You survived sexual assault. You can survive this too.
This article contains a definition of triggers, and detailed descriptions of the process of healing from assault. Please be mindful of this, and gentle with yourself, before reading further.
Life after sexual assault is incomparable to whatever came before. Being denied sovereignty over one’s own body opens the door to a pervasive, insidious fear. If you were once trapped in a dangerous situation, however briefly, how can you trust your own judgement in the future? This kind of trauma never goes away; all you can do is learn to navigate it.
Most trauma survivors struggle with triggers. Common parlance has co-opted and undermined this word beyond recognition, but it remains a necessary concept. A trigger is NOT simply an upsetting subject of conversation. It is an experience that reminds a person of past trauma so strongly that it causes overwhelming, uncontrollable feelings. These emotions are usually an appropriate response to the original trauma, but disproportionate to the present moment.
For some survivors, the discussion of assault may, indeed, be a trigger — but it’s rarely so straightforward. You may be triggered by listening to a certain band, the scent of alcohol on someone’s breath, or being touched in a particular way. A friend of mine flinches every time she hears the word “others.” Triggers are unique to everyone.
One very common trigger for assault survivors is the feeling of being trapped. Under normal circumstances, this might manifest as claustrophobia, a desire to sit facing the door, or a need to have your car keys on hand at all times. Right now, the very idea of “normal circumstances” seems like a cruel joke. We’re all feeling trapped. That means something different for everyone. We are variously trapped in our homes, in our jobs, in untenable financial situations, and in relationships we cannot physically leave. Collectively, we are trapped in a global crisis from which there is no clearly defined escape.
PTSD is a double-edged sword. In some ways, it has equipped survivors with the exact tools we need to navigate the pandemic. In other ways, it puts us in the uniquely vulnerable position of facing triggers we may not have recognized before.
Survivors — you’ve got this. It’s hard. But you’ve survived so much already; you can survive this, too. When you feel like you just can’t keep going, take a look at this practical guide for how to love yourself through the trauma of quarantine.
Your Body Belongs to You
You may not be able to control what’s happening in your life right now. Few of us can have a direct impact on the spread of coronavirus. Even fewer can make widespread decisions about how long we’ll be sheltering in place. It’s possible you’re experiencing doubt about your career prospects. But no matter how much uncertainty you face, there is one thing you can control right now: your own body.
If you can, use this time to build healthy habits. Eat well; exercise often; start or continue a meditation practice. If that’s too hard, take a shower. Dye your hair. Scream into a pillow. Do one push-up. Simply moving your body helps to build body awareness, which can alleviate the symptoms of PTSD. Make a list of things that make your body feel like it belongs to you. Try to do one thing from your list every day.
If you’re not in a position to control your own body, you can take steps to change that. To anyone reading this who is living in a violent or unsafe home, please get the help you need. You can reach out to the National Domestic Violence Hotline to learn about your options and find a safer place to stay.
Break the Old Rules
All of us — women, AFAB people, survivors of sexual assault — have been warned against putting ourselves in danger. That warning is bogus. It’s important to take care of yourself, of course, and to recognize that we live in a world that does not prioritize our safety. However, the idea that we are responsible for the actions of rapists and abusers is a kind of victim-blaming. It doesn’t matter what you were wearing. It doesn’t matter how well you knew them. Your abuser is the only person responsible for their actions.
Although these warnings reek of rape culture, most of us still hold them in some regard. We don’t go for walks alone at 2 am. We don’t dance around our front lawns wearing only bathing suits. We don’t make eye contact with strangers on the sidewalk.
In this era of social distancing, I am personally inviting you to break every one of those rules. Give yourself permission to exist in the world without fear of being attacked or even approached by a stranger. I am not suggesting you turn off all awareness of your surroundings and intentionally put yourself in situations that make you feel unsafe. To the contrary, this is a time for you to trust your gut and explore new ways of being. The widespread use of masks has at least one upside: no one is telling us to smile.
Take Your Time
You are not required to be productive. Your worth is not calculated by how much money you make, how clean your house is, or how many loaves of sourdough you’ve baked this week. For the first time in the age of the internet, people are learning how important it is to slow down.
As quarantine drags on, we’re all learning that time is a social construct. While it’s hard to adjust to this lack of structure, it gives us a new kind of freedom. We are no longer obligated to put on a professional facade even in times of great emotional distress. You have an unprecedented opportunity to make room for whatever you’re feeling, every moment that you feel it.
We’re all experiencing intermittent moments of abject fear, loneliness, and panic. This is true for everyone — not just survivors of assault. Take advantage of this cultural shift. When you feel triggered, step back from whatever else you’re doing. Meditate. Cry. Write. Trust your instincts. You are your own best guide.
Phone a Friend
You are almost certainly isolated right now, but you are not alone in that. It’s time to build your quaranteam. Whether or not you choose to attend large gatherings on zoom, it’s important to reach out for support when you need it.
We are not just suffering as individuals; our communities are struggling too. It’s ok to ask for help. It may even be easier to reach your most trusted friends right now, since many of us have so much free time. You have the right to ask for their attention. Remember, too, that offering to help other people can boost your own well-being.
As long as you respect your loved ones’ boundaries, asking for emotional support is not selfish. In fact, you may even be helping your friends by doing so. Psychologists link giving behavior and compassion to overall happiness. It is certainly possible to ask for too much — your friends are not your therapists. But in an equitable, respectful relationship, it’s ok to express your true feelings. You are not a burden.
Make Your Way
It is not your fault that you were hurt. It is, however, your responsibility to heal. It is unfair and infuriating that survivors are left to clean up the messes our abusers made, but it is also unavoidable. In order to build better lives, we are obligated to dig deep into our past trauma, work through triggers, and reject the cycle of violence.
Practitioners of Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT) use a metaphor to describe this process. Think of yourself as a bus driver on a vehicle carrying many passengers. Traveling through life, it’s your job to steer toward your own values. However, your passengers have their own opinions. Some of them support you — maybe they’ll help you navigate, or remind you to drink water and stay focused. And some of them are monsters. They’ll try to take the wheel; they’ll fight with each other and distract you from the road. They’ll sneak up behind you and cover your eyes. They want you to fail.
These passengers are the different parts of your own psyche. By committing to your own healing, you commit to keep driving the bus. You can’t kick the monsters off at the next stop, and you shouldn’t try. Listen to them. If you can, befriend them. But no matter how much they try to hurt you, remember that you are the one behind the wheel. Don’t allow yourself to become a passenger on your own bus, ruled and steered by your past trauma.
In the process of healing from sexual assault, survivors reexamine their relationships with the idea of agency. What does it mean to be in charge of your own life? How can you be safe and free at the same time? This experience of quarantine is asking us the same questions. Where do we, as individuals and as a global culture, want to go from here? How can we organize with each other to build a better world, even as we continue to be isolated?
However you respond to these questions, know that your answers matter. You have the power to change the world — even if it’s only your world. And most importantly, remember that no one else can make these choices for you. You get to decide.