If the offices of GR TherapyGroup are at all representative of an average therapy practice, I have to believe therapists all over America spent the week listening to stories of sexual assault occurring in their patients’ past. It is not hard to understand why this would happen.
When a person survives sexual assault, that traumatic memory is stored within the brain in a unique way. On the one hand, it is stored in a way to help the person not have to think about their trauma in the moment-to-moment of daily living. On the other hand, when that memory gets jostled the survivor will not only remember what happened but they may re-experience many aspects of the trauma they went through. The survivor might become inundated with visual images or sounds and smells from the traumatic event. They might become agitated, fearful, or hypervigilant. Things sometimes go farther and the survivor re-experiences actual sensations in their body or are taken into their mind to experience a full-blown flashback. Regardless of the level of severity of symptoms associated with being triggered, the emotional state of the survivor is almost always taken back to feelings from when the event occurred.
It is not uncommon for survivors of sexual assault and sexual abuse to not want to talk about it. Throughout history, society has used shame, doubt, minimizing, and outright blaming of the victim as ways to keep them quiet. Females in our society especially understand this and they are always aware of what speaking up might mean for them. They are almost always cautious about telling their story.
I have been practicing Psychology for 16 years. Over those years I’ve sat with countless survivors as they gathered up the courage to tell their story. They almost always talk about their trauma with a deep sense of fear and shame. Sometimes they shake. They almost always cry. Sitting with a person as they find their voice to tell their story of trauma is a solemn and sacred experience for sure. Many of the survivors who told their stories in my office had never before spoken of what they’d been through. Ever. As their Psychologist I know their willingness to talk about it marks the beginning of their healing.
Last week America watched as Dr. Christine Blasey Ford told her story. Americans either believed her or they didn’t, that is not the point of this article. What happened as a result of her testimony was a 201% increase in calls to the National Sexual Assault Hotline on that same day. From my professional perspective this is no small after-effect. I’d like to think this marks the beginning of another round of healing for America. I have been saying for years, after hearing so many secretly held stories of surviving abuse, that if more sexual assault survivors felt they could speak out, sexual assault would become less common.
Clearly, it is time for America to admit we all suffer from the hidden undercurrent of abuse. As hard as it was for so many to watch the testimony, there is good that can come from this moment in history. Survivors can feel it is right to speak up and society can question what appropriate behavior actually looks like. This will help America heal as we take sexual assault more seriously.
Another important ramification of Dr. Ford’s testimony and the #MeToo movement in general, is society becoming aware that what we were once willing to write off as playful antics, things boys or men just do, are actually violent violations of another person’s dignity. We can only hope that as more and more survivors speak up America will finally come to the point where we no longer turn a blind eye, look the other way, or feel justified in blaming the victim when the victim speaks out.
Often when a sexual abuse survivor finally decides to speak in therapy about what happened to her, she says she thought it was her fault, or she blames herself for getting into that position in the first place. Many survivors report feeling they had been coerced, like they shouldn’t have let things go so far, or they were in no position at that point to say stop. We need to help sexual assault survivors know that it was not their fault. That all people have the right to say no. That the victim is never to blame. Unfortunately, however, those messages have not been common. I cannot tell you how many times I’ve had to tell a person: “What happened to you was wrong… It was abuse… It was not your fault…” These are the messages we need to affirm.
If you find you are in a situation of doing something you do not want to do, know that you have the right to say no and expect that saying no should mean no. If the other person does not respect your right to say no, tell somebody, anybody. Please do not stay silent.
If you have an abusive situation you suffered in your past, please choose to talk about it. Find a therapist and tell your story. Do not hesitate. The beginning of your healing starts with finding the courage to finally tell your story. You do not need to keep that secret. It’s time to talk about what happened to you.
America needs to address this serious issue but that will not happen if survivors do not speak up and if society continues to fail to respect the courage it takes for survivors to tell their stories. As a country we can handle this better. It’s time we respect those stories.