While the title above may look like this article is going to give a one size fits all, foolproof tips on how to recover and heal from the trauma of a sexual assault, the truth about tragedies and traumatic experiences like sexual assault is that there are no rules on how to go about recovering from them. The way one responds or recovers from traumatic experiences is influenced by a number of personal and social influences. But sometimes when one experiences a sexual assault, it is difficult to know what to do next. Most of the time victims feel disorganized and lost making it hard to put forward or prioritize what steps to take or what to do. So, in order to help in that regard, here are some tips to keep in mind as you try to heal and recover from a sexual assault.
Healing and recovery from a sexual assault cannot truly take place unless the victim is in a place of physical safety. Are you in a place where there is a likelihood of a reoccurrence of a sexual assault? It is not up to you to prevent getting sexually assaulted-that responsibility lies with the perpetrator. However, the critical peace of mind and relief that comes with lowering the risks of a reoccurrence are within your power.
For example, if the perpetrator is someone with whom you live in the same household such as a friend or a family member, would you let them continue to live with you? Or if the perpetrator has a key to your apartment, wouldn’t it be wise to change the locks?
After a sexual assault, your safety shouldn’t be your responsibility. Ideally we should live in a world where sexual assault does not even occur in the first place. Everyone, everywhere should feel safe and be protected from all forms of violence. We should live in a world where people who are tempted to commit crimes learn to control those urges. Unfortunately, we do not live in an ideal world. It wouldn’t be fair to expect a victim of sexual assault to be responsible for their own safety but it is important for victims to take further steps as are necessary to make them feel as safe as possible.
The feeling of safety, of experiencing a sense of autonomous safety is a major key to healing from sexual assault.
One important step towards healing from sexual assault is that healing must begin to take place within the context of emotionally safe relationships. We all need support during our recovery from tragic or traumatic events – whether it is support from family, friends and other survivors.
Keeping quiet about your traumatic experience or isolating yourself will leave you feeling lonely and will turn you head into a toxic space, rather than the quiet, safe and mental loving space we all deserve to inhabit. The act of relating or interacting with another human being in times of tragedy can it itself be curative. And the act of being heard, supported and respected can be therapeutic.
Depending on the circumstances, there may be another person with whom you can share your experience of sexual assault and from whom you can receive the much needed support. This person may be a best friend, a partner, a community member or someone in your family. The choice of who or if to tell is completely yours. You should not feel rushed to do so.
As you decide whether or not to talk about your experience with another person, the following questions may come up in your head:
- Will they judge you? Will they know unequivocally that it was not your fault? Will they know not to question or doubt any part of your experience?
- Will they be able and willing to respect your privacy? Are they a trustworthy person who will respect your wishes?
- Will they be willing to respect your autonomy and any decisions you may wish to make regarding your experience? After a sexual assault a lot of thoughts go through your mind. Many of these thoughts relate to reporting the crime, seeking medical attention and talking to professionals. Will the person you choose to seek support from respect the fact that the decision to report, seek help from a professional is your and yours alone?
- Will they be on your side 100%? This is a very important issue as some people from whom you choose to seek support may want to be neutral. It is a terrible fact but it is one of the truths of our time. It is important to note that if you are someone from whom a survivor of sexual assault chooses to seek support and you choose to remain neutral, then I would like you to know that to choose neutrality is to side with the perpetrator.
You have survived something awful. You have experienced trauma that no one should ever have to experience and you came out alive. You deserve to take care of yourself in the best way you know how. You deserve to nurse all the injuries you suffered during your assault. You are going to feel confused, angry and sad as well as a million different combinations of a million different emotions. Every kind of emotion and every kind of combination of emotion is completely and totally normal. You deserve to treat yourself kindly in the midst of the complex emotional experience that you may be having. The obvious question regarding self-care is what should it be? Does it mean a day at the spa, a yoga class, a night out with a friend? Does self-care mean creating a ritual that allows you space to breathe and feel whole again?
Whatever self-care means to you, go ahead and do it. You are going through a lot right now and you deserve kindness from yourself.
After surviving a sexual assault, you have a number of choices to make with regards to the types of services you would like to access.
You have the option of reporting the assault to the police, pursuing a court case, and/or seeking medical attention or undergoing a forensic exam for evidence collection. Now I know this particular option of undergoing a forensic exam is reaching too far in Nigeria considering our poor criminal justice system and evidence collection methods. You also have the option of reaching out to an advocate or therapist for emotional support.
These choices are deeply personal and each individual will make a different choice based on individual differences, orientation and backgrounds.
You deserve to take the time and space necessary to heal. If you are in school or at work, I hope you will feel empowered and deserving of time off. You are entitled to a vacation, and you are entitled to an extension on that paper or exam. You deserve accommodations so that you can begin the work of healing. You deserve to prioritize your own wellness and elevate your emotional and physical health above all else.
It is important to note that you do not owe anyone an explanation. You do not have to disclose your sexual assault to anyone, even when you are asking for accommodations. Your request can be as simple as “I have had an unexpected personal matter arise and I need time to attend to it.” Or you can tell the full story of your assault if it feels safe to do so. Remember that you are not under any obligation to disclose.
Feel entitled to whatever accommodations you need in order to support your healing. You deserve it.
As you move forward in your healing journey, remember to treat yourself with the same loving kindness that I am certain you would dole out effortlessly to the people around you.
You deserve nothing less.
*Parts of this article were adapted from everydayfeminism.com.