The following excerpt has been taken from “The Road to Recovery: You & Rape” – created and distributed by the Rape Crisis Cape Town Trust. You can download the complete booklet in English, Afrikaans or isiXhosa, from their website: rapecrisis.org.za
It’s important to realise that the feelings you experience after being raped are a completely natural response to a terrible event. You aren’t going mad, nor are you over-reacting – no matter who tells you so. There’s a good reason why you’re not able to function in your normal way. There may be good reasons why your reactions are quite extreme. Some rape survivors may need professional help but even so, finding your own coping skills and your strengths and inner resources will still be stages you go through along the road to recovery. Although your road may have been steeper and covered by rocks, it is still the same road and it leads to your recovery.
You are also not alone. Many women and men have been raped and know how you feel. Your feelings won’t last forever. If, however, you feel they are lasting far too long, or that you are not able to cope, you should contact a rape counsellor, a social worker or a psychologist to help you by keeping you company, pointing out some of the landmarks and helping you carry some of your burdens.
You may, on the other hand, not experience any of these feelings at all. This does not make you abnormal either. For some people, rape is something they can integrate and understand, and the experience passes quite quickly. They should not be judged for that either. As well as having serious legal and medical consequences, rape impacts the body, the emotions and the mind. You therefore need to pay attention to all three of these levels when working through what has happened to you.
Below we outline some ideas that many rape survivors have found useful. Please note that none of these suggestions are intended to replace the treatment or care suggested to you by a doctor or counsellor. However, these ideas can easily be used together with a doctor’s or counsellor’s recommendations to help with your recovery. All of them are things that you can do for yourself if there’s no one around to help you.
Taking Care of Your Body
Take care of your body by:
- eating healthy food
- doing some exercise every day
- trying to get enough sleep or rest
- taking care of your personal hygiene
- attending to the medical risks associated with rape
If you’ve lost your appetite and don’t feel like eating, try to eat small amounts at a time. Then try to eat more often. Eat foods that are good for you and easy to eat and digest, such as soup, toast or yoghurt, and that help the body cope with stress. As women we get bombarded with advice about our diets, and we are not suggesting you go on any kind of diet. There are comfort foods – such as chocolate and fish and chips – that come highly recommended. These foods may comfort you for a time. However, you may find yourself overeating, gaining weight and feeling miserable about that. You might also incur other health problems such as high blood pressure or high blood sugar that could be very damaging in the long term. In time, it is possible to find the balance between eating healthy food and comforting food.
Rest and Sleep
Rest as much as you can, especially if you are not sleeping well at night. Lie down for 20 minutes in the afternoon, just sit quietly in a chair or put your head down on your desk for a few moments just to be quiet and do nothing for a short while and stop expending energy. However, it is best if you can lie down, as this helps the cortisol (the stress hormone) in your system to recede. One survivor told her counsellor that she used to close the door of her office and lie down on the floor for ten minutes in the afternoon. Do not underestimate the power of a small lie-down or a brief nap.
To help with sleeping problems, try to take a half-hour walk each day if you can – or better still a run. A good, strong sprint can help like nothing else to get your body to process adrenalin. It is also very effective in calming anxiety, a major cause of sleeplessness. You don’t need to run far, for long or even frequently – just enough to tire you out and get your heart to pump strongly for a short burst. Don’t eat, drink or smoke shortly before going to bed, as these are all stimulants, including both tea and coffee. Rooibos tea, hot chocolate or warm milk and honey are more soothing drinks before bedtime. Don’t panic if you can’t sleep – get up and do something for a while such as reading or watching TV, and then try and sleep again later. Wake someone up to talk to if need be, or phone a 24 hour service such as LifeLine or Rape Crisis.
If lack of sleep is making you feel very agitated or exhausted, consider getting a prescription from a doctor for sleeping pills. These pills only start to be addictive if you are taking 10mg a day for longer than two weeks. Some prescribed drugs can be taken for even longer periods quite safely, so don’t worry if you’re taking them for shorter periods. They can be very useful in restoring a regular sleeping pattern, but they can be dangerous if misused. Your doctor should monitor these drugs and their effect on you to help you use them correctly.
Be kind to your body and do things that make you feel cared for and good. For example, if you have a bath, add a generous handful of rock salt, table salt or Epsom salts to the water and soak for at least 20 minutes. A sprig of fresh rosemary or lavender in a bath is also helpful. If you wash in a basin or shower, use coarse salt as a body scrub. All of these things are cleansing and soothing in an emotional as well as physical way, which many survivors feel they need.
Soaking your feet in a basin of warm water or taking a hot water bottle to bed on a cold day can be very comforting. Try and find other things that will comfort your body and that will soothe the rest of you too.
There are also certain forms of exercise such as running, yoga t’ai chi, swimming and dancing that can really help your body cope with stress.
If you are experiencing one or more of the medical consequences of rape and you are taking PEP (post-exposure prophylaxis) medicines, if you are worried about sexually transmitted infections or if you are recovering from injuries, then you need to take care of your health and keep all the appointments you have at the clinic or with your doctor, taking all you medications.
Caring for Your Emotions
One of the hardest things to do after being raped is to endure the emotional pain and suffering you feel as a consequence. These feelings are very important. They can be the key to your healing, even though they hurt so much that all you want is for them to stop.
Give yourself space and time to feel. Pay attention to your feelings. Trying to push them away could make your healing take longer. Try to express your feelings and share them in some way. Talk about them to your family or friends or write them down somewhere. Many rape survivors add to their pain by trying not to be angry, scared or vulnerable, and by worrying about how they’ll appear to others. The fact is, we all have a right to these emotions and freely expressing them.
Some feelings, such as pain, anger and rage, can be very frightening for us and those around us. Here are a few clear rules that you can follow in order to make it safer to feel them:
- Do not harm yourself
- Do not harm anything valuable to you
- Do not harm other people
- Do not harm anything valuable to someone else.
The last thing you want is to regret something you have done. If you are worried that you might not be able to stick to these rules and that you could lose control of your emotions, contact a counselor or a doctor. You can even go to your local hospital emergency unit for help. There’s nothing to be ashamed of in experiencing a strong reaction to an extreme situation.
Don’t be afraid of anti-depressant medicines. They are tools to help you – no more and no less. As with everything, gain as much information as possible in order to help you make the best decision.
If you have laid charges, get people who know about the criminal justice system to help you with your legal case, especially the trial and testifying in court. Also stay in touch with your investigating officer and follow up on the progress of your case month by month. The more you know about these processes and procedures, the better you will manage the role you are required to play. Try to tell people what you’re going through. People like to feel needed, even just as listeners. If you don’t want any advice, be sure to let them know that. Cry if you have to. And, most of all, if there is something to laugh at, laugh. There is nothing better than laughter for healing. You can recover, you can even become stronger than you were before, now that you have survived being raped – and recovered.
Looking After Your Mind
Many rape survivors have found that positive thinking helped their healing process. It may require deliberate effort on your part to stop self-criticism and negative or frightening thoughts. In order to transform your thoughts, it can be helpful to list negative thoughts you are having and then to try to rephrase them positively (for example: “no matter what I do, I’ll never be able to overcome this.” Reframe it to: “Although this is difficult, I can find peace and be restored to my former self.”). This exercise does take some time, as it is difficult to reframe thoughts when you are feeling bad. Just keep trying until you find a way.
This may seem like a pointless exercise but the fact is that writing something down and deliberately trying to change the tone of your thoughts can have a lasting effect over time, even if it doesn’t have an immediate effect. The goal is not to cheer you up. The goal is rather to shift your pattern of thinking, creating a small foothold for a greater healing process. You won’t be able to do this until you are ready, so if you cannot do it yet, just move on and try again a few weeks later. It is a way of helping to shut down your feeling brain and boosting the power of your thinking brain, so that they begin talking to one another again.
Educate yourself. Recovery from rape is about making your own decisions, and the best way to do so is to learn as much as you can and be as well informed as possible about the medical, legal and emotional aspects of rape.
Remember your faith in life. This can be a religious faith, your own spiritual beliefs about life or your personal philosophy. Your experience of being raped could challenge this faith, or your faith could be a powerful source of support to you. Go to those who have helped you keep faith in life before, read the things that previously helped you and go to the places that help you keep your faith. Prayer and meditation, spending time in nature, listening to hymns and sacred music, or reading the Bible or other religious books can all be very helpful. Remember that you are not alone. Join or form a support group and meet other survivors. You’ll be able to help them and in turn get help from them. In this country, with its high rape statistics, it is very possible that someone you know has been raped and will understand a part or all of what you are going through.
Growth Through Recovery
There are certain tasks you can perform to increase your recovery. A trained counsellor could certainly be of great help to you in doing so.
A word of caution: it is important not to see this as some kind of a standard. If you don’t feel like helping yourself, then you are not ready to and it would be pointless to try. If you want to, this would be a good time to see a rape counsellor who could help you, but even that is something that takes courage and you should try it only when and if you feel ready to do so. Remember: there is no one way to recover; you will find a way that is uniquely yours.
Phases of Growth and Recovery
There are three phases to recovery from trauma (Harney & Harvey, 1997), namely:
- Restoring safety
- Remembering and mourning
- Reconnecting with others
In the first phase your main tasks are to make sure you feel safe again. You need to do whatever you can to ensure your bodily and physical safety and then you need to do whatever you can to make sure your environment is safe. So, for example, if you are struggling with alcohol abuse and you live with people who behave violently, that will be the most important thing you have to deal with before you can recover from rape. Drinking less when you feel like drinking more and finding a safer place to live become the priority tasks of your recovery. You need to take care of yourself and your body, mind and emotions. If you make yourself the priority and think carefully about what safety means to you and what you can do to feel even safer, you will go a long way towards your own recovery.
Once you feel safe enough to stop and take a look at what happened to you, the tasks in the second phase are to go back and remember and talk about the rape. Once you can do that, you will also go back to the way it made you feel. Sharing that with someone you trust can help you make sense of it. If you have no one to talk to in that way, you can write about it in a diary or notebook. Telling the story and finding new ways of seeing the rape encounter are very important. Each time you tell the story you will see something about it that you did not see before. You will even begin to notice a change in how you are reacting, compared with a few weeks ago. As the pain becomes more and more bearable, you will see how your priorities change and you can begin to focus on other things. One thing you may begin to see now is that while you may never go back to being the same as you were before the rape that is not really the goal. The goal is to be different, to have been affected by the change – perhaps you will now begin to see that you can be more than you were before. Take your time and go at your own pace here.
The task of the third phase is to seek out and connect with the world beyond your own thoughts and feelings. You need to find new meaning in a world that is both safe and unsafe, that contains both people who wish to help you and people who mean you harm, a world that both influences you and is influenced by you. This last point is important, because the trauma of rape makes you and those close to you feel very helpless. And yet you have by this stage done so much to restore your sense of control over your life. You can learn to be hopeful about the future, strange as that might seem, and you can learn to value the changes in your life even though they have come about through suffering.
For information on healing and recovering from rape please visit the Rape Crisis Cape Town Trust website at: http://rapecrisis.org.za/ – alternatively download “The Road to Recovery: You & Rape” booklet from http://rapecrisis.org.za/rape-in-south-africa/you-rape-booklet/
Rape Crisis Cape Town Trust. (2011). Healing. In The Road to Recovery: You and Rape (pp. 53 – 59). [Online available from: http://rapecrisis.org.za/wp-content/uploads/2011/11/you-and-rape-booklet-english.pdf [Accessed: 21 July 2015].
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