Resilience from Trauma Can Be Built Through Education, Sharing, and Hard Work
by Rachel Thompson, TIR Regular Contributor
One of the main reasons I share my story about surviving childhood sexual abuse is so others won’t feel alone. But, there’s another reason: I didn’t understand (honestly, nobody did) growing up the short-term and long-term effects this kind of trauma would have on me.
It was why I checked my windows every night. Why I was convinced my next-door neighbor dad (my abuser) would break in and kill me or my family. Why I had panic attacks. Why I developed migraines soon after, that I still have to this day. Why I became acutely self-conscious and extremely perfectionistic.
Why I still have many of these experiences, decades later . . .
The psychiatric and medical community has only recently begun to understand how developing brains are affected – and this is forty years after my experience occurred.
Rape Culture – Ugh
I realize that asking the general public to have any concept of what trauma does to children (and even adults) is asking a lot, yet we are constantly bombarded by people who demand sexual abuse survivors ‘get over it,’ which is unbelievably callous as well as ignorant. And yet, not surprising.
An example from Twitter: “Getting picked last for dodgeball can be just as traumatic as rape, but you don’t see me whining about it on social media.”
Another example I received on Twitter (as I am writing this post): “Oh ffs. P*ss off with the trauma,” in response to sharing the visual you see above:
As I mention in Broken Places: just because survivors are open and share our experiences doesn’t mean we are ‘whining.’ The issue here is most people have zero concept of trauma’s biological, chemical, and physiological effects on surviviors’ brains and bodies — and now I understand why this is . . .
Unless you are a survivor, why would you care to find out?
Non-survivors make assumptions about what it’s like to be us, when they know nothing whatsoever about it. Invalidating and minimizing another’s criminal trauma, our lived experience, the narrative we never sought to own but now have branded on us for life, somehow makes them what? Feel better about themselves in some way?
Rape and childhood sexual abuse are not only criminal but are actually also considered crimes against humanity. So, comparing sexual assault to being picked last for dodgeball is a false construct. And kind of weenie.
There’s a certain strength of character to survivors that non-survivors will never experience, and good for them. I hope they never do. We are still here and we are still fighting every day in ways they cannot fathom. Making negative comments about us is so… cute. I want to sit them down and ask politely, “Do you know what we have been through?” with my best resting bitch face.
Comments that aim to denigrate us do nothing more than show a complete lack of character, as well as reinforce our magical powers.
As with any situation, if it doesn’t affect you personally, you likely have zero interest in it. Therein lies the issue: why are people who are not survivors commenting on what survivors SHOULD do? How we should feel? How we should react?
Why do non-survivors care about how survivors live our lives? What’s it to them?
What Happens To Survivors After Trauma
I‘ve been on a mission to learn and share as much information as possible about what trauma (any kind of trauma) does to survivor brains since I started writing my first Broken book back in 2010, so I could understand why I have daily flashbacks, anxiety, nightmares, depression, migraines, an acute startle response, and more.
You can’t look at me and know that I’ve had daily flashbacks of being sexually abused for FOUR DECADES. That I haven’t been able to have a man hold me while I go to sleep in any relationship, ever, until my recent guy. That I wake up screaming in fear. That if my children slam a door, I jump three feet and inexplicably cry for an hour. That I want to tell people “live through this, motherfucker” when they compare the trauma of breaking a pencil lead to being raped.
But, I don’t say any of that. Because I don’t want to bring people down. Because I don’t want people’s pity, or for them to view me as fragile. Because there’s more to me than ‘survivor.’ Because they don’t deserve my resting bitch face.
Because they are not worthy.
Writing about my experiences as a survivor has helped others understand they are not alone. Connecting with professionals who study and treat survivors daily is incredibly eye-opening, so I want to share six articles and studies which will help you, survivor friends, understand why you feel what you feel.
I know I’m on the right path because rape culture, ignorance, and cruelty still exist. I don’t know why people spew venom on sexual abuse survivors when we did nothing wrong, but they do—which is not our problem. However, we can educate and arm ourselves with scientific data on how trauma affects us.
Information About Trauma You Can Share
So, the next time you run across Dodgeball Dude or I-Don't-Get-Trauma Girl, please send them one of these articles.
The CDC-Kaiser Permanente Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACE) Study is one of the largest investigations of childhood abuse and neglect and later-life health and well-being.
The original ACE Study was conducted at Kaiser Permanente from 1995 to 1997 with two waves of data collection. Over 17,000 Health Maintenance Organization members from Southern California receiving physical exams completed confidential surveys regarding their childhood experiences and current health status and behaviors.
The CDC continues ongoing surveillance of ACEs by assessing the medical status of the study participants via periodic updates of morbidity and mortality data.
More detailed information about the study can be found in the links below or in “Relationship of Childhood Abuse and Household Dysfunction to Many of the Leading Causes of Death in Adults,” published in the American Journal of Preventive Medicine in 1998, Volume 14, pages 245–258.
There is SO much information here. Start with the basic assessment, then move on to what it means. In particular, you can learn more how survivors are prone to these disease states and why (I was particularly interested in headaches, as I’ve suffered from debilitating migraines since my teens):
PTSD Chart and Data
Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder is a psychiatric disorder that can occur following the experience or witnessing of a life-threatening events such as military combat, natural disasters, terrorist incidents, serious accidents, or physical or sexual assault in adult or childhood. You can read more about the symptoms of PTSD and what to look for here.
This chart is particularly enlightening – by breaking down what happens to each section of the brain (referenced in Dr. Burke Harris’ TEDTalk above), you get a much better idea of why survivors behave and react the way we do. As I say when I share this chart, ‘this is your brain on PTSD.”
It’s important to note the incidence of PTSD is higher in survivors of rape, CSA, and sexual assault than other types of trauma.
- 94% of women who are raped experience symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) during the two weeks following the rape.
- 30% of women report symptoms of PTSD 9 months after the rape.
- 33% of women who are raped contemplate suicide.
- 13% of women who are raped attempt suicide.
- Approximately 70% of rape or sexual assault victims experience moderate to severe distress, a larger percentage than for any other violent crime. (Source: RAINN)
Boys and Girls are Affected Differently
Traumatic stress affects the brains of adolescent boys and girls differently, according to a new brain-scanning study from the Stanford University School of Medicine.
Among youth with post-traumatic stress disorder, the study found structural differences between the sexes in one part of the insula, a brain region that detects cues from the body and processes emotions and empathy. The insula helps to integrate one’s feelings, actions and several other brain functions. The study is the first to show differences between male and female PTSD patients in a part of the insula involved in emotion and empathy.
Abuse and How it Affects DNA
Does this sound like science fiction to you? Well, it’s not. “Recent evidence from molecular studies has shown that telomere length - a measure of cellular aging - is strongly influenced by a broad spectrum of stress. Telomere erosion might be accelerated by traumatic stress, and traumatic stress has shown to be associated with the risk of developing chronic diseases like cancer, cardiovascular diseases, and immunologic conditions.” (Journal of Trauma and Treatment)
Not only does abuse affect the survivor’s DNA (telomeres, to be specific), but can also affect future generations!
Pretty mind-blowing stuff. The link above is really scientific and not light-reading, I’ll warn you right now. But, I feel it’s important to include here because it’s a new and fascinating area of study.
Survivors Are Worthy
More than anything, I want any survivor who is reading this to know they did nothing wrong. We didn’t sexually abuse ourselves. I understand so much more now about living with the effects of trauma — with the fear, shame, and guilt, as well as the mental and physiological effects mentioned above — and now take an active part in my own recovery, something I never understood was even possible before.
We can all address and work through these burdens with various types of therapies, medicine, research, reading, and connecting with other survivors (please, join me every Tuesday on Twitter for #SexAbuseChat with survivor/therapist Bobbi Parish). Please remember that there’s no shame in asking for help. None of us can do this alone.
You are worthy. We are worthy. Of respect, love, and understanding. Of help. Ignore those random, ignorant trolls unless you can use them to help spread your message, as I have. Then by all means, have at it.
Troll on, little weenies. Troll on.
If you need help now, go to RAINN.org. GET HELP 24/7: 800.656.HOPE (4673) or LIVE CHAT
About the Author
Rachel Thompson is a regular contributor to Transformation is Real.
Not just an advocate for sexual abuse survivors, Rachel is the creator and founder of the hashtag phenomenon #MondayBlogs and the live weekly Twitter chats, #SexAbuseChat, co-hosted with certified therapist/survivor, Bobbi Parish (Tuesdays, 6pm PST/9pm EST), and #BookMarketingChat, co-hosted with author assistant Melissa Flickinger (Wednesdays, 6pm PST/9pm EST).
She hates walks in the rain, running out of coffee, and coconut. She lives in California with her family.