Caitlin Gallagher
April 26, 2018 11:32 am
Tharakorn via Getty Images

The #MeToo hashtag helped to expose how pervasive sexual misconduct is, but sexual assault is bigger than any one movement. April, in particular, is a time to remember that, because it’s Sexual Assault Awareness Month. In order to help others feel less alone as they heal, we spoke to 14 women who have experienced sexual violence and they gave us their best method of coping after sexual assault. While there’s no one way to handle yourself after a sexual assault, we hope these women’s experiences can help you if you’ve been abused.

According to the National Sexual Violence Resource Center, 1 in 3 women and 1 in 6 men in the U.S. have experienced a form of sexual violence. Statistics also show that 91% of rape and sexual assault victims are female. So while both men and women are affected by sexual assault — and male victims should be listened to and respected — we specifically focused on how women have coped.

These 14 women opened up to HelloGiggles as a way to help others this Sexual Assault Awareness Month. No matter where you are in your coping process, these testimonials will remind you that you’re not alone and that things will get better.

1Advocating for reform.

“I was raped and robbed at gunpoint in 1993 and the trauma from that night haunts me even today. Anger was my constant companion for many years. I was angry at the man who raped me, angry at the police for not finding him, and angry at myself. While I can only reference my own journey, exorcising that anger and hate allowed me to venture on the path toward healing.

Although I still have my moments, advocating for rape-kit reform and sharing my story in an attempt to create a paradigm shift have allowed me to heal. I recognize that every survivor’s journey is different, but the amazing people I’ve met on this new path have filled me with joy and gratitude.”

— Natasha, 45, New York, founder of Natasha’s Justice Project and author of the new memoir A Survivor’s Journey: From Victim to Advocate

2Sharing love and empathy.

“I was only 5 years old when I was raped for the first time. I could not comprehend what had happened to me at the time, so I tried to ignore it and hide it from everyone. As I grew older, I turned to drugs and sex in order to numb the pain of my trauma. Of course, those actions only made me suffer more.

I was sexually assaulted a few times during my early 20s. [And] I was raped again about six and a half months ago. That was by far the most challenging experience I’ve ever had to endure. I didn’t leave my bed for about four months and lost over 20 pounds. Dealing with severe PTSD and a panic disorder is enough to drive anyone insane, especially since most people do not understand what it’s like to attempt to free one’s self from the shackles of mental illnesses and trauma. Fortunately, I discovered some methods to ensure I will become a functioning member of society again, and I won’t allow my trauma to define who I am.

I began eye movement desensitization and reprocessing (EMDR) therapy. I’m blessed to have an amazing therapist. With his guided therapy, I should be capable of conquering my PTSD.

Becoming in tune with my Buddhist spirituality has been one of my greatest tools. I practice a various forms of meditation daily. Compassion meditation allows me to focus on spreading love to all, even those who have abandoned and shamed me after my assault. It also permits me to keep my rage under control. Mindfulness meditation allows me to control my panic disorder, because it clears my thoughts and prevents me from worrying about the future.”

— Lindsay, 28, Colorado

3Opening up.

“Writing is one of my favorite coping strategies for anything, but other than that, I honestly think the thing that got me through it was telling the police right away. I know that not everyone has the privilege to do so. But because I did, I think that got me through it. Afterward, I was very open about it and I believe if it weren’t for me telling them to begin with, it would have definitely been very hard to open up about it. And it helped that I had a really good support system. But just opening up about it got me through it the most.”

— Iza, 18, Illinois

4Finding the words to tell her story.

“I experienced childhood sexual abuse when I was 12 and 13 years old. Afterward, I wanted to keep it a secret at all costs. I tried so many bad coping mechanisms that didn’t work — self-harm, drinking, blocking the experience out, and acting as if nothing had happened. I didn’t get help or tell anyone (after a few disastrous attempts failed). And none of that made the pain and darkness I felt inside go away. All the bad would burst out in terrible episodes before I managed to get it under control again.

That all changed when I began to talk about what had happened. At first, it was so hard to get any words out at all. Sometimes I would only manage a sentence or two before falling silent again. The shame nearly ate me up. But as I found words to describe what happened in my terms, I began to feel empowered. The more I talked about it, the better I felt. After many years of talking and talking and talking, I know this is what helped me cope with my assaults the most. Today, when I am reminded of my abuse, I talk to someone I trust until I feel better. Even if I repeat myself several times.

Survivors, know this: You are strong. You survived something terrible and are surviving every day. There will be good days again. Many, many good days. I promise.”

— Nicole, 29, Germany

5Going to counseling.

“I was not taught the proper way to cope with sexual abuse, which in turn lead to a downward spiral of all the wrong ways to heal. Some of my coping mechanisms included promiscuity, drugs, and even thoughts of suicide, but the one I found to be profound was counseling.

I had many attempts at counseling, and between 2011 and 2017 — when I really decided to address and deal with the fact that I was abused — I had four counselors. It took growing, accepting and, most of all, commitment to get proper healing.

I remember my counselor telling me to be prepared because I was about to open Pandora’s box. As I went through weeks of trying to open up, I found myself having anxiety attacks. One was so bad I ended up going to the emergency room, but that didn’t stop me [from going to counseling]. I was committed to healing and becoming a better person. Counseling saved my life and allowed me to heal the proper way.”

— Delashawn, 31, Texas, author of the blog Speak Our Truth

6Pausing in peace.

“When I was young, I was petrified of the dark. Maybe that’s why I was more scared of the monsters in that underground crawl space than of the man who repeatedly molested me there. I was frozen in between two evils — oddly feeling safer with the monster that I knew. I would love to say that I was strong enough to fight that man off, or run away, but that didn’t happen. I was just a child. I let him decide when it was done. I merely just survived through it. For so long, that pain and anger have been my immobilization.

How do I cope now? Surprisingly, I stand still and let my feelings in each moment pass. I give fear, anger, anxiety, sadness, all ranges of emotions, time to feel. Then I move to action or let them go by choice — not by nature’s reflex.

Listening to Deepak Chopra and Eckhart Tolle, reading spiritual journals and books, and practicing yoga have all helped me to find myself and practice the pause. I know that my immediate reaction to anything is one with fear, so I wait, then think logically (instead of emotionally), then speak or act. So it’s therapy of my mind, on my terms.”

— Judy, 45, New Jersey

7Using the arts for expression.

“I had many opportunities that helped me with coping: therapy, focusing on school, etc. But I’d say the most impactful and empowering voice I have is the arts. I do community theater, where I can act, sing, and dance out my emotions in a positive safe space — which I think is crucial to the healing process, having a safe space. There is something truly profound when you can let go of your pain, mentally and physically, through speech and movement onstage.

The theater always provides a stage for healing, and creating and sharing stories — that’s what it’s meant to do. I think in juxtaposition to other forms of healing, the arts and theater provide a physical and mental stage for victims to share their truths.”

— Brooke, 21, Nevada

8Faking it.

“I can’t remember the first time I was sexually assaulted. Not because I was knocked out or drunk, but because I was a baby. I do know it happened again and again until I was 11 years old. I didn’t tell a soul until I was 15, and by that point, I had developed PTSD and suicidal depression. I spent my entire teenage life fighting against mental illness and the shame of what had been done to me.

I was 19 and finally clear-headed when I was assaulted again by a stalker who had seen my YouTube videos. I’m now 23, and while the road to recovery was rough, I’ve learned to separate what happened to me from who I am.

To get this far, I had to accept a few things. Firstly, that karma is a lie. Bad things happen to good people for no reason. There is no great, fair balance. All we can do is make the most of what we get.

Secondly, that to heal, we must pretend we’re not hurt. I leaned on my friends, but in public, I learned to act as though I wasn’t in pain. Pretending to be happy allowed me to make new connections and gain new opportunities, which helped me become [truly] happy.

Thirdly, that misery breeds misery. When I was in absolute despair, all I wanted to do was reach out to people who were in a similar place. I wanted friends who could sympathize with me. I wanted a network of equally suffering peers. Now I know that when you’re struggling, you need to surround yourself with people who have already healed. We need people who will pull us up and away from our anger and sadness, not [those] who will dwell in it with us.

After I was assaulted, I forgot how to hold a conversation. I was constantly tense and anxious in social settings. People would recognize my stress, but they wouldn’t know how to interact with it. As a result, I ended up largely friendless. Behavioral therapy changed my life. Over the course of a few months, I learned how to separate my body language from my inner turmoil. I learned how to act confidently, speak loudly, and laugh. Those skills helped me build up incredible new connections with people. Those connections, in turn, helped my mind heal. I faked it until I became it, and it worked.”

— Lena, 23, Ireland, creator of www.lenaklein.com

9Praying and faith.

“First, being able to confide in a very small circle of confidants who I knew wouldn’t judge, or even ask more questions than I needed them to, was EXTREMELY helpful. A small, intimate circle who could be there to simply support, listen, and help strengthen as needed. Particularly as I experienced moments of remembering and/or reliving that moment. Particularly since I knew that I would continue to see the person who assaulted me.

My other coping strategy was prayer and faith. Prayers that eventually I would be healed emotionally from the assault, and faith that over time deliverance would happen for me. Eventually, in time, it did. And with deliverance came empowerment to want to support other women who’ve experienced the same. Particularly with an understanding and realization that assault is a form of attempting to take our power. And the manifestation of taking that power would continue the longer I stayed ‘stuck’ in that horrible experience. With empowerment, I decided to take my power back!”

— Errika, 45, Georgia

10Helping others in need.

“The trauma of sexual assault isn’t an experience that you can ever really ‘get over,’ but you can get through it. We aren’t accountable for the damage that someone has done to us. But as survivors, we are responsible for our own healing.

Living in the age of the internet, I utilized Google to find resources of support and help. Not everyone can afford a therapist, but there are facilities that charge on a sliding scale, based on your income. I even sought continued therapy through an iPhone app called BetterHelp, where I was able to speak to a licensed psychologist via telephone or text, with extremely affordable monthly rates. I also participated in online forums, reaching out to other survivors to offer compassion and empathy, while also learning from them during their own healing process.

It was difficult for me to summon the courage to share these deeply painful experiences with my inner circle of friends. What if they judged me or didn’t understand? I didn’t want to face that level of scrutiny. But then, I realized, this is MY story to tell, and those who truly love and respect me will want to learn of the adversity that I endured, which shaped the woman I am today. Once I began opening up to others, I discovered that many of them also suffered some form of abuse or assault in their own lives.

Sometimes, part of our journey toward healing is in the act of helping others in need. So I opened myself up to my friends (even strangers) and invited them to a safe space to share their own pain with me when they were ready. And [to offer them] my compassion and comfort, as a fellow sister-survivor.”

— Nasiha, prefers not to disclose, California

11Speaking out.

“I find not blaming myself for what happened to me makes it easier to cope with life. How could I be to blame for such a horrible thing that happened? I speak out about what happened to me. No one spoke out to me. I wanted to meet someone who had been through the same ordeal but couldn’t find anyone.”

— Shaneda, 43, Ireland

12Finding purpose.

“When I was 7 years old, I was molested. For years I had low self-esteem. I felt broken, used, and like trash. Because of the abuse, I began to abuse myself physically, sexually, mentally, emotionally, spiritually — anyway that I could because I felt unworthy. I abused drugs and alcohol for years. Even when I became a mom, I still felt useless. I was so broken that it affected my parenting. I was a high school dropout and a woman who thought sex meant love. I was a classic case of abused child turned abused woman. I attracted men who would hurt me. They were emotionally unavailable and sexually disrespectful.

I can’t say I remember when the ‘change’ took place. But I will say it happened and I thank God it did. I found a therapist who truly cared about me as a person. I then discovered EMDR, which is a psychological practice of reprocessing memories for trauma patients. I began that form of therapy, which made me confront the memories and emotions I felt from the abuse.

It was hard. I was raw and felt the same way I did at 7 years old. But it began to help me. I also left the man who was abusing me. I enrolled back into school for the fifth or sixth time and obtained my college degree. After that, I started to lose weight and focused on myself. For once in my life, I was on the right track.

I started doing yoga, fell in love with the practice, and became a yoga instructor. Once I learned the true meaning of yoga, my soul felt full. I had my ‘a ha’ moment, [realizing] that I needed a purpose in life. Yoga is my purpose. It instilled the spiritual, mental, and physical practices that I longed for.

If I can offer anyone any words of healing, I would say: find your purpose. Anything that hurt you has an equal opportunity to advance you. I’m now a yoga teacher who specializes in trauma-informed yoga for abuse survivors, and I obtained my degree in human services and [a] Masters in psychology. You may feel alone, but you’re not. You’re on a journey. Healing takes time and what was meant to break you will make you.”

— Shanelle, 41, Ohio

13Meditating.

“The number one method for helping me cope was meditation. I’m really lucky that I have a wonderful support system and always have people who are there for me, but I realized that there really wasn’t much they could do to help me. I was also traveling a lot, so therapy was out of the question. And unfortunately, while traveling for hockey, I was sometimes in places where I’d have PTSD panic attacks and not have anyone to go to. With my heightened PTSD and anxiety, I was really looking for a way to stay grounded because at one point, I was just locking myself in bathrooms at rinks and crying.

I’d always wanted to meditate but had never really gotten around to it. I finally downloaded an app. They had specific packs to try for anxiety, depression, etc., and I started doing that. It isn’t so much about what pack you choose, but just about the practice that trains your mind to hyper-focus on something — like your breath — that in turn really keeps you grounded and is a technique you can use if you’re sad, having a panic attack, etc. I’ve been doing that for two and a half months straight and it has really helped me get a better grip on my emotions, so that panic attacks don’t run my life like they used to.”

— Jashvina, 26, New York, sports writer who has shared her story on Medium

14Returning to dance.

“In the weeks and months that followed my assault, I had trouble finding anything I felt I was still good at. Everything I did and every person I touched seemed tainted with the anger and filth of what I had been through. I couldn’t find solace in the people, places, and things I loved, and those people, places, and things were having quite a difficult time dealing with the ragged tragedy that seemed to be left in my soul.

I decided to return to something I had no choice but to do well. I have taken dance since I was a toddler, studied it my entire life, even taught it to children when I was ready to leave my instructor’s lessons. This was something I could do well without thinking. Before I knew it, my headphones were on and I was pouring every emotion into my muscles. All of the hollow, ugly, horrific bile I felt about my attack, and about myself after it, came out in movement.

I could begin to feel things without flashbacks, as focusing on dance kept me grounded. Eventually, my emotional outbursts of twirls and spins became actual, completed dances. I had accomplished something. I was productive.

Soon I was looking at myself in the mirror again, and before long I could hear my beloved dance teacher’s words in my ears: ‘One goal is all it takes to accomplish. You have love in your heart, and you are awesome.'”

— Roselyn, 41, Tennessee

These interviews have been edited and condensed.

Let the strength of these 14 women remind you that you’re strong — and that even if it doesn’t feel like it, you will find a way to heal.

If you or someone you know has been a victim of sexual assault or violence, you can contact the National Sexual Assault Telephone Hotline at 800.656.HOPE (4673).

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