I have felt compelled to write this blog for a long time. I work a lot with women who have experienced sexual violence, abuse or harassment. Sometimes the trauma is recent and sometimes it is historical. I am often the first person to be confided in and I take that trust very seriously. I will always remember in a training course being asked to write down the worst and the darkest thing I have ever done or experienced. Being a diligent student as always I complied, the moment I had it on a piece of paper I felt my anxiety begin to rise and I began to grip the paper tighter with sweaty hands. We were then asked to hand our secret to the person on our right, a classmate, a peer. Every woman in the course looked extremely uncomfortable and took a second to comply. I looked around saw a lot of quiet and nervous faces as each woman longed to have that piece of paper back in her hand. Safe and secret. Our tutor then talked a bit and after what felt like a lifetime we were allowed to take our paper back. Some women stuffed them into pockets, others gripped them tightly in their hand, a few even ripped them up. This exercise was so powerful in helping me understand the honour and respect clients deserve when they allow me to see that piece of paper.
Unfortunately, not everyone will hold the trauma the same way. Women who have been abused will experience that trauma multiple times as they begin to process it. Often the telling of loved ones will be a secondary trauma especially for those who were not believed or told to be quiet, those who were quizzed, interrogated or went through legal or police procedures. They also will notice the devastation and pain when the loved one is believing and supporting. Often those close to the survivor will experience vicarious trauma which is trauma of what has happened to their loved one.
So I first want to presence that both the survivor and the loved one will be feeling this. Both will be hurting and both will be trying to protect the other. Both will be trying to hide their pain. I often get calls from family members and loved ones where they feel helpless and just don’t know how to support or process what they are hearing. So I would like to provide a little support and guidance through my experience working with these clients.
- Let them know you believe them and hear them. This is so important for a client as so many will have the fear of not being believed. They also may have convinced themselves that nothing happened or it wasn’t a big deal. Perhaps they weren’t believed at the time and therefore don’t trust others or themselves. I can not tell you the value it has to just be with them as they talk. Let them know you are there and listening, reaffirming you are listening and believe them.
- Do not quiz them or interrogate them. This is particularly important if there were police or legal enquiries. Allow them to offer the information at their own rate. Let them have a choice in what they say and how they say it. When someone experiences trauma it changes the function of their brain. This is an automatic instinctual process that occurs in all humans even you, so they might not have the information you want. They probably aren’t going to give you or rather be able to give you a picture-perfect story as their brain will not be recording it as it usually does. This is especially true if the abuse occurred in childhood.
- Do not tell them what to do. Allow them absolute control over this experience. They will have all their choices taken away at the time of the abuse or trauma. They do not have to do anything about this if they don’t want to. Let them know you are not going to do anything with this information and will support them any way they want.
- It’s ok to get support for you while dealing with this. Don’t forget about your own mental well being and self-care practices. Allow yourself space to deal with how this affecting you. A space where you can be open. Also where you can ask questions to a trauma-informed therapist. Put on your own gas mask first. Your loved ones will notice whether you are coping or not so make space for you to heal also.
- Don’t ask why didn’t you tell someone/fight/stop it. This is one I hear a lot from clients and often from caring and well-meaning loved ones. To put it simply they couldn’t. And they will be asking this question of themselves adding to a large amount of shame and anger at themselves which I will delve into in my next point. When someone experiences trauma they go into the freeze response. Again this is an inbuilt survival instinct that we all have. It is a natural and automatic response in which we freeze, our body will become rigid and everything starts to shut down. We are unable to move, think and are barely breathing. Cognitively the parts of our brain that stores memory goes offline which is why memory is patchy or will have blanks. There are a lot of amazing resources out there on this and I will add a few to the links session.
- Understanding some of the big emotions that surround sexual violence and trauma. There is a lot of shame and stigma around this type of abuse. I could write a book on this topic alone but it is so important to be aware of the shame and victim-blaming that surrounds this trauma. Society has a long way to go on its understanding of this type of abuse and violence. No women deserves to be sexually abused and it is never her fault. It has nothing to do with what she was doing, where she was. A child can never consent to sexual activity with an adult. Sexual activity that is coerced or if there is an imbalance of power is not consensual.
- Have an understanding of triggers, certain words, expressions, smells. Well anything really can have a triggering effect on a survivor. Being aware of this will help your loved one feel safe, as you will understand what is happening. Grounding and breathing techniques are excellent in helping a survivor regulate.
Finally, I want to say that it is so important that survivors can have safe supporters around them as this is a huge factor in their healing process. And yet even without support, I have witnessed women transform and heal from sexual violence and trauma and I am truly in awe at what I am blessed to be witness to. It’s messy, painful and yet each woman will find her way of coping and moving through.
And for those loved ones in the peripheral of abuse, it’s ok not to be ok and it is so important to remember to look after yourself as well. Be aware of how your body is reacting and responding to the trauma. Create your own self-care practices and seek support. Trauma affects all of those involved and it’s important to remember that and create the right space and support for all involved to heal.