Rape is a devastating trauma-a crisis-in one’s life. Regardless of the circumstances of a rape, it can take a long time to truly feel “better” again and move forward. Some people never move forward as they are unwilling or simply unable to process what happened to them. And, sadly, after feeling that they have healed and recovered, certain triggers can easily bring victims right back to square one.
The Initial Aftermath
This stage of rape recovery immediately after the rape is more like “disaster clean-up” than healing-it is also known as the emergency phase. During this time, which can last days, weeks, or years, the victim is simply accepting the fact that this has happened to them. They are coming to grips with reality. During this time, a decision must be made to heal, to tell others about what happened, and to get help. It takes work and effort. Victims who were raped as children can often repress the memories of their abuse. For them, the initial aftermath phase can be delayed years, even decades. Victims who are raped as adults deal with other practical issues like being able to get to work, pay bills, take care of their children, and the effects of the rape on their marriage or sex life.
Processing the Rape
This phase of recovery for most survivors lasts a lifetime, although it will get easier to manage with time. As Frances Driscoll writes in her poem “This Will Happen” from her book The Rape Poems:
Why did rape capture you. Why did it capture your life.
When your hand was cut, why did your hand bleed.
Processing means that the victim integrates the rape into their life experience, into the fabric of their identity. In processing, rape becomes a part of who the victim is, whether that’s who they want to be or not. The victim doesn’t necessarily need to “make peace” with the experience, but they do need to regain their power in relation to it, to understand it, to see its impact on their life and their person.
Other people may not understand why the rape victim may seem to get stuck in the processing of the rape. This is why during the processing phase, getting counseling can be really helpful and speed up healing. However, one of the things that makes the question of, “When will I recover from my rape?” so unanswerable is that counseling really only “sinks in” when the victim is ready for it, when the time is right. Some people are not ready 20 years after being raped; other victims may be ready six months afterward. What’s more frustrating is that you really can’t do anything to make the time right or to make yourself ready. Certainly a willingness to be ready is a huge part of it, but so is having the ability to experience and navigate through each gory detail of the pain.
How Long Will it Take?
This question is difficult to answer. In talking to a former sexual assault counselor, she says:
“In my experience, those who are raped as adults and those who are raped as children have very different timelines for recovery. Most child victims cannot and will not begin to process their rapes until they reach adulthood. Sex is not even on their radar. They need some time to grow up and enter that world before they can really even look at what happened to them. I would also say male victims struggle with recovery more than female victims as they have more social stigmas to worry about. I also tend to notice that people who were already fairly confident and empowered before their rapes deal with them a bit better than those who were already battling low self-esteem, depression, or other abuse issues.”
While the answer to this question is elusive, all you can do is keep putting one foot in front of the other, be prepared to fall down on occasion, and take a recovery break from time to time where you’re not going to counseling, reading about rape, or journaling about what happened. Put it aside periodically, then pick it up again when your batteries are charged and you’re ready for another painful surge forward. If you haven’t taken the first step yet, consider reading this article your first step and give yourself a pat on the back!