Recovery From Sexual Abuse
The sexual abuse of vulnerable adults and children happens far too often across the nation. Survivors who experience this trauma face a lifetime of emotional struggles and a decreased quality of life when they do not actively engage in the healing process. Seeking justice after sexual abuse is one of the biggest parts of healing for survivors. For some, justice means having their day in court and seeing their abuser reap the consequences of their actions. This is often done under the umbrella of criminal justice. Yet, civil action against an abuser also provides a sense of justice, especially when too much time has passed to press criminal charges.
If you are a survivor of sexual abuse, you are not alone. You also need to know that healing is possible. Many people, starting with family and friends and extending to complete strangers, want to offer you support and empower you as embark on the healing process. We have provided this guide to offer you information about the long-term impact of sexual abuse, how you can heal and rid yourself of some of the effects, and the ways taking legal action with a sexual abuse attorney by your side can help you with the healing process.
Why Healing After Surviving Sexual Abuse Is Important
RAINN (Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network), arguably the nation’s largest resource for survivors of sexual abuse and violence, estimates that a perpetrator sexually abuses a child once every nine minutes in the United States. Darkness to Light, a non-profit organization dedicated to preventing child sexual abuse, estimates that child sexual abuse is identified only about one-third of the time, and victims report even less. This means that the majority of those who suffered sexual abuse during their childhood are carrying the trauma with them while never taking any legal action against their abuser.
Oftentimes, survivors avoid feelings about the abuse and associated memories to function in daily life, and they believe it’s better to keep the past in the past. Yet, pushing the trauma deeper can still impact them, especially if they have certain triggers that bring unresolved anger, resentment, shame, and guilt to the surface. Examples of scenarios that survivors might experience, which inspire them to seek help from others to heal, include:
- Uncommon reactions to situations
- Continued struggles with feelings and emotions
- Sexual dysfunction
- New experiences trigger past traumas
Survivors of sexual abuse have found that recognizing their trauma, speaking about it with others, and seeking justice are essential parts of healing. Those who engage with the healing process can move past their trauma and live healthy lives and eliminate some or all of the struggles they have experienced when coping with their trauma on their own.
Long-term Impact of Sexual Abuse
Regardless of the age that a person experiences sexual abuse, the traumatic event(s) can impact a victim for years. Child victims of sexual abuse often suffer the effects of trauma well into their adult lives. The list below is a the most common ways sexual abuse can impact a survivor’s life but they can also be used as signs for sexual abuse too if your concerned about the well being of a loved one:
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Struggles with Relationships and Boundaries
RAINN estimates that more than 90 percent of childhood sexual abuse survivors were violated by someone who knew them or knew their family. Abusers often exploit their position of trust to coerce, manipulate, and groom their victims. When they violate a child or vulnerable adult, they have broken that trust. Also, some child victims keep abuse a secret to protect their families. This dynamic leads to difficulties trusting others and putting others’ needs first. Survivors often let those close to them invade personal boundaries because they do not believe they have the right to control their personal and emotional space, making intimate relationships especially challenging.
Anger and Rage
Some adult survivors of sexual abuse report struggling with anger. In some situations, survivors might be angry with an individual, typically the abuser, and in other cases, they might be upset with a higher power—their parents, teachers, or caregivers—for allowing them to be abused. Self-hatred is also an effect of sexual abuse. Survivors feel angry at themselves for their inability to stop the abuse.
Survivors most frequently report depression among all the possible long-term symptoms of sexual abuse. Depression is often associated with post-traumatic stress disorder and comes with a host of side effects. Those who are depressed sometimes struggle with sleeping too little or sleeping too much, changes in appetite, general sadness, and feelings of hopelessness.
Grieving and Mourning
Grieving and mourning are especially troublesome for adult survivors of childhood sexual abuse. When children suffer abuse, they lose innocence and trust, and the ability to enjoy normal childhood milestones and experiences. If the abuser was a family member, child victims also lose relationships with family members or must cope with a change in relationships.
Anxiety, Fear, and Memory
Anyone who suffers trauma can experience fear and anxiety. Some survivors of childhood sexual abuse carry such fear and anxiety that they suffer from amnesia or difficulty remembering the abuse they suffered. Amnesia as a response to extreme trauma occurs as a type of survival mechanism, especially for children. Also, children who were abused at a young age had not yet developed their communication skills, so they were not able to put their feelings and emotions into words. Part of the healing process may involve recalling suppressed memories that some survivors cannot remember.
Nightmares, Flashbacks, and Triggers
Children who experience sexual abuse sometimes have triggers in adulthood. These triggers, often associated with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), can incite memories and flashbacks to the trauma, causing the survivor to feel as if the abuse was happening at that particular moment. Triggers vary for each person but can include sights, sounds, smells, and touch that reminds the survivor of the abuse or their abuser. Some examples of triggers include:
- Fragrance or odor of the abuser
- Pap smears
- Sexual experiences with partners or spouses
- Vehicles like the one the abuser drove
- Any sensory experience that links the present to the past
Stages of Healing from the Trauma of Sexual Abuse
In recent years, the Catholic Church has taken heat for the multitude of clergymen who sexually abused children. The Archdiocese of Milwaukee put together a list of the stages survivors must go through to heal from sexual abuse, some of which don’t apply to every situation. Below is an overview of the process, which can help you or someone you love.
- Making the decision to heal. Once a survivor recognizes the impact sexual abuse has had on their lives, he or she must choose to heal, commit to the process, and make changes.
- Emergency stage. Some survivors have suppressed feelings and emotions rise to the surface and temporarily create havoc in their life. This is only a stage and it will not last forever.
- Remembering. As mentioned above, traumatic amnesia is a common response to childhood sexual abuse. Many survivors suppress large portions of their childhood, especially times when they were abused. This means survivors eventually remember the abuse and those who haven’t suppressed their memories, remember the feelings and emotions associated with their abuse.
- Acceptance. Even when survivors remember sexual abuse as a child, they sometimes do not believe it occurred. A crucial part of the healing process is accepting that sexual abuse actually occurred.
- Breaking the silence. RAINN estimates less than 30 percent of childhood sexual abuse survivors report the abuse or tell an adult about it during childhood. Sometimes children keep the secret because of shame and guilt. Other times their abuser has threatened to hurt loved ones if they tell. In any case, breaking the silence and having a voice can empower a survivor and help rid them of the shame and guilt associated with sexual abuse.
- Forgiving yourself. Abusers groom and manipulate their victims to believe that they caused or deserved sexual abuse. As adults, survivors must forgive themselves, understand the abuse was not their fault, and place blame on their abuser.
- Connecting with your inner child. Sometimes sexual abuse survivors are hardened by their trauma to the extent that they cannot feel vulnerable. Connecting with your inner child allows you to feel self-compassion, self-love, and intimacy in relationships. It also allows you to place more anger towards your abuser.
- Trusting yourself. Survivors of childhood sexual abuse struggle to listen to their inner voice or trust it because the trauma of abuse thwarted their feelings and intuition. Learning to trust yourself by acknowledging your pain and letting go of it is an important step in the healing process.
- Expressing anger. As mentioned above, survivors of sexual abuse sometimes struggle with anger issues. Part of the healing process is expressing that anger and using it to liberate you. This means pinpointing with whom you are angry. It might be your abuser, those who didn’t protect you from sexual abuse, or a combination of the two.
- Confronting your abuser. For some survivors of sexual abuse, confronting their abuser is a pivotal step for closure and healing. Not everyone needs this stage to move on with their life, but for some confrontation is a powerful tool.
- Resolving your inner conflict and moving on. These stages are not exact, meaning that survivors won’t all move through them in the same way, in the same order, or with the same success. The healing process involves repeatedly moving through the stages until you reach a point of stability. Your inner voice will guide you, and you will be able to come to terms with your abuse and your abuser, allowing you to move on with your life in a healthy manner.
How a Sex Abuse Lawyer Can Help You Heal from Sexual Abuse
Taking legal action against your abuser in civil court will not undo the physical and emotional injuries you have suffered as a result of sexual abuse. Yet, compensation for injuries and related losses can help to fund costly therapist visits, time off from work, and provide money to help you pay for expenses as you work through your trauma. Although a personal injury lawyer who has experience with sexual abuse claims will file the lawsuit for you, taking legal action can also help you proceed through some of the stages of healing. Qualified and compassionate lawyers do far more than push paper for sexual abuse survivors. Some examples of how a sexual abuse lawyer can help you heal from sexual abuse include:
- Helping you develop a support system of counselors, mental health professionals, and other advocates that are necessary for healing
- Allowing you to participate in the criminal prosecution of your abuser, if applicable
- Promoting the healing of your ability to trust by serving as a confidante who will protect you and advocate for you
- Providing a compassionate ear so you can tell your story
- Giving you a voice so you can confront your abuser and protect others from future abuse
- Holding your abuser and the people or institutions who didn’t protect you accountable
If you were sexually abused as a child or an adult, you deserve compensation for the harm you endured. The abuse was not your fault, and you don’t have to go through the healing process alone. Contact a compassionate sexual abuse attorney who can guide you through the personal injury lawsuit process while you focus on healing. Although approaches differ among survivors, many ultimately choose to seek out behavior therapy with a counselor, who can help them develop healthy mechanisms to cope with emotional and physical struggles related to their abuse, such as meditation, exercise, and building relationships with safe people. Some also choose to engage in group therapy sessions or join a support group for survivors and keep a daily journal to record their feelings and emotions. These healing steps, coupled with legal action, can make a massive difference in how you approach the rest of your life as a survivor of sexual abuse. To contact dolman Law Group about a free consultation on your case either call our Clearwater office at (727) 451-6900 or fill out a contact form online.