A Survivor of Sexual Assault...in her words (Part 3)


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Hello again and welcome! Last week I explained the way that my religion and the religious culture I was in impacted my experience as a survivor. This week, I would like to shift my focus onto my healing journey and what that process is like for me. In order to do this, I would like to share my path to becoming who I am today from that moment. This post will focus a lot of the decisions I made and how my trauma manifested through them, but also some of the triumph I experienced on my journey.

For a few months I continued to work with my church provided therapist. She was a great advocate for me, and although we did not get a lot of one on one time because she was working so hard to advocate for me, this was my first experience in therapy, and she warmly welcomed me into that world. Because of her care, passion, the validation and comfort she gave me, I have had a positive mindset towards therapy, and this was a good way to start my journey. I am forever grateful for her and all she did for me. She retired a few months after we started meeting, and transferred my files to a new therapist. At the time, I was not ready to start over with someone new so I did not go to this new therapist she had transferred me over to. I started trying to move past the experience on my own. The first decision I made was to get a massive haircut! This was very healing for me and helped me in so many ways.

There has been discussion about how the decision to get a haircut is not entirely uncommon for individuals who experience trauma. Helen Fisher, Professor of Anthropology at Rutgers University believes this behavior is a coping mechanism. Whatever the reason may be, it is a common shared experienced particularly with women who have experienced trauma. For me, it was a small act of rebellion, I was always told how much I would regret it. It was my rejection of many of the ways I had been objectified growing up, and because of this trauma. I also distinctly remember feeling that this could potentially make me “less pretty”, helping me feel safe and less likely to be a target of another assault. At the time, I experienced high anxiety and mistrust of the world because of the reactions of my community and support systems to my trauma, and cutting my hair felt like something I could control that may potentially protect me in the future. It also was a release for me. I felt like, and looked like, a new person and cutting off my hair was symbolic for me. I was ready to move past my trauma (unaware how long this process would really take) and in a way, I was leaving the hurt and abused version of myself in the past through this act. When I revealed my new hairstyle, I certainly was subjected to a lot of insensitive and inappropriate comments, but not one of them made me feel unsafe. These comments almost confirmed my idea that cutting my hair off would keep me safe.

Just before I left the place of my abuse and moved into a shared apartment, I had started my first serious relationship. This was someone I had known for some time, and had pursued for a few months before they were ready to commit. (First of many red flags) I stayed in this relationship for a few years. I was unaware at the time, but this relationship was a clear example of the way that my trauma was still deeply affecting me. I accepted less than I deserved, emotional abuse, and I lost a lot of who I was in this relationship. But it was familiar, it was easy. I knew what to expect and it also reaffirmed the story I had been told and believed about myself and the way the world works. This made my trauma brain very comfortable.

Towards the end of our relationship, I had started going back to therapy.  I ended up moving in with my partner and had a few roommates in a townhome, and I started to notice stark contrasts between my roommates’ behaviors, my behavior, and their relationships. I believed that this was because of me and my trauma, and I was not entirely wrong, but I had the wrong reasoning. I believed I was the only source of our disfunction. In reality, my trauma influenced me to seek out individuals who did not challenge my world beliefs- that I was unsafe, undeserving, and I was to blame for any difficulties. My trauma did influence my decision AND my partner was not a good partner to me. Both of those things were true. My therapist at this time was not a good fit for me, as she shared religious beliefs I recently had to abandon and I was not at a point where I could separate her from the beliefs. She never pushed her beliefs onto me, and I know I had the opportunity to open that conversation with her, and I chose not to, so my relationship with this therapist did not work long term for me, but I know it helped. I know this because one day, I had to be strong and choose to not side with my partner. I had to kick them out after an altercation where he became physical with one of my roommates. With the newfound distance from him after he moved out, I was able to recognize the signs of a dangerous relationship and it was surprisingly easy to end the relationship at that point. Although this was a trauma response, the “cut and run reaction” I honestly still struggle with at times, it did benefit me in this circumstance. The emotional distance I was able to hold onto got me out of a harmful relationship which was headed into a more dangerous territory too. I attribute this partly to the therapy I was receiving at this time, and as I reflect on this circumstance, it reminds me that I can trust myself. While consciously I was not aware of the reasoning behind my decision to go back to therapy, I knew something was wrong, and beginning to work through my trauma again gave me the strength to make a decision to challenge my world beliefs at the time. In a way, I was reliving my trauma but also rewriting the ending to that experience. After I ended our relationship I was surrounded with supportive friends and roommates and this was healing for me, provided me with some more sense of trust in the world.

After ending this relationship, I continued to live with my roommates. We moved into a home. I had stopped going to therapy at this point, and since we had a larger home, we had found some additional roommates.

Living with roommates is always difficult. We were all at different stages in our lives, and there were large age gaps. To say it was a peaceful home would be far from the truth. I became close with our newest and youngest roommate. At times, it felt like me and her against the world. Because of the volatility of the home, we cycled through a few roommates over the first year I lived there. By the end of this year, out of the three of us who had originally lived together at the townhome, I was the only one left. The youngest roommate and I had filled our home with her friends, many of them living away from home for the first time. I had many unpleasant experiences while living with them, there are a few circumstances where I experienced sexual assault again, and one where my pants (I was wearing shorts with 5 buttons on them) had stopped another assault. Again, I found myself going back to therapy. I was unhappy, but surrounded by individuals who confirmed my world beliefs and was quickly becoming very depressed. While this environment was not the same as my home with my family, there were a lot of similarities. I took on the majority of responsibilities, bought groceries for the house every two weeks, and to simply say, was a people pleaser in every way. While most of the time I tried to stay out of their arguments, there would be time where I had to step in and try and diffuse situations. I tried to set boundaries and agreements for our home, so everyone would feel safe and respected, but I did not have a lot of practice at this, and I had surrounded myself with people who reminded me of my family, so they were not good at respecting boundaries to say the least. All of this was a manifestation of my traumas and was far from healthy for me. A few months into seeing my third (and final) therapist, I attempted suicide.

I woke up and was throwing up and decided to call one of my roommates and tell her what I did. She encouraged me to go to the hospital and at this point, I was scared that I was really going to die. I knew, when consciously faced with the very real possibility I was in danger, that this was not what I wanted. We went to the ER and I was admitted with a lot of complications. I met with a social worker at the hospital, and after talking with him, he cleared me to go home. He advised the doctors on staff of this decision, but when they came back to update me on what our next steps would be, I recall them saying that they would not let me go home because I was “too smart” and I could be “tricking them”. This was so frustrating for me. I explained that I am no longer in danger and in addition to this, I do not have the financial capacity to pay for the bills that would come from being admitted into a hospital, even more so, I could not afford to miss work. They reassured me that there would be financial assistance and that they understood the hardship these medical bills can have, but they would still be transferring me to a different hospital. I felt like I had no voice, and that even though someone who was trained in mental health and had worked with individuals all day for their job had cleared me, the stigmas of suicide prevented me from truly being seen.

Upon arriving at this hospital I had to be inspected for self-harm, go through an evaluation and have my belongings cataloged and placed into holding. I felt exposed, uncomfortable, and vulnerable. These people who did not know me were reducing me to such a short period of time in my life.

One thing that I was consistent about throughout speaking with all of my therapists, was that I did not want to be on medication. There was a history of addiction in my extended family, and I had seen how some medications had taken a toll on my mother’s body physically. I was adamant that if possible, I wanted to do as much work as I could without having medications.

It is important to note that this is not an option for everyone. I know and have experienced the value of a good medication plan in conjunction with therapeutic services, but because of my personal background, I wanted to avoid this if possible. Medication does help. And those who use medications for support are not “weaker” or “more broken” than anyone who does not. Healing is a personal journey. And being aware of our needs, boundaries, and barriers is a part of this. I was on medication during my time at the hospital, and for a few weeks I continued to take them until I could wean myself off. Stopping medication “cold turkey” is dangerous and never recommended so I worked with my therapist to slowly start taking this medication less and less.

Being in the hospital was a very stressful experience at first. I was required to start taking medication against my protests, and it was difficult to not have the choice to do this or not. I was very concerned about developing an addiction to medication and was able to work with my team to find non-addictive alternatives. This was a compromise and did help me feel empowered.

The first day I was there, I slept the entire day. This was the first time in many years I had gotten rest like that. The next day, I met with my social workers and team and we discussed what my time there would be like. I met with a therapist, and something he said has always stuck with me. I was talking about my fear of experiencing assault again, and he said “are you surviving? Did you make it through?” and I told him, clearly, yes, I am here, and I am surviving. He then followed up by simply asking “so then why are you afraid?” At first, I was offended, I felt invalidated and misunderstood. Clearly I was afraid because going through this experience is something I never wanted to go through again, the trauma and pain that it gave me was insurmountable and I would do whatever I could to avoid it at all costs. Why wouldn’t I be afraid after all I have experienced?

 It was months later that I was at a place to accept this wisdom and for it to sink in and start to shift my perspective. He was showing me how I had no control over being abused. I had no control over the reaction of those around me to my trauma. I was never to blame, and this fear was coming from a guilty part of myself and that guilt was misplaced. Because I never saw my abuser face real consequences, because I saw my family and my community protect and support him, it was difficult while going through that trauma to give that guilt and shame to him. I am confident that having a supportive reaction from those around me, would have impacted my ability to not place that blame on myself. This was a few years after the abuse and I was still blaming myself. This fear was encouraging the idea that I had not done enough, or I had somehow allowed my abuse to happen, and this belief was not healthy for me. This belief came from trauma and I could choose to challenge it. I could know and understand that really horrible things do happen, and they did happen to me, and none of it was my fault. And moving through the world like I had the ability to stop it from happening ever again, was in essence, blaming myself for it happening the first time. And, after all I had gone through, he was right, I had survived. It did not take my life away, because I was there, living and trying to heal. I struggle with explaining this concept, as it is not meant to be perceived that my abuse, or any abuse one may experience, is not as impactful as it was. That is not what his words were expressing. He was challenging me to stop blaming myself.

I was not at a point in my healing to accept his challenge to my trauma beliefs at the time he said it. This is a normal aspect of healing too. Sometimes, with good intentions, our support system may offer ideas of what we can do to help us on our healing journey. For example, I constantly heard about how gratitude can be so helpful, and I was taught about breathing techniques. I had been taught about this since the beginning of my healing and was not able to start practicing these ideas until 6 years later! This is because there was work that I needed to do before I could get to the point where I could understand the value of these practices. My trauma was in charge, and it took a lot of work to get to a point where I can hear it, I can validate it, and I can recognize it, before believing the stories it may be telling me.

I spent about a week in the hospital, and the best thing that came out of it for me, was being able to see that I didn’t belong there. When I went to the hospital, the same hospital my mom had spent months in at a time, I thought that it meant I was in horrible shape, that I was at a point where I could never heal. I was afraid to accept the support and the resources provided here because I told myself it meant that my mental health was as bad as my mom’s. In reality, it was reassuring to me that I could heal, and felt like the break I had been desperately looking for, for years. I had no responsibilities, I didn’t have to make any decisions, and I could just focus on existing and this was very helpful for me. I got a taste of some peace during my time in the hospital. But I am happy to say, that I have not ever had to go back.

After this experience, my growth was rapid. Of course, there were ups and downs, as there always will be, but it projected me onto the path of believing in myself again, something I had been missing for years. I learned a lot here, and while I never hope to go back, I have a respect for the resources offered at places like that. I know it will be there if there ever is a day when I am in need, and I am not afraid to go back. The stigmas that surround spending time in a mental hospital are still rampant in society, to the point that I rarely ever share that I have gone to one. I hope that sharing this experience can challenge some of those stigmas, and reassure anyone who is in need of their resources, that it is okay to accept that help.

In more recent years with healing, I have learned that it takes baby steps for me. I have to practice these new attitudes in small ways every day, until they become just as natural as the trauma responses were. There are times when it is still difficult to not revert back to what my trauma taught me, but with the help of my therapist, I am able to create some space between events and my reaction, which allows me to really think through my first instinct. I still find it hard to trust myself and my intuition, but practicing mindfulness and meditation has helped me a lot to stay grounded, giving me a “reason” to trust myself. I have recently set boundaries with my family, which they were not able to respect, leading myself to not be in contact with most of them anymore. I still miss them, and this is frustrating at times, but I have accepted that this is my grief that I will have. And there will be times I am alright and I don’t feel grief as much, but there will also be days where it is so heavy. Luckily, because of the healing I have been able to do, I have found a partner (my fiancé!) who loves me in ways I never thought I would experience, and I love them in a way that I never thought I was going to be able to love someone. I feel safe and can be vulnerable with them and rely on them and trust them. My relationship with them has been a great source of healing for me too. There is so much healing that we can do on our own to heal inside ourselves, and I was able to get to a point where I could have a healthy relationship that challenges and triggers me, so that I can unlearn some of these trauma beliefs, especially in the way I interact with other people. For the longest time, I only relied on myself. My partner and their family have lovingly (and without really knowing they were) pushed me out of my comfort zone, into relying on others and being okay even if it is a little scary. I have a job that is fulfilling, and I am passionate about that brings me so much joy. I have learned that when my trauma is speaking loudly, or I am experiencing grief, I can also still enjoy things. I can have a morning cup of coffee, play with my pets. I can meditate and listen to music. I can laugh at TV shows and decorate my home. These are things that I never felt like I was “happy enough” to do.

There is no “end date” or “dream goal” when it comes to healing. It is something I will continue to work at for the rest of my life. Reflecting back on who I was all those years ago, and who I am today, it feels like the biggest difference in my life, is the way I interact with myself. Loving, trusting, having patience for, and reminding myself I am deserving, makes it easier to navigate through my triggers in a healthy way for me. I cannot stress enough, how deeply healing is a personal experience, it will be completely different for every individual, but community support is a part of every journey, even if it looks different for each person.

It feels impossible to truly summarize my healing without going on for pages upon pages. But in the simplest terms, my healing was learning tools. Learning tools from therapists, from mental health professionals, from good loving people in the world. Filling my mental toolbox with coping tools, trust exercises, instruments of self-love, words of support, individuals to lean on for support, reminders of patience. In order to fill up my toolbox, I had to retire the tools that trauma had taught me. I had to respect and appreciate how they served me what I was in need, and recognize that they are no longer the tools that serve me best for the life I want to create for myself. I had to stop and thank my trauma brain for protecting me, after spending so long fighting it, in order to recognize they were not the tools I needed anymore. This took many years, but once I was able to do that, a different chapter of healing could begin, and I could learn the tools I needed to build my life in the way that I always imagined.