At the end of my freshman year of college, I was raped by someone who I considered to be my friend. He left a party we had been at to come to my house, entered my bedroom and locked the door while I slept, and violated me in ways I never thought I would be violated.
Not only did he take advantage of my body that night, but he took pieces of my soul.
When I was finally able to talk about it with someone other than a rape counselor, it didn’t seem like anyone had the right words to say. People were either outright blaming me or insinuating that what happened was my fault or thought that by asking me about it and forcing me to relive the details I’d feel better. None of this made me feel better. If anything, I just felt more isolated and depressed.
The truth is, there are no right words to say to a survivor of sexual assault.
The emotional aftermath that follows a victim of sexual assault is a lot like being sucked into a black hole. You feel dirty and want to crawl out of your skin just to get away from the body they touched. You feel worthless. You wonder how you can ever trust another human being ever again. You blame yourself. You tell yourself things like, “This is my fault,” and “I should have been more careful.” Even when you feel like you’re fine, something happens that sucks the air out of you and the scab you’ve tried so hard to heal comes off and becomes a gaping bloody wound.
There are no words you can say that will take away the pain, regret, or trauma of what happened. No amount of “are you ok? ” or “everything will be fine,” or even “I know what you’re going through” will make any of what your loved one is going through better. The only thing you can do is let them know that you’re there for them, that you support them completely, and to let them process things in a way that makes sense to them.
Here are some ways you can do that:
We often try so hard to get things right that we forget actually to listen and instead try to plan what we say next. A victim of assault doesn’t need you to get it “right,” they just need you. Truly listen to your loved one and what they are trying to communicate with you about how they feel or the details of their attack. If you have to ask questions, make sure you’re sensitive and make sure you phrase them in a way that says, “I want to know more about your experience so that I can help you and be here for you the best I can be.”
Understand that survivor reactions are complex and varied
Everyone processes things in different ways, and sometimes they’ll be fine, and sometimes they won’t. Some people bottle it all up and solder on, and some people experience anxiety and PTSD-like symptoms. If they need to talk about it, let them, but don’t go out of your way to bring it up. If they want to talk about it, lend a supportive and open ear.
However, there might be a time you can’t do this. Since women are 50% more likely to develop PTSD, depression, and anxiety disorders after an assault do watch out for alarming or life-threatening behaviors and step in.
Give them the time and space they need to heal
There is no statute of limitations on how long the pain will hang around. It may take a very long time before your friend is “your friend” again. Give them the time and space they need to process and heal. Don’t expect them to just “get over it” and be prepared for this to be something that has random triggers and lingers.
Be as supportive as possible
Chances are, if you’re reading this, you are not one of those people who’s going to partake in victim blaming. There are going to be individuals who are going to question your loved one and believe that what happened to them was their fault in some way, and this is when they need you the most. Remind them that this was not their fault- at all. Be their shoulder to cry on and most importantly, let them know they are safe and loved.
If you or someone you know has been sexually assaulted, please get help and resources here.