As a sexual assault survivor, there are numerous negative messages that play on my head on repeat. “It’s your fault. You could have done something to prevent that from happening. You are broken. You are damaged. You aren’t worthy of love and respect.” Every day, they haunt my thoughts and dictate my actions.
What’s been even more damning, though, is the confirmation of those thoughts by outside parties.
During an intake appointment with a social worker, I told her that I was just beginning a graduate school program for counseling. Her response was, “Do you really think that’s the best career path for you, given your history?” Somehow – and I’m pretty sure this was divine intervention because I’ve never been one to respond well under pressure – I found the strength to reply, “I actually think it would help me to be more empathetic toward my clients.”
To have a mental health professional – someone who is supposed to “do no harm” and treat all clients with the empathy and respect – tell me that I am too broken to achieve my goals completely debilitated me for a while. I wondered if I had made a mistake in going back to school and changing careers. I thought maybe I was kidding myself in trying to move on with my life, and that I could never be anything more than what the person who violated me saw – a piece of garbage that can be used and thrown away.
Then – and this probably devastated me even more – I once had a significant other make repeated remarks about my recovery and how I didn’t measure up to his preconceived guidelines. I wasn’t affected by what he thought I should be. “X is a trigger for you but Y isn’t? That doesn’t make any sense.” And the fact that I chose not to report the attack bothered him so much that he told me it made him sick my attackers were still out there, free to do that to other women. In essence, I felt as though he was holding me culpable for another person’s (and a criminal’s as that) actions.
I thought this person loved and supported me. And when he made those comments, I began to feel like he saw me no differently than I often saw myself. The negative self-talk that pervades my psyche became truth in those moments, and the part of me who believed at least one person didn’t find me responsible was shattered in an instant. Not only that, I wasn’t conforming to some ridiculous mold of what he thought my recovery should look like. Even as a victim, I was failing in his eyes.
Sexual assault advocates would probably refer to these instances as victim blaming. The ironically screwed up thing is, I probably blame myself more than any other person ever could. That’s why I think it’s critical to validate and honor survivors. For me (because I can’t speak for anyone but myself), that would mean patience, understanding, tenderness, kindness, compassion, and love. Since it often seems impossible to give those things to yourself, it’s even more critical to be surrounded by those who can offer it to you.
I’m still trying to figure out how to silence those thoughts. It’s a process, and a life-long one at that. I just know that I want to be happy, and not let these events define who I am and who I’m capable of becoming.