August 20, 2015
by Megan Nobert
One of the hardest things about experiencing an act of sexual violence, besides the trauma of the experience itself, is talking about your rape with the people in your life.
I am not a psychologist, nor do I purport to be. This is not medical advice and it should not be taken as such. Instead, what I offer here is advice from my personal experience as a survivor of sexual violence, as well as my experience working with survivors of sexual violence as a human rights lawyer in conflict zones.
Communicating the following words will be some of the most difficult in your life: “I have been raped.” Saying these words takes courage. Saying them can also help you to heal.
Sexual violence is a personal thing. The experience itself is unique to each person, and healing processes are similarly unique. There is not one method or way to heal. There is not one method or way to speak about your experience with sexual violence.
There is, however, one essential element—expression is a key part of the healing process. Saying the words out loud is a method of psychological intervention and can prevent both mental and physical long-term consequences. Studies have shown that even writing down the experience of a traumatic event such as rape can improve your immune system, resulting in an uplifted mood and fewer health problems.
You may choose to disclose to your family or close friends. You may choose to speak to a therapist. You may even choose, like I did, to go public with your experience. It does not matter to whom you speak, but social support is key to recovering from a trauma.
When you do disclose to your family, friends, or therapist, it likely will not be easy—especially the first few times. It will be hard to find the words and you may worry about their reactions. I cannot say that everyone will react well. My experience was largely positive, though I did have several people who ignored my messages, and who ignored my reaching out to them for support.
Know that if someone does this it is not your fault. Their not speaking has nothing to do with you. It is not a sign that your disclosure is wrong or that you deserved your experience. It has nothing to do with you and should not deter you from continuing to disclose.
For me, every time I said out loud or in an electronic message that I had been raped it got easier. I cried a bit less. It was less heartbreaking having to send the message or say the words, knowing that the person on the other end was about to
be flooded with emotion, both mine and theirs. It simply got easier.
I have a visualization for my experience: I picture it as a tiny heart-shaped pastel balloon. Every time I tell someone about my experience I let that balloon go. It floats away and I hope that it brings someone comfort. Just as importantly, it releases a bit of weight from my shoulders, and my heart.
Letting go can be a wonderful thing. Our experiences are part of us, but they do not need to define us. I use the label “survivor” because that is what I believe I am, and what I believe we are. We experienced something painful, but we are stronger than those moments. We live to fight against the power that was taken away from us, every single day. Studies have shown that between 35-57 percent of women who have experienced sexual violence suffer from PTSD. That does not need to be the reality.
Not only does expressing help us to heal as individuals, but I believe that it helps to reduce the stigma of sexual violence overall. Sexual violence is a crime of violence and control, and every time one of us speaks, the power of sexual violence lessens; it no longer holds the same weight. By reducing the social significance of the crime, we create a space whereby more survivors can speak: it creates a ripple effect. By telling your story, on whatever platform you feel is right, you may be helping someone else to tell their own story.
I do not think we fully understand the power of our own narratives sometimes, but I do know that speaking helped to bring me back from an abyss. It helped me reach a point where I could get out of bed, where I was not as scared. It helped me to heal. It may help you to do the same. Whatever you decide, let it be at your own pace. This is your experience and you get to decide how, when, and with whom you share it.
In Your Corner Therapy
This is the online therapy group that works through Skype, allowing survivors all over the world to get access to help, if that is what they need.
Canadian Resource Centre for Victims of Crime
Links to different support networks and helplines for Canadian victims of sexual violence.
The Pandora Project
An American-based online resource for sexual violence survivors seeking support and a community.
Megan Nobert is an independent international criminal and human rights lawyer, and a sexual violence survivor. Currently she serves as the Project Director of “Report the Abuse,” a research and advocacy project created to track the nature and type of incidents of sexual violence within the humanitarian community.
Image: Bernardi Siegfried Albini, Tabulae sceleti et musculorum corporis humani. via archive.org