Recovering from sexual abuse

By: Arthur Wenk , Sep 19, 2012

Is it possible to recover after being sexually abused?

Recovering from sexual abuse requires replacing victimization with empowerment.

Sexual abuse can have a devastating effect on the lives of its victims, to the point of destroying their will to initiate a program of recovery. If you are the victim of sexual abuse, the journey to recovery will likely be a difficult challenge. If you are the partner of a sexual abuse victim, you will be called upon for patience, understanding and sustained support for a period of time vastly greater than the recovery from any other injury. It would be prudent to work under the guidance of a skilled therapist with a specialty in this area. This article should not be misconstrued as a simple formula for quick healing, but rather an indication of the directions that healing may take. 

Sexual abuse has many forms, but all of them share the characteristics of helplessness, powerlessness and victimization. Recovering from sexual abuse requires replacing victimization with empowerment. You can take charge of your recovery.

1.  The Courage to Heal

The phrase “courage to heal” describes both the process of recovery and the title of a classic book to assist in the process. When you are ready to begin the process of healing, an excellent resource is The Courage to Heal, by Ellen Bass and Laura Davis, (4th edition, New York:  Harper, 2008). If the six-hundred-page volume seems too daunting to begin with, start with the first chapter. When any passage triggers unpleasant feelings, deliberately engage those feelings—this may take some courage—and then share this experience in a journal, with a trusted friend or partner, and with your therapist.

2.  Memories, flashes and intuitions

Memories of sexual abuse often differ from ordinary memories because those suffering the abuse frequently dissociate as a coping mechanism for getting through the experience. It’s not uncommon for memories to be partially or even completely repressed and forgotten. As a result, your memories lack the solid narrative structure of ordinary recollections, to the point that abuse victims frequently doubt their own powers of recall. The process of recovery may include brief flashbacks or dream-like intuitions of distasteful events that may tempt you to abandon healing altogether. Instead, work towards staying with these emotions—“feel your feelings”—as you process and discharge the painful memories.

3.  Body memory

If your abuse followed a repeated pattern, as is often the case, you may find that you avoid certain physical postures or touches associated with the experience. You may not be able to sleep in a certain position, for example, or you may feel uncomfortable being touched in a particular way. A skilled therapist can help you with exercises that heal, such as adopting a physical position intentionally, engaging the negative feelings that come with it, and then sharing and processing this experience.

4.  Physical intimacy

The experience of sexual abuse invariably affects one’s sexuality in one of several ways. Any kind of physical intimacy may be completely unwelcome or certain sexual behaviors may make you anxious or cause you to “numb out” or lose focus. Some respond with a heightened sex drive and/or promiscuous behavior. It’s important to take control of this part of your healing. If you are in a sexual relationship with a trusted partner, describe in advance the physical limits of sexual behavior, and then allow your partner to engage you within these limits. Over time healing allows you to push the envelope of your comfort zone, but always within the context that you remain completely in charge of the process, feeling safe, comfortable and focused in the present moment.

5.  Seek the assistance of an EMDR therapist

Sexual abuse is trauma, and the therapy of choice for trauma is EMDR (Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing). This technique departs radically from traditional talk therapy, which may in itself prove to be an attraction in dealing with an experience that you may prefer not to discuss. EMDR in itself will not produce a “cure” but it can markedly hasten the recovery process.

Healing from sexual abuse has occurred when you no longer define yourself by your history of sexual abuse. Taking charge of your healing from sexual abuse can help to liberate you from “victim mode” and make your recovery a process of empowerment. 

Arthur Wenk holds a doctorate in musicology and masters degrees in information science, music theory, and psychology.

Art‘s client-centered approach is based on empathic listening, helping clients integrate thoughts, feelings and actions, and assisting them to revise self-stories that have kept them enmeshed in problems: all in the interest of achieving mental, emotional and spiritual wholeness.

Art currently practices at Wilson Counselling Associates in Oakville, Ontario.