3 Things You Should Know About Loving a Sexual Abuse Survivor
April is sexual abuse awareness month, and I have decided, after 35 years, to share my story and talk about how it effects those closest to me.
When I was 6, I was sexually abused by a neighbor. When I was 11, I was sexually abused by a family friend. When I was 14, I was sexually assaulted on two occasions: once by a 20-something-year-old stranger and once by three unknown men.
I never told anyone.
As a result, my self-esteem suffered as I believed I was only wanted for sexual purposes. This led me to be more promiscuous than I wish during a couple of my high school years. However, in the context of a real relationship that involved feelings, intimacy was extremely difficult for me, which, in turn, was frustrating for my partner.
I couldn’t bare to associate physical intimacy with feelings because it hurt too much, and was too much a reminder of the abuse I’d endured. I had associated negative feelings with sexual relationships and I had no desire to change that. Breaking through that exterior took years and years of patience and I’m so thankful I found someone willing to tough it out with me. I think the first element of loving a survivor of sexual abuse is understanding the aversion he or she may have to physical intimacy, accepting it, and helping them work through it at their own pace.
Because I never told anyone about my abuse, I’ve carried guilt since I was old enough to realize I should have told. I remember being 10 and wishing I would die because the guilt of knowing my abuser was probably continuing to abuse little girls was eating at me inside. Outside, I was a happy little girl. I was learning to hide my true feelings, to “fake it until you make it.” As an adult, my guilt still causes me to have uncontrollable crying spells, anger spells and self-harm. The second element of loving a survivor is understanding their guilt, supporting them through grievous times, and reminding them that a victim is never to blame.
Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). Although most people think of veterans when they hear those four letters, many sexual abuse survivors struggle with PTSD, and for me, the most difficult part of this disorder is the flashbacks. I have some triggers I’ve learned to avoid, but some flashbacks are completely random, out of the blue, with no apparent trigger. Flashbacks are often accompanied by violent mood swings, lashing out, rage, and trying to physically harm oneself or others. The worst thing about flashbacks is that they can and do sometimes occur during intimate moments. To love someone through these horrifying memories, it is important to provide physical and emotional support, the opportunity to discuss the flashback if the survivor wishes, and acceptance of coping mechanisms. For example, I like to scream as loudly as possible for several minutes.
Loving a survivor of sexual abuse is so much bigger than these three things. Please understand that I am speaking about my personal situation. We are all different; regardless of if you are a survivor of abuse or in love with a survivor, I recommend you talk about what the needs of the survivor are and how you as a partner can best help meet those needs.
To the survivors: we did it. We survived. Now we can let go so that the memories of the past don’t hold power over our future.
If you need support right now, call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255, the Trevor Project at 1-866-488-7386 or reach the Crisis Text Line by texting “START” to 741741.
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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