Sexual Assault Survivors are:
3 times more likely to suffer from depression.
6 times more likely to suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder.
13 times more likely to abuse alcohol.
26 times more likely to abuse drugs.
4 times more likely to contemplate suicide.
Sometimes we get so swept up in trying to create societal change and address the root causes of assault that we ignore those coping with the aftermath. People who have never experienced sexual assault or tried to be a support system for a survivor can’t really wrap their minds around what comes after such a cataclysmic event. Our society has started to empathize with the pain of the families of murder victims. We’ve begun to rally around the loved ones of those we lose to suicide. People have no idea how to react when someone in their community is sexually assaulted. For starters, talking about sexual assault means talking about sex. That’s generally not the most comfortable discussion topic in our country. (If you think it is awkward to bring up in conversation in a metropolitan city, try starting that conversation in a place like Arkansas, where I live.)
So right away we start off at a disadvantage, we don’t know where to draw empathy from because it is so foreign to our experience and even if we want to do the right thing and talk about it, we don’t know how. This makes providing support to survivors a next to impossible task. I’m not a sexual assault survivor and I don’t want to generalize the experience based on those of my friends who’ve had their lives turned upside down, but I do want to try and offer some insights.
While a survivor of rape or sexual assault might not lose her life, she loses the life she knew. First there is the guilt- we live in a victim-blaming society. All of a sudden she is second guessing all of the decisions, fearing that she put herself in the situation that “caused” her assault to begin with. Because we perpetuate the guilt she feels, she starts blaming herself for what happened.
Then there is the lack of trust. Trust ceases to exist. Imagine being used to walking around the streets of your neighborhood or your campus free from molestation and now you see danger around every corner. You can’t count onyour safety. That’s a scary thing. It gets more complicated if the perpetrator wasn’t a stranger. Now all of your friends are potential threats. You wonder if they want to be around you for the wrong reasons. Maybe they will push things too far. If you are able to start dating or resume a love life with your current partner, you are constantly worried about putting up walls and boundaries that keep them from getting too close. Even your friends aren’t immune from a redefined relationship. Those who you always considered to be rock-solid, may be the worst with the victim blaming. Sometimes they fade away because they don’t understand and don’t know how to respond. As a result, you have no idea where to turn for support at the time in your life when you need it most. Who can you talk to? Who will understand the depths of the pain that you are experiencing?
So yes, their hearts may still be beating, but survivors are forced to cope with a severely altered reality. Now, I’m probably more informed than most on these issues and I’ve yet to find a way to be as supportive as I want to be. I never know what to say. I try and be a source of unconditional love, a willing listener, and a crying shoulder. I try to project safety and comfort, but it isn’t easy. If you’re someone like me and are a fixer, you want to make it better. That’s a natural inclination. The only problem is that if you are trying to fix someone (which is impossible), you are saying to them “You are broken. There is something very wrong with you.” That’s not the type of message anyone wants to hear. Survivors aren’t broken. They are experiencing intense pain and a new reality. There is a profound difference. The most you can do is ask them what they need and then meet those needs any way you can.