After experiencing an assault, there are hundreds of things people tell you that you “should do.” But after the immediate crisis management is complete and you are alone with your thoughts…what then? And what if you are still feeling lost months or years later? About two years ago, I started my journey to discover just that. What is healing? How do we even start? After the dust settles, how do we pick up the pieces and begin to rebuild our lives? I wish I could tell you that I have discovered that million dollar answer, but unfortunately one major theme I learned is that healing is different for everyone and the context you are in is incredibly important. After interviewing over 50 survivors of sexual assault and other forms of gender-based violence, however, I did come away with some key tips that seemed important to pass along to attempt to re-frame our mindsets as we embark on our healing journey. The following quotations are from interviews I completed this past year, shared with permission of those I spoke with. These individuals chose to share their stories and experiences to attempt to make the world a little better for those who are currently feeling stuck in their healing. Thank you for partnering on this incredible journey of discovery with me.
Tip #1: Violence may feel normal in our world, but it is important to remember it is not.
“[Part of it is] being able to define that you were hurt. Because like I said, I was initially like‘Oh, it wasn’t a big deal’, but then I think when I owned it, like ‘Oh no, that was a messed-up thing’…that was the beginning of the healing process I think.”
Often, we can feel like violence and unwanted sexual advances are everywhere. We see it happening on the street, in the media, to ones we love. We might not mean to, but once we experience sexual violence ourselves sometimes we compare our experiences to other situations we have been exposed to or have seen on TV. This can cause us to wonder if our experiences are “bad enough” or if our reactions to our experiences are “too extreme.” By feeling this way, we can struggle to make meaning, label, and seek help for our experiences. No violence is normal. All violence is “bad enough.” Seek the help you need. It’s not your fault.
“No one’s assault or adverse sexual experience is cut and dry….I think I would have [had an easier time reporting] if my story fit into a narrative that people are comfortable with…just know the narratives are never clean.”
Tip #2: It’s Normal to Feel Stuck.
“It’s not like it’s rock bottom. It’s like an elevator. Like, there are points where you can get off on the way down, [but] you might not be ready today and that’s okay.. For such a long time, I was like to myself ‘Oh my God, you are just so lazy,’ when really that is not what it was at all.”
Often, when we are truly allowing ourselves to process our emotions, we can feel “stuck” and consumed by our distress. This can manifest in feelings of shame, self-blame, fear, frustration, and anger. These emotions can activate each other, causing us to feel overwhelmed and powerless at times. We might even get frustrated at ourselves that we are not healing “fast enough.” It is important to note that our feelings and emotions are normal human response to abnormal events…you are not crazy.
“I would say that feelings aren’t a sign of weakness, and composure isn’t necessarily a sign of strength.”
Tip #3: The Problem is the Problem…You Are Not the Problem.
“Forgive yourself for all the things that are gonna go wrong. Because a lot of times, healing isn’t effective unless a lot has gone wrong. It’s totally normal to let things fall apart before you can pull them together and start healing.”
By forgiving ourselves and realizing that despite what our inner critic is telling us, we are not the cause of our trauma and are not to blame, we can begin to allow ourselves to accept our experiences and integrate them into our identities. This traumatized part of ourselves is an important piece of who we are, but it does not need to define us. There are many other wonderful parts to us. We just need to work on building and fostering growth in those areas. We live in a world that is constantly telling us that we are responsible for our own safety. This does not mean we are to blame for our experiences. Violence is the problem. You are not the problem.
“Remember that it is not your fault. There are so many people that love you, and this is not defining, even though it feels like it is. You are still capable of being who you are and doing what you want, and it does get better.”
Tip #4: Healing is Possible
“Healing is a process. It is finding ways to integrate what I have been through with who I am,both despite it and because of it. It’s not about trying to get rid of the pieces of me that have been shaped by it, because that’s never going to happen. Just, hating parts of myself and that’s not going to help. It’s about trying to accept parts of myself and work through what has happened by kind of talking about it, and by talking about it in ways that I acknowledge that I didn’t deserve it, and it wasn’t something that was okay.”
Healing is possible. I have witnessed it. I have experienced it myself. Healing is described as a non-linear process influenced by both healing and darker moments in our day-to-day lives. Healing is not something that comes easy, however, and often requires active engagement despite challenges that may arise. Our well being may sometimes feel unpredictable, but patience is needed when setbacks occur. We are only human. Some important healing goals our survivors have talked about include reconstructing their identity, cultivating worthiness, regaining trust, rebuilding a positive world view, and finding their voice in the chaos. You will get there. Keep holding on.
“Healing is not as a linear process, and understanding that the low points…it is not really progress in a sense if you are not having those types of experiences, I suppose. You are still probably shoving things to the side, so don’t see it as a setback. Not that these things will never really heal, but (you will) kind of carry them differently.”
Tip #5: Healing Requires Vulnerability
“It is important to feel and acknowledge your darker emotions instead of hiding from them. You can’t heal by internalizing the pain or anger. It ends up hurting you more in the long term.”
Ultimately, allowing oneself to feel both negative and positive emotions without residual guilt seems healing for survivors. This pushes against fears of vulnerability and challenges ourselves to expand our comfort zones while reflecting on and processing our day-to-day experiences. This means acknowledging and naming the feelings you have, honoring them, and then letting them go. This also means allowing yourself to bask in feelings of healing and lightness as they arise. Just because you are feeling a moment of happiness, does not mean your trauma is any less important or significant. Let yourself take that break. You deserve happiness. You deserve to feel whole.
“So, taking the time to be goofy and ridiculous…not necessarily ignore problems but, um, not let them take over and be overwhelming… allowing myself to be happy and enjoy the silly moments…making an intentional effort, to have those more positive emotions”
Thank you for reading this far and I hope, if nothing else, you realize you are not alone trying to navigate this nebulous process we call healing. Healing takes effort. Healing is not easy. Celebrate the small wins and recognize your strength in even attempting to embark on this journey. You are incredible and you will make it, but you do not need to do it all on your own. There are people out there who are ready with open arms to support you and together we are a force to be reckoned with.