The impacts of being sexually abused or assaulted as a child or young person can be different for each young person, depending on what happened, how quickly you got safe, and what kind of support you got afterwards. But it can be helpful to understand what you are feeling and why, and that you are not alone, that other people also feel this way.
What many young people tell us is that they initially blame themselves, even when there is no real reason to. This can be a way of just trying to make sense of what happened and keeping control – if you think it happened because of something that you did, then you can make it never happen again by never doing whatever that was again. But it’s never your fault.
Shame also shows up a lot – this seems to be partly because of the nature of the violation of those parts of you which feel precious – this private part of your body, your control over your own body, and your very humanness. It can feel like you don’t count for anything as them wanting something was more important to them than you. The shame is really on them, but if they don’t take accountability, it can feel like it lands on you.
Feeling frightened is common and makes sense – sexual abuse or assault is a breach of the unspoken social contract which allows us all to co-exist, so it can undermine your basic sense of safety in the world.
Being traumatised also happens for lots of survivors – this is when you get flashbacks – memories of what happened which flash into your mind and scare you all over again either in the day or as nightmares, become jumpy at little things as if your nervous system has no skin on it, and feel like your emotions are all over the place. Check out some info on how to manage flashbacks at dear em. It might not feel like its making much of a difference, but every little bit helps to calm your nervous system as most of us can’t tolerate this for long, so our minds start to protect us from it by encouraging us to avoid anything which reminds us of what happened and shutting down our feelings, so we just feel numb. When this is still not enough, we might find other ways to change what we are feeling – eating, starving, sleeping, not sleeping, using substances or self-harming.
Alongside all of this can be a feeling that you are keeping a secret – if you are traumatised it can be hard to put words to what happened, and often you don’t know who you can trust to tell – who won’t tell anyone else or post about it. Particularly if you expect to be blamed, and/or the person who did it to you has some power in your social or school world so people might side with them against you. Secrets are hard to keep, so most of us withdraw and stop talking to other people if there is a big secret wanting to make its way out. This makes sense in an unsafe environment to stop us being hurt more, but it doesn’t help us heal.
To heal, you need to be able to feel safe so your nervous system can calm down – safe from sexual assault or other violence, but also socially safe with people who won’t blame you or share your secrets. People who understand what you are feeling and can provide the emotional support you need to get your trust in the world back. People who value you and respect your need for autonomy and control. Sometimes friends and family can provide enough of this to get you through, but not always. So, seek help when you need it from us or from safetotalk outside Auckland. Whether you need a few conversations or ongoing counselling, this can make the difference between hurt and healing.