As a follow-up to Letter to Assault Survivors, Girls’ Globe contacted a therapist for professional insight into the psychological ramifications of sexual assault, and how survivors can heal. Michelene Wasil works with survivors of sexual assault, both men and women, many of whom were victimized in the military. Throughout her interview, Wasil repeatedly returns to a common theme regarding the struggles her clients face: “There’s a lot of shame involved.”
“Shame and guilt. That’s typically what happens.”
Paradigm of Pain
Victims of assault can have counter-intuitive reactions, which can in turn exacerbate their trauma and cripple recovery efforts. When we broached the question of maladaptive reactions, Wasil was unsurprised, having worked with clients who turn to chemical painkillers like drugs and alcohol, as well as those who develop internal ones, like sexual addiction or gambling.
She says that trauma can do more than alter a person’s behavior, it can also decimate their emotional capacity.
“There’s also a lot of emotional avoidance, unhealthy attachments, so they might get into abusive relationships. Numbness, emotional numbness, inability to really feel love.”
“Two [clients] can’t really have an intimate life, at least not very often, because it’s very painful…I’m not a doctor so I can’t tell you if it’s because of the rape, but I can guess that likely that’s a big thing. They can’t even enjoy sex anymore, or sex is cued with the trauma, so they are constantly reminded of what happened to them.”
One of the most damaging tendencies, and one that acts as the biggest hurdle to recovery, is the tendency to pin blame on victims instead of perpetrators.
“If you look at any typical rape case in a courtroom, women are interrogated about what they wore that day, they’re interrogated about their sexual history,” Wasil points out. “Someone defending a rapist will dig up the woman’s past, so there’s that whole idea of, ‘you shouldn’t have been wearing that short skirt,’ or ‘you shouldn’t be out past 2 AM,’ ‘you shouldn’t have had so much to drink.’”
A community’s willingness to blame victims can lead the victim themselves to shoulder responsibility, or tear apart every aspect of a situation, from what they said, to what they did, to how they felt.
“I have a client who was sexually assaulted in the military, so there’s that added layer of shame, as in, ‘I should have fought them off.'” explains Wasil, “And then if you…get really graphic, ‘I was aroused during this trauma, so I must have liked it somehow,’ so there’s all this self-doubt. It gets really murky and complicated.”
Wasil has also witnessed revictimization, where victims, either in childhood or adulthood, find themselves entangled in subsequent abusive relationships.
“I don’t think it’s that they choose dysfunctional relationships,” says Wasil.
“I think it’s that they’ve been so psychologically damaged from this horrendous trauma that I don’t know if they really know how to interact in a healthy way, and their unhealthy behaviors are attracting other unhealthy people.”
The Way Forward
The crucial thing for survivors of sexual assault to know is that recovery from an assault is possible, through the support of family, friends and professional help. However, survivors should start therapy with realistic expectations.
“It’s a long road to recovery,” advises Wasil. “It also depends; if you were raped as a child and raped as an adult, and haven’t talked about it, and it’s been 30 years or 20 years, whatever, that’s been festering for a really long time.”
No matter what modality treatment takes, healing from sexual assault and breaking patterns of behavior – even painful ones – is not an easy process to undergo, although in some cases medication prescribed by a professional can help through the worst of it. “It can get worse the first month or two,” advises Wasil. “Just stick with it.”
“I would say if you’re going to a therapist, and you don’t feel better in 8 – 10 sessions – if you don’t feel better at all – it might be time either find a new therapist or consider some medication.”