Sexual assault victims learn to live with the psychological trauma of their attack
Published: Tuesday, March 27, 2012
Updated: Wednesday, July 25, 2012 21:07
A month after her assault, Beth was doing laundry in her home when her older brother snuck up behind and spooked her.
“My reaction was that of a feral animal,” Beth said. “I screamed at the top of my lungs and attacked him out of reaction.”
Her brother’s innocent prank triggered a flashback. In her mind’s eye, Beth transported back to the couch on the night that James, her assaulter, hovered above her and tore off her clothes. Psychologically, a victim perceives memories of a past trauma during a flashback as occurring at the current moment. Triggered by a variety of stimuli, a survivor experiencing a flashback may dissociate from reality and believe the sexual assault is happening again. The episodes can last anywhere from a few seconds to several minutes.
“A sexual assault can affect things that are seemingly unrelated to the assault,” House said. “We never know what may take us back to the feeling of panic and vulnerability. It can be smells or sights that we may not have consciously recorded as related to the assault.”
Following a sexual assault, a survivor may require years to return to normalcy or may never fully recover. There is no prescribed time frame or manner for healing. Each survivor recovers at her own pace in her own way.
“There is nothing very linear about human emotional experience and certainly not one that is true for all of us,” House said. “What is common for many that are hurting is that they are often tempted to take the path of least resistance.”
One of the most common roadblocks to recovery is denial that the assault occurred. In an attempt to minimize the effects of the rape, victims suppress the emotional and physical consequences of the incident.
“I had always considered myself a strong young woman, able to handle anything,” Ashley said. “[But afterward] I had thoughts of suicide. I was depressed, yet filled with anxiety. I felt so alone — like no one in my life could understand how I felt.”
Many survivors who choose to not report their assault or receive counseling remain in the denial stage their entire lives, with ramifications for their ability to develop and foster relationships.
“Suppression of strong emotions related to sexual violence can eat away at a person’s ability to have a fulfilling life, with relationships and experiences that are at once challenging and beneficial,” House said.
Months after her assault, Ashley decide to walk into a local rape crisis center to receive the help she realized was necessary. She said she found comfort talking with a counselor and began keeping a journal documenting her healing process, a habit she continues to this day.
“Sexual assault does not define me, but it is part of who I am,” Ashley said. “I’ve come to peace with what happened to me. Much of that peace comes from helping others.”
For more than 10 years, Ashley’s work and volunteer life have been deeply rooted in advocacy for children and teenagers affected by sexual violence. Nearly a decade and a half after her assault, Ashley is married and has one child. Her husband is an A&M alumni and local law enforcement officer.
“You can survive this,” Ashley said. “There are so many people in our community who care and are there to help. You are not alone.”