Recovering from Sexual Assault
A few important points:
- Healing is a nonlinear process - healing does not run a straight path. I liken it to climbing a mountain- when climbing, there may be times that you cannot continue forward due to obstacles and must move horizontally to find a better path, and at times you may need to back-track down a few feet to find that better path. Taking these steps backwards or moving sideways instead of forward does not equal “no progress” but is instead part of the progress.
- Healing is a process not a destination – survivors often ask questions like “when will I be better?” or “how long will it take to heal?” or “how will I know when I am healed?” The trauma never vanishes, but its effects can diminish. You will always remember what happened, but the intensity of it will fade, similar to a cut becoming a scar and a scar fading over time.
- Delayed Reactions
- Rape survivors often do not seek counseling for several years after the rape. Following the rape, the victim may have quickly pushed their reactions aside, attempting to return to normal as soon as possible. They may want to prove to others and themselves that are strong and have put the assault behind them.
- The rape survivor may then go back to their daily routine without processing the feelings associated with the rape.
- This approach often works well…until it doesn’t. The survivor may develop difficulties following life changes, new stressors/traumas, or exposure to triggers of the original trauma. The survivor may express confusion about their sudden experience of distress and may express concerns that they are “crazy” or “weak.” They often degrade themselves for not being “over it” by now and believe that they should have “moved on” by now.
Stages of Adjustment
Each person going through a crisis of any kind progresses through stages of emotional adjustment. The following information is provided as a simple guideline for understanding what a rape victim may experience during the period of adjustment.
There is no time gauge to be given, as each person will deal differently within each unique situation. A victim may spend a great deal of time in one stage and only touch lightly on another. The person may encounter a spiraling effect as the person passes through a number of the stages over and over again, each time experiencing them with different intensity. Anyone close to the victim may also experience these stages as he or she adjusts to the crisis of the rape as well.
SHOCK – Numbness
- You will most likely remember very little, if anything, about what occurs during this time.
DENIAL – Not me. I’m fine. This can’t have happened. It’s not that bad.
- Not yet able to face the severity of the crisis, this stage is for gathering strength. The period of denial serves as a cushion for the more difficult stages of adjustment that follow.
ANGER – Rage, resentment. What did I do? Why me?
- Much of the anger may be a result of the feeling of loss of strength and loss of control over your own life. The anger may be directed toward the rapist, a doctor, the police, or anyone else, including yourself; or family and friends may direct anger toward you.
PLEDGE / BARGAINING – Rationalization. Let’s go on as if it didn’t happen. I should be finished with this by now.
- This is a further form of denial in which a bargain is set up. You may decide you will not talk about the rape in exchange for not having to continue to experience the pain. In so doing, you continue to deny the emotional impact the rape has had upon your life. The rest of the bargain is the friends and relatives will also stop talking about it and pretend that it never happened.
DEPRESSION – Denial no longer works. I feel so dirty, so worthless.
- If you are warned of this stage ahead of time, you may not be so thrown by it. Though a painful time, it is good when this stage is reached, as it shows you have begun to face the reality of the rape. As you allow the negative emotions to surface, it is helpful to remind yourself that these feelings are normal and will not last forever.
- Be aware, however, of symptoms of severe depression during this stage, such as a drastic change in sleeping or eating habits, the indulging in compulsive rituals, or generalized fears completely taking over your life. Professional counseling may be advisable.
ACCEPTANCE – Life can go on.
- When enough of the anger and depression is released, you enter the stage of acceptance. You may still spend time thinking and talking about the rape, but you also understand and are in control of the emotions and can now accept what has happened.
ASSIMILATION – The rape is put into perspective.
By the time you reach this stage, you have realized your own self-worth and strength. You no longer need to spend time dealing with the rape, as the total rape experience now meshes with other experiences in life.