5 Ways to Heal After Sexual Violation

Feb 25, 2018 at 10:00 a.m. ET
Image: Getty Images/Design: Ashley Britton/SheKnows

Now that millions have come forward with tales of sexual harm, it’s important to talk about healing options.

With no clear road to follow, how do we each find our customized path? I thought I had the answer to this question after years working as a sexual healing workshop leader and coach. That’s why I was shocked by the extra courage I needed to have and choices I needed to make to mend my own abuse.

Painful sex was how pedophilia had lodged itself in my body, and there was no relief despite decades of standard talk therapy. Right after my honeymoon, I decided to fix myself by investigating other avenues. Over the next five years, I saw 15 different kinds of practitioners and tried 30 varied modalities, including trauma therapy, sex therapy, physical therapy, eye movement desensitization and reprocessing, hypnosis, private tantra lessons, a visit to the site where I was molested and two naked workshops.

More: The Impact of Sexual Harassment on Mental Health

I developed agency on this adventure, and I learned enormously from each expert. Eventually, I realized, however, that these specialists could only see my problem through their particular lens. The only “expert” who had the full picture was me. Once I understood this, I could steer my recovery more deliberately and fully heal.

These five steps for restoring health with knowledge, wisdom and authority are drawn from my journey and work with survivors.

1. Diagnose yourself a little

I could have saved years (and tons of money) if I had better diagnosed my trauma at the beginning of my odyssey. When I’m working with clients, I have them put their problems into three categories: passion (including strong and numb emotions), sex and power. Try this yourself by making three long lists that you’ll whittle down to one main obstacle from each section; for example, chronic anxiety, low libido and a nonstop mental tape, saying, "You’re not good enough."

Looking at these narrowed-down challenges, ask yourself: What needs the most attention at this point in my life? Working on multiple issues simultaneously can be overwhelming, so pick a lane for the moment. Trust that you know more than you think you do about what’s right for you right now.

2. Discover your options

Once you know where you’d like to focus, it’s easier to discover help. If it’s anxiety you’ve chosen to work on, you could explore medication (with a licensed professional), meditation, yoga, running, volunteering or many other modalities. Don’t get discouraged if you don’t find a remedy straight away. One trick I discovered on my path was pretending I was an investigative reporter assessing the benefits of each approach. This lifted my spirits and made me feel more in charge.

This mindset can also assist you as you search for a therapist. “Trust your gut instinct about how you feel around this person,” says Tali Elitzur, a sexual violation therapist and founder of Aha! Moment, a nonprofit that provides services to survivors. “If they are not the right fit for you, then move on. Keep looking for a therapist that feels right to you.”

3. Rewire your brain & body

In his book Rewire, psychotherapist Charles O’Connor says, “When we do anything repeatedly, with focused attention, our nerve cells will grow new connections.”

Nearly every professional I consulted with utilized this method, having me form new neural circuitry. This was how they defined healing. Following their advice, I retrained my pelvic floor muscles, calmed my nervous system, constructed erotic architecture in my head (giving myself a sex drive) and planted self-affirming thoughts in my subconscious.

If someone you’re working with asks for homework, jump at the chance. And be consistent. Just like physical therapy (another rewiring initiative), these exercises often carry the bulk of the load in our growth.

4. Turn your healing into a habit

Aside from what’s prescribed by others, you can create your own recovery practice using just five minutes a day. Think of it as a complement to more analytic processing you’re exploring with your shrink or as a way to have greater control over your progress.

Let’s say you’re wrestling with anxiety (going back to our earlier example); mindful breathing for 300 seconds every day might be a useful tool. For lack of desire, you could read a page of erotica every Wednesday evening at 7:30. Negative thoughts can be drown out by affirmations recorded on your iPhone, played back at bedtime. The point is: Turn your activity into a habit. Over time, habits become automated, making positive change easier and more possible.

MoreOur Narrow View of Sexual Assault Is Letting People Get Away With It

5. Be shameless

Too often, survivors are ashamed of how our violation has affected us, especially if we’ve been damaged in intimate places. Our coping mechanisms embarrass us or we (mistakenly) blame ourselves. Author and academic Brené Brown has a solution: “…shame can’t survive being spoken,” she says in her groundbreaking book Rising Strong. Sharing the twists and turns of your recovery path with even one other person can kill a lot of demons.

#MeToo gave women the courage to say out loud what was done to them. Let’s stand bravely together, saying, "As a result, this is what happened…” Maybe we’ll start another movement through these declarations. Or maybe we’ll simply share tips and hold each other’s hand.

I can’t think of anything more powerful than that.

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