Recovering from Rape

Recovering from Rape

“I can’t believe this actually happened. It doesn’t seem real.”

Barbara (not her real name) sat facing me in the tiny counseling office. She was shaking. The previous night, she had been raped in her apartment by a man she had considered a good friend. The hospital emergency room had referred her to the rape counseling program where I worked.

Like other rape survivors, Barbara faced many decisions in the hours, days, and months following the rape. My role was not to tell her what to do, but to help her think about her options and make her own choices.

Although women are more often the victims of rape than men, and will be the focus of this article, male victims face many of the same recovery issues, as well as others that are specific to men.

1. Whether and where to get medical attention

Rape survivors often have physical injuries, including internal injuries, they may not be aware of. Treatment can also prevent pregnancy and sexually transmitted diseases. The medical exam also collects evidence that may help convict the rapist; the sooner the exam is done, the better the chances are that important evidence will be preserved. These services are available in hospital emergency rooms. Many hospitals treat rape survivors without advance payment, even if they have no insurance.

2. Whether to report the rape to the police

Many rape survivors want to see the rapist punished, and protect others from being victimized. They want society to make a clear statement that rape is a crime that will not be tolerated. Playing a part in the rapist’s arrest and conviction can make a woman feel more powerful and less like a helpless victim.

At a more practical level, a woman must report the rape to be eligible for Crime Victims’ Compensation benefits. Crime Victims’ Compensation can pay for medical expenses, other financial losses resulting from the rape, and even long-term psychotherapy. Information about how to apply can be obtained from the state Crime Victims Board, the police, or a rape crisis counseling program.

On the other hand, a woman may choose not to report the rape. She or someone she knows may have been treated badly by the police in the past. The rapist may have threatened to harm her or her family if she reports the crime. Furthermore, pressing charges can be a long, painful process. Every woman must decide for herself, based on her own circumstances, whether it makes sense to go through it.

3. How to make space for healing

Sometimes it can feel like recovering from rape is a full-time job all by itself. The survivor may be overwhelmed by confusing emotions — fear, grief, guilt, shame, rage. She may be unable to sleep at night and unable to stay awake during the day. She may have trouble thinking clearly, concentrating, and making decisions. Some women have no choice but to put their emotions aside and go on coping with the demands of their daily reality. Some find that they feel better if they carry on with their normal routine as much as possible. Others find it helpful to take some time off from work, let the housework slide, and concentrate on doing things that make them feel better — warm baths, meditation, listening to their favorite music, anything that feels soothing and comforting.

4. How to increase safety

Rape often motivates the survivor to think about ways of making herself safer. She may want to change the locks on her door, put bars on her windows, or move to another neighborhood. She may decide to be less trusting and more cautious. She may take self-defense classes. None of this means that the rape was her fault because she didn’t take these precautions sooner; the risk of rape has become more real to her and she is taking action to protect herself.

5. Where to seek support

The best family members and friends to turn to are those who will stay calm and who will not blame, criticize, or try to take over. It’s good to have more than one person to turn to; some people are duds at dealing with intense emotions, but terrific about practical things like babysitting or providing transportation to a medical appointment.

A hotline counselor or an in-person rape crisis counselor can be a supportive listener when family and friends are unavailable or are too emotionally involved to be helpful. She can provide information about the recovery process and about available resources. She can be an advocate if the survivor runs into bureaucratic roadblocks in obtaining services.

After the initial crisis, a support group can help to break down isolation, secrecy, and shame. The survivor can see that women she likes and respects have had experiences similar to her own, and that they like and respect her. Because members of the group are at different stages of healing, she can gain perspective on how far she has come and see evidence that further progress is possible.

If the recovery process has stalled, psychotherapy may be the next step. A rape can bring up old anxieties and conflicts about issues like trust, control, , self-worth, etc. Sometimes it triggers feelings and memories related to earlier traumas, such as child sexual abuse, that need longer-term treatment than a rape crisis counselor can provide. If depression or anxiety is severe and shows no signs of improving, medication may be useful.

Recovery from rape doesn’t mean that it’s as if the rape never happened. Most women find that in some ways they have changed permanently. Recovery does mean that, more and more of the time, the survivor is not thinking about the rape. Her emotions are no longer dominated by it. She is able to envision a future for herself, to set goals and work to achieve them. Her life moves forward.

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