6 Things to Remember After Experiencing Sexual Assault
By Kristen Joy-Correll
** Trigger warning: this article discusses sexual assault and trauma. If you feel like reading others’ experiences will be helpful to your healing, please read on. However, if you are still struggling, skip this article for now and come back when you are ready, or scroll straight to the list at the bottom if that is what you need now **
Like many, watching 13 Reasons Why on Netflix sparked a much needed conversation with myself. It initiated honesty, and so I was moved to conquer a task that had been clouding my mind for years. For those who haven’t seen it, it is a show that illustrates how seemingly tiny events can weave together and cause a teenage girl to take her own life, and covers many issues faced in high schools (and beyond) such as break ups, social exclusion, slut shaming, and sexual assault. When the show portrayed a character’s sexual assault, something clicked. Watching her attempt to process what happened caused my heart to ache, and left me longing to help her understand what I know now. It also handed me the courage to call the free counseling services that failed me years ago when I reached out for help dealing with my own experience with sexual assault. I wanted to tell them how they played a key role in the manifestation of my trauma – how their actions altered the course of my healing.
How did they fail me? Well, in short, the lady on the phone discredited my experience. She told me that because I had not been physically abused, I had not truly experienced sexual assault. She told me I should not have accepted the drinks he gave me. She told me I should have tried harder to push him away. She told me it had been a simple misunderstanding – but tell me, how can saying “no, I don’t want to go that far” three times in a quiet room be called a misunderstanding? I did not give consent, and I did not want to have sex, and by the very definition I did experience sexual assault. It took days to gain the courage to even ask for help following the event, and when I finally did I felt like the door was slammed in my face. On the phone, in February 2014, I was humiliated and turned away when I was incredibly vulnerable. So I believed her.
For the next 2.5 years, I had flashbacks. Not visual flashbacks, but a wave of feeling unsafe and powerless. Even when I was with a partner who respected me and cared so deeply for me, it was not enough to overcome the symptoms of trauma. I would break into slow flowing tears and my body would fall limp – though logically I knew I was not in danger. It was like being stuck in a well that has a perfectly strong ladder to climb out, yet not knowing how to climb. Despite this, I didn’t go to anybody to receive help because I was under the impression that I hadn’t gone through anything deserving of attention or assistance. I didn’t want to burden anybody. I convinced myself that I was just trashy, that sleeping with people was shameful, and that I was the only person to blame for what happened to me. This only escalated when I experienced a second sexual assault in September 2014 after being walked home from a party. I never told anybody, and even (mostly) convinced myself it never happened.
It wasn’t until October 2016, when I was in a healthy long-term relationship of over a year, that I realized I couldn’t let my flashbacks affect my relationship with my partner anymore, and I decided to try counseling again. I opted for in-person counseling. On the first session, I told the counselor my story from start to finish – the first time I had told anybody my story in its entirety. When I got to the part about being rejected by the first counselor, my new counselor looked appalled. I could tell by her expression that what I had been told by the woman on the phone was wrong. She explained that I had experienced sexual assault, and by being denied a way of processing it, I had been left to deal with trauma on my own. I learned that if the issue had been handled properly right away, I likely would not have had any manifestation of trauma at all.
I have had enough counseling sessions now to process what happened, and this brings me back to where this blog post starts – confronting the organization that caused my trauma. I called the operator, and this time was on the line with a counselor who was kind and sincerely empathetic. She apologized to me with one of the most authentic apologies I have heard. The kind of apology that makes you tear up even though you shouldn’t be sad because you can feel the weight of love being carried by each word. She told me how brave I was to watch 13 Reasons Why (if you’ve seen the show, you probably understand how triggering it is), and she just… cared. And this actually made me angry. Why couldn’t I have gotten her on the phone in February 2014? Why couldn’t I have heard this from the very beginning when I needed it most? There is no answer. This confrontation didn’t make me feel better. But what my partner helped me realize, after I cried my frustrations to him for a good 10 minutes, is that I needed to write about this and help people who are in a similar situation. That was my next step. So, from my experience I have compiled 6 Things to remember after experiencing sexual assault. Please share with somebody you care about who has a similar story, you might just save them from years of unnecessary hurting.
1) Blaming yourself is heartbreaking
It may sound cliché at this point, but it is so easy to do. Although we have come a long way with education around sexual assault, it is nowhere near perfect. Many people still blame the victim, and it may be hard to get away from. Please, do not fall into this. It is not your fault. Counseling can help you hear the truth of what happened in a way that may be impossible to digest when you’re talking to yourself in your head.
2) You can’t let others define your experience
Oh, people will try though. People often think they can label, define, and alter your perspective. But if you believe you experienced assault – or any other trauma for that matter – then you should be treated according to that view. Only you can know what happened, only you felt what happened. Proper counseling with somebody you connect with lets you speak without having your listener project their bias onto your experience.
3) Avoid labeling yourself only as a victim
I struggled with the label of “victim.” I did not want to be that person. I did not want to be that statistic. Counseling helped me realize that I am a lot more than that. I am strong. I am a survivor. My lungs thrive on mountain air and the ocean humbles my soul. I am growing constantly. I am a kind, smart, caring human and so many other things that the word victim does not describe. And I promise that you are, too.
4) You cannot expect yourself to “just get over it”
Believe me, I tried. I tried to move on with all the force I could summon. I pushed what happened so far away that I never thought I would see it again, and yet the feelings faithfully returned like a pesky mosquito, sneaking a taste of my tired blood the second I turn my head. You were not made to just get over this. What happened to you is legitimate and ignoring it will not make it go away. You deserve to be given designated space to heal and process what happened. Which bring me to my next point…
5) YOU ARE WORTH HELPING
By merely breathing and feeling, you are worth helping. You are worthy of love. You deserve to be happy. It is irrelevant to a counselor (a good one, anyways) if what you experienced is “really bad” or “decently bad” or “well, not that bad” because in reality there is no issue that is “not bad enough” to get counseling for.
6) Speaking to a trusted counselor, and processing your trauma, will make your life easier
There is a time for listening, sure, but this is your time to speak. It’s terrifying, because often we are expected to deal with everything on our own and total independence is seen as strength. However, it shows far more courage and strength to push past the fear of asking for help and begin your healing. I am not saying you have to do it right now, because I know it is really hard. Like, heck, it’s one of the hardest things I have done. All I am asking is that you consider it as part of your future. You deserve to be your true self, and carrying around your trauma is only going to make that harder. You deserve healthy companionship. You deserve love.