What people don’t tell you about the aftermath of sexual trauma

There are many difficulties one goes through after a traumatic event. We hear all about these; the stages of grief, decisions of whether to tell family, friends, police, and coworkers – or just your pet goldfish, if that’s the way you roll.

Depression, anxiety, and post-traumatic stress disorder are well documented. But nobody mentions what you go through after the fact, when the family and friends go home, the case file is forgotten, and your therapist visits become repetitive.

Even less so with sexual assault, and especially rape. Survivors of sexual violence spoke about their experiences after the dust had settled.

1. Nightmares

You will experience nightmares for months – even years – afterwards. They may not be directly related to the crime itself, but a convoluted and bizarre re-enactment of how you felt at the time, or the person committing other crimes against you, or even your dearest people in the perpetrator’s place. The mind is a plethora of oddity, and we don’t understand how dreams work. But the nightmares will come, and don’t go away easily.

The thing about nightmares – and sometimes night terrors – is that they cannot be controlled. In some cases, survivors either depend on medication, drugs, and/or alcohol in order to sleep, which health professionals regard an unhealthy way of dealing with trauma.

Some people find it useful to write down their nightmares and reactions in a journal, as a way to get it out of their head. However, it may not always help, and it is useful to find an experienced counsellor who you can work with, or go to a sleep clinic where they can help with things like insomnia and regulating sleep patterns so that the likelihood of nightmares persisting is lessened.

2. Decreased or increased sexual urges

It’s a myth that everyone who experiences sexual violence would never want to experience sexual contact again; the pleasure of sex being replaced with feelings of trauma, fear, pain, and anxiety. And while this is true for many – shutting off the sexual side of oneself is a common occurrence – it is not always the case.

This may seem odd, but you may want more sexual contact, and sometimes from anybody in line of sight. The urges to have sex with strangers and try the riskiest sexual encounters are a result of your body and mind being disconnected with the physical feeling.

This is because, regardless of how sexual interaction occurs, the body protects itself from physical trauma in any way – one of them is the involuntary gaining of pleasure from even a violent sexual act. But the mind knows that rape is an invasion, a crime, and a power-related show of dominance. And that’s where the confusion emerges.

Often, women who have been raped crave the feeling of rough sex – even though it feels reprehensible – and engage in sexual activity considered “deviant”. Most often, it results in sexual promiscuity and a sex drive that cannot be satisfied. Also, you will masturbate. All. The. Time.

Don’t freak out. It’s normal to go through this.

3. Mental illness and therapy

Depression is the most common thread found in survivors of sexual violence. This may lead to many things, including loss of motivation, dropping out of university or school, quitting jobs, and even physical and mental eating disorders.

Medication is usually prescribed for all of the above, but the urge to not take the meds is strong, and it sometimes feels like it won’t or doesn’t help. But trust the experienced people when they say that it will help in the long run.

If you’re not on medication, continue therapy. You may need lots of it. And you will, at some point, feel that it’s unfair that you have to shell out for medical treatment while the perpetrator faces no ongoing consequence, but their life is not your problem – you need to heal yourself.

Although it may seem trivial, illness such as bulimia, anorexia, and binge eating may emerge. You may eat your feelings, or not eat at all. You think there’s something wrong with you for this to have happened – in every way possible. You may even gain or lose weight due to medication. The key is to accept the fact that you’re bettering yourself and that your mental health is far more important than looking good.

4. Self-blame, -loathing and -pity

This is a big one for anyone who has ever been through any sort of trauma. It’s even greater with survivors of sexual violence. You’ll be filled with crippling doubt, and run through every possible alternate scenario in your head, and it will end up in you blaming yourself for everything.

You may also start to hate yourself and everything about you. Looking in the mirror might be a nightmare in itself. You may feel dirty, no matter how much you clean yourself. And following this, you may feel ugly. And then this leads to complete self-pity. Eventually, it becomes a vicious cycle and consumes you.

The key is to nip it in the bud in realising that no matter what you were wearing, how much you drank at the bar, who you spoke with, to whom you gave your number, and even who you invited in for coffee, sexual assault is never your fault. Even if both of you were naked and he had a condom on and you had your best “come hither” pose on like a boss, and suddenly said “no”, it’s not your fault.

I repeat: It’s NOT your fault.

5. Difficulty in maintaining friendships and isolation

This is definite – you will feel alone. You’ll feel like you’re the only person going through this, and you can’t talk to anyone. You’ll isolate your family and friends – especially any who look like the perpetrator – and isolate yourself in a protective little bubble. It may feel good to be alone sometimes, and you can do that, by all means. Headphones become your friend, even if they’re not plugged in.

It’s the worst thing you can do in the long run.

Yes, some people may not understand and some might even make light of your situation and make rape jokes. Those people can be dealt with in time – when you have the strength and vocabulary for it. But mostly, your tribe is good, and want to be there for you; boundaries and all. You may think that people don’t want friends with baggage. But think about how you take on your family and friends’ baggage and ease their pain whenever you can. Don’t you think they’d want to do the same for you?

If nothing else, trauma is a good way of filtering out toxic people from your life.

6. Problems with intimate relationships

Relationships are difficult as is, and even more difficult when you have sexual assault seen as part of your proverbial baggage. The right person will love you more for it, while the wrong ones will show themselves through dealing with your experience – the wrong person will almost always make it about them. That aside, you’ll find some more supportive than others, and some not supportive at all, and you’ll find someone who will want to help you heal and will pull through on that. You just have to learn to trust.

Before reading the rest of this, know that rape is not a form of sex. Sex feels right and good. Assault is traumatising. And know that it is possible for sex to exist after rape. However, it’s not easy. The first time you engage in sexual activity, you might be completely fine with it. In which case, nice! In most cases, not so much. You’ll probably burst into tears and run out the house, have a full-on panic attack, or go completely numb and let it happen. Either way, it can be traumatising. You may want to recoil at every touch that reminds you of that day. But there will be a time when you feel sexy enough to take off your clothes without switching the lights off, when you’ll want to wear lingerie; when the sex is so good, when you’ll forget for some time it was ever not good.

Most men interviewed said they would be cautious in this kind of situation, but some won’t go so far as to tiptoe around the issue, preferring to know and understand someone’s sexual history before getting into bed with them. It is an issue that needs to be articulated. But when your partner is understanding, that’s all that matters.

And sometimes, you’ll have to start from scratch. It’s okay. Go at your own pace, and while you guard yourself, you will be able to trust someone enough again to make love.

7. Pity from others

There will be some people who feel pity for you, and that’s not good. You don’t need to be treated with kid gloves. Obviously, understanding, patience, and sensitivity is good. But you don’t need pity. In time, you will be able to call people out on it.

8. Stigma

People will say that you “asked for it”. Some won’t believe you. If you pull away after the first kiss, you’ll be called a prude. If you’re open about it in public spaces, you’ll get called a whore. If you press charges, the stigma will be worse. You’ll be labelled many things by society. Most of all, people will call you a victim. You’re not a victim. You’re a survivor. You don’t owe anyone anything.

Given time, the stigma will roll off your back. Sometimes, it will hit you square in the face. The key is to find your safe space and surround yourself with the things and people who truly care.

9. Suicidal thoughts (and at some point, attempts)

In the darkest of times, it may feel better to just end it all. The thought process is irrational, and even though it might be the easiest choice, it’s certainly not the wisest. Not just for the people you leave behind, but the fact that you took your life is a victory for rapists and sexual predators the world over. You become a victim. Their victim.

Also, you have so much to offer the world, and yourself. The fact that you’re alive today makes you amazing. The fact that you got up today and switched on your computer is brave. The fact that you saw this headline, clicked on the link, and kept reading – that is what survival is.

10. Freedom

It won’t happen overnight. It may not happen for years to come. But one day, you will be able to look at yourself in the mirror and say, “I’m good”. The day will come, and you will no longer be a victim or survivor. You’ll just be you. And that’s what we aim for, right?

This article was originally published on The Daily Vox.