When it comes to healing from sexual violence there is no such thing as a quick fix. There are no late night infomercials holding the magic secret. No therapist, book, guru, or drug holding the secret.
Healing from sexual assault is a process. It takes time. It requires patience. And, it takes having an effective community of support.
And, since our culture is not proactive in preparing folks to support survivors, it also takes time to learn how to be a truly effective supporter. You’re going to make mistakes, but your continued support and willingness to do better is going to make a huge difference for your loved one.
Help Your Loved One Endure Healing From Sexual Assault
Here are a few tips you should know when supporting a sexual assault survivor.
1) It takes time to get to know the impact of an assault. Whether an assault occurred yesterday or fifty years ago, no survivor is able to write out a list of all of their triggers*. It takes time to learn the whens, whats, wheres, and hows of trauma’s impact.
It also takes time for supporters to learn the impact, how to respond in affirming ways, and how to find the difference between your intention and your impact.
2) No part of life is immune from the impact of sexual assault. Much like point #1, it can take time for a survivor to realize what in life has changed. It can take even longer for a survivor to learn how to cope and/or navigate these impacts.
Supporters can be amazingly helpful by offering assistance in navigating these impacts. You can drive a kiddo to school, help with meal and chores, be an advocate in the community, and learn to avoid doing, saying, or acting in ways trigger the survivor like-
not wearing certain perfumes, not automatically reaching for a hug when you see them, not making jokes or comments about assault (something you shouldn’t do anyways).
3) Don’t try to push things along. When we push our loved one to heal we’re ultimately pushing them away. We’re effectively telling them that what they’re doing is wrong and that they can’t take care of themselves properly.
It’s incredibly likely that your loved one is already wracked with shame about their assault. They likely already believe they can’t keep themselves safe. When we push them to heal, we’re pushing them away, and isolation is a poison in trauma recovery (in all areas of life really).
4) Be tolerant of the whole process. Trauma recovery is a dance between steps forward and steps back. There is no linear progression. It’s important for supporters to let go of expectations that healing should look a certain way, take a certain amount of time, ever truly be over, or even have to happen at all.
Though we want healing and happiness for our loved ones, when we assume to know what it is they need and pressure them in to those things we’re only causing more harm. We’re denying their Agency.
5) Don’t pressure your loved one to finish healing, move on, get over it, do it this way, don’t do it that way, or just drop it. This seems obvious, but there will likely be moments when you feel this way. It doesn’t mean you’re a bad person, but it does mean you’re feeling overwhelmed and under-resourced. It’s time for you to find more support or else you risk breaking relationship with the survivor you love.
Supporters need to remember that for a survivor healing is about reclaiming their Agency**.
Here’s how this can look in real life:
Bad Example - Hey, here’s a list of therapists and support groups I found. Pick out which one you want to go to and I can drive you there. I’ll even pay for it. (good intention, Agency Denying).
See the difference?
Healing from sexual assault is a difficult process. But it is made immensely less challenging when we have a support system, and it’s made even less challenging when our support system knows how to support us in Agency Affirming ways (instead of resting upon good intentions).
Today is the perfect day to begin reaching out for support.
Always remember two things: Healing Is Possible, And It’s When We’re In Connection With Others That We Thrive.
*a Trigger is any event, sensory stimulation, thought, etc… that reminds a survivor of their trauma. Triggers can often induce flashbacks which cause the survivor to re-experience the traumatic event as if it were happening again.
** To have agency is to have access to choices, control over your own actions, and to believe that you can choose to act in ways that are right for you.
Hudson Wilkins, MA, LPCC, EMDR, IFS. Hudson is a nature and mindfulness based trauma therapist inFort Collins, CO. He operates a private practice with a specialty in supporting folks who have experienced sexual violence first hand, and those that love them to heal and rebalance their lives.