The last year and half has shown me just how many skills I’ve developed since experiencing trauma. For many of my friends and family, I’m the person to go to when sh*t hits the fan. “Hey you used to be a mess, maybe you can help?” Needless to say, I’ve gotten a lot of phone calls since April 2020.
As a rape survivor, “you used to be a mess” traditionally made me feel isolated and misunderstood. While it’s no joy that the last year and half has been a series of traumatic events, I’ve been finding myself grateful that for the first time, we're all starting to speak a bit more openly about mental health. It gives me hope that as we turn up the volume on mental health of the general population, we can also turn down the stigma and make it safer for people with pre-COVID mental challenges to be more open.
I’ve been through some very heavy stuff. Like, raped by a friend, years of depression and avoidance, suicidal ideation, PTSD, heavy therapy work, borderline substance abuse, loss of work — you get the picture. It took years of my life, a year off work, moving across the globe, and thousands of dollars in therapy to get where I am today. As such, I’d like to share five essential skills I’ve learned as a rape survivor to help you through the rest of the pandemic (and life).
#1. Be OK with not being OK
Always start here, and come back anytime you need a reset. For years after I was raped, it took all my energy to simply exist, to make eye contact, to trust coworkers, to communicate anything to anyone. Things got exponentially worse as I blamed myself, doubted my experience, and questioned my own feelings.
The only way out was acceptance. Accept myself (a wreck), my mental health (dismal), and the people around me (imperfect). When I’m upset about the world, myself, anything — I let myself feel un-OK. I listen to and accept my feelings, and 99% of the time, that acceptance is what brings me to compassion, resilience, and growth. At the very least, it helps me move just one step through the pain. It’s like a kid calling your name and pulling at your shirt. Once you acknowledge them, they usually just say hi and then go on their way.
#2. Focus on internal over external control
After trauma, I wanted to control everything because if I could control it, nothing would surprise or hurt me, right? Well, after about 4 years of trying, I realized that’s impossible.
I remember being triggered by external things and having an innate repose in my body that says “this is it, it's happening again, you're not safe, he’s here, you're about to be raped.” It's a normal response. I had to train my brain to constantly check external cues with internal reality. When COVID hit, I lost my job, I lost the opportunity to see my family, and I was living alone and scared, listening to news that felt like the apocalypse.
The response to both experiences is the same: “How much of this is truly affecting me personally right now? Is my body safe? Am I breathing? Can I breathe a little slower? What do I need to feel peace right now?”
Nothing is as safe as the present moment.
#3. Ask for help
Regardless of what sort of trauma you’ve experienced, at some point you had to ask for help. If you haven't, I imagine you are struggling and invite you to revisit point #1. Maybe it was family, maybe a therapist, maybe a hotline, maybe a stranger. I wouldn't be here today if I didn't ask for help; most survivors wouldn't be.
There’s no magic recipe or person to call. The best advice I can give is simply to start small and be honest. Asking for help when you feel guilty, confused, and shameful is tough, but if we can do it, so can you. Tip: Start small with a manageable feeling or task, and work your way up.
#4. Build your toolkit
Often, survivors lose touch with friends, family members, or colleagues in their shame, only to be left on their own when every pillar of normalcy crumbles. It would seem in those moments that the thing to rebuild is your entire life, but what seems right isn’t always best.
Similar to focusing on internal control, learning to rebuild your internal defense system needs to come first. Sure — you need a new job, but you also need to get through a day without a panic attack or existential dread. While tools like therapy, cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT), support groups, and writing have helped me in the short and long-term healing journey, the reality is coping toolkits are as individual as the people who need them. I've built a few specifically for sexual trauma survivors by sexual trauma survivors at safewithsara.org.
However you build your internal toolkit, remember it’s like investing — don’t put all your eggs in one basket. It helps to have something physical, something passive, something social, and so on. As you slowly build your bountiful bouquet of coping tools, remember it’s yours and yours alone. As long as it makes you feel better without harming others, you’re good to go.
#5. Advocate for your needs and boundaries
One side effect of the pandemic I’ve loved is that now as we slowly return to “normal,” we’ve created habits of checking in with personal preferences and boundaries and made it easier to express them.
Almost overnight, we were given the hall pass to say “I’m not okay with that” or “If we meet in person, X,Y, and Z would make me feel safe.” But while this became the norm, that didn’t mean it was easy. One of the most valuable tools I’ve learned from consent culture is communication around boundaries. Trust your gut: If you don’t want to go to an indoor pub, don’t. If you feel someone is endangering your safety, politely say so and then move on. If you’re just not mentally ready to socialize indoors, it’s OK to say so.
The list of tools and lessons goes on and on, but if you can just start to implement one of these things, you’ll be in a better place. Whatever you do, don’t go through this alone. When you’re in the thick of it, remember it’s okay not to be OK. You have control over your internal world, and you always have the right to ask for help. Find joy in your toolkit, find power in your boundaries, and if it all falls apart, just go back to step one.
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