the responsibility of the person who abused you.
Anger – you may be angry at the world for allowing this to happen at all, you may be angry at yourself for being rendered powerless, you might be angry at a system that has failled you, or for a number of other reasons. Anger is a normal response to what happened to you. It is perfectly acceptable to feel and express anger in a healthy way, yet particularly for women it is often deemed unacceptable.
Displacement – this is what i describe as the impacts on work, homelessness, study and other day to day areas of someone’s life. I have changed cities due to my abuse, and lived with the affects of limited employment opportunities, and the impacts my post traumatic stress disorder has had on ability to concentrate and participate in study. I have regularly had displacement described to me by women who’ve experienced violence and felt the impacts too great to continue with work, or have turned down study or travel opportunities because they no longer felt safe. It is also really long lasting and can see victim survivors in cycles of poverty and in multiple scenarios of further risk, such as sex work, homelessness, or unsafe relationships. It is a further erosion of the dignity and right to a fulfilling life survivors often encounter.
Post Traumatic Stress Disorder – this is extremely common in surviving sexual assault, although it is a highly medicalized term. Post Traumatic Stress Disorder is experienced in flashbacks, nightmares, intrusive thoughts, panic and anxiety symptoms and depression. It is a lingering effect that often takes years to work through, and ”processing” symptoms is impacted by the amount of time it takes someone to come forward. I refer glibly to PTSD as “the gift that keeps on giving” but in all honesty it really is. The repettition of traumatic incidences long after they have occurred has really shaken my sense of reality. Although the abuse is no longer occurring, during a flashback or traumatic memory, it can feel like it is. You can instantly be propelled back to that time or place. I have begun to lose faith in my mind’s own processes, if so often, it can take so little to be taken back to a really horrendous time. The working through of PTSD does require a trained professional, and is best done with someone who knows how to help you get through your symptoms. (if you need someone to discuss these options for assitance with and you’re in australia 1800 737732 can give you advice)
There are so many more impacts, it’s a really huge minefield of feelings thoughts and ways of being. If you need advice there are many resources on the internet or contact your local women’s or comunity health Centre or GP for help.
for a blog that discusses the impacts of sexual assault from a victim survivor’s perspective check out 16impacts.wordpress.com