The question is not whether there is life after a sexual assault, but what is the quality of life after such a devastating event? That depends on what happens after the trauma. Some times it depends on what happens immediately following the assault.
Sexual assault shatters our safety, both physically and psychologically, leaving us unable to cope with once commonplace events. This can last for a few days or for years. A post-traumatic syndrome may set in to debilitate the survivor. Just as each victim will be individual so will each story and each manner of coping. It is to be expected, however, that everyone who has survived a sexual assault will have special needs for sometime afterward. Even the smallest of daily events can have major consequences. Particularly those events that somehow recall elements of the assault can be exceedingly stressful and even disorienting.
Touch, for example, can be very threatening even when motivated by love and intimacy. A loving, supportive touch can trigger the body’s trauma-based memory. A flashback’ experience in which the survivor actually experiences the physiology of the assault can occur. Sometimes, in those who are severely reactive, such a flashback’ can produce the illusion of being in the assault once again. In these extreme experiences the survivor actually becomes disoriented in time and place. An exceedingly gentle approach in which the survivor is in charge of touch and any other intimacy can help alleviate residual fear. It is important to remember, however, that this fear may persist for some time.
Crisis intervention has shown that it is especially helpful for the victim to talk about the assault as soon as possible. Since sexual assault carries a shame-based stigma and is a profoundly dehumanizing and humiliating experience, the nature of this crime is violent, invasive of body boundaries and disrespectful of cultural taboos, but the act of verbalizing the trauma can lessen its debilitating effects. The survivor can begin to break through shame, humiliation and terror by telling the story to safe people. If not, isolation and secret-keeping can increase the likelihood of prolonged suffering. Whatever can be shared should be shared quickly after the event. Over time, sharing more of the process of healing with trusted others will also accelerate recovery time.
Knowing no other place to begin, our instincts usually tell us to assure the survivor that the assault was not his or her fault. This is a wise, compassionate and helpful thing to do, but it is merely a beginning and by no means all the survivor must understand in order to heal. The overwhelming feelings that come are probably the chief obstacles and these will go far beyond any sense of guilt. Terror, anger, rage, sorrow and grief can be expected as the healing process unfolds. Each emotion has its particular contribution to resolution. Within each of these extreme states lies valuable information for the survivor.
Terror is appropriate. It tells the survivor that an extreme event happened that could have resulted in death. This emotion validates the horrible experience. It also gives the survivor, in time, an understanding that he or she has indeed survived.
Anger is also appropriate as is its more ramped up cousin rage. This allows the survivor to feel power, to switch from victimization mode to an intense intent-to-survive. These feelings further validate that an unacceptable wrong has occurred. These feelings place the responsibility of the assault where it belongs-with the perpetrator.
Sorrow begins the grieving process which will eventually take the survivor to some resolution. Much is lost through an event like this. The sense of safety, trust, bodily integrity and autonomy are just a few of the losses that must be grieved.
Life after sexual assault can take the survivor to wholeness again, but it can be an arduous and complicated process. Survivors should seek professional care to help navigate this process.