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At the Time You Brushed It Off, But Now You Realize It Was Sexual Assault

Kaelyn Forde
Photo credit: Westend61 - Getty Images

From Cosmopolitan

The #MeToo movement, and the reckoning it has brought in Hollywood, politics, and the media, is a welcome change from decades of silence and stigma. But as more survivors come forward, you may experience the uniquely modern phenomenon of realizing that an uncomfortable event you shrugged off in high school or college was actually sexual misconduct or assault—and the needling—or worse, the horror—you felt in your gut at the time was totally normal.

There are real ways you can support yourself through this complicated process, particularly in the face of a nearly non-stop triggering news cycle. Ahead, experts offer their advice on how to heal.

First, don’t judge the response you had at the time.

In 2019, we're much more fluent in talking about the nuances of sexual assault. “It's not uncommon that people would feel differently about these events over time, even if they had recognized them as assault originally,” says Keeli Sorensen, vice president of victim services at RAINN. You are allowed, at any point in your life, to recategorize an event from a “boys will be boys” situation to misconduct.

It's also worth mentioning that delayed recall of traumatic memories is not uncommon, and drugs and alcohol can make things fuzzy. So don't dwell on how you reacted in the moment.

Then speak with a professional about the assault.

Therapists and professional counselors are there to help survivors work through trauma, and they can also help you navigate talking to your family and friends about the assault.

If you’d like to report your assault to the police (legal action is your right!), check the statutes of limitations and the definition of sexual assault in your state. RAINN has put together a comprehensive guide on what to do after a sexual assault, including how to report it to the authorities.

Take the time to tell yourself what happened.

Beverly Engel, a psychotherapist and author of I’m Saying No!, suggests saying the words out loud to yourself or even writing it down. “Say exactly what you want to say, and then notice what happens. Notice your body, notice the reactions you’re having. If you experience a lot of anxiety or fear, take care of yourself." Go on a run or do your favorite form of self-care.

If you’re paralyzed with fear or anxiety after practice-sharing your story, "remind yourself that there are good reasons why you didn’t report the assault at the time: It wasn’t because I was a coward. I was worried about what people would think about me,” Engel says.

If you're feeling angry, be angry.

Anger is normal, period. “Ask your body, ‘What do you need to do to release the anger?’” Engel says. “Some people want to throw things, some people want to scream, some people want to tear things up and break things,” explains Engel. It’s all okay. Throw pillows, rip up old papers, smash soda cans, scream in the shower—seriously, scream. According to Engel screaming can provide “a physical release that people need, especially because a survivor maybe couldn’t scream at the time [of an assault]."

Know that it’s okay to tune the eff out.

Coverage of sexual assault in the media can be a lot. Be mindful about what you see and when. Turn off your breaking news alerts so you don’t have to be barraged with graphic details in a 7 a.m. push notification. If you are hit with triggering news unexpectedly, Sorensen suggests having a plan to recalibrate: take a walk, listen to your favorite music, or reach out to a friend.

And that includes blocking people, too.

The person who assaulted you doesn't need to be your Facebook friend. “You should feel 100 percent confident in blocking someone on social media, not partying with them anymore, or not being friends with them,” says Krystine Batcho, PhD, a professor of psychology at LeMoyne University. Removing people from your life can be tricky (and sometimes scary), so it's a good idea to consult a therapist on the healthiest way to go about it.

And speaking of tricky, handling your mutual friends, if you have them, can also be complicated. "If you really believe someone has been a good friend over a long period of time, you should feel comfortable that they're not going to abandon you now," says Batcho, so be honest. "Discuss [the assault] in terms of the aftermath or what the impact on you has been."

Join the movement.

Becoming an advocate and an ally can make you feel empowered. “Disclosing or discussing the incident in an honest and sincere fashion is going to be helpful to others,” Batcho says. “Think of yourself as being part of a movement, a movement that has taken stigma and shown it for what it was: distortion, unfair and irrational.” Ending that stigma helps every survivor who comes after you.

If you or someone you know needs help, call the National Sexual Assault Hotline at 800.656.HOPE (4673).

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