By Matt E. Jaremko, Ph.D. and Beth Fehlbaum
Our book, Trauma Recovery: Sessions With Dr. Matt, features a fictional character named Felicia who experienced attempted sexual assault at age 14. For two decades she lived in constant fear and avoidance, developing unhealthy habits along the way. She finally seeks treatment after 20 years because attempts to avoid the constant day-to-day pain of a past event had taken control of her life. Along the way, Felicia tried her best to hide the details of her abusive history because that’s what the shame of sexual assault does to people. It makes them hide the truth. Her story of recovery is outlined in detail as she begins to get support for authentically facing the trauma of the past. The bravery we wrote into Felicia’s story seems to be mirrored in the actual headlines of today as a woman courageously faces decades old demons from her own past. The unfolding story of Christine Blasey Ford’s accusation of attempt rape by a man nominated to the Supreme Court of the United States is an all-too-common narrative in current society.
Twenty percent of woman have been sexually assaulted. They live with the crushing aftermath, often feeling powerless to do anything about their constant symptoms. Felicia is a fictional character in our book, but her story of finally seeking treatment and growing confidence in her ability to overcome the past illustrates a need to authentically confront the power and insensitivity of abusive men. The trauma of sexual assault stays with the victim, 24/7, even when they have “well-adjusted” lives. It rears its head sporadically but usually triggered by direct or oblique contact with the perpetrator. Are we to react accusatorily to these victims? No, we should try to hear them and help them.
When Beth, a survivor of Childhood Sexual Abuse, speaks to groups about the
effect of being sexually abused, she compares it the perpetrator pouring a five-gallon bucket of paint labeled “Shame” over his victim. Every day upon awakening, the onset of awareness brings with it anxiety and dread, even when the victim can’t quite put her finger on why she’s feeling that way. Shame coats, infuses every cell in her body, from the top of her head to the soles of her feet, as well as every inch of her existence. AND: it doesn’t matter how long ago the assault occurred. As long as the secret is kept and help is not sought, the paint never dries, the bucket never empties. Rest assured, there’s always more where that came from.
With regard to questions about Ford’s delayed reporting of the sexual assault (both as a teen and later as an adult), psychologist Anne Meltzer told The Washington Post, “The vast majority of sexual abuse victims delay disclosing what happened. It’s one of the most common features of child sex abuse. Most victims of child sexual abuse fear retaliation, that they won’t be believed or that their family may be angry. There are often very intense feelings of shame, guilt and humiliation. Statistically, teenagers are less likely than younger children to tell authorities about an assault. Particularly concerned with how others view them, teenagers often feel like ‘damaged goods.’”
Christine Blasey Ford came forward to tell her story in spite of her certainty that she would be annihilated because she sees an already powerful man on the verge of being 1 of 9 of the most powerful people in our nation. In our book, Felicia told her secret because she saw her perpetrator, a powerful man in her family, on the verge of inflicting her young cousins with the scars she bears. These are heroic women who experienced assault at the hands of another, and finally were brave enough to tell and seek help to overcome it: a journey in need of a guide, for sure. And when they saw others at risk, they spoke up even when the threat of loss for themselves was great.
Believe survivors. The Light of Truth shines where once there was shame. They should be heard, not silenced. Believed, not doubted.
For more information on how one recovers from this kind of trauma, consider pre-ordering Trauma Recovery: Sessions With Dr. Matt . You can find out more about the authors and the book on our website, drmattbook.com, and blog, drmattbookblog.com