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Devoting yourself to recovery from sexual trauma is a relatively rare thing to do. Since the beginning of civilization, sexual abuse has more often led to revictimization than recovery. Victims have been abandoned, expected to marry their perpetrators, forced into sex work, gang raped, and even stoned to death. In some parts of the world, these are still reactions to sexual trauma, especially to rape. Furthermore, those sexually traumatized during childhood or adolescence are up to five times more likely to be sexually abused in adulthood than women without early life histories of sexual trauma.
Thus it shouldn’t be surprising that so many choose to stay silent about their histories of sexual abuse. And yet silence can be its own punishment, particularly when suppressing one’s history contributes to mental illness, which also throughout history has been a common outcome of sexual trauma. Inuit/Eskimos called the madness caused by sexual abuse moth craziness.1 Distracted by persecutory memories and escapist fantasies, the survivor is much like a moth obsessed with a flame that singes its wings, if not causing its own demise.
Nearly two decades ago, when I sought psychotherapy because I was overwhelmed by flashbacks of early life sexual abuse, I was sure I was going crazy. Until then, I thought flashbacks only happened to war veterans. However, I did know women were regularly threatened with further victimization following sexual trauma, or devalued once their histories became public, including being blamed for what happened. This was common knowledge, even if it wasn’t often spoken about.
But the social consequences of sharing my history were immaterial at that time. I had lost control of my mind and could barely hold a thought. A memory had broken through, and like a movie that played continuously, the events of a childhood molestation stayed in my mind’s eye, which not even sleep could eradicate. And while the rational part of me knew I was safe, I nevertheless felt great fear — the fear of the child who had been threatened with abandonment if she ever told.
Even the most mundane activities were overwhelming. I remember standing in the rain outside a camera shop without an umbrella, caught in a mental tug-of-war. One part of me was fixated on memories of the abuse, while another was trying to recall what I had planned to buy. Although no one could see what was going on in my mind, I imagined those memories becoming a hologram, and all would see the flames of remembering driving my craziness.
Shivering from cold and rain, I entered the shop and made it as far as the counter. But when the salesman kindly asked if he might help me, my eyes welled with tears and I quickly turned and left. I could not fill the expected space of customer. I could not say, “Yes, please,” or voice what I needed. Too much of the personal in me overflowed the container of everyday life.
I returned to my car and started to head home, then decided to try again. I resolved that if madness was my new normal, I would have to adapt. I drove to Target to return something, what it was I have forgotten. But I remember a man starting to follow me in the parking lot. I wonder how I must have appeared — frightened eyes and a frozen face, a stiff body with hunched shoulders burdened with sorrow. A bit disheveled too, mirroring my scattered attention. For a predator, I surely seemed easy prey.
As I went into the store he started walking in another direction. Dismissing my fears, I headed to the service counter near the front door where I stood in line behind a large woman, maybe 300 pounds. Everything seemed ordinary until the man who’d been following me walked up and started mumbling something I couldn’t understand. His eyes were menacing and glazed, his body coursing with some drug. He came closer, still mumbling, and reached out as if to pull me in the direction of the door. All I could muster was leaning my body the opposite way. And then I heard her: “Hey! Leave her alone.” The woman in line walked towards him, her chest held high and defiant as she put her body between him and me. “Get out of here,” she added. And he left.
I thanked her and she just shrugged, as if what she had done was no big deal. But for me, it felt life changing. For a brief moment I had felt safe. And to my surprise, much like a poor electrical connection, static replaced the movie in my mind, which soon resumed, but at least for a few seconds I had been my old self again.
A few weeks later, I found a trauma-focused psychotherapist. After several months of EMDR, the flashbacks began to resolve and grief began to settle in — what my therapist believed marked the beginning of my journey to feeling whole. Yet it was that day when a stranger protected me that I feel I started my recovery. From that day forward I decided whatever had happened in the past, and whatever might be going on in my mind, I would seek help when I needed it. And that decision, I believe, has made a world of difference for my recovery from sexual trauma. For centuries, women like me have had to face alone the most threatening experience to their personhood, if not their lives. And at its core, recovery from sexual abuse is about ending alienation, both from others and oneself.
Of all forms of adversity a girl or young women can experience, sexual trauma may have the greatest psychological and social impact. Compared to other forms of adverse experiences, those of us sexually violated (especially in early life) are at greater risk for substance abuse, which increases the likelihood of cardiovascular disease, cancer, chronic lung disease, and liver disease. We are more likely to suffer from depression and anxiety, engage in suicidal behaviors, and exhibit symptoms of posttraumatic stress disorder. We are also more likely to have histories of high-risk sexual behaviors and to contract sexually transmitted diseases.
Despite the known threats to physical and psychological well-being caused by sexual abuse, recovery is not well understood. According to some professionals, full recovery from sexual trauma is still highly unlikely. Psychotherapist Susan Clancy wrote in 2016 in the Psychotherapy Networker:
“The problem is that today, after more than twenty-five years, predictions based on the trauma model have not proved accurate. There appears to be no direct, linear relationship between the severity of the abuse and the psychosocial difficulties victims experience in adulthood. Worst of all, we have developed no clearly effective treatments for sexual abuse victims. They continue to suffer from psychological and social problems in the aftermath of their abuse, and mental health professionals still have not reached a consensus as to exactly why or what precisely to do to help them recover.”
Even though the trauma model was necessary for my recovery, it did not go far enough. However, through continued efforts, many of them on my own, I do feel I have reached full recovery. I know other women have too. However, our numbers should be greater.
I decided to put together this website to help other women reach full recovery, including women who feel their sexual trauma remains unresolved despite substantial effort towards recovery. I also hope to help women go further in their recoveries than I have. Just as #Metoo has unexpectedly shown we can change the way society responds to sexual trauma, I believe we have yet to imagine the extent to which women can recover from sexual abuse.
The journey of recovery is personal even as it is universal. We need support and guidance along the way, but ultimately we have to determine what works best for ourselves. We have to confront our unique humanity if we are to be fully alive — and to be fully alive, we must recover. Hopefully, this website can help you avoid some of the pitfalls I encountered, as well as inspire you to soar beyond any limitations you currently hold for yourself. Nevertheless, I understand you must also find your own way.
My knowledge about recovery draws from trauma-focused psychotherapy, depth psychology, neuroscience, sociology, history, my own recovery, and time I spent supporting women in their recoveries. In the first posts of this project, I focus mostly on the trauma model, since it is probably the safest and most effective way to avoid moments like what happened to me at the camera shop, including having difficulty acting on goals, or at Target and being unable to sufficiently protect oneself.
Reaching what I consider full recovery requires addressing more than the traumatic effects of sexual abuse. Especially when sexual trauma occurs during the first decades of life, one’s entire personality is likely to become organized in defense against the terror of feeling the full consequence of having been sexual traumatized. We don’t want to ever feel that vulnerable, devalued, and betrayed again. Living defensively, however, impairs reaching full maturity and experiencing personhood as wholeness.
In the beginning stages, recovery is a lot like changing habits — habits of thought, emotion, body, and even the imagination. To change these habits, we have to become good at observing our inner experiences, which can be frightening when there are painful images, memories, body sensations, and emotions stemming from sexual abuse. By starting with the trauma model, most will have the best chance of changing painful ‘habits’ into calmer and more self-accepting states of being.
To get the most out of Ambivalent Goddesses, I ask you to ponder the possibility of making recovery a bit like a new year’s resolution to change your habits, no matter what time of the year you begin your recovery — something you commit to weekly, if not daily. It might help to set aside a journal or notebook just for recovery from sexual trauma, if this sounds inviting and safe. Old-fashioned pen/pencil and paper works, as does an online journal or text document. You can fill this journal with words, images (such as drawings, paintings, magazines/web images) or both as you engage with prompts shared throughout the project, as well as pursue your unique self-explorations. You could even use paper you later rip to shreds if that feels safest; whatever works for you. The main point is to commit to working on your recovery regularly, making time and space for your growth. Trust that the basis of recovery is making simple and consistent steps towards change.
Welcome to Ambivalent Goddesses!
Questions to reflect upon:
In your recovery, what commitments have you made to yourself that have been central to improving well being?
Do you need to return to any of those commitments or make new ones?
If you are just beginning your recovery work, what commitments can you make to yourself that will support your recovery?
You can always share your responses in the comments below, but please review the Guidelines for Commenting and always prioritize your recovery.
1 Boehm, Christopher. Hierarchy in the Forest: The Evolution of Egalitarian Behavior. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1999.
© 2018 Laura K Kerr, PhD. All rights reserved (applies to writing and photography).