What it’s like to be a survivor of sexual violence when it’s everywhere in the media

Does anyone remember the scene from the movie “Indiana Jones” when he’s running ahead of a giant stone ball, trying not to get crushed?

Well, for me, that scene is a pretty good, but not quite perfect, analogy for what it’s like to live in recovery with severe post-traumatic stress and other trauma-related diagnoses and symptoms.

The memories of events that affected my brain’s development, messaging systems and chemistry — I try to keep them behind me, lumped together like that giant ball. Even though I can’t change that past behind me, I try to maintain some amount of separation between those events and who I am now.

And, metaphorically speaking, if I stop moving I could get mentally crushed.

Lately the memory sphere has loomed large and close. It seems like issues related to sexual abuse of minors and sexual violence in general have been a constant in the 2015 news cycle. Nationally we’ve had an ongoing dialogue about sexual violence in the military. Continued allegations of sexually criminal behavior by Bill Cosby may finally have reached a tipping point. And there’s the case involving a New Hampshire prep school student and sexual misconduct as part of a “senior right of passage.”

Locally, the stories abound. The attorney general recently concluded there was insufficient evidence to charge a former Biddeford police officer with sexually abusing underage boys. The alleged victim and his attorney are reported to be preparing a civil case.

For the sake of everyone involved, I do hope more facts come out if there is a civil case, so the community can begin to heal.

But this post isn’t about the individual cases. It’s about what it’s like to be a survivor of sexual violence during a time when the subject is so prevalent in the media. It’s both good and bad.

Actress and special envoy of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), Angelina Jolie, and British Foreign Secretary William Hague make their opening speeches at a global summit to end sexual violence in conflict, in London June 10, 2014. (Carl Court | Reuters)

Actress and special envoy of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), Angelina Jolie, and British Foreign Secretary William Hague make their opening speeches at a global summit to end sexual violence in conflict, in London June 10, 2014. (Carl Court | Reuters)

It’s good because the issue of sexual violence is finally getting public and legal attention. For decades, even centuries, it was society’s dirty secret. As long as sexual violence was secret, there was no hope of eradication, only continuation as each generation pretended it didn’t exist.

It’s also good because the prevalence of the stories in the media can give non-survivors a sense of just how broad the scope of the problem is and has been, while giving survivors a sense that they are not alone.

But it’s bad because these stories can be what people with post-traumatic stress call triggers. Triggers come in a variety of individualized shapes and forms depending on a person’s trauma history, but stories directly related to similar traumas are usually biggies. I say this because we survivors of sexual violence are everywhere, and triggers can affect our behavior in a number of ways — and to varying extents depending on where we are on the recovery path.

We may be bloggers trying to write about sexual violence to process the news in healthy ways because the days of processing it in unhealthy ways are long gone and not something to return to. Or we might be the person sitting next to you at work who tends to follow the news, but seems a little distant or a little on-edge lately.

We may be the spouse or partner who seems suddenly aggressive sexually or suddenly less interested than ever.

We may be the person with a substance abuse problem who seems more hellbent than ever on self-destruction. Or a reader who has been wondering lately if certain parts of his life story may correlate with events in his childhood that he never told anyone about, rendering him seemingly contemplative and moody.

Some of us disclose that we are survivors of sexual violence when appropriate. Some never mention it, ever. Some struggle to acknowledge it on a personal level, let alone disclose it to an external party. I’ve had more than one person tell me that I am the only person they’ve ever told.

The “Indiana Jones” analogy I started with isn’t quite perfect because I learned that in recovery I don’t have to run full-tilt to stay ahead of my ball of memories. Most days, the ever-present ball keeps a respectful distance no matter my pace or the triggers at hand. Through cognitive behavioral therapy and eye movement desensitization and reprocessing, I learned my mind is one of the few things in this world that I can control.

Recovery is about finding things like peace and joy and contentment even though the ball is always there. But recovery has its off days, and not all survivors have found what works for them. It’s important to know that, if someone you know seems off, there may be more going on below the surface than you can possibly know or the person herself may know.

It may be that someone is getting mentally crushed by memories that you don’t know about. That person may need an understanding friend, even if he or she can’t or doesn’t tell you why.

Patricia Callahan

About Patricia Callahan

Trish is a writer who lives in Augusta. She has worked professionally in education and social services.