Sexual violence and trauma, how can counselling help?
Maggie Smith is a counsellor working with clients, most often women, who have been raped, assaulted or attacked in some way either in their childhood, adolescence or as adults. Here she discusses how counselling can aid the healing process.
Often, the attack will have been by someone they know and trust and will never be reported to the police. Each situation is uniquely different and exceptionally painful. It can happen to anyone, may involve varying degrees of violence and is traumatic and humiliating, leaving deep scars in the person whose body; freedom of choice and personal space has been violated.
What happens in counselling?
We listen to the client very carefully and try to understand where they are and what they’ve come through. Despite the fact we may have heard many such stories, it’s always shocking to be with someone who’s been through such trauma.
What can often help is normalising the fact “that bad things happen”. Because they do. It would be wonderful if we lived in an idyllic world without violence, power struggles, the need to control other people and with effective protection from the law. But, we don’t.
Not to blame
People who have such bad experiences often feel there’s something wrong with them, that they did something to make it happen and the truth is that such attacks are often random and opportunistic.
Of course there may be occasions when a client hasn’t “picked up on something” or were not sufficiently protective of themselves but the truth is that people who rape, bully and abuse do so because they can. Many people have had such bad experiences in their life, what’s important is how we can support them to best recover from such a traumatic event.
What to say?
Some clients want to tell their story, others don’t want to talk about the trauma itself but want to talk about how they feel now and how they can move on.
Usually, by the time they come to see a counsellor they’ve already made a decision about reporting their experiences to the police. Many clients believe it’s not only futile, but also opening themselves to further abuse by calling on the “due process of the law”.
Some clients want to consider options for punishment of the perpetrator and will report the incident in a limited way. Others may wait or join together with people who have received similar treatment from the same person, and proceed at a later date.
Moving on from shock
As time goes on, the shock of what has happened is acknowledged, assimilated and integrated into something the client has survived.
In time, I see people recover their sense of power and their trust in themselves having coped with something horrible. But, it can take much longer to gain back trust ‘”n the world”.
For some, fear can be a nightmarish companion for weeks, months and even years. Flashbacks are common and that wonderfully innocent sense of safety, security and trust in life may be buried for good.
Time and a courageous willingness to risk new experiences will help rebuild confidence and trust again.
What else can help?
Some clients find it helpful to write down an account of what’s happened to them. This can help some people to come to terms with the reality of what they’ve been through.
Other clients prefer to write a letter, which they don’t send, to their attacker saying what they’d like to have said to them or telling them how it’s affected them. It can be empowering, and very real, for a client to read these out in the form of role-play by putting the attacker in the “empty chair”.
Mostly, just talking about what’s happened does help people to recover their equilibrium and perspective again. This is especially true in talking to a professional since many people are reluctant to share the realities of trauma with family or friends for fear of hurting or upsetting them.
It can also allow people to repeat their account of what happened, or what they’re feeling now. Something which can be a part of the healing process, but which family or friends might find frustrating.
Very occasionally, we work with someone who wants to confront a perpetrator, who is known to them, in person. I would never advise anyone to do this unless they were absolutely sure that they were able to create complete safety and support for themselves.
This article originally appeared on My Mind Matters. Thanks to Maggie Smith, Head of the University Counselling Service, University of Kent, for granting us permission to reproduce this information.