For individuals who have been sexually assaulted or otherwise traumatized, recovery is a process that is more complex and takes longer for some than for others. If a sexual assault has been perpetrated against you, you can expect to feel a wide variety of emotions that may or may not make sense to you. Give yourself time to heal and understand that most everything you're feeling is probably similar to what others in similar circumstances are feeling. To help you through the recovery process, here are some other ideas and actions to consider.
Steps toward recovery
One way to feel more in control after a sexual assault is to make your own decisions about what feels comfortable at each stage of your recovery. You may want to consider making choices about the following:
- Everyday routines – Some people find that keeping up their usual work or other routines provides a diversion or gives their lives structure at a difficult time. Others find it more helpful to cut back on some activities and take things a little slower for a while.
- Medical care – After certain kinds of sexual assaults, you may want to see a health care provider right away for treatment of medical conditions that may have resulted from the assault, such as sexually transmitted infections or pregnancy. In addition, a sexual assault forensic examination can provide important evidence to be used if charges are brought against the attacker. This kind of exam may not always be necessary, but is an important consideration if you intend to participate in the investigation and court proceedings.
- Mental health care – Research studies show that people usually have better and quicker recoveries when they quickly engage this important kind of care. Most treatments are aimed at reducing symptoms, and designed to help you cope more effectively. You may be able to access mental health care by yourself, by requesting a referral from your health care provider, or by asking a Sexual Assault Response Coordinator or Victim Advocate for assistance.
- Legal action – Some people do not want to face their attacker in court. Others find that participating in the investigation and subsequent legal action sometimes helps them in the recovery process. The Department of Defense respects each person's choice in how they wish to engage the military justice system. For persons making an Unrestricted Report, SARCs and VAs are always available to assist during the investigation and prosecution. The DoD also has a Victim and Witness Assistance Program that can be very helpful in navigating the military justice system. A representative of this program is available in the Staff Judge Advocate's office on most military installations. Victims of crime may also be eligible for certain kinds of compensation from state governments, depending on where the crime occurred.
- Other kinds of counseling and support groups – Face-to-face or telephone counseling may be helpful in coping with physical and/or mental health symptoms after an assault. A professionally facilitated support group also allows you to talk with other people who have experienced a sexual assault. You can find counseling and support groups through your SARC, victim service programs through local police departments and organizations for people who have been assaulted. Your medical care provider can also give you a referral to the kind of counseling that interests you.
- Support network – Consider walking or riding in the company of others. You may also want to arrange to have check-ins with designated people so that they know you got home safely. Asking a trusted friend or relative to stay with you for a while, or staying with one of them can help you feel safe. However, if you'd rather be by yourself for a while, that's okay too.
- Self-defense classes – The skills taught in self-defense classes can help you feel more in control. The workouts in these classes are also good for relieving stress.
- Stress reducers and hobbies – Meditation or yoga can help to reduce stress and setting aside extra time for hobbies can help to distract you from unpleasant thoughts and ease stress.
- Alcohol and drug abuse – Some people turn to these substances as a means to reduce their symptoms or improve their mood following an assault. To the contrary, you are more likely to become addicted and experience home and work problems when using such substances. Only take medications as directed by your physician or mental health provider.
Recovery from sexual assault is a very personal matter. It doesn't occur on a strict timetable. Some people even have delayed reactions to an assault and go on for a while as though nothing happened. Try to remember that healing does not happen in a straight line. It's perfectly normal to start to feel better and then have a setback. Even though a setback can make you feel like you haven't made progress, you are likely to see steady, gradual improvement in the long run.
Recovery may be impacted by several factors:
- Earlier traumas – A more recent event can trigger memories of a past trauma. Because earlier trauma can complicate recovery, it is best to seek the advice of a professional therapist in these circumstances.
- Depression or another mental health condition – Sometimes a pre-existing problem can worsen the effects of a sexual assault. As a result, recovery can require more time and more concentrated effort.
- Anniversaries or other reminders of the assault – Being reminded of the trauma can cause a person to grieve again over what happened. However, these periods of grief tend to become less intense and pass more quickly with each anniversary and passage of time.
- Losses or other painful events – More time for recovery may also be needed if you are dealing with other major life changes, such as the birth of a child, a death in your family or serious financial difficulties.
Talking with others about your assault
Talking with people about what happened can be very helpful after a sexual assault. While many victims are hesitant to recall memories of the assault, talking and writing about the incident can often provide a feeling of empowerment over it. A trained therapist is best suited to help guide these activities. However, the support of trusted friends and relatives can also help you make sense of what happened. But think carefully about whom you want to talk with and what you want to say. If you are a military member who has made a Restricted Report, your confidentiality may be jeopardized if the person you tell discloses the matter to someone else. You may also want to avoid discussing the assault with people you don't know well, except in a support group. Choosing a safe place to talk about very painful issues, such as a therapist, chaplain’s office or a close friend's living room can be helpful. Share only what you feel comfortable sharing.
If you need to reach out for support, Military OneSource can provide information and links to additional support for victims of sexual assault. If you choose to seek medical attention or you wish to meet with a medical counselor, consult TRICARE for military treatment facilities, network providers and coverage information. You can also seek support and referrals through SAPRO and Veterans Affairs.