The majority of sexual assault victims don’t acknowledge that they were raped right away, if ever. The fear of stigma is part of it – but so is the body’s automatic response to trauma.
You are in control of whether and how to share your experience as a survivor. You have many options in your healing journey, and sharing your experience publicly is just one. Some survivors find sharing their story to be an empowering experience that is part of their healing. At the same time, it is difficult to fully predict how others will respond and some survivors have had negative experiences. If you do decide to share publicly, keep in mind that it’s not all or nothing: you can choose how, in what circumstances, and at what level of detail you feel comfortable talking about your experience. Ultimately, what matters most is not what others want from you but what has value and meaning for you.
After I was raped, the days felt never-ending. It felt like I was clawing myself out of a deep pit, choking, starving, dying. I couldn’t sleep. I couldn’t eat. I couldn’t work. I was existing in a space where panic attacks were frequent and unpredictable. Where is safety? What is safe? I was overwhelmed and terrified. The feeling was too much and I needed to take the edge off.
We want to be able to trust the people who are tasked with the responsibility of protecting us, but they can sometimes turn on us and hurt us. This sometimes means that you have to walk the path to healing alone and if you’re lucky, you meet some strangers who turn into a support structure with a solid foundation.
Sometimes, just talking about it, helps.
I Decided To Share My Story
This is a story I have never made public.
There is nothing like watching the people you love suffer because of you. I am not being self-deprecating here but stating the facts. I was and am lucky enough to have gained a large and stable support system, but the more people that love you, the more people hurt because of what happened to you. My friends, my husband, my daughter: I struggled, and still do, with the feeling of burdening them with this great pain. They were angry (I wasn’t), they were confused, they were worried, they were grieving. Secondary trauma can be terrible. It’s confusing to process other people’s hurt when you are suffering as acutely as I was.
What was more confusing was that as desperately as they wanted to help me, they couldn’t actually understand what I was going through. Having no friends who had – to my knowledge – been assaulted increased the sense of isolation inherent to trauma. Making peace with an experience that you can’t turn into words to your nearest and dearest is something that I don’t think I’ll ever stop struggling with.
Relationships will suffer. This is one of the hardest things to accept. When something terrible happens to you, you will lose people. It’s not fair, it’s not right and it’s not nice. But trauma causes fractures. Sometimes, it’s because people surprise you: they don’t support you in ways you expected them to.
PTSD can also cause irrational and erratic behaviour that can drive people away. On a very basic level, no one wants to hang out with somebody who is always in pain – that’s not immoral or insensitive, it’s just human. We all need to protect ourselves. My relationship with my husband broke down within months after I was raped – hardly surprising given the stamp of trauma that the assault had placed on our existence as a couple. It was hard to see past the dreadfulness of the situation, and I think we both began to associate each other with suffering.
Having said that, there are some friendships that have become stronger than ever, though always close, has entered a new era of openness and emotional honesty. We’ve become a family that discuss our feelings, that tell each other we love each other for no reason. Because who knows what might happen tomorrow?
If you or someone you know has been sexually assaulted, please reach out to a loved one or counsellor for support.
People exposed to sexual violence often feel that their lives have changed forever and that they will never come to terms with the trauma they have suffered. They believe they will never again be free to trust other people, especially those who resemble the person who violated them. The many myths surrounding sexual violence only add to a survivor’s anxiety and often prevent them from sharing their experience with others, even those they are close to. They fear they will be blamed or that people will not believe them. They often feel doubtful about what has happened and question whether they consented or not. The result is that many survivors do not report the assault to the police and do not seek the medical attention they need.
The Physical symptoms are specific to the rape itself and a survivor can tell you what they are. These may include cuts, bruises, urinary tract infections, pain, headaches and feelings of nausea.
Behavioural symptoms in response to rape include behaviours that are not typical of the survivor’s normal behaviour. Survivors are usually aware of these changes but feel powerless to change them. The behaviours can often be observed by people close to the survivor. They may include new sleeping and eating patterns; crying more than usual; feeling trapped and unsafe and therefore unable to socialize. Survivors sometimes use drugs and increase their alcohol intake in a futile attempt to forget what happened to them. They may lose interest in sex and their partner may struggle to understand why. Alternatively, in their attempt to regain control, they may increase their sexual activity. Survivors and family members alike may find it extremely difficult to understand behavioural changes and this leads to a general increase in stress levels and tensions in the home.
Psychological symptoms too are scary for both survivors and the people they are close to. Survivors often feel anxious and confused and struggle to concentrate. They may feel extreme anger and a sustained need to take revenge; feelings of sadness, helplessness and a loss of hope in the future. They may feel suicidal, believing that nothing good will ever happen again
If you or someone that you know is experiencing these types of symptoms, please call our 24-hour helpline 021 447 9762 and speak to one of our counsellors or book a counselling session. For immediate support, you are welcome to download our toolkit.