We are all unique individuals. No two people's stories, reactions, pain, or recovery will be exactly the same. However, there are many things we do share in the recovery process. Get to know the survivor in your life and allow them to guide you as they walk through this painful, yet very rewarding and life-changing walk of recovery. Following are some of the things I needed from my loved ones. You may think of other areas of needs as you read through this list. Please forward them to me and I will add them.
Survivors need to be loved and accepted. Survivors often see themselves as unlovable. They believe if anyone really knew them, they would reject them. Finding out out that someone could love me even when they knew my deep hidden secrets helped me begin to love and accept myself, and helped me to finally believe that God really loved me unconditionally. For so long I would distance from anyone who got too close to avoid the pain of rejection. Now, I can let people in thanks to the people in my life that loved and accepted me regardless what I was going through or what I revealed to them.
Survivors need nurturing. For many survivors the nurturing, protecting elements were missing in their childhood. Instead they were thrust into a confusing adult world where they were used for the sexual gratification of others. This can cause confusion between nurturance and sex for survivors, especially when those others may have been the very people who should have met the nurturing needs of the child. For me, this caused fear and confusion...fear that any attempts to nurture me meant sex was wanted, and confusion about my own needs...believing that my desire for nurturance meant I wanted sex, causing much shame.
Survivors need to be believed. It is crucial that the person's story of their abuse is believed, particularly when they have tried to tell someone in the past and were not believed. Their pain can be compounded when, as sometimes happens, they are accused of lying and called wicked for making up such terrible stories. Telling is a very courageous step and survivors need affirming and validating.
It is not unusual for a survivor to vacillate back and forth between denying or minimizing the abuse and believing it themselves. For myself, I always knew about the abuse, but I desperately wanted to continue believing it was no big deal and that what the abusers did to me wasn't that bad, even though I believed it was that bad for other survivors. It can be difficult to continue believing a survivor's story of abuse when this happens, but understand that it is hard to admit that those that were supposed to love us betrayed us, and we may have spent most of our lives living with denial and repression. It takes time to come to terms with what happened and face it honestly. The survivor needs patience and understanding during this time.
Survivors need to know the abuse wasn't their fault. When a child is sexually abused, the responsibility for that abuse is totally upon the adult. The child is the innocent party, yet many survivors carry round with them a crippling burden of guilt and shame. They feel that there must be something wrong with them for the abuse to have happened, or that they must have provoked it or deserved it. They may have even been told that as a child. Survivors need to grasp that it wasn't their fault and they don't need to feel guilty or ashamed. This may need to be repeated many times before it is fully integrated into their belief system.
Survivors need to break the silence. Many survivors are told by their abusers that if they tell, something bad will happen...their family will be harmed or even killed, if it is a father or step-father, that the mother will not believe it or that the survivor will go to jail or to a home, or even that another sibling will be abused if they don't cooperate. This generates such fear and, coupled with the trauma of the abuse itself, ensures the secret is kept, often for many years. Survivors need to be helped to break the silence in a safe and secure environment so that the fear can be dispelled and healing begin.
Sometimes, loved ones fear that the survivor is dwelling too much on the past, or erroneously believes this is all recovery groups or counseling is all about. This is not true. Some may need to repeat their memories of abuse over and over as they attempt to come to terms with it, but this won't continue forever. In reality, in all the groups I've attended and facilitated, the actual accounts of abuse rarely come up. Most of our time is spent dealing with our present lives, how we are affected, difficulties in our relationships, and finding ways to heal and change for the better.
Survivors want their loved ones to understand what happened to them and validate them. If you consider a healthy person who is attacked and raped even once, they would scream, fight, take the attacker to court, talk to a counselor and/or others who have been through the same thing. They would have the police support and the court system. They feel unsafe, violated, are easily triggered, and may purchase a gun or take self-defense classes as a way to deal with ongoing fear. They would be allowed to talk it out and get support for the trauma they've been through. All this is permissible and understandable with an adult rape or attempted rape survivor.
The child survivor who is just now as an adult dealing with the abuse, has not been allowed to scream, fight, take the abuser to court, get support or therapy, talk to those who have been there to help them understand their feelings, find ways to deal with their ongoing fear. Instead, these feelings and memories have simmered below the surface until now. But in reality, for some of us, it is as if it just happened in reference to our feelings and surfacing memories. The survivor needs to be given the space and permission to talk about what happened without restraints.
Survivors may need professional help. There may be a need for the survivor to talk to someone who is experienced and qualified in dealing with survivors of sexual abuse. This can be a counselor, pastor, or psychologist who is able to help them move through the healing process. No matter how good a person's support network is, there may still be a need to seek professional support to make sense of the complex nature of healing and it's likely effects on the survivor and those around them. And if the survivor is suicidal, get help immediately for your loved one.
Survivors need a support network. Many survivors feel lonely and isolated, even in the midst of a close family, so it's very important that they be encouraged to build and maintain a network of supportive, positive people who they can turn to, especially in times of crisis. This support network can include their partner, close relatives or friends, and within those there should be one or two who are able to cope with the demands of supporting someone through their crisis of healing.
For this, I found my therapist, pastor, and my support group a necessary part of my recovery. Supporting a survivor requires a great deal of love, time and patience, which will be stretched to the limit at times. It's important for supporters to think through whether they can make this kind of commitment and are able to offer nonjudgmental, unconditional love.
I was blessed with pastors, friends, and family members who knew what I was going through, gave me space when needed, but simply let me know they were there. It was a relief to have people around me, that although may have had no prior dealings with survivors, allowed me to be who I was, set my own pace, encouraged me, and allowed me to grieve and heal. They were willing to learn from me and didn't push their own expectations or opinions on me. This also helped me begin to trust others.
Survivors need time to heal and may need encouragement to hang in there. If we consider that some survivors keep the secret of their abuse for 10, 20 or even 40 years, we should not expect them to heal in a matter of weeks, or months. They themselves will need to be helped to understand that dealing with such traumatic material is a long-term process and we should beware of setting time scales. This can cause problems when the allotted time has elapsed and healing is not complete. I know I was discouraged when I wasn't 'healed' in three months...the amount of time I gave my therapist to 'fix' me. I'm glad I had people around me who encouraged me to continue and let me know it was okay that it was taking more time than I thought it should have.
It is also hard work facing the trauma, emotionally, mentally, and physically. There may be times the survivor feels like giving up. At these times, they need to be reminded of the progress they have made and the rewards of continuing to heal. There will always be areas in our lives that need improvement and change, but there is an end to the awful pain and trauma that comes up during recovery. By stopping the process, the survivor will remain affected by those areas not fully recovered in. But continuing on will result in freedom from the pain, the shame, the anger, and the other ways abuse has affected their lives thus far. Encourage them to become 'overcomers'.
I now liken the recovery process for a survivor as it is for a patient who is diagnosed and recovering from cancer. The cancer may have been there for many years undetected. Then finally, a lump is felt, or other symptoms become more noticeable. Finally a doctor is sought and diagnosis made. The cancer requires surgery and chemotherapy or radiation treatment. Now the surgery removes the cancer, but there could still be cancer cells in the body, so the chemotherapy is necessary to remove any last traces of the cancer. The patient is weakened from the surgery, then further weakened from the chemotherapy. Friends and family will notice the patient is getting worse, not better, and if they didn't know better, would think the treatments were killing, not helping, their loved one. The patient becomes sick, tired, and after each treatment, may have severe bouts of vomiting, weakness, and fatigue. But then after a year or so, the patient is diagnosed as cancer free, chemotherapy can be stopped, but the patient has to be observed closely for relapse.
Abuse is like the undetected cancer that shows up with symptoms often ignored. But the symptoms are draining the life from the survivors emotional, physical, mental self. The survivor often seems worse when therapy begins, but that doesn't mean the therapy isn't working or the therapist is bad. It just means that the 'cancer' of abuse, with all the suppressed feelings, fears, and pain is now being exposed. It is coming to the surface where it needs to come so that it can be dealt with and recovered from.
Survivors need to grieve and may need permission and encouragement to allow that grief to surface. There are many losses associated with the affects of sexual abuse. These can include loss of childhood, loss of innocence, loss of nurturing, protecting parents, loss of trust, loss of privacy, personal space and boundaries, and much more. Each of these losses must be identified and grieved over in the same way as we would grieve over the loss of a loved one. Each stage of the grieving process must be gone through and healing takes place as the process is completed.
This is the time I needed my supporters most. I needed help to understand what I was feeling and why. I needed help in releasing the anger and pain. Sometimes all I could do was draw a picture or write a poem. But it was important to me to share these deep feelings with others. I felt like there was no one there to share them with when I was a child who would listen, care, and nurture me. Part of my healing involved having someone there to share my pain with as it came out, and it was healing to have them cry with me, and although uncomfortable at times, become angry when hearing about what was done to me.
Let the survivor know you are there for them. Allow the survivor to tell you what it is she/he needs from you at the time. Don't assume or try second-guessing. Encourage the survivor to take responsibility for letting their needs to known and getting those needs met.
Don't be afraid to express your compassion or feelings of outrage, or other feelings that get stirred up inside. There is probably nothing more comforting than a genuine human response. Just make sure your feelings don't overwhelm theirs.
Respect their boundaries. Survivors may not have boundaries, or may have very strict boundaries for their protection. As they heal, they will learn how to set and maintain healthy boundaries. Respecting their boundaries will facilitate the feeling of safety they need.
Give lots of positive messages. They say it takes 40 positives to counter one negative message. Survivors have internalized many negative messages and it will take a lot of positive messages from their loved ones to help them begin to change the way they think about themselves and others.
See the survivor as a survivor and not as a victim. Continue to see them as a strong, courageous person who is reclaiming their own life.
Learn and grow with the survivor. Accept that there will very likely be major changes in your relationship with the survivor as they heal. They are changing, and as they do, you may need to change in response. This can lead to a healthier, more fulfilling and intimate relationship if you see this as something positive in your relationship and not as a threat.