Excerpt from Dr. Ava Cadell’s upcoming book: #ReclaimingMe – Loving Solutions for Sexual Healing
In order to free yourself of the burden of your sexual abuse, you need to tell someone who won’t judge you in any way. You want to be in a safe space to tell your story, which means you need to be sure that the person you tell can be trusted to keep your information confidential, if that’s what you want. You also need to be confident that he or she will treat you with the utmost respect while you’re sharing your story and describing the details of your suffering. Chances are you’ve already been judging yourself, blaming yourself and wondering why the abuse happened to you. Let the self-blame stop here, with the first person you tell. But, how can you determine who is the right person for you to tell?
Ask yourself these questions about the person you are considering talking to:
¬ Is he or she an empathetic person?
Tarana Burke, the founder of the “Me Too” movement, believes that empathy is the answer to the epidemic of sexual abuse. Empathy cuts to the chase, it gets right to the heart of what a survivor needs, which is the understanding of a fellow human being. The good news is that most people are capable of empathy and compassion.
¬ Is he or she a trustworthy person?
If you are alone with no family or friends who you trust, you could consider approaching a trusted member of the community, such as a teacher, a pastor or a police officer. You might also consider calling a crisis hotline. Hotline operators are trained to be nonjudgmental, compassionate listeners.
¬ Has this person supported you before?
If you’re lucky enough to already have a supportive friend or family member in your life who has already been there for you reliably in other ways, that’s a good sign he or she is the right person to approach.
Many survivors have a difficult time articulating what happened to them, as we’ve seen time and time again in the “Me Too” stories, where quite often the victim is realizing for the first time that the sexual encounter they had was actually abuse. In their minds, they had “normalized” the act of abuse, and yet definitely did not give their consent and couldn’t wait for it to be over. Obviously “waiting for it to be over” is not descriptive of a healthy sexual event, but it can be confusing to be confronted by someone who “wants you” so much that they’re willing to ignore your hesitation. It can feel flattering to be wanted so urgently, and oddly “mean” not to just give this person what they want. However, the after effect of abuse is generally some kind of self-destructive behavior, such as overeating that can lead to massive weight gain.
In my experience, this is a common reaction to abuse, and I’ve seen it again and again. This kind of self-sabotage can also occur after traumatic emotional events within an intimate relationship, like cheating, for example. It’s one of the many “I want to make sure I don’t get hurt again” strategies that our minds create as a defense mechanism.
One technique to combat self-sabotaging behavior like overeating is my Control Chart. It’s a simple two-column list of things that you have control over and things that you do not have control over. The chart helps in two ways. By looking at the list of things you do have control over, you gain an immediate sense of empowerment, a wedge of light piercing the out-of-control darkness. By looking at the list of things you don’t have control over, you are putting a name to the unknown and disorienting factors in your life. By naming the specific ways in which you feel helpless or adrift without recourse, you can begin to examine them, pull them apart and discover where you might be able to either gain some control back, or allow yourself to let go and move on.
You can brainstorm on these ideas with a therapist, family member or even a friend you trust. The Control Chart increases your potential to heal by bringing you face to face with your limitations. For one of my past clients, who we will refer to as Mindy, her Control Chart looked something like this:
Control Chart Sample
Things I Can Control
- Choosing to be positive
- My eating habits
- Rewarding myself
- Accepting dates
- Having fun
- Having or not having sex
- Giving love
- Receiving love
Things I Can’t Control
- That I was violated
- That violence is still a threat
- Other people’s perceptions
- How I might feel after sex with someone new
- Having things in common with others
- Other people’s baggage
Mindy couldn’t control the future, but the stranglehold she was putting on her own happiness was unsustainable. She was doing her best to control everything in her life, but ironically was losing herself along the way. We looked at the chart together and examined some of the items on the lists. One that caught her attention was that she had no control over other people’s perception of her. With our new insight into her sudden weight gain, she realized that she’d been subconsciously guarding against any unwanted advances from men. But the truth was, she actually had no control whatsoever of what any man might think of her no matter what she looked like, whether she gained a hundred more pounds, or lost all her extra weight.
Mindy almost started laughing when she realized that her attempts to control other people’s views of her were completely futile. She described that moment of discovery as liberating. After all, if you can’t control what other people think of the way you look, you may as well look the way you want, right? Instinctively, she knew that she couldn’t allow this past violent incident to ruin her life by letting it determine her health habits. But without any self-examination tools, it didn’t seem possible for her to act any other way. A simple inventory of control allowed us to steer her in the direction of healing.
Again, the lesson here is that healing begins when you reach out and talk about it.