Thanks to our guest blogger Natalie Ziemba for this entry.
Healing takes time. There is no step-by-step prescription for how to recover after a traumatic event such as sexual violence. Everyone has a different experience of trauma, which means everyone also has a different experience of healing. For many survivors, though, the path to healing seems to resemble a spiral.
Although the exact details are different for each victim or survivor, a spiral of healing generally looks like the picture.
Immediately after a traumatic event, many people feel stuck focusing on what happened. Rather than thinking through their schedule for the day, planning for an upcoming weekend trip, or being able to live in the moment, it sometimes seems as if nothing else exists but the trauma. “What did I do? What didn’t I do? How could I have stopped it? What happens next?” This often occurs over a period of days, weeks, or sometimes months after someone has been sexually assaulted. This part of healing looks like that dark black spot at the center of the spiral, circling the same thoughts and same experiences over and over again.
For most people, something eventually shifts to take them out of that tight, central spiral. Survivors can focus on class for the entire period, sit through a movie without being triggered, or make plans with friends and feel engaged and connected the entire time. At this point, the rings of the spiral start to space out. A bit more time has passed since the assault, and there is a bit more space to think about things not connected to the trauma between the memories that come up. As even more time passes, perhaps years or decades, the vivid memories of the assault fade even more. Survivors can go months or years without feeling triggered by the assault or returning to memories of what happened.
What is important to notice about the spiral of healing, though, is that it always circles back to that dense spot where past memories feel currently present. For many survivors, this is brought on by flashbacks. A flashback is when a trauma that happened “there and then” feels like it is happening “here and now,” and is usually triggered by something in the environment, like a smell, song, or image. For many people, flashbacks get better over time, coming up less frequently and feeling less intense when they do happen. Therapy may help in this process. However, flashbacks are unpredictable. Decades after a traumatic event, flashbacks can happen unexpectedly and suck a survivor right back into the middle of that dense spot where the trauma feels like the only thing that matters.
Circling back to the dense, dark spot is not an indication of failure or weakness, although it can be frustrating and exhausting. Moving through the dark to the spaciousness, again and again, is what healing and resilience look like. In that complicated mess is strength, liberation, and restoration.