September 15, 2022

How to Survive in the Days & Weeks After a Sexual Assault.

 

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I’ve been sexually assaulted twice in my life—and that’s not counting the sexual abuse that I endured as a child.

I was 16 the first time that it happened. The last time I was much older and, I thought, so much stronger. I thought I could get through it easily this time and be like the strong women that I’ve read about and seen in movies or on shows who endure the unthinkable but still fight with all they have and pull themselves back up from the depths to be even tougher than they were before.

But I wasn’t.

I was having a hard time staying in this world at all.

I scoured the internet desperate for something, anything, that could tell me how to feel better, how to sleep through the night, how to get it out of my mind, how to keep it from seeping back in every time I closed my eyes and as soon as it got dark, how to keep living when I just wanted to die, how not to give up. But the resources weren’t there.

Everything that I found talked about things like not taking a shower, how to file a police report and deal with the legal battle, and the importance of talking to a therapist. All things that I already knew.

And then, at the other end of the spectrum, were a multitude of articles discussing how to approach having sex again after a sexual assault, something that I didn’t want to think about ever doing again.

None of this was what I needed. I needed a survival guide for sexual assault—and there wasn’t one.

Recently though, I realized that there are a lot of things that I did on my own that did help me, even though I couldn’t grasp then that they were helping at all.

So I’ve compiled a list of the ones that I can remember in hopes that it might prove helpful to others in the days and weeks after, when they are desperately trying to just keep existing. When you are all on your own—after the hospital, after the police reports, after you’re left crying in the shower trying frantically and unsuccessfully to scrub what happened from your every inch of your body—I hope something here will help.

(Please note that I am not a therapist or mental health professional of any kind, what I’m sharing is based entirely upon my own lived experience. Nothing I’m sharing can replace the support of a professional who is trained to help you work through something like this, so please find someone to support you through this.)

How to survive in the days and weeks after a sexual assault:

Be kind to yourself

You’ve been through something unspeakable and will be experiencing emotions that are very similar to grief for an undetermined amount of time. You need what you need. Full stop. Nobody else’s needs are your concern right now—with the exception of your children or other dependents of course—so you need to take care of yourself first. Give yourself what you need, as long as you need it, so that you can move forward in the way that is best for you. Take time off of work and school, if you’re able, and don’t force yourself to go just to stay busy. Give yourself the time you need to heal.

Eat anything you can

In a trauma state, you’re not likely to have any appetite at all, so if something sounds appetizing, eat it. I had no appetite, found pretty much everything revolting, and lived on nothing but Honey Nut Cheerios and almond milk for several weeks. And that was okay because it was all I could do at the time. If all you eat for a week is cereal, or can’t stomach anything but broth, that’s okay. If you’re able to eat something more or better, great! If not, don’t stress about it. Sometimes cookies are what you need to soothe your soul. Your body will tell you when it’s time for something more and better. But right now, honor what it’s asking for.

Hydrate

The emotional roller coaster, tears, lack of sleep, and overwhelm can take even more of a toll if you’re dehydrated. I had a really hard time drinking enough water during this time and eventually just took the water bladder from my hiking pack and kept it next to my bed. What you are drinking really doesn’t matter. Just keep yourself hydrated. If you can, stay away from caffeine and alcohol, but don’t berate yourself if you do imbibe. It may just be what you need in the moment.

Nap

New mothers are always told to sleep when their baby sleeps. Don’t be the new mother, be the baby. Whenever your body says it needs sleep, take it. You can work on your sleep schedule later.

Nest

Sleeping after a sexual assault can be a terrifying experience. I found that trying to get through the night without flashbacks and panic attacks was nearly impossible. But I tried to make myself as comfortable as I possibly could by creating a safe nest for myself. I slept with my back to the wall and pillows behind me. I created a “wall” using dining chairs and pillows in front of me and pretty much surrounded myself with every pillow and blanket that I had, including a weighted blanket, which helped tremendously. I also slept with a light on for a while, nothing too bright that would disrupt my sleep even more. I used a salt lamp, but fairy lights, a night light, or any kind of soft or reddish-hued light will hopefully make you feel a little safer during the dark hours.

Distract yourself

Maybe someday in the not-so-distant future you’ll be ready to sit with your emotions, but now might not be that time for you, and that’s okay. It’s okay to distract yourself. Watch, read, or listen to whatever makes you feel better in the moment. Whether it’s a comfortable favorite comedy, calming music, or nothing but Disney movies, give yourself what you need.

Journal

If you feel up to it, it can help you to work through your emotions. If you’re not there yet, that’s okay. Don’t force it.

Communication

It’s not likely that you’ll want to communicate with anyone, but if you do, that’s great. Do it. If you just can’t handle it though, that’s okay too. If there are a couple of close people who know what happened or you’re up to telling, check-in with them or ask them to check-in with you. You may not feel like talking or being around anyone but having someone there to sit with you could be what you need. For everyone else, just let the calls, texts, and e-mails go unanswered for the time being. You can talk to those people, if you feel like it, when you’re ready.

Say no to explanations

You don’t owe anyone an explanation. You don’t owe anyone your story. Your story is yours alone to tell, if and when you want to. That goes for legal action as well. It’s not up to anyone else to decide whether or not you press charges—it is only up to you. There are so many reasons why it may not feel like the right thing to do and that is okay. It is entirely up to you how you want to move forward.

Remind yourself not to hide or feel guilty

You didn’t do anything wrong. You have nothing to hide. It doesn’t matter how you were dressed, how much you drank, whether you were flirtatious or gave “mixed messages,” whether you said yes and then changed your mind. None of this matters. You don’t need to hide what happened to you out of shame or guilt, or to protect anyone. It wasn’t your fault.

I know that everything here may not be accessible to you and you may not find it all helpful, but my hope is that there is at least one thing that will help you to move through this time in your life with a little more ease. Give yourself the time you need to heal and know that healing doesn’t mean that you’re going to forget (or that you need to forgive), it just means that this thing that happened to you—this horrible thing that wasn’t your fault—is no longer controlling you and your life.

I know there are a lot of us out there who have been in this place before and so many of us don’t talk about it. But if you’ve healed or are in the process of healing, please add anything that you’ve found helpful in the days and weeks after it happened in the comments. No matter how small or insignificant you think it might be, you never know who your words might help.

Here are a few other resources I’ve found helpful since:

https://www.rainn.org/recovering-sexual-violence

https://www.npr.org/sections/health-shots/2018/10/04/654151008/building-strength-and-resilience-after-a-sexual-assault-what-works

The Body Keeps the Score by Bessel van der Kolk

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