I’m writing this here for anyone who has experienced a rape or sexual assault at any point in time. This post is for you. Feel free to read everything, and decide where you’re at and where you want to go next. My eternal disclaimer is that I don’t know everything, and you are the expert on your own experiences. Grieving is a complicated process, and it goes in many directions – especially with something so traumatic. Sometimes you’ll feel like you’re further along in your journey, and other times you’ll feel like you’re right back at the beginning. It’s okay. How you’re reacting is okay. You can do this, and you can keep building a stronger foundation for the future no matter how impossible it seems right now.
First thing’s first: get medical attention. This is the only thing I will ever tell you specifically to do. See a doctor. See a therapist. Tell them the basics of what happened. If you feel like you have the energy, look first for a provider who is sensitive to sexual assault victims. I’ve had a couple bad experiences with medical professionals, and I want you to make sure that this disclosure goes well and that you get the help you need. If you have injuries, please get them treated and checked out (bonus: they’ll also be documented this way if you ever decide to report down the line). If you are at risk of pregnancy, please make sure that they know that. If you are in immediate danger from your assailant, please tell someone. Reach out for help from someone who has the resources to help you. Please. We all care about you, and we want you to be okay. The rest of these suggestions are for your emotional journey, but it’s important that you take care of your body first. If they don’t offer resources at the doctor you find, specifically ask for them over and over until you are referred to someone who can help. If you are in immediate danger, call 911 or the National Sexual Assault Hotline at 1-800-656-4673.
Now that that’s over, we’re on to the next step: denial. Wait, what? If I’ve disclosed to a medical professional or therapist, how could I be in denial? Guess what! Most of you won’t actually complete that first step in that order. I wish we all would, but I know all too well how we react to trauma. A lot of this is due to the natural shock response that humans have. Most likely, you’re going to have a healthy dose of denial at first. “It wasn’t that bad, I’m just complaining, I’m being dramatic, he didn’t mean it”. It’s okay. What’s happening right now is that you’re invalidating yourself. Even though you know that you were raped, you’ll find reasons to minimize it. I remember confiding in another survivor that in my state of shock in the emergency room, I had started making Law and Order jokes. She responded back that she remembered making inappropriate jokes as well. This is completely natural, and part of the way that your brain protects you from what happened. A lot of victims I talk to report feeling dazed afterwards, and wandering home to shower, or change, or even continuing to be in the same room as the person that raped them. Anything to forget about what just happened and push it away. If we’re including all 7 steps of grief, shock/disbelief is likely where you’ll arrive first. It’s a natural response to trauma, and most survivors will experience this. Personally, I wouldn’t have even called 911 if someone hadn’t told me to. I kept begging my friends to let me go home at first. When your brain is thrown into fight/flight/freeze, your mind immediately goes to whatever pops up first and does that thing. For me, it was “go home to my apartment”. For others, it’s “stay right here and don’t move for hours”. For others, it’s “I need to go about my business as usual and everything will start to feel normal if I do”. The list could honestly go on and on. There’s no right way to react to something so horrible.
Anger generally comes after this. Once you truly realize what this other person has done to you, you’re going to be mad. I know I was. You might lash out at your loved ones, or even just at yourself. You’re going to start hating that person for what they did to you. If you’ve never experienced pure hatred before, buckle up. It might take a toll on you physically. It’s hard walking around in the world knowing that someone who abused you, or raped you, or tortured you is walking around in it too. And since we know that most rapists aren’t held accountable, you’re probably angry that they’re free to do whatever they want, having experienced zero consequences. Maybe you’re experiencing backlash from supporters of his, or even your own family and friends. Anger makes sense for all of this. I have a whole separate post about it. Who you are as a person is going to determine how much time you spend here, but just know that it’s important to take a break and try to do some self care every once in a while. You’ll get worn out really quickly if you have to carry this burden for such a long amount of time. It’s okay to put it down every once in a while and take a bath (or a nap, or watch your favorite funny movie, or go swimming, or anything else that cools you down). It’s also okay to be angry at everyone who has hurt you through this process. You deserve to be able to express your anger about how you were treated, and to not have to feel sorry for being upset with the situation.
Next, a lot of you will resort to bargaining. This looks different for everyone depending on when you arrive at it. Reporting your rape will often bring you to this step sooner than later. You’ll get the adrenaline rush from possibly gaining some advantage over your perpetrator if you report. If you don’t report, you’ll eventually want that advantage, no matter how you get it. This is definitely not an unhealthy way to cope, although there’s a big emotional crash if it doesn’t go your way. There are a lot of ways to be bargaining with this situation. You might report to the police or hire a lawyer. You might suddenly throw yourself into advocacy. You might start taking self defense classes, working out, or even just trying to educate people about sexual assault or unhealthy relationships. This is not a bad thing. I just want you to know that you don’t have to do any of this. Some of us get stuck here often, myself included. We get so stuck trying to change the situation or make it better that we just forget to grieve the loss and start actually mourning what happened to us. We’ll think about what we could have changed for ourselves, and start desperately trying to make it happen, even though we’ll never be able to go back and actually change it. It’s okay to be selfish and just take some time off. It’s also okay to throw yourself into advocacy and activism to an extent that makes you feel better. Listen to yourself, and be soft with yourself.
Depression is inevitable. It’s so hard to pull yourself up once it sucks you in. The worst thing in the world happened to you. Somehow, no matter their sympathy, no one you’re talking to ever understands it. You feel yourself becoming more and more isolated as you struggle to grapple with what was done to you, and how much it has changed you. You might have a lot of support, and you might have no support. No matter how people in your life have reacted to your story, you probably won’t be able to save yourself from depression at least every once in a while. And that’s okay. Try to still find ways to feel alive in the meantime. I remember once feeling so broken that I just couldn’t physically force myself out of bed for days. I didn’t want to exist anymore. Why would I? I couldn’t think of a single reason to stay active in the world. A friend of mine showed up at my house, forced her way in, and made me to get in her car and go to her house. I still felt completely numb, frozen, and worthless, but I think it kicked my body awake. The reason I tell you this is not because I want you to go kidnap your depressed friends, but that it is so helpful to force yourself to take care of you. Even if it’s just small things. When your mind is telling you that life is hopeless and that you are finished, your body starts to believe it. Please, force your body to do some things. It might just be smelling something strongly that alerts your senses for a moment, or getting in the shower when you haven’t in days, or finally ordering yourself some food. Even just standing up for a minute and walking around. It all sounds very dumb, but I promise it helps on some level even if you don’t notice immediately. Being depressed is okay. Someone took everything from you in that moment, and everything you are doing to rebuild and ignite that fire within yourself is amazing, but sometimes you will be horribly sad. Allow yourself that sadness and remind yourself that it will not last forever.
The occasional final step of this grieving process for some (and sometimes it starts developing immediately) is PTSD, aka post-traumatic stress disorder. Not everyone will develop PTSD. I have had some survivors ask me if they are less of a survivor for not developing PTSD, and the answer to that is “absolutely not”. All survivors of sexual violence struggle afterwards. This grieving process will exist whether you want it to or not. There will be feelings and ideas you will wrestle with as a result. PTSD is different from this. With PTSD, your brain is unable to unhook itself from what happened. I didn’t know that I had it right away. I was too busy worrying about what the man who raped me was doing that I didn’t notice the changes within my brain and body. I found myself unable to function without something to calm me down, which initially was alcohol every time. I was sleeping maybe 2 hours a night, and had night terrors every time I fell asleep. Occasionally, something would trigger me (sidenote: please stop making “triggered” jokes in 2017), and I would end up having a flashback. Part of my brain would logically know that I was somewhere safe, but my entire body and most of my brain would be back in that room, experiencing what had happened to me all over again. It seemed hopeless. However, even PTSD is not hopeless. This is not a journey I’ve completed myself yet, but please, if you think you have PTSD – seek help from a doctor. Part of PTSD for many sufferers is avoidance, and I promise that avoiding it will not make your condition any better. The further you allow yourself to avoid treatment for your PTSD, the stronger its hold on your brain becomes. Treatment has gotten more advanced, and there is a therapy treatment named EMDR that has shown to be extremely promising in treating PTSD. You might even just be given very specific coping and self care skills for when symptoms arise which will help as well. You’ve got this! There are some very substantial roadblocks in your way, but you deserve support and treatment is available.
Eventually, you might feel like you’ve arrived at acceptance. Your assault feels more like a memory at this point. I’ve said before that I can’t wait to arrive at this point – to where it is something that happened, rather than something that is still happening. You don’t ever have to get here fully, but you may sometimes feel perfectly healthy about what happened or satisfied with how you’ve chose to heal. Just because you have moments, days, or weeks where you feel like you have arrived at acceptance – know that no journey is perfect. You might feel like you are slipping backwards other days. Grief is not linear. Remember to never stop practicing self care, even when you feel that your journey is finished. Feeling that you have accepted or come to some closure about what has happened to you is an incredibly important moment for your healing. I hope you relish it, and I hope you remember that no matter how long it feels that it is taking for you to get there, it is in your future.