The Role of Community in Healing from Sexual Trauma
For many people, the word "survivor" conjures up an image of a lone person, strongly and confidently moving past the things that harmed them.
That image might make for good cinematic imagery, but in reality, survivorship is something that is rarely achieved alone. Recovery — whether from addiction, an eating disorder, or sexual violence — can be accelerated and strengthened when it involves a committed team of people.
Some of those people are professionals, like therapists, doctors, and advocates, but most of our teammates are the people who are simply there for us day to day. Our parents, friends, partners, and fellow survivors can all contribute helpfully to one's recovery journey.
There's a caveat though. If you're going to be on someone's recovery team, you have to be there in the way they need you — not the way that you think is best. That's because when it comes to recovering from interpersonal violence (like partner abuse or sexual assault), it is essential that survivors feel like they have control over their decisions and lives.
So, if you think it would be a good idea for your BFF to join a self-defense class, that's cool, but how do they feel? If they're not down for that, say "Okay, that's cool. Is there something that you would like to do instead?
If a long-distance loved one is struggling, you can still be there for them. Check-in text messages, cute animal pictures, and scheduled FaceTime chats can show that you're there for them and care about their safety and wellbeing, even when you can't be together.
Right now, most of the country is experiencing some level of physical distancing to flatten the COVID-19 curve. But being a member of someone's support team isn't just an in-person activity. You don't need to share space with someone to be a member of their support team.
Whether you're near or far, these tips can help you be the best team player you can be.
1. Let go of assumptions
If you've experienced trauma yourself, you might feel inclined to think that you know how your loved one is feeling or what they're going through. Put in a solid effort to let that feeling go. Everyone copes with trauma in different ways. Sometimes, survivors of interpersonal violence might struggle with decision-making, and that's okay. Rather than letting frustration get the better of you, affirm that they can move at their own pace and you'll be there for them when they need you.
2. Ask what they want
While you're letting go of those assumptions, practice your active listening skills by asking your friend what type of support they want. They might not be sure just yet, but on the other hand, they might know exactly the way that you can be helpful.
If they aren't sure or seem hesitant to ask, a simple "That's okay. I'm here for you when you need me. Are you comfortable with me following up soon to see how you're doing?" can reassure them that they aren't being a burden, while also making sure that they're okay with you checking in later.
3. Know that you don't need to everything
It's impossible for one person to fulfill every need that a person has. For those of us who are helpers, it can be difficult to let other people show up and help out, but you have to. You can't be the only person on someone's recovery team — it isn't healthy for either of you. This is a practice in setting and affirming your own boundaries.
What types of things do you have the skills and capacity to help out with? What feels outside of what you can do? Maybe you're able to send a daily check-in text, but you aren't able to go with your friend to relevant doctors' appointments. That's okay. You are going to be the best team player you can be by focusing on your role, not by trying to take them all on at the same time.
4. Utilize available resources
Many people think that rape crisis centers and domestic violence organizations will only serve the survivors themselves, but that's rarely true. Most victim support organizations also provide services to the survivor's loved ones if they need them. That's because if you're on someone's recovery team, you might experience something called secondary trauma.
Secondary trauma is a set of symptoms (like depression, fearfulness, and heightened anxiety) that can arise when someone discloses trauma to you or when someone close to you has experienced trauma.
It isn't wrong to experience secondary trauma, and you deserve to access support options, too. Survivor support and advocacy organizations will provide free services to your loved one, but they may also do the same for you. If they don't, they can connect you with other free or low-cost options. Taking care of your mental health is essential, and although you may be tempted to put it on the back burner while you support your friend, give yourself the attention you deserve. You can't be a team player without it.
5. Recognize their progress
People who have experienced interpersonal violence sometimes struggle with understanding their progress or feeling connected to the decisions they make now. This is where having a "mirror" friend can be especially helpful.
If you're seeing that your loved one has made progress in a particular area, let them know that you see that. You don't have to (and shouldn't) make a big deal out of it. A simple "You've been going through a lot and I'm proud of you for all that you've done" can be enough.
6. Create healthier opportunities
If your friend is coping in a destructive way — by misusing drugs or alcohol or by restricting their eating, for example — create other opportunities to connect with them. Rather than going out for dinner and drinks, meet up for a cup of coffee or tea. Invite them over for a home-cooked meal.
Recovery doesn't just involve one realm of someone's life — it affects all of them. Of course, if the problem has progressed to a place that is out of your influence, it may be time to reach out to other members of the support team or re-connect your friend to resources.
7. Remind them that this isn't their fault
Interpersonal violence is never, ever, ever the victim's fault. Ever. Never! We might feel like we know that, but our internal messaging might tell us something different. Some survivors (and even their loved ones) blame themselves for what happened to them.
As a member of someone's support team, one of the most important things that you can do is make sure they know that they're in no way to blame for what happened. The only person who is to blame for violence is the abuser themselves.
You may have come across a meme that says something along the lines of "Trauma is never your fault, but healing is your responsibility." I take issue with that.
The first part is right. Trauma isn't ever your fault, plain and simple. But healing isn't just one person's responsibility — it's all of ours. The burden and privilege of recovery doesn't just fall to survivors, it falls to everyone around them to help create opportunities for progress, growth, and yes, eventually healing.