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Ways to manage the feelings attached to sexual assault

By Christie Melhorn, January 18 2018 — 

I felt pretty numb when I first heard about 21-year-old sex offender Connor Neurauter being allowed to delay his 90-day sentence — given for physically and emotionally abusing a minor — to finish his semester at the University of Calgary. This was enabled by a B.C. judge and a U of C policy rendering sex-offending students untouchable if they committed assault before becoming a U of C student. While Neurauter will not be allowed on campus this semester, the University’s lengthy silence and rigidness in protecting, justifying and adhering to their problematic policies is troubling and disappointing. This situation generated an understandably explosive response but my personal reaction took a few days to unravel.

As someone who has experienced sexual assault, I instinctively knew it was wrong but was initially severed from my underlying frustration. On Jan, 12, the university issued a statement claiming it does not tolerate sexual violence and strives to provide a safe space for those who have experienced it. However, the statement greatly lacks compassion towards those it claims to protect. It neglects to acknowledge how the situation it describes as “complex and challenging” — and its handling of it — has resurfaced emotions and memories that are more greatly complex and challenging for those impacted by sexual assault.

As unfortunate as these circumstances are, the protest and defiance against the university has at least demonstrated incredible wide-spread intolerance for sexual violence. It’s also encouraged me to confront unresolved abuse that I experienced in 2013. It took place late on a freezing winter evening in a Calgary neighbourhood unfamiliar to me. I was assaulted while scraping the windshield of my car as it warmed up, which I ended up getting locked out of with my dead cell phone inside of it. Shortly after that night, I starting seeing a counsellor at Calgary Communities Against Sexual Abuse (CCASA) — Calgary’s leading sexual abuse education service — who offered me incredibly kind and practical support at no charge. Working with her helped me manage the intense shame and lack of understanding expressed by some of my friends and family.

I stopped attending sessions before working through the extent of my trauma. I wasn’t ready to fully face it then and it still spills over into my everyday life. Every winter morning when I warm up my car, I make sure to leave one door open or a window rolled down to prevent getting locked out. If I forget, panic shoots through me and I frantically rip open the nearest door. Every time I scrape my windshield, I wonder for a split second what happened to the scraper I hurled into a snowbank the night of the assault. I now compulsively charge all of my electronics and get anxious when my phone falls below 50 per cent or if I leave it in my car. I’ve become accustomed to those feelings and to dissociating when cognizant of them, which most of us experience as sexual assault survivors. It’s unfair and exhausting.

I recently started seeing another equally insightful and compassionate counselor at CCASA. Revisiting the experience isn’t pleasant but it is cathartic. And as sexual assault intersects with an array of our life experiences, I’ve found these coping mechanisms very helpful and relevant to a range of my mental health struggles. I hope that you can also find solace in them:

Practise patience:

The phrase “time heals everything” is ignorant of the emotional work involved with healing. However, time certainly is needed during that process. Whether your sexual assault was recent or occurred many years ago, the impact is long-lasting and your feelings are entirely valid regardless. Healing is not immediate or predictable. Unexpected triggers can resurface memories and emotions attached to your trauma. These are often sensory, such as seeing someone who resembles your assaulter or a scent associated with an assault. Other times, they are emotional or cognitive and can arise seemingly out of nowhere. While this can be uncomfortable and painful, you should honour your feelings. As my sexual assault occurred quite some time ago, I struggled with perceiving my emotions as ‘expired.’ However, there is no time limit on how we process and recover from trauma. Be patient with yourself and understand that your subconscious will weld new insights and emotions around your experience. This doesn’t mean that your thoughts and emotions define you. But they will come and go as you continue to grow.

Feel what you need to:

Everyone experiences and recovers from sexual assault differently. However, it involves an overwhelming series of emotions. For me, embarrassment, guilt, anger and disgust congeal together in a ball that shifts from stomach up into my throat. Shame and accountability are unfortunately common in response to sexual assault. It is not fair or necessary for us to bear blame — but being told that while you’re feeling these things can be frustrating. Many authoritative figures in my life sincerely tried to help by saying “You shouldn’t feel bad! You did nothing wrong.” While they were right, I started feeling guilty for feeling guilty. Being burdened with extra emotions on top of what you’re feeling can foster even more stress and self-criticism. Just because we shouldn’t feel guilty doesn’t mean that we won’t or that those feelings are illegitimate. Respecting your emotions rather than stifling or rejecting them will help them pass.

Some emotions may also become particularly explosive. The fear of talking about my experience would constrict my throat and stomach, inducing a debilitating headache. My anger around it once spurred me to storm around my neighbourhood kicking and punching pretty much anything that I wouldn’t be fined for. The sadness has also left me feeling like a dead weight against my bedroom floor. No matter what you’re feeling or when you experience it, it’s completely fair and normal.

Be aware of excessive distractions:

Sometimes, it’s easier to rely on tangible coping mechanisms than to work through such complicated and intangible sources of pain and discomfort. Material items can be helpful coping mechanisms. Carrying worry stones or a fidget device can soothe anxiety and ease tension. Going for a run between classes or having a warm cup of tea with each meal can be comforting and alleviate stress. But sometimes we can become excessively reliant on these means to distract us from trauma. This is completely understandable and normal. You are not immoral or a failure for doing so. However, being aware of this can help spare you potential harm and facilitates self-understanding.

Substance abuse is probably the most widely recognized and addressed form of coping. This is especially true for university students who are culturally stereotyped as partiers and are a large target demographic for bars and liquor companies.  However, this dependency can manifest in many other seemingly harmless but potentially dangerous ways. It can be anything from compulsive cleaning, shopping and even studying. While I was a U of C student, I was obsessive about my grades. I would leave friends’ birthday parties to edit essays or would spend the night wrestling guilt for not doing homework. My self-worth and sense of stability rested on letter grades and percentages. My course load in my last semester was light, leading to a fixation on diet and exercise. I was tortured by a restrictive eating disorder and excessive exercise that caused me to lose my period for six months, putting me at risk of developing osteoporosis and hypothyroidism. Even worse, I missed out on almost a year’s worth of memories with friends and family.

I carry a lot of shame and guilt for enduring that. However, beating myself up for beating myself up only deepens the bruise. Showing myself compassion has been difficult but even practising it is empowering. Seeking control and reprieve is a normal human behavior. While not all coping mechanisms may produce visibly concerning symptoms, the stress and anxiety that can come with performing them is equally straining. If you are experiencing something reminiscent of this, next time you want to run extra 30 minutes after already being out for an hour or brush your teeth for the fifth time that day, try to slow down. Breathe and ask yourself, “What is truly bothering me?” You don’t need to have an answer but even just taking a moment to step back can be grounding.

Sexual assault is an intensely personal and painful experience. We all have unique stories and ways of managing them. Even if mine don’t resonate with you, I sincerely hope that sharing them at least reinforces you’re not alone. I highly recommend reaching out to CCASA by phoning (403) 237-6090 or emailing info@calgarycasa.com for more support.

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