5 Stages of Healing After Sexual Assault


Editor’s Note: If you’ve experienced sexual abuse or assault, the following post could be potentially triggering. You can contact the National Sexual Assault Telephone Hotline at 1-800-656-4673.

What is most often thought about when talking about trauma is the initial implications. A death, the physical injuries, the loss of structure from a natural disaster, the police report filed after an assault. But the effects of trauma are more complex and widespread than that. It completely changes a person from their core. You are no longer the same person you were before weathering that storm. Sure, you still are 5 feet 7 inches but you may not have the same hopes or dreams as before. You no longer feel like you. How could you?

I never imagined my life being defined by a single moment in my early 20s. I thought I had already been through so much heartache and disappointment earlier in my life that I was in the clear. I couldn’t have been more wrong. The night of July 25, 2014, I lost the person I knew myself to be. I was raped by two men who thought nothing about taking someone’s life from them. And from that night on, I became an expert in what I like to call the “ripple effect” of trauma.

1. The wave of shock and disbelief roll over and consume you.

The days following the event can be described as walking through a cloud of fog on a foreign road. You have brief moments of acceptance but the majority of the time is spent thinking, this can’t be real. I will wake up from this nightmare. The people around you provide you with lending hands to tackle normal daily routines because you are not really present in reality. And when you are present, you fall into a bleak thought: it would be easier if you had just not survived.

2. Reality sets in and you seek out any means to hide from it.

For some people it can be days, for others, weeks and at times, months when the reality of it settles in around you. Think of the feeling of having salt rubbed into an open wound. It’s excruciating. And to make matters worse, the people around you assume since time is passing, you must be healing. So you often will find yourself trying to find any means to avoid your newfound reality. For myself, I drowned myself in alcohol — something I swore I would never do in my life because I had seen firsthand the ugly effects of alcoholism. But your new reality is not normal so you no longer are thinking as you usually would.

3. Your chosen means of escape no longer suffices and you may find your circle of people have left.

Distractions no longer distract you from the ugly world you now live in. If anything, they just make it darker and new darkness has most likely crept in along the way. The people who initially surrounded you in the days following the trauma, the ones who swore to stick by you through this difficult time, have often gone away. They couldn’t stick by your side through the crying spells, periods of silence sitting in the dark, the questioning of why this happened to you, your inability to accept it did happen, your means to numb the pain. They say you need to move forward and they can’t sit by while you self-destruct. You no longer have just lost yourself, you have lost the people who used to fill your life.

4. You enter an illusion of “normalcy.”

You slowly enter into a world of “normalcy.” You achieve some of your former goals, you are no longer are engaging in self-destructive behaviors, you find parts of your old self that make those around you happy. But in reality, the wounds are still so open and painful. You just mask it because you don’t want to upset the people in your life who have stayed and you also want to find some control of this new life you find yourself in. So you go through the motions day after day but you’re struggling silently.

5. You transition from a victim to a survivor.

Your mind and body can no longer keep up with the facade and it crumbles to pieces. The lack of tears are no longer present and you find yourself on the floor crying and screaming, why?! You look back and see the person you were before the trauma found you and you may believe this person is not coming back. So you tell yourself there has to be some light from it all. While you might not have the same ambitions or goals or dreams, you have new ones. Ones that center around survival. And in that moment, you realize you aren’t a victim, you are a survivor and that’s more powerful than any dream you held before. So I may not have my master’s degree, but guess what? I survived the unthinkable!

I realize trauma takes on many shapes and forms and people’s recovery looks different from one person to the next. But after working with many trauma victims (a new goal in my newfound reality), I have come to know each person experiences their own “ripple effect.” Trauma isn’t healed when the broken bones are mended or a new home is built or the perpetrators go to jail. Trauma is healed on a twisty, winding, upside down roller coaster ride that eventually reshapes a person to fit into their new world. It can take multiple rides on the roller coaster before it settles in. But eventually with time, with therapy, with support from the people who stay, one can find a home in this new place.

If you or a loved one is affected by sexual abuse or assault and need help, call the National Sexual Assault Telephone Hotline at 1-800-656-4673 to be connected with a trained staff member from a sexual assault service provider in your area.

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Thinkstock photo via Archv.


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