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Very recently, approximately 20 years after I first became a rape victim, certain life events — notably receiving the news that my rapist had been sent to prison for doing the same to others — once again landed me in a state of mind where what happened became the center of my thoughts for a while and my daily functioning suffered.
Hoping to find solace and new coping techniques, I browsed the internet for help. Much of the rape recovery advice that I came across focused on that one story that is still stereotypical.
The advice directed to these women often centers on immediate coping mechanisms as well as navigating the legal system. The sequence of events is laid out rigidly — report, go through the legal system, get therapy, get better.
The circumstances under which rape occurs are so much more varied than that, and statistics suggests that at least 90 percent of rape victims have a very different story. Rape victims may be men or children as well as women. Their attackers may be strangers, but they may also be people known to them. They could be formerly trusted friends, partners, or close relatives. Those seeking rape recovery advice may have been raped by multiple perpetrators, over longer periods of time. They may, at the time of turning to the web, still be subject to victimization. On the other hand, they could also first be looking for advice on recovery many years after being victimized.
We're all so very different, and keeping that in mind, advice aimed at women who experienced stranger rape falls short for many. There is, at the end of the day, simply no such thing as "how to recover from rape in five easy steps", nor anything of the kind. (Which is also, ultimately, why I'm not attempting to offer any such advice here.)
Rape Recovery: Not A Linear Process
RAINN, the rape, abuse and incest national network, describes an approximate progression of recovery for people who suffer from "Rape Trauma Syndrome", essentially a sub-category of Post Traumatic Stress Syndrome that applies to rape victims. Their description can be paraphrased as follows:
- In the Acute Phase, a period RAINN describes as occurring in the days and weeks after, people may react in three distinct manners. Being openly emotional and breaking down in various ways is one reaction, while instinctively reacting by becoming emotionally numb and convincing yourself that you are OK is another. A third possibility is a shell-shocked disorientation.
- The Outward Adjustment Phase is one in which you seek to get your life back on the road, to find a new normal. During this stage, your coping mechanisms may range from minimizing your own trauma and still convincing yourself you are fine to having your life taken over by thoughts about your trauma, seeking to consciously analyze what happened and why, and seeking to escape your pain through such behaviors as seeking to eliminate any reminders of what happened from your life, perhaps by physically moving away, avoiding people who know about your trauma, or turning to alcohol, drugs, food, or other unhealthy coping mechanisms.
- The Resolution Phase, during which life is no longer centered around your trauma, and you may truly be finding some closure.
RAINN notes that the second phase is likely to feature such experiences as mood swings, anxiety, depression, fear, a sense of helplessness, denial, hyper vigilance or "always being on guard", withdrawing from family and friends, rage, flashbacks, and difficulty concentrating. RAINN is quick to add that rape recovery isn't a linear process, however. I agree. I experienced and continue to experience, cyclically, elements of all of the above. While finding a "new normal" is certainly possible, what that new normal will be like is highly individual.