« Back to Journal

April 12, 2013

If Someone You Know Was Sexually Abused or Raped - Part Two

A few weeks ago I described some of the ways that people helped me talk about what had happened to me as a child and by talking about it, begin the healing process. These people weren’t clinicians, they just wanted to help me: people like my husband, friends and co-workers.

As I mentioned in part one I’m hoping you will think about these ideas, share them with the person in your life who has survived violence and ask him or her what might you do to help. Consider this a starting point to your discussion-–not an ending point.

In part one I made two suggestions:

1. Listen
2. Believe

Today we continue with:

3. Ask questions to better understand

When I share my experience of abuse with friends, it’s awkward if what follows is either an uncomfortable silence or no recognition of knowing more about me. Instead, when friends ask me questions, I feel so much better about having disclosed painful memories. Their attentiveness makes me feel that they are comfortable with me and want to get to know me better.

Recently, while writing a book about my experience with dissociative identity disorder (DID), I asked two friends to read the manuscript and let me know what they thought. After she read the draft, one friend told me all the specific things she liked about the book. The other emailed me as she was reading, keeping me updated on what she found moving and told me that when she reached the end she cried. Later this same friend asked me, “Hey, What happened between when you got divorced and when you moved to Minnesota. What happened?” We both laughed, knowing there were a number of years there that the book’s timeline skipped over several years of relationships. It felt great to have her ask me. I felt closer to her than I ever had because she wanted to know me better.

When people share their lives and experiences with us, especially tragic experiences, we are reluctant to “pry”. Some people don’t want to be asked questions and because of that, most of us don’t ask at the risk of offending. Contrary to this popular practice, however, most of the people I have met around the country want to be asked questions. Me included. I want people to feel comfortable with my past, comfortable with who I am. People ask about the farm I live on and the bees we raise but rarely do they ask about how I do with all the changes in my life given my past abuse. Rarely do they ask Was the book hard to write? Did it bring everything back up again?

When people ask me questions that acknowledge the pain of my past, I am comforted by a desire to know me better and comforted by being heard and once again believed.

4. Be Transparent

If someone’s story is hard for you to hear, let the person know. Be kind but direct. Saying something like, “I’m so sorry about what happened to you. I want to be able to listen and learn more about your experience, but I can’t. It brings up painful feelings about my own past and I get scared or mad. I’m sorry I can’t help you by listening. I care about you and can help by being with you, going with you to the store, etc.”

A former teacher who I reached out to once told me that. At first her response hurt my feelings. But I was grateful to know that she wanted to help and to listen, and that her own experience just made it too hard. It wasn’t my fault that she couldn’t talk to me about my past.

Many other people have tried to help but ended up not being able to hear about what I had remembered. Many invited me to tell them but didn’t know that my story would be so hard to hear. When they reached the point of not being able to hear anymore, a few got mad at me. I know they tried and just didn’t expect it to be so hard. But getting mad at me because I had gone through so much hurt my feelings and fed into my fear of ‘being too much’.

5. Learn more about survivors of child sexual abuse, DID and rape

Early on in my recovery process, one of the things my husband did was to learn as much as he could about the healing process for adult survivors of child sexual abuse. He bought just about every self-helpbook he could find, as well as many memoirs, in order to better understand how he could help. He also joined a support group for allies of adult survivors. There he learned that most of the partners of these allies also had DID. I clearly remember him telling me about the support group, telling me that DID is common among child sexual abuse survivors and that it's an amazing way to cope. I was so relieved and immeasurably grateful to him for his efforts to learn more about what I had survived without relying solely on me to explain it all. His participation in the support group also gave him someplace to go to talk to other partners and allies and made me feel well loved and cared for.


5 comments for "If Someone You Know Was Sexually Abused or Raped - Part Two"

Susan Rubio Rivera's Gravatar

Thank you for sharing your story. Sometimes it is difficult to listen while managing your own feelings of abuse. But I found, after listening to you speak at the FCADV conference last year, that there are still many things that I want to learn from your experience. You are so brave. You are so inspirational!

Susan Rubio Rivera wrote on December 28, 2011 at 07:56 AM
Adria's Gravatar

I ordered and read your book after reading your posts on Psychology Today, and it moved me deeply. I am a survivor of sexual abuse myself, and your story gave me hope. I appreciate you sharing things that helped you, especially about being honest if someone's story is triggering. I have found myself having this difficulty with friends who tell me things they have gone through. I need to make sure I am in a healthy emotional state to hear things, and I need to remember that it is more helpful for me to ask what other ways I can help than to just shut down the conversation because it is too difficult.

Adria wrote on August 26, 2013 at 07:46 AM
Sarah's Gravatar

I have to say that I have never met anyone that shared a story so parallel to my own..I have worked in the social work field and I never realized that I indeed coped with DID. I know I compartmentalized and could "shut off" any emotion but never really had a name for this..I also never have had anyone describe myself in there own story. Thank you!

Sarah wrote on September 21, 2013 at 08:54 PM
Cheryl Cherie Perry-Rowell's Gravatar

The ways you have advocated for others is both inspiring and educational. I found it helpful when you spoke of the traumatizing effects of the abuse as a child growing up. Moreover, I found that your speaking of the life time challenges that you still go through at times was helpful information as well. When you talk about having to take care of yourself, and be careful not to allow certain things to cause the feeling of being victimized all over again. This helped me realize that that I am not taking a step backwards, but moving forward. I understood that those feelings are normal and will reappear, and it is OK to avoid any situation that may make me feel that way. Therefore, I am making progress when I am able to remove myself from any situation that may bring these feelings back that hurt me. For others that have not started to heal themselves the effects both at the time of the abuse and that came later in life can be very misunderstood and dangerous. As a survivor of child sexual abuse and domestic violence I understand the need for healing. I admire you for taking your time to advocate for others that have been sexually abused. You are truly an inspiration for so many people. Thank you so much for giving your time to help others heal, and become survivors'.

Cheryl Cherie Perry-Rowell wrote on October 30, 2013 at 04:26 PM
Carolina Chavez's Gravatar

Our agency has been able to share a book our manager purchased and we believed that your story is so powerful and helpful on understanding our client's on sexual assault. We serve children and adults and it has been a privilege to be able to make a difference in someone's life. We admire you, as an agency, and what you are doing is something that only a person, with the fire and compassion, would do for others. Thank you!

Carolina Chavez wrote on August 05, 2016 at 04:27 PM
Leave a Comment: