We live in a world where being called a “victim” implies a connotation of weakness. “Don’t be a victim” is a phrase we hear all too often. But what if that is actually your experience? Victim is a term the legal system uses to identify someone who has been the recipient of a crime. When someone has been sexually assaulted or abused, they have had a crime committed against them. I had a patient tell me the other day the advice they have gotten from others is to “Not think about it” or “Just move on with your life”. What if I asked you not to think about a pink elephant? Your brain will immediately go to thinking about a pink elephant. Telling someone to just move on is suggesting it is their responsibility to make the trauma disappear even though they did nothing wrong. Survivors of childhood sexual abuse did not ask to be abused and the responsibility is not on them to make the trauma go away. These messages can lead survivors to repress their feelings and experiences which often leads to coping with drugs, alcohol, food, sex, and other maladaptive coping patterns that people use to regulate themselves.
As a psychotherapist specializing in the treatment of sexual trauma and PTSD, my experience has been that we live in a world where people would rather avoid these topics all together than own them and discuss them. Often people would rather pretend this is an issue that does not exist. The problem is we are living in 2019 and the evidence is clear, more people than not are effected by the issues of sexual harassment or sexual violence. Depression, anxiety, rage, addiction, hypervigilance, and feeling unsafe are everyday experiences that many people are living with. My experience is also that when people deal with these issues head on they begin to see changes in their lives. They begin to feel safer in their bodies. They begin to heal.
Stages of Survival
There are three stages of survival that traumatized people often experience.
The Victim Stage: People in this stage often feel that they are still in the trauma. The trauma could have happened yesterday or 20 years ago but the healing has yet to occur. Signs of this stage include avoidance, helplessness, fragility, shame, guilt, self hatred, hypervigilance, and hopelessness. In other words, people may feel the ending is still pending.
The Survivor Stag: In this stage people begin to feel as if the trauma is over. People may begin to feel stronger and more competent in their every day life. People in this phase may be beginning to form a new narrative of the trauma and include it as part of something that has happened to them, not something that is currently happening to them. People may begin to feel less shame, less guilt, and more safe in their bodies.
The Thriver Stage: In this stage, people may feel as if the trauma is behind them and they are able to move forward and enjoy their lives. They may regain a sense of spontaneity and may experience a greater sense of safety and empowerment. They may begin to feel a sense of ownership over their life that they may or may not have felt before the trauma. Some people report feeling stronger and more aware of their inner world in this stage than they did prior to the trauma. This stage may feel similar to the matrix. I took the pill, I have become conscious, and I have learned to deal with this reality.
How Do We Get There?
This is a question where the answer may feel vague and disappointing but the answer is it sort of depends. My job as a psychotherapist is to identify people’s needs and create a treatment plan to address them. It is not my patient’s job to adapt to my therapeutic orientation. This often leads patients to feel as if they are failing in treatment. As a trauma informed therapist, my job is to identify interventions that work for each person and not everything will work for everyone. Unfortunately I hear people say all the time that they feel they have failed in therapy previously. When I ask what this means, the response I often get is they feel they have been too much for their therapist or that they have been unable to achieve the goals the therapist has set for them. I can’t imagine a worse feeling than going to a professional for help, sharing your inner most vulnerabilities, and walking away feeling more broken than when you went in the door. My job as a trauma therapist is to help people feel safer, feel more empowered, and feel that they are moving forward and healing. If someone is unable to get to this point, I am the one who has failed.
If you are struggling with moving forward in your life post trauma and would like to know more about Shannon’s services, please reach out today for a free consultation.
Bio: Shannon McHenry is a Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist with a specialty focus in childhood trauma, rape and battering, and PTSD. She is a trauma therapist in Los Angeles and works with clients in her offices in Los Feliz and Torrance. Combining clinical experience with a passion to support women in repairing their relationships with themselves and others, she has supported many to create a long-lasting recovery from destructive behaviors. Call Shannon today to book your first appointment.