Many survivors of sexual assault worry that they will never “be the same.” While traumatic events are rarely forgotten, as a survivor you can and will regain happiness by healing from painful memories, feelings, and thoughts. The process of recovery can take time while you work through your own feelings and reactions to being a survivor. Although every situation is unique, many survivors experience some or all of the following:
- Feeling shamed or guilty. You may be blaming yourself, wondering “what did I do wrong” or “I shouldn’t have....” Societal beliefs about sexual assault make these feelings worse by blaming the victim.
- Withdrawing from friends/loved ones. You may feel that no one else can understand your experience and so find yourself avoiding spending time or talking about the assault with loved ones. Feelings of shame may increase your desire to be alone.
- Difficulty trusting others. Being assaulted can shatter your trust in all relationships. You may find it hard to trust anyone after the assault, even those you trusted before.
- Depression or low self-esteem. Feelings of powerlessness and loss of control are common reactions, and if you are feeling this way it can contribute to depression or low self-esteem, especially when combined with feelings of shame and guilt.
- Changes in sexual desire or functioning. After the assault, you may find it difficult to engage in any sexual activity or you may find yourself engaging in more or different types of sexual activity than usual. These changes can be concerning as they are often a response to painful feelings and memories that have not yet healed.
- Anger toward self or others. Because societal expectations make it difficult for survivors to express anger, you may find that you are increasingly angry with yourself or with others, even loved ones, instead. It may also be hard to feel angry about what happened if you are also feeling shamed or depressed.
- Disruptive memories or feelings. Also called “flashbacks,” survivors often experience these when reminded of the assault. Sights, sounds, smells, or thoughts can all “trigger” a flashback.
Recovery begins when you are ready to address your feelings, which can begin moments after the assault or many years later depending on your situation and the nature of the assault. There is no “right” time to begin the recovery process (see below for links to resources to consult). During the recovery process, you may work on:
- Healing shame and guilt. Knowing that what happened is not your fault is an important step in the healing process. Challenging societal beliefs about who is responsible for sexual assault is often an important piece of the healing process. You are never responsible for what happened.
- Building strong, supportive relationships. Part of recovery involves fostering healthy and emotionally supportive relationships. You may find that relationships change as you recover, usually for the better as you let healthy, open, and supportive relationships thrive and let go of unhealthy relationships.
- Regaining strong self-esteem. If you have felt shamed and powerless, you may find pride in having survived – and recovered – from an assault. By recovering you are no longer letting the perpetrator have control of your life.
- Engaging in enjoyable and healthy sexuality. As feelings and memories of the assault become less painful, you will regain a sense of enjoyment and control over your sexuality, especially as unhealthy relationships are let go and healthy relationships are fostered.
- Learning to trust others. As you learn to trust and honor yourself, opportunities for trusting others become possible. Relying on safe and supportive relationships helps in this process.
- Directing healthy anger. Anger is a healthy response to an assault. As a way to cope with anger, you may find it helpful to engage in sexual assault prevention or recovery efforts in your community. Advocating for legislation, working with survivors at a Rape Crisis Center, or planning an awareness event such as “Take Back the Night” are all ways to use your anger in healthy ways.
- Incorporating the traumatic memory. Some consider this the last step in recovery and though it takes time, it is possible. When your memories are incorporated, they become far less painful as you become able to view the assault as a part of your history that has changed you but no longer defines or limits your life.
You do not have go through recovery alone. Although your family and friends can offer valuable support, most survivors find it helpful to connect with a professional counselor or a group of other survivors during their recovery process. Some good resources for professional support include:
Bentley Office of Counseling and Student Development (for therapy and/or referral)
Boston Area Rape Crisis Center (BARCC)