The experience of sexual trauma is very unique in nature. It’s unique to every individual and is impacted by several factors: the definition of the experiences, their duration, the relationship with the perpetrator, the environment it occurred in – and this is only scratching the surface.
Sexual violence endangers an individual’s safety. It can feel extremely disempowering. It has the potential to manipulate the survivor’s sense of self due to internalized shame, guilt, anger, fear and blame. This is why people who experienced sexual violence are often unable to react or fight in the moment, speak up about their experiences or pursue legal action. Receiving reactions such as “But why didn’t she speak up until now” can lead to an additional burden on survivors, who view their silence as a failure.
Telling your story
While it’s important to voice our narratives, we need to remember that silence can provide a feeling of safety. When violence is inflicted, safety is the first to go; and we indulge in behaviors that appear to be adaptive in the moment. It’s a cycle of reinforcement. When a drink at 8 pm with a social group becomes a positive experience, we indulge in it more frequently. The behavior is reinforced. When a culture is propagating an agenda powered by shame, intimidation and victim-blaming, silence feels adaptive. It becomes a component in the cycle of reinforcement.
So how can you decide that it’s time for their narrative to be shared? Most survivors I have worked with have rebuilt their community because they are reconstructing their definition of safety. They want to know and assess these individuals so they can create a space to feel vulnerable, to feel authentically, to feel supported. They proceed with caution before sharing their story and that anxiety is extremely valid.
Here are some helpful questions to consider before you share your story:
How will this person/community respond how I share my story?
How prepared do I feel to accept their response?
What are some things I need to have in place to feel supported?
The answers to these could be a good place to start. We associate bravery with a survivor’s capacity to vocalise their trauma to an outsider who did not experience it, almost as if it is a price to pay for a medal. No. You are brave because you survived it. This resilience needs to be acknowledged. Revealing stories of one’s sexual trauma comes at a great personal cost, and you are the only person who can determine your readiness to share. Your trauma does not become any less painful or invalid if you cannot or don’t want to share it.
When sexual violence is inflicted, agency is brutally taken away. It can be repeatedly taken away when there is pressure to chronicle your account to your audience. Depending on where you are in your post-traumatic journey, remember that you get to decide the who-when-where-how much of sharing your story.
Post-traumatic stress and the recovery from it is not a linear process. Mindfulness can help. Coping strategies and coping skills can be big strengths in how survivors manage post traumatic stress. Sharing your story with one or a few people within the connected network of your safe community can help you practice boundaries. People may ask you follow up questions; but it is not your responsibility to feed their curiosity. It is okay to say no, it is okay to not divulge details (or divulge only as many details as you wish), and it is okay to be assertive.
Telling your story could also trigger a reliving of the traumatic experience. These triggers could be psychological stimuli that can instigate flashbacks – memories, emotions or bodily tendencies, including pain or numbness that you may have experienced. So if you start feeling uncomfortable and want to withdraw from the conversation, you have the right to do so.
Check in with yourself, whenever possible. Listeners may have strong emotional responses and it is absolutely okay to draw boundaries. Their reactions are valid for their experience, and it need not be your job to soothe them in that moment. If the story is shared with a larger community, on social media and such, it would be supportive for you to have a strong offline community as well. Telling your story could open up supportive communities and solidarity, but it could also leave you vulnerable to trolling, cyberbullying and a plethora of questions by strangers who have questions to ask about your experience. These aspects can be triggering – and having an affirming, offline community can be a source of consistent support and healing.
Customize your coping strategies
Additionally, having customized coping strategies can be strengths too – is it a workout? Is it a sport? Yoga? Meditation exercises? What is it that you can consistently do to connect your body and brain? How are you actively engaging the two?
Continuous integration of mindfulness helps us in recognizing and feeling responses in our body, faster than usual. This can help in nipping distress in the bud and reducing the exacerbation of post traumatic distress caused by triggers. If you are in therapy – which is highly recommended –it would be helpful to create a coping strategy and have a plan in place before you share your story. It can be useful in processing the trauma, understanding the meaning and importance of publicising a narrative and to create strategies in place for emotional safety.
Sexual assault and sexual harassment are two words that have been frequented in conversations the most in the last couple of weeks. We have talked about the qualifications of violation, addressed stories, held predators accountable, engaged in radical activism, built a community and strived extremely hard to maintain solidarity. Many successes, some failures, numerous lessons. A day outside in the snow and with no protective clothing can cause a cold and cough. There are no protective factors there. Similarly, the absence of emotional protective factors and safety strategies can cause a host of post traumatic triggers to become activated. Our physical and mental health are equally important – one is never greater than the other. Healing isn’t linear, it’s a journey; and help is always a good idea.
Ruchita Chandrashekar is a Chicago-based traumapsychologist providingmental health services to survivors ofgender basedviolence, including the LGBTQIA community. Her special interests lie intrauma informedtherapy, destigmatizing mental health in South Asian communities and exploring the impact of marginalisation and oppression on healthcare resources.