While Sexual Assault Awareness Month is a great time to talk about sexual assault as an intersectional, public health issue that affects us all, it can be triggering for survivors. For all of April, at least, we’re hearing other people’s stories. We’re talking about what sexual assault looks like. We’re talking about how damaging it is. This can bring up painful memories and even comparison. Survivors may also feel pressure to share their stories when they’re not ready, which of course can be difficult and upsetting.
In case you or a loved one has been struggling and doesn’t know how to cope, we talked to a couple of survivors about how they get through the month.
Being transparent and open
You may not be ready to talk about what happened to you, and that’s OK. But, when you’re ready — or possibly before — opening up about your feelings with a safe, trusted person can be a key to healing.
“When I realized that silence kept me in bondage, I realized I wasn’t really free,” said Sharenika Lashay Cummings, a survivor of sexual assault and sex trafficking, and the author of “Hustled Through the Pain.”
She shared she hated telling her story at first — it filled her with shame, and she worried people would judge or not believe her — but it’s gotten easier. “The more I told it even when I didn’t want to tell it, the more I got confident in telling my story, to the point now I don’t care what opinion comes up against me,” she said.
Going to therapy
Vaidehi Gajjar, a survivor and project coordinator for the United States Defense Health Agency, never thought she’d go to therapy, since talking about trauma is discouraged in her culture, household, and friend groups. But she did it anyway, and the help it provided was monumental for her. “When I finally became brave enough to step foot in therapy, specifically group therapy, I found the community that I had lost,” she said.
Locally, the Orange County Rape Crisis Center (OCRCC) in Chapel Hill offers free support groups for survivors.
Writing has also been helpful for Cummings. “If a trigger bothered me, I write it down,” she said. “Then I try to get down to the root of it … I do a self-reflection.”
Gajjar finds writing beneficial, too. In fact, she said it was one of the biggest ways she coped. “People now say that the results of my pain have turned out beautifully, but the reality is quite grim that my writing was simply a coping mechanism to reclaim some of the voice I lost that night,” she shared.
Turning your attention to other survivors
Gajjar wanted to give back — and she did it, big time. “Although I never found what I needed until much later, I decided to find ways to give back to other survivors,” she said. “Sometimes, it was as small as raising my voice against other injustices I witnessed, and then another time it was becoming one of the founders of a sexual violence prevention organization in the community.”
Confronting the trigger
For some survivors, realizing they don’t have to be a victim forever is powerful. Cummings, a confrontational, take-charge person, feels this way. “I speak declarations and affirmations over my life,” she said. “The opposite of what my enemy said.”
Some examples of things you could say to yourself include:
- I am strong and resilient.
- I can heal from this pain.
- I didn’t deserve what happened to me.
Changing the narrative
Some people feel most comfortable with the word survivor, and others prefer victim. Either is perfectly OK.
Gajjar prefers the former. She said, “For me, the biggest transformation I underwent is putting my former self behind me, and moving forward as a survivor and owning that identity without shame.”
For local support, you can contact the OCRCC. This organization offers a variety of support options, including a helpline, support groups, workshops, and more.
Ashley Broadwater is a recent graduate of UNC-Chapel Hill, where she studied Public Relations in the Hussman School of Journalism and Media. She’s passionate about mental health, body positivity, relationships, Halloween, and Dad jokes.