Is it possible to recover from rape and sexual abuse? Yes and No

OneHourInParisCoverFinalWhen she was twenty-two years old, philosopher Karyn L. Freedman was viciously raped at knifepoint. She narrowly escaped being murdered and her body disposed, perhaps never to be found. In her memoir, One Hour in Paris, Freedman recounted her efforts to heal from this horrifying ordeal. Nearly 25 years have passed since she was raped, but she has yet fully recovered and doubts she ever will. Even after years of therapy, support group meetings, and educating rape survivors in Africa about the effects of trauma, Freedman claimed:

“The biological truth of my trauma is anchored in me, but it lives there like a parasite. And as I move in and out of recovery I am reminded that however much work I do, healing from a traumatic experience is never complete. This is one of the most significant facts about psychological trauma. It is permanent. The psychological damage that results from the experience of terrorizing life events over which we have no control is profound. It sticks around for life. It is a chronic condition, which makes recovery from traumatic events an ongoing process.”

Freedman’s continued struggle is common. Susan J. Brison, also a philosopher and also brutally raped in France as an adult, wrote the following about the lingering impact of her rape:

“People ask me if I’m recovered now, and I reply that it depends on what that means. If they mean, ‘am I back to where I was before the attack’? I have to say, no, and I never will be. I am not the same person who set off, singing, on that sunny Fourth of July in the French countryside. I left her — and her trust, her innocence, her joie de vivre — in a rocky creek bed at the bottom of a ravine. I had to in order to survive. I now have my own understanding of what a friend described to me as a Jewish custom of giving those who have outlived a brush with death new names. The trauma has changed me forever, and if I insist too often that my friends and family acknowledge it, that’s because I’m afraid they don’t know who I am.”

Although I have never been raped as an adult, I was sexually abused as a child. I spent years nostalgically imagining the person I might have been had I not been abused, and went through periods haunted by nightmares and flashbacks that kept me reliving my twisted fate. Still, I consider myself lucky. I have managed to escape sexual revictimization as an adult, which happens with appalling regularity to women with histories like mine.

Yet like Freedman’s and Brison’s rapes, the impact of sexual abuse persists. Sometimes I fail to see the secureness of my present life because of the protracted shadow of fear that is cast by all forms of sexual violence. Something startles me and I am reminded that safety can be eclipsed in a moment. Even now, I am prone to dissociate the felt sense of my body when I am overwhelmed by fear. I learned to escape in my head conditions that were inescapable in my environment. Some habits are near impossible to break.

It has taken me a long time to honor these survival responses and acknowledge that sexual violence is not something I, or anyone else, fully recovers from, although this is not a reason to give up on recovery. Survivors can and do become strong again — sometimes stronger than they ever imagined — and often graced with an awareness of the fragile nature of life that deepens their capacity for compassion.

But the process of healing from sexual violence is slow, painful, and expensive. And because I have worked hard for a peaceful mind and body, I am protective of them. I have a low tolerance of toxic attitudes and behaviors that might upend my recovery. But I am also quick to stand up to injustices that impact others, and I have witnessed this trait in people like myself who are committed to healing their wounds of violence and abuse. Unintentionally, we become warriors of the heart — the would-be Bodhisattvas and protectors of those less fortunate and vulnerable — those we imagine are like we were before we reclaimed our right to dignity and self-preservation, and those we imagine could become victims like we once were.

Not everyone likes the justice-seeking aspect of recovering survivors of sexual violence and other abuses. Anyone who needs to exert power over another, needs someone capable of being a victim. Furthermore, the psychological complexes and interpersonal dynamics that lead to subjugation extend well beyond the predator-prey dynamics of sexual violence.

I once had a supervisor describe my penchant to protect others as a “Joan of Arc” complex. This observation followed after I asked her to stop calling my clients names like “bitch,” “putz,” and “schmuck.” Shortly after my objections, I was removed from my position. Had I avoided the work of recovery, I might have lacked the courage to defend my clients, especially given what I sensed (and heard) about this person’s penchant for bullying. Had I not taken the time to address how sexual violence had led to certain defensive behaviors and beliefs in me, I might have continued my early life habit of silencing my objections to perceived wrongs, since this submissive style of defense had protected me. But it’s no way to live, even if the consequence of standing up to injustice is more injustice. The price of dignity can be great, but the price of submitting to injustice is greater.

In large part, although often unconscious, the commitment to heal is a sustained effort at avoiding becoming a victim again. And the changes we make in our efforts to ensure future safety and integrity also lead to resisting abuses of power in all aspects of our lives.

Knowledge is a powerful way to defend against further subjugation. In One Hour In Paris, Freedman shared an extensive knowledge of PTSD, the history of the DSM, and the treatment of psychological trauma. Obviously, I share her desire to know everything I can about healing. Every textbook I have read on the treatment of trauma has been with double vision: one eye on how to maintain my own recovery, the other eye on how to help others with their’s. Having fallen victim once, some of us arm ourselves with knowledge to fail-safe our recovery, but also to ensure we never fall victim again.

One outcome of this unanticipated expertise is a nuanced understanding of the consequences of unrestrained power that includes knowing how to heal from subjugation and avoid further victimization. This is valuable wisdom, and a largely untapped resource. The wisdom of recovery can enlighten efforts at creating a society centered on safety, respect, and fairness.

Because of the insights gained through recovery, I believe the commitment to heal is a generous act, even though the process means focusing intently on oneself. Individual efforts to heal become the groundwork for equality and respect in relationships, families, communities, work environments, and societies. Healing society really does begin with healing its members.

Granted, as Freedman and Brison shared, even after an extended period of recovery, suffering still happens. No one ever completely gets over being a victim of a sexual predator. Still, with time and effort the reactions can be managed. In the process, the survivor often gains a stronger spirit, greater integrity, and better self-care that together foster a deep caring for others. As Brison also wrote:

“But if recovery means being able to incorporate this awful knowledge into my life and carry on, then, yes, I’m recovered. I don’t wake each day with a start, thinking: ‘this can’t have happened to me!” It happened. I have no guarantee that it won’t happen again, although my self-defense classes have given me the confidence  to move about in the world and to go for longer and longer walks—with my two big dogs. Sometimes I even manage to enjoy myself. And I no longer cringe when I see a woman jogging alone on the country road where I live, though I may still have a slight urge to rush out and protect her, to tell her to come inside where she’ll be safe. But I catch myself, like a mother learning to let go, and cheer her on, thinking, may she always be so carefree, so at home in her world. She has every right to be.”

In what follows, I discuss some of the reactions, beliefs, and emotions that interfere with seeking help following sexual violence, and thus getting the process of recovery started. I have found for myself, and for others I have had the honor to support in recovery, that it is difficult to accept the extent of the damage caused by sexual violence. The tendency is to believe that if you can avoid thinking about the rape or abuse, its impact will fade away. Furthermore, shame, no matter how undeserved, keeps women from seeking help. Taking a trauma-informed perspective can help overcome these obstacles to beginning recovery.

Initial steps towards healing

After sexual violence, most women want to forget what happened, and return to the lives they led prior to the assault. The survivor desires to be the person she was before, and avoid perceiving herself as irrevocably damaged by the rape or sexual abuse. Confusion, humiliation, and hurt are common, and contribute to self-doubt and silence.

Consequently, women often choose a course of action that will protect them from the imagined judgment of others, including avoiding seeking help. And who can blame us? Throughout history, women have been held responsible for the sexual violence perpetrated against them. Remaining silent just may be an archetypal defense response to the anticipated judgment and shaming that across the millennia have been the common response to sexually violated women (along with forced prostitution, stoning to death, and abandonment).

Freedman’s literal cry for help led to the police’s immediate involvement, and eventually the successful prosecution and imprisonment of the man who raped her. (Brison’s rapist was also prosecuted and imprisoned.) Freedman’s family was supportive and protective of her following the rape. However, like many women, Freedman initially shied from telling many about the rape, and instead told people she had been mugged. She also sought only limited professional support following her rape:

“outside of a couple of sessions with a psychologist when I first returned home from Paris (attended at the behest of my parents), I had made no serious effort to come to terms with the experience. I believed — wrongly, as it turns out — that the best way to deal with the trauma of that night was to distance myself from it.”

No one can anticipate the impact sexual violence is going to have, although anticipation isn’t usually needed, since reactions to sexual violence appear rather quickly. In his book, The Trauma Model, psychiatrist Colin Ross gave the following composite description of typical reactions to rape:

“She has nightmares of being chased and murdered, which she never had before. She has repeated intrusive recollections of the rape, sometimes including details she could not previously recall. She is tense, keyed up, anxious and fearful much of the time. She scans the environment for detail and has an extreme startle response to stimuli that previously would not have affected her….

“Because of the nightmares, she loses a lot of sleep. As well, she avoids the nightmares by staying up late. The resulting fatigue begins to affect her concentration and performance at work. She will not let her boyfriend, with whom she previously had frequent, mutually satisfying sexual relations, touch her. When he tries to touch her, she experiences fearful hyperarousal and has to take a shower. She takes at least three showers a day in order to get rid of the dirt on her body and she can still feel the rapist’s semen on her. She develops other psychosomatic symptoms including vaginal pain, painful periods, muscle and joint pains, and diarrhea and nausea.

“… exhausted from lack of sleep, and overwhelmed with traumatic anxiety, she begins to drink in the evenings and uses alcohol to go to sleep. She becomes tired, drained of energy, overwhelmed and despondent. She has many negative cognitions about herself, men and life in general.”

When these reactions are ignored, over time they become the ‘new norm’ as the person she was before the rape, and the woman’s prior way of being in her body and the world, begin to recede.

Freedman suffered many of the reactions Ross described. Finding herself living alone six years after the rape — a relationship ended due to problems with intimacy she believed the rape caused — Freedman’s reactions were exacerbated and became unavoidable:

“I had minor convulsions at the slightest unexpected noise, anything from the ringing of a telephone to the slamming shut of a book. My ability to fall and stay asleep, which had been a struggle since the rape, became seriously compromised. I would lie in bed for hours listening to the pounding of my own heart and trying to close off my mind to the unwanted images that flew threw it. These intrusive thoughts are a form of traumatic flashback, although since I wasn’t actually thinking (or writing or talking) about the rape at that time in my life, these images weren’t usually about me or Robert [the rapist] or the knife grazing lines on my breasts. Instead, the intrusive thoughts were centered on my friends and family, and every possible variation that my mind could configure on each one’s violent and imminent demise. In quick, successive flashes, I would imagine one sister or the other trampled by the crush of an uncontrollable mob, or my grandmother’s head ripped off by a bus whizzing past her, or a friend flattened to death by a crashing plane. At the time, alcohol was the only thing that gave me some temporary relief from these tormenting thoughts….”

At one point, almost eight years after the rape, Freedman visited a psychiatrist who put her on clonazepam, a medication used to treat insomnia and panic attacks. Freedman never disclosed to her psychiatrist that she had been raped. It also seems her psychiatrist never asked if she had a history of trauma:

“By the spring of 1998 I had finally had enough. I decided that I needed to get some help. I went to see a psychiatrist, which is how I first ended up on clonazepam. Remarkably, I saw this doctor once a month for about a year, and not once in that time did I mention to her that I had been raped or almost killed. At the time I wasn’t even aware of this omission (I realized it only after I went back to see her following a long hiatus). It wasn’t that I had entirely blocked out any memory of the rape, but by this point I had assumed that it was long behind me, and I simply did not connect my wretched inner life with the aftermath of that traumatic experience. The event of August 1, 1990, had fallen off my radar even though I was living it out every day.”

Because many women avoid support, or get the wrong kind of support, or lack appropriate support and services, it’s vital they are told how sexual violence impacts the body and mind. This information is best received as close as possible to the time of the rape or sexual abuse. Knowing what to expect can decrease self-judgment, especially the belief that I should be over this already, which commonly creeps in, along with thoughts of self-blame. Such beliefs contribute to a self-persecuting spiral that increases the likelihood of substance abuse/dependency, along with debilitating low self-worth. Furthermore, substance abuse and low self-worth increase the likelihood of sexual revictimization.

Awareness of common reactions to a traumatic event can also help create a healthy distance from body sensations, thoughts, and feelings triggered by reminders of the trauma, including overwhelming fear that is much like the fear felt during the assault. Knowing these reactions can help disentangle disorienting and often frightening traumatic reminders from the ‘going on with ordinary life’ part of the self — that ‘old’ self who existed before the rape and who the survivor initially desires to become again — or for those sexually abused when young, who they hope to one day become.

Knowledge of natural reactions to traumatic situations is a resource that helps dampen their impact. Like it or not, sexual violence splits a person’s psyche such that when triggered by reminders of the assault, defense reactions are activated and override efforts to get on with ordinary life — including sleeping, working, meeting goals, playing, enjoying intimacy, and the like. This splitting between defense reactions and ‘ordinary life’ is a natural response to threat and overwhelming fear.

Trauma memories are not like regular memories, and the body and mind react to them differently. When sexual assault happens, the body (including the brain) instinctively organizes for survival, and triggers defense responses, such as fight, flight, freeze, submit, or a cry for help. This instinctual drive for survival overrides critically thinking about what is happening, in part because thinking about a threat while it’s happening can slow down survival responses. Instead, energy is diverted away from the frontal lobes — the area of the brain responsible for higher order cognitive processes, which includes creating coherent narratives of events. Without the frontal lobes fully functioning, there is no way to integrate overwhelming sensory information into a coherent, meaningful account of the trauma. Instead, emotional reactions are split-off from sensory memories, muscle memories, perceptions, and thoughts also registered at the time of the traumatic event. Thus, survival comes at a price: fragmented memories in search of integration haunt trauma survivors long after danger has passed.

Traumatic reminders feel intrusive, whether these reminders are images, emotions, or body sensations. This is the startle response Freedman wrote about, and the panic attacks too. Yet there is also that other part of the self — the one that has relationships, holds a job, sets goals — but the capacity to express this part of the self is continuously overwhelmed by reminders of the attack or abuse. Healing is about regaining the ability to live from that ‘ordinary life’ part of the self — or for the survivor of child sexual abuse, establishing a sense of ‘ordinary life’ that feels safe and life-affirming — without overwhelming defense responses getting activated at inopportune times.

All of us continuously and unconsciously scan for the presence of danger, a process neuroscientist Stephen Porges called neuroception. However, following sexual violence, this natural unconscious process starts to hypervigilantly register potential signs of threat, often to the point of being overwhelmed, going numb, or dissociating. Having experienced the worst, the unconscious mind becomes primed to expect the worst.

The triggered defense responses, such as the desire to fight or flee that weren’t possible at the time of the assault, are once again truncated by overwhelming fear. Thus, the survivor’s own body and mind begin to feel like they are trapped in inescapable horror, regardless that the threat has long passed. Consequently, despite best intentions and well-laid plans, getting on with ordinary life is exceedingly difficult following rape or any form of sexual violence. We aren’t physiologically built to experience something as threatening and overwhelming as rape and sexual abuse and then get on with life as if nothing happened.

Getting back to ‘ordinary life’ begins with being aware of limiting beliefs, overwhelming emotions, and disruptive sensations as defense reactions, and then creating conditions that increase feelings of body safety, emotional safety, and safety in the environment. Some possible reactions to sexual violence include:

  • Self-blame
  • Depression
  • Hopelessness
  • Physical aches and pains
  • Suicidal thoughts and feelings
  • A heightened startle response
  • Irritability, easily angered
  • Fear of intimacy
  • Feelings of mistrust and betrayal
  • Sexual promiscuity or risk-taking behavior
  • Feeling numb, shut down, dissociating
  • Feelings of low self-worth
  • An inability to feel safe alone
  • Catastrophic and morbid thinking
  • Foreshortened sense of the future
  • Self-medicating (e.g, alcohol or other substances) to get to sleep or to control anxiety
  • Overwhelming fear and panic attacks
  • Feeling alienated from other people or foreign to them
  • Living split — a self presented to the world that hides the part of self that feels vulnerable and ashamed
  • Self-silencing around the sexual violence because of feelings of shame

Some of these reactions may seem to contradict each other. Contradiction is the nature of Posttraumatic Stress Disorder, which alternatively involves avoidance of reminders of the traumatic event and preoccupation with them. Reminders may be either real or symbolic, such as Freedman imagining the catastrophic death of family members. The body reacts to both in the same way — as potential threats.

All of these reactions are the body’s and psyche’s natural efforts at self-preservation and protection from further threats. They are signs of suffering and signs of the need for support. They are not symptoms of a disease or evidence of weak character.

When survivors know the body’s natural reactions to traumatic events, they may be less likely to think there is something wrong with them, and more likely to see such changes as having to do with what happened to them. Unfortunately, however, it is highly probably that all survivors of sexual violence will experience at least some of these reactions.

(Visit this blog post for ways to increase a felt sense of safety.)

The power of shame

The hardest part about healing from sexual violence may be overcoming the shame that keeps women and girls silent in their suffering. Shame increases the likelihood that traumatic stress reactions will go unaddressed and instead become the ‘new norm,’ as ‘ordinary life’ becomes increasingly difficult.

For those of us sexually abused as children, silence is typically how we tried to stay safe — or we were led to believe silence would keep us safe. Shame is also a natural reaction to submitting to sexual violence, which initiates a spiral into low self-worth and blaming one’s own body for failing to protect from the abuse or for failing to hide the reactions to abuse (when of course the blame belonged to another). For those of us sexually abused when young, the splitting of self between defense responses and efforts to get on with ordinary life can become complex and entrenched if the abuse was chronic. And unfortunately, after a history of childhood sexual abuse, it typically takes many years to learn how to live peacefully and safely within one’s mind, body, and relationships and without shame.

Adult survivors of sexual violence are also at risk of becoming entrenched in traumatic defense responses that are exacerbated by feelings of shame. Even when a woman knows she is not to blame — and many doubt themselves — she can feel profoundly humiliated by sexual violence.

Most women, if not all, are aware of societal perceptions of women as irrevocably damaged by sexual violence. Even worse, in some Muslim countries such as Pakistan, Somalia, and Afghanistan, the failure to “resist rape” can lead to a woman’s death. In countries where men are prosecuted for rape, there are still age-old distinctions between the madonna and the whore that were initiated by patriarchal religions thousands of year ago, but continue to influence our collective unconscious and how women are perceived and judged. Women who are raped and sexually abused are regularly judged as at least partially at fault for their victimization. No wonder so many of us stay silent about sexual violence.

In her memoir, Freedman writes the following about how societal attitudes keep women in shame and silence:

“Whether to go public with her story is one of the toughest decisions a rape survivor ever faces…the vulnerability, the shame, the embarrassment, and the inescapable feeling that she should have been able to prevent herself from being attacked, and then some—all reinforced by the myth that, so long as you are careful, the world is a safe place. Rape intersects with multiple taboos—sex, violence, and trauma—and its savage intrusion on our sexuality crosses the boundary into that which is most personal and private. For all these reasons, it is simply not socially acceptable for a woman to speak out about her experience as a rape survivor. This taboo is more deeply ingrained in cultural norms in certain parts of the world, like south-central and eastern Asia, Africa, and the Middle East, where the survivor’s shame extends to her entire family, often permanently, and where the consequences for women who publicly identify as rape survivors can be disastrous, even fatal.”

The taboos that silence survivors of sexual violence also interfere with recovery. Although silence may feel as if it protects from further harm or judgment, it erodes the mind, body, and spirit. When the survivor remains silent, the self hidden deep within may eventually become unidentifiable — or unreachable — even by herself.

To know ourselves, and fully recover, we must story our lives, and share our stories with others. Especially when there has been sexual violence, we must pull together the unintegrated bits of memory, and make ourselves and our stories whole again. However, storying trauma doesn’t require retelling every bit of the rape or sexual abuse, or even remembering everything that happened. The need to know everything beyond a fraction of doubt is the mindset of the courtroom, not the healing attitude of recovery. Rather, in recovery, we need the experience of what psychiatrist Daniel Siegel called “feeling felt” by another, sharing what we feel and having our feelings validated. Without this experience of “feeling felt,” we further fall victim to our sense of selves as shameful.

But the taboo surrounding sexual violence is real, and telling others about sexual violence can be compromising, even dangerous for some women. Fortunately, there are anonymous resources such as RAINN, the Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network, and Pandora’s Project. Eventually, though, most women need professional support and the company of other survivors.

Like Freedman, I started my recovery work with a therapist, then took part in a group dedicated to survivors, and finally began helping others with their recoveries. In areas in the West where therapists and mental health services are accessible, this approach to treatment is common and I believe a good one. There are also specific modalities, such as EMDR and Sensorimotor Psychotherapy, that are exceptional at treating traumatic reactions to sexual violence. The eventual goal of therapy is mindful awareness of how defense responses get triggered and learning how not to be overwhelmed by them. Recovery also involves ceasing to be afraid of one’s memories of what happened.

Treatment is most successful when joined with personal efforts at creating safety and peace in daily life. For me, this has included yoga, Buddhism, art classes, self-defense classes, journaling, exercising regularly, and deep connections with people I love and trust (especially my husband). Of course, everyone has unique ways of creating safety and peace, yet all need to make them priorities in their lives.

Recovery also involves feeling part of society without the fear of further violence, or fear of retribution for protecting oneself. Survivors share this aspect of recovery perhaps with all women. None of us really feel safe when rape and sexual abuse occur with regularity and impunity as they do today. Can any women feel safe when nearly 20 percent of women in the US are raped in their lifetimes and 1 in 5 girls in the US are sexual abused before the age of eighteen?  In many countries these percentages are much higher.

Sometimes I go weeks without my fear being triggered, which I feel is quite an accomplishment since I live in a densely populated city. I tend to enjoy these periods like an extended vacation. I know eventually I will read or hear that a woman’s been assaulted somewhere near where I live, or I will personally be sexually harassed. The old fear will be rekindled, although it is muted these days. Still, I am holding out for the possibility of full recovery, and I am waiting on society for the safe environment I need and deserve to get there.

References

Brison, Susan J. 1998. “Surviving Sexual Violence: A Philosophical Perspective.” In Violence Against Women: Philosophical Perspectives, edited by Stanley G. French, Wanda Teays and Laura M. Purdy, 11-26. Ithaca: Cornell University Press.

Freedman, Karyn L. 2014. One Hour In Paris. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Ross, Colin A. 2000. The Trauma Model. Richardson, TX: Manitou Communications, Inc.

© Laura K Kerr, PhD. All Rights Reserved.

  • John Burns

    I am not of course a woman. However, I know something about dealing with intensely negative memories. It can be done in a variety of ways. I am sure you know this. For myself it was learning to meditate in the lotus posture. I sat over a period of time for many hours slowly unwinding past experiences. There was a lead up to this of several years of doing various Yogic things like fasting, becoming a vegetarian, quitting smoking, etc. All those good things that are a bit hard to do. For some reason this increasingly induced a state of terror in my mind. Not all the time but some of it and for some periods all the time. But I had no one to consult with or talk to who could grasp my situation. Those who ought to have been the most help like Yoga teachers were for me worthless and even added to the condition of dread. This was not as in the case of a woman being raped at knife point (but we were both students of philosophy), Nothing had come from without, from the external, but rather from within. Perhaps men more frequently are attacked from the internal. In any case after a certain point I found I could face anything from the contemplative point of view and the dark things turned into light, some times slowly, sometimes quickly and brilliantly. So I began to seek them out as they were food for this process until finally a chronic stomach ache drove me back out into the world! I had to start smoking again and be a person of that world. Now this is a rather extreme course of action for someone who wishes to find freedom–but the joy of freedom is hard to convey. Until these inner fetter were all cut and loosed I had no freedom to speak of. I was the slave of my education and past. And this despite a fine childhood, good health, romances and money in my youth. But then I became a bit like Hermann Hesse’s Steppenwolf. One day the light went out or my star fell below the horizon. And years of darkness rarely illuminated occurred. So I had either to get free again and really free or end my life. I was up against the wall; and I chose to face all the demons. And there were enough to keep me busy for several years. Now this course of action would not be everyone. It might have been the case that I would have taken my life. Or I might have gone completely insane. I was fortunate. A guardian angel perhaps. Or some hidden friend. Who knows. But the self that contemplates can deal with anything. So were one to locate this higher self one will find the other shore and safety. One need only have faith in one’s true self and not take the false one so seriously as it feeds on that and gets to be an even greater enslaver. Thanks for you good work and articles which I send on to others.

    • John,

      Thank you for describing parts of your healing work — and no, it doesn’t matter that you are not a woman!

      As I read your experiences, I admired your inner strength, and your tenacity. And I thought of the journey of mystics, and the Buddha, and moments in people’s lives when they have no one to turn to but themselves. And I think in all recoveries, there are those times when the work is ours to do alone, as we learn to live in full self-acceptance — the so-called ‘good’ and the ‘bad’ of ourselves, that you show can be very dynamic, and at times scary.

      AND I wish you would have had people supporting you along the way. I think we are all much safer when we don’t have to face our demons alone. And we hurt a helluva a lot less too!

      And thank you for sharing my articles.

  • Werner Nieke

    Wow. I think you managed to put pretty much all implications and aspects of the journey to recovery in one comprehensive and – to me – very well written article. Congrats! I’d like to reblog this, awaiting your kind permission to do so. Oh and: I strongly concur on pretty much everything you said, although my personal history of trauma is “probably” one of a slightly different nature. I say “probably” in quotation marks, because I had to find it impossible to assert, whether or not I was victim of sexual abuse as a child. However, from the specific traumatic events I did experience and know about and even more so from the outcomes they produced and which have been largely dominating my life until here – I’ll be 50 in a couple of weeks – I’d have to infer that ANY intrusion in the realm of our most personal and private “space” – that space where any kind of intimacy lives – is likely to produce symptoms of PTSD or complex PTSD. I know they did in my particular case. So… I feel all this you’ve been describing so eloquently and apparently based on much personal research and that info largely backed up by the medical community. Again: Kudos!

    • Thanks so much for your appreciation.

      The issue of remembering past traumas, as you know personally, is complex. And as I suspect you know as well, it has led to a lot of controversy because of the uproar around so-called “recovered memories.” I think this cultural response to remembering trauma has led to a lot of personal doubts and confusion, and interfered with people seeking and receiving appropriate support.

      Modalities like sensorimotor psychotherapy don’t overly concern themselves with finding out what happened in the past. Rather, the focus is on the current moment, and supporting people as they understand how they organize their experiences in ways that trigger defense reactions. Sometimes a memory comes up from the past, or an image. Sometimes its more a body sensation. More important though, the client has an opportunity to stop the tendency to activate defense responses.

      Science has repeatedly shown that memories are elusive beasts, and shape changers — especially trauma memories — and thus their reliability isn’t relevant to the purpose of recovery, which should be driven more by science than ideology. Most important, I believe, is feeling at home in yourself and your relationships without defenses unnecessarily arising. And this can be done by focusing on the present.

      And thank you for wanting to reblog my post. If you go up to the tool bar, where it says “Women. Healing. Violence.” and click on that, you’ll find this blog reposted there, and you should be able to use the reblog function if you are on a WordPress site.

      • Werner Nieke

        I totally agree on everything you said about memory and how recovery should be driven by the science rather than Ideology. I can’t even begin to reflect on the many failed attempts at getting help back when only a fraction of understanding about trauma existed and when therapy would almost inevitably focus on “reframing” and the CBT/DBT flavors of it. While the idea may have sounded right and in the right direction, what’s been painfully obvious to me all along is how all these – by now almost outdated – approaches missed the physical aspect of distressing sensations, which might be rooted in the past, but expressed NOW. So “yes” on all counts.

        I don’t know, whether you have heard of Peter Levine’s “somatic experiencing” technique or about NARM (neuro-affective relational modelling). Both also work with the physical manfestations as guiding posts for recovery.

        In any case: Thanks and thanks for giving me permission to reblog! (Yes, I’m on WordPress and followed your kind advice). Great insights of yours and thanks for sharing!

        • Thank you as well for sharing your insights.

          I am familiar with Peter Levine’s somatic experiencing, but only recently heard about NARM.

          Now that there is greater understanding of how the body responds to threat, I hope more modalities emerge that focus on supporting the body after trauma. I would also love to see the field have as one of its primary objectives helping people feel safe and calm in their bodies.

          • Werner Nieke

            Again, I concur. Feeling safe and calm in the body – I have only had that experience a select few times and only in the absence of people, like e.g. in the woods, by a lake or such.

          • You’re certainly not alone in feeling safety in nature and without people around. Especially among those of us with histories of childhood trauma, this is fairly common. However, rather than seeing this as a pathology, I see it as the potential origin of much wisdom, especially when we start making space in our lives for seeking safety and calm, however we might find it.

            In the best possible worlds, we should all feel safe, and work towards helping others feel safe too. However, we are not in the best of all possible worlds — far from it! And so seeking out alternatives like nature or pets, or limiting time with others, has to happen for a return to growth.

            There is also wisdom found through seeking safety in solitude. Throughout the ages, time spent in solitude has been part of the journey of seekers, shamans, and others drawn towards spiritual insights. And the insights such seekers sought (e.g, Buddha), often become vital for the creation of a healthy and resilient society. (But, of course, they had to come back to society to share their insights!)

            Not enough attention is given to the need for respite from the company of others and seeking safety, or to the view of life as a journey that has many seasons and the opportunity for much growth over the lifespan.

            Furthermore, the journey of healing trauma is the journey of the wounded healer, and one that takes time. And perhaps more than any other personal “quest,” can lead to profound transformation for the individual as well as his or her society.

            When we learn how to heal ourselves, we also gain the wisdom of how to heal society. Your commitment to seeking safety, and what you learn from making this commitment, can eventually become a gift to us all.

          • Werner Nieke

            “Furthermore, the journey of healing trauma is the journey of the wounded healer, and one that takes time. And perhaps more than any other personal “quest,” can lead to profound transformation for the individual as well as his or her society.

            When we learn how to heal ourselves, we also gain the wisdom of how to heal society. Your commitment to seeking safety, and what you learn from making this commitment, can eventually become a gift to us all.”

            Thank you! The same is true for you and your blog and journalling your own recovery and path.

            In addition to our thread here, I found this story today, which I’d like to share for inspiration and boosting and maintaining faith in the healing path:

            http://reset.me/story/a-musical-healer-who-was-wheelchair-bound-before-she-found-ayahuasca/

            Have a great weekend! 🙂

          • Thanks so much for the link. Some incredible and profound transformations have happened to people who use Ayahuasca!

            Lately I’ve been studying shamans, and I think that their initiatory healing journey, which for some even included Ayahuasca, is also what neurobiological research is discovering — healing is fundamentally about integration and gaining or regaining a feeling of wholeness or “oneness”. Terrific stuff.

            Happy weekend to you as well!

          • Werner Nieke

            Thanks! I’m glad you found some inspiration in that article – as I did. And “yes” on the neurobiological aspects of Ayahuasca and its healing properties. Eventually, I get the feeling I’m going to have to figure out a way of how to get access to a trustworthy retreat center and take the plunge at some point. I seem to have exhausted available traditional approaches (as they haven’t worked for me). Here’s to our resilience and perseverance and our comittment to healing!!! 🙂

          • Staying the course, one day at a time!

          • Werner Nieke

            I agree on your assessment here, Laura. And thanks! Happy weekend to you as well (it’s a weekend again, only 4 months later that I’ve come back to this, haha! 😀 )

  • Pingback: Is it possible to recover from rape and sexual abuse? Yes and No | Late.Shift()

  • I share this with everyone I can. I’m so glad you write and I stumbled upon your stuff. Means the world to me.

    • I read a few days ago that research shows the best way to protect women and girls from violence is teaching them self-advocacy. And although the research didn’t address how efforts to heal from sexual violence contribute to protection, I think they do for both for victims of violence and the next generation of girls and boys they raise or help raise. There’s hope.

      Thanks so much for sharing!

  • Charlie N.

    I’ve only recently begun to address a violent sexual attack from 12 years ago. Of all the different types and degrees of guilt I’ve felt since, by far the most difficult to deal with’s been the “I should be over this by now”. I can forgive myself for being ashamed, for hiding it, for blaming me for it; I understand the limitations of my views then, and those things don’t weight on me anymore. But I just can’t seem to be able to extend this same leniency to how off the rails my life’s been, no matter how I try to reason it, it ends up sounding like a cop out to excuse it all on that trauma. I dropped out of school after it happened, I lived for years in an alcoholic stupor that damn near killed me again, managed to finish my studies well into my 20’s, had a string of odd short lived jobs, and just, overall gave up on everything I had planned or had an interest in. I dropped music, dancing, I signed up for colleges I never showed up at. I tried practicing religion, meditation, mindfullness, meds. I’ve had periods where I was almost able to keep it together, but it never holds. Out of seemingly nowhere I lose my nerve, I get indifferent. It feels like there’s this dull, grey undertow to everything, and it seeps into the quiet, pleasant moments, and I’m never really truly, fully at peace. And I feel like I really should be. Half this guilt is fueled on fear that I never will, but the other half is, well, pride I suppose. I’ll be the first to admit I’m rather pigheaded, and sterner with myself than I’d ever dare be to another person. Honestly, it would ring of weakness to me, to admit it still affects me today, even though I’m perfectly aware it’s gone untreated for over a decade. But it’ so entrenched in my guts that I was supposed to have handled it. I feel I wasted half my life letting it get to me more than it should have. I don’t know, some people seem to be able to live just fine having been through a lot worse, war and everything. I don’t know how to tackle this one.

    • Hey Charlie,

      I agree, you are very hard on yourself. But often people are hard on themselves after a horrific experience like yours. It’s a way of gaining a sense of control, which can feel so important for getting on with life and making sure you don’t get assaulted again.

      And it’s really hard to let go of using others as a benchmark for how your life is going, especially when others’ lives become a way of understanding how ‘normal’ life — or life without the impact of sexual assault — is suppose to be like. I also believe such thoughts act as a defense against really feeling what’s going on inside, including feelings of emptiness, rage, fear, and numbness that being violently assaulted typically cause.

      Thoughts like “I should be over this” would be great if they worked — that is, actually stopped the body from being unconsciously triggered by reminders of the trauma — but they don’t, and they just leave you blaming yourself. With trauma, it’s always body over mind, and not mind over body. You just can’t think or plan your way out of trauma. I know this from both the scientific evidence and my personal efforts to “think” my way out of trauma. It just doesn’t work.

      It makes perfect sense to me that you plan to do things, and maybe really want to do them, but end up backing out. It’s got to be really hard for you to feel safe and really trust that you will be safe. This is a common reaction to sexual assault.

      I recently read Bessel van der Kolk’s book The Body Keeps the Score (I discuss it here: http://www.laurakkerr.com/2014/11/12/bessel-van-der-kolk-body-keeps-score/). He gives tons of evidence for why you are responding as you are, that your reactions are a way to keep you safe, even if they don’t lead to the productive life you desire. He also discusses in the book some of the most successful treatment modalities for trauma. If you read the book, you will learn that your responses are perfectly normal given what you went through. You will also learn that what you went through is as damaging as the effects of being in war. And you will learn about ways you can heal from what happened to you.

      I wish you all the best.

      • Charlie N.

        I’ve been reading up on van der Kolk’s methods (it seems they are a bit unorthodox) and it did really interest me, even though I’m as skeptic of them as I am of traditional psychology at this point.

        And yes, I do realize it’s a sort of magical thinking I’m doing, insisting things should be different just ’cause I really want them to, as if I could will them to be so. It’s become a habit, and a disturbingly soothing one at that, as if being constantly aware I’m doing something wrong somehow absolves me of it? It’s like a weird Catholic guilt trip (well I was raised Catholic).

        I think I’ll be looking into all three books, van der Kolk’s, Freedman’s and Brison’s, they seem very sober and very different from the tone of what I had recommended to me so far, which I won’t cite not to ruffle any feathers, but that just, I don’t know, didn’t sit well with me, they came off as condescending and superficial, like all I needed was a pep talk.

        Thank you for the response!

        • I think what is really powerful about the research and clinical work on trauma and the body is how they respect all aspects of the self and work towards integration — even the magical thinking and the Catholic guilt! With integration, there’s more choice about how you want to grow as a person, and less likelihood for avoidance as well as preoccupation with people, things, experiences — but especially, remembrances of past traumas.

          These books you mention, they are all quite good. And for those of us (yes, myself included) who have learned to soothe through magical thinking and that kind of “over eye” view of the self that religions are so good about disciplining, it really helps to get in the body and to learn to trust our gut instincts. Because being able to hear the wisdom of the body is what really keeps us safe.

          However, the body is also where the memories of the trauma are held, and thus, being in one’s body, in a safe way (not overrun with flashbacks), becomes a significant part of the treatment in body-focused trauma therapy.

          A book that you might want to check out, that is more about feeling better, is Peter Levine’s “Healing Trauma: A Pioneering Program for Restoring the Wisdom of Your Body.” Below is the blurb from Amazon. It’s not a cure-all book, but some people find it a good introduction to working with the body and trauma:

          “Researchers have shown that survivors of accidents, disaster, and childhood trauma often endure lifelong symptoms ranging from anxiety and depression to unexplained physical pain, fatigue, illness, and harmful “acting out” behaviors. Today, professionals and clients in both the bodywork and the psychotherapeutic fields nationwide are turning to Peter A. Levine’s breakthrough Somatic Experiencing® methods to actively overcome these challenges.

          “In Healing Trauma, Dr. Levine gives you the personal how-to guide for using the theory he first introduced in his highly acclaimed work Waking the Tiger. Join him to discover: how to develop body awareness to “renegotiate” and heal traumas by “revisiting” them rather than reliving them; emergency “first-aid” measures for times of distress; and nature’s lessons for uncovering the physiological roots of your emotions.

          “”Trauma is a fact of life,” teaches Peter Levine, “but it doesn’t have to be a life sentence.” Now, with one fully integrated self-healing tool, he shares his essential methods to address unexplained symptoms of trauma at their source—the body—to return us to the natural state in which we are meant to live.”

  • Kamilla Vaski

    I continually struggle with the effects of trauma from childhood, adolescence and beyond, and the layers of retraumatization that have persisted to this day. The worst part is the attacks of self-doubt, anger and self-hatred, which sometimes last for days. The internalization of negativity, as though I was projecting it back into myself, can at times be almost too much to bear. This along with the grief over time lost to depression and lack of motivation, missed opportunities, self-punishment that for many years I could not even articulate to myself. The only way out is to wait out the black spell, to know that it will pass even as it feels as though it has taken over for good. It was immensely liberating for me, when I realized that my ability to function outwardly, even to be creative, artistic, inspiring, while at the same time going through these periods of hell, does not make me a liar or a fraud–it’s just the way I was programmed to be inside. What an amazing thing, to know that there is a part of me that knows I am good, and healthy, and worthwhile, and is able to act on that knowledge, even while I seem to have no control over the negative feelings inside. That in itself is a comfort and may be a help to others as well who struggle with the effects of trauma.

    • It can be so painful when those self-judgements get triggered and you feel pulled back into those old feelings again. Like you point out, it can feel like you will be stuck there forever, which is so frightening.

      Your creativity, and commitment to engagement with the outer world even when in the darkest despair, speaks to your resilience. In sensorimotor psychotherapy, we would refer to this as how you “resource” self, which is foundational for growing into the person you chose to be, rather than remaining stuck in a defense response and old ways you learned to see yourself. Of course it can be hard to muster strength and commit to our own well-being when overwhelmed by these “black spells,” but we just have to do it, and believe we matter — regardless of what the inner voice of negativity is saying.

      Thanks so much for sharing so deeply from within yourself. It can be hard to look at those dark parts of ourselves, let alone share them with others. Your spirit of sharing to help others reveals the depths of your inalienable compassion.

    • FireintheHead

      It seems to me kamilla you might get alot out of Vapassana, a form of meditation you can do anywhere .the trick is just to concentrate on the breath, and to look at all that comes and goes with a detachment , as if you are witnessing them and not part of them.

      All emotion is really ‘energy in motion’ and the thing to do is to not give it power. Reconfigure the “way” you look at it…

      By going into it via therapy we often give things power, paradoxically making them louder and bigger as opposed to smaller and less significant. They become more and more part of our identity . Like a record needle getting stuck it carves emotional ruts in our brains ..

      Hope that might help 🙂

      • Thanks so much for sharing your insights and wisdom.

        In body-focused trauma work, we talk about “bottom up” processing, and how for change to happen, we have to approach trauma triggers through the body as well as through “top down” processing, such as through thoughts and beliefs. It’s so easy to get stuck in the story, hoping for change, although rarely is this enough, especially with histories of chronic traumatization. Working with the body, like through meditation or yoga, can contribute to lasting and meaningful change, especially when they become regular practices.

      • Kamilla Vaski

        Yes I’m aware of the need to quiet the mind. It’s been a while since I’ve been able to do it successfully. The timing seems to be right now. Therapy has helped, including Family Systems and Somatic Experiencing. Intellectually and politically, as well as personally, the work of David Smail has been a huge help in my life. http://www.davidsmail.info/introfra.htm

        Not to mention blogs like this one.

        Thanks for your comments. Funny how Disqus works! I used to be scared of potential employers and others finding out what I thought online. But now I don’t have the same concern about privacy–though I see that it’s possible to make one’s Disqus stream private. I like the fact that more people are sharing their thoughts publicly. I appreciate your comments on WSWS too.

        • FireintheHead

          Thanks for liking my comments kamilla , I try to bring a little spark of wit and humour to what can sometimes be a very ‘heavy’ lol but hopefully without compromising the content .

          David Smail is spot on , one doesn’t produce oneself , as much as one is produced, and that includes what comes down through the DNA . Thats not to say we are passive entities .far from it , but our ‘choices’ in life , or those we make are a manifestation of experience ie “Possibility and probability”. eg If born in the UK , chances are I will speak English , not Mongolian lol

          All the best
          Johnx

      • Kamilla Vaski

        I just thought I would add that I am sure you’re not denouncing “emotion” as such–as our feelings absolutely need to be felt. It’s being overtaken and controlled by negative and destructive feelings that does the damage. Trauma is often about frozen emotions that aren’t allowed to be experienced because they are too dangerous. Actually allowing oneself to feel them, as they run their course, is extremely helpful and liberating.