Tuesday, March 18, 2008

Advice For Rape Survivors: Accepting Your Trauma As Real Trauma

After yesterday's musings I wanted to focus on some of what I've learned since I was raped, including from my worst decisions and experiences post-rape. So this is the first in a series of posts on that topic directed specifically at other rape survivors.

I learned that the worst way to get over rape is to "Just get over it already!"

This advice is packaged as a way to get rid of the effects of rape, but in reality it asks you and other rape victims to keep the poison of rape locked within you. Once you do this that poison will fester.

We understand that those who are victims of shootings and who have shrapnel inside shouldn't just cover their wounds and get on with their lives. We understand that telling these crime victims "just get over it already" is either incompetent or malicious advice.

When a shooting victim goes to the ER we understand that this person is not wallowing in victimhood. They have the right to effective treatment and they have the right to expect the police to take their shooting seriously. Same goes for you as a victim of rape.

If you don't or didn't feel like you could safely exercise that right then you have to make the best assessment you can. I suggest preserving all of the evidence that you can so you will have the maximum number of options later. Put any small items which may contain DNA evidence in a paper bag and mark it so that the contents won't be washed or thrown away. Get any medical treatment you need whether that relates to obvious physical injuries or your possible exposure to sexually transmitted diseases.

If you live in the US, you can contact an advocate through RAINN (Rape Abuse Incest National Network). They have a toll free number and an online service.

You have the right to the expectation of being treated like a victim of a real crime even if your rights are violated by the police or by someone you trusted. It doesn't matter what you did before being raped. While people can be shot in self-defense nobody can be raped in self-defense. Those who justify rape in any way are part of the problem and are not reliable sources of any true wisdom. Don't take anything they say about you as a person as undisputed truth -- even if you love that person.

Don't automatically despise those who say horrific things since so much that is horrific -- such as the idea that almost all rape victims could have prevented their own rapes -- is pervasive and seemingly benign when people don't think about the ideas they have accepted.

Most rape victims don't look like shooting victims and therefore victims of rape and others will often reject the validity of the shooting analogy. So I will expand it. We understand that a pedestrian who has just been the victim of a hit and run but who isn't bloody and who can stand up and move around still needs to be checked for internal injuries.

Someone who doesn't look hurt can die. This might happen quickly as in the case of internal hemorrhaging or it may happen slowly as a vital organ breaks down post-injury.

Just as with the victim of a hit and run, the assessment of injury to rape victims cannot be made by just anyone and even the most skilled observer cannot make a correct assessment with a quick glance. Just as the victim of a car-pedestrian crash needs to respect their pain -- in the immediate aftermath and in the long run -- so too do you as a rape survivor need to respect your pain.

Pain after trauma is often your body's way of requesting the help it needs.

If the hit and run driver comes back upon seeing that the victim got to his feet we understand that this driver will be quick to assure everyone that no real harm was done. Witnesses are also not qualified to make this assessment so their opinion is no official second opinion. If those witnesses are friends of the driver, their assessment is even less reliable.

If those witnesses are friends of the driver and the pedestrian, it is easy for the pedestrian to think that their self-perception is what is in error. It would be easy to think, "If I was really hurt they would know it and they would help me."

Rejecting the common advice to "get over it already" doesn't mean that all routines of normal life should stop. The normal routines of life can be a very important part of surviving. But some normal routines will be lost and others will be changed forever. This isn't fair and it is important to grieve these losses without feeling like they reflect on you in any way.

The seriousness and symptoms of sexual trauma are real and they need to be respected. Those who interact with you as a rape survivor may sometimes make you feel crazy, but that is a sign that the messages you are being sent are inconsistent or flat out wrong. You can't make sense of what truly doesn't make sense without twisting reality until you feel crazy.

If your injuries are such that treatment requires a break from your normal life in order to give you a chance of returning to sustainable normal life then that detour is a good one if you can take it and not a sign of weakness. Some of the coping mechanisms which help survivors seem normal are very unhealthy. I found temporary relief in alcohol but that relief created more problems than it solved.

We understand that the shooting victim and the victim of a hit and run can have trauma which isn't physical. The pedestrian may have been hit during what was a daily walk to work. The shooting victim may have been at the mall when a suicidal man opened fire without warning. Those experiences will impact those victims' sense of safety during what the rest of us assume are safe activities.

Few people would look at these victims natural reactions and use that as an excuse for name calling. When this happens to you or to other rape survivors by those you know remember that those who do the name calling are revealing important information about themselves and are telling you nothing about yourself. Many people who are viewed as decent human beings hold very undecent attitudes.

Even though I didn't recognize that I was as real of a rape victim as any girl who was raped by a stranger, I did try to reach out to professionals in several fields. Unfortunately, none of the professionals I reached out to were skilled enough to find out the real cause of my distress. I internalized their failures and by the time I turned 18, I stopped trying to reach out for many years. Please realize this can happen and don't assume that this internalization is accurate.

It is better to deal with your post-rape trauma on your own -- at least temporarily -- than to stick with a helper who makes you feel crazy or hopeless. However, keep in mind that working on your trauma can uncap pain which was locked inside and there can be a strong temptation to put the cap back on that pain.

Any pain should be in service of recovery much like post-shooting surgery which will extract pain-causing shrapnel. Sometimes those who have been physically injured go through a series of treatments and sometimes treatment is delayed until the victim is strong enough to go through a particular treatment. If you feel like your recovery from rape is too slow remember that sometimes slow is what you need to get the best possible outcome.

While you may feel alone remember that you are not alone. Others have made it through what you are experiencing. Also remember to celebrate each step of your recovery much like a shooting victim celebrates each step they take in their healing. Hope is important but it isn't always easy or painless.

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posted by Marcella Chester @ 4:02 PM   5 comments links to this post


At March 18, 2008 10:04 PM, Blogger Sicily Sue said...

Agreed. I suffered lots of victim blaming after my rape. I still do.

I wish people could see the pain of rape. The only way they will ever know is if we open our mouths an talk about it...or pick up our pens and write about it.... or until it happens to them, which I don't want for anyone...

I often wish humans came equipped with what I call "Pain-O-Meters" So others can see the very real emotional wounds.

The world would do good to practice more compassion.

At March 19, 2008 12:55 AM, Blogger sophie said...

Thanks for these last two posts, Marcella.

After thirteen years, I'm still in a place where they're difficult to read - it does take time; I find blockages that my mind can't yet approach. And it's so easy to think, 'but that's silly, so many others have suffered more'.

Don't automatically despise those who say horrific things since so much that is horrific -- such as the idea that almost all rape victims could have prevented their own rapes -- is pervasive and seemingly benign when people don't think about the ideas they have accepted.

This is very important. I think it's right to be wary of these people - such attitudes don't indicate someone who is likely to be supportive or compassionate. It doesn't mean, however, that they don't mean well, simply that they've never thought through the issue or had good information on it.
If I were to avoid everyone with poor attitudes towards women or trauma victims I'd never see a soul :(. They can be good people in other ways - just not necessarily helpful for survivors.

The pervasiveness of such attitudes is a key reason why survivors are unwilling to speak out.

I still, when I doubt, have the words of a college friend who told me he knew what the boyfriend had done. That's one way (there were other clues) that I knew he'd been boasting to his mates and some of the other boys had put two and two together. That was only a few weeks after, but it was years before I could accept the word 'rape' for myself.

At March 10, 2009 10:53 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I just read your blog after "google-ing" the words "worst advice for rape victims". The reason that I looked that phrase up was because I got some truly atrocious "advice" today from someone that I looked up to and respected. She disapointed me greatly and for awhile today had me thinking "did I ask for this?" (as she put it).

But after some time and talking to my family and friends about her "words of wisdom" I realized that she was just trying to help in her own weird way. The best thing for me to do is to look out for myself instead of worrying about the validity of her words.

As the person who left the 1st comment says: nobody really understands unless they have been there. That is why it is so good for us to speak to one another. We are the only ones who "get" it. Through validating one another's feelings we are helping eachother to cope, heal and live the beautiful lives that we always have and always will desereve.

At August 07, 2009 4:56 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

im so sick of sexual abuse. it leaves me terrified of the outside world.
there is so much i dreamed of doing and sometimes i think that i can never do it unless i take being raped and assaulted continually.
the laws have never worked for me.
im status indian

At August 07, 2009 8:04 AM, Blogger Marcella Chester said...


My heart breaks for you. Your reality is one that all of us need to acknowledge and then work to change so that you can do whatever you dream of doing without fear or violence.


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