I used to think I was uniquely defective and alone. At the time, I did not see my beliefs as a consequence of trauma : I thought the reason was who I was. As a result I did not want anyone close. I did not trust myself, and I did not trust others. I had managed to convince myself I did not need others anyway.
But even then, even when completely disconnected from my need to connect (!), I had a strong urge to find out if other people had lived through similar experiences. I wanted to know what happened to them, and how they were experiencing life, others, and themselves after that. And of course, I wanted to know if, and how they had managed to heal.
This urge never left me. During all these years of healing, I continued to look for people like me, survivors of sexual trauma. I looked for them in books, documentaries, and all over the web. I urgently needed to know I was not alone. Recognizing myself in someone else’s story was a huge relief.
The power of therapy
I strongly encourage you to get individual or group therapy if it is possible for you. Good therapy is not enough, but can guide you on the right path and unlock your internal healing powers.
When I started my journey there were not really many options to chose from, but it is far richer in possibilities now. You can find therapists specialized in trauma, or specialized in treating dissociation, which is a consequence of trauma: Internal Family System therapists, or Neuro Affective Relational Model therapists, for example. If you are far away from these practitioners, it is now possible to do online sessions, which is a great help.
Therapists will help you understand that the issue is not what is wrong with you, but what happened to you – and that you are still responsible for your mental health and healing. They will also provide corrective experiences and help you re-write your story in a more compassionate way. Generally speaking, we are far too hard on ourselves.
The limits of therapy
Therapy has its limits though. To start with, some of us do not have access to it, for financial reasons, because therapy is not widely available in some communities, or because there are not enough therapists right now. Some of us are too fragile emotionally to open up to a stranger. Some of us did have terrible experiences and to not want to take the risk again.
Also, as Bessel van der Kolk highlights in this 2013 podcast, traditional therapy ignores two essential aspects of healing: our bodies, as if we could heal stuff staying in our heads (we can’t), and our society, as if we were alone and the problem was only ours to solve (of course not).
Very young, I remember thinking that if someone had held my hand at the time, acknowledged what was happening, and told me it was not my fault, I would have been all right. And it turns out, the great specialist van der Kolk himself is of the same opinion. He points out how survivors of 9/11 did significantly better than others, because the trauma was widely acknowledged and they received a lot of sympathy.
This is not what happened to us, survivors of sexual violence. Because nobody talked about it, we did not have the words to explain what was happening to us. It literally did not exist, socially. When we tried to talk or show what we were going through, we were usually silenced, shamed, or abandoned. And when we started to show mental health consequences of what happened to us, the tendency was to look at what was wrong with us. No wonder we ended up thinking we were the problem. But we are not!
The power of connection
I benefited immensely from therapy, but the Metoo movement was also a great relief. At last, this movement tackled the social, systemic dimension of sexual violence. We feel alone, but we can now access this crucial information : sexual violence against women and children is widespread. It did not happen because we were defective, but because it happens. To the hell of a lot of other people.
It also happened because even when it was common knowledge, nothing was done about it. It was somehow allowed, even if written otherwise in our laws. Why ? Because perpetrators are powerful people, and victims are not. Collectively, we’d rather not confront powerful people and wonder what is wrong with victims.
But we are more powerful together. Veterans put pressure on the medical system to obtain the PTSD diagnosis, together. We need to push for our health mental problems to get the proper diagnosis : as a consequence of sexual violence. And stop pretending we have some genetic vulnerabilities to depression or a faulty belief system, or a dissociative disorder not otherwise specified or whatever else.
How we can start to heal, now
Even if do not have access to therapy, or in addition to it, we can harness the power of connection. Thanks to internet and social networks, it’s easier today to find our tribe. It can help us to come out of isolation, understand ourselves better, and form lasting bonds that will sustain us. That’s what communities are for.
There are big communities in the US, such as the Metoo movement, or Rainn. There are smaller groups on facebook, on healing from sexual violence, or cptsd, depression, dissociation, or any other problems you are struggling with. You have national communities in other geographies. You have blogs and sites like this one.
From there, you will realize that what you thought were your flaws, are actually scars. You can get a glimpse on how to heal, guided by other survivors. You can get hope that healing is possible. And you can also start real conversations with people who will get you.
Don’t stay alone. There is power in connections, they are our chance.