Columns / Discourse / February 24, 2016

Survivors are not alone, don’t be afraid to seek help

There are countless articles on feminist websites that describe how to navigate life as a sexual violence survivor. While these articles are wonderful and important, it is surprising that very few discuss the monumental process of “coming out to yourself” as a survivor of sexual violence in the first place. Recognizing and processing the presence of such violence in your life can be a difficult undertaking, but it is not impossible — and if you are struggling with this process right now, there are a few key things to remember along the way.

First, remember that whatever happened is not your fault. This might sound cliché, but it is truly incredible how many of us survivors (even those of us who are feminists!) come away from our traumatic experiences thinking we are somehow to blame. No matter what you were wearing or how much you drank, no matter your sexual history or anything else, nothing you did could have “caused” sexual violence to happen. Why? Because your clothing and alcohol consumption will never say more about your consent than you do yourself — you are the absolute and only deciding factor in whether or not you have given consent. And you are never, ever responsible for someone else’s actions.

Second, don’t force yourself to hurry through this “coming out” process. You are not on a schedule for healing yourself, and there are no deadlines you have to rush to meet. Take your time to discover your triggers and how to navigate them, to sort out what self-care techniques work for you, and to decide how you are going to build your support system. If anyone in your life is telling you to “just get over it already,” remind yourself that recovering from trauma naturally takes some time, and you are not a weak or burdensome person for taking care of your needs and giving yourself some space.

Third, don’t judge yourself for however you may feel or act as you come out to yourself as a survivor. Some people may find themselves sleeping much more, feeling irritable, or having to navigate new triggers that crop up. Others may want to have lots of sex or none at all, or may need some time off from work or school. However you react as you come out as a survivor, remember that there is nothing wrong with you or your feelings. You are taking the first steps to heal yourself, and oftentimes this healing process is going to look messy.

Fourth, it is always a good idea to reach out to others for support. For some of us, this can be very stressful. Maybe we grew up in families where we couldn’t talk about our feelings, or we have been socialized not to discuss emotions because of our gender, or we simply don’t want to talk to others about our survivorship. Not wanting to come out to others as a survivor is fine, but you can also ask for people’s support even without disclosing your experiences. If you are not ready for others to know you are a survivor, you can tell them that you’ve simply hit a rough patch in life, and are going to need extra support (such as needing a place to stay when you’re feeling panicky, asking them to understand if you’re suddenly not feeling up to hanging out, etc.). Some people also find it helpful to go to the counseling center as they navigate coming out to themselves, or may use anonymous hotlines to talk to crisis advocates. Any step you take to have support in your life is valid and important.

Finally, remember that although this process is going to be tricky and frustrating at times, you are fully equipped to handle life as a survivor. You have already survived the act(s) of violence, and that is a tremendous thing in and of itself! Beyond that, there is nothing inherently flawed or deficient in you that can render you incapable of going through life as a survivor. Everyone needs help in figuring this process out, and some of us may need help more than others, but that doesn’t mean we are weak — it means we have survived something truly terrible, and absolutely deserve support and encouragement as we face this challenge.

To you, Survivor: There is nothing wrong with you. What happened was not okay, but that doesn’t mean we aren’t. It’s going to be hard, but we can sort through this together, collectively — all of us millions of survivors around the globe. You’re valid, you’re safe, and you’re believed.

Erica Witzig

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