“Just like the lotus we too have the ability to rise from the mud, bloom out of the darkness and radiate into the world.”
During the last year I´ve had the privilege of leading the first support group for survivors of sexual trauma at Sinews. It was an intense and enriching experience that deeply touched me and I will try to share a little bit of the magical experience with you through this article. I will not only use my own words but also those of some of the participants who sent me their own written accounts of how they experienced the group. I hope that those reading this article will get a feel for what we shared every Tuesday evening.
To start off, I think it would be helpful to really understand what sexual abuse or trauma is, this way we can understand to whom this group is directed. Sexual abuse refers to a sexual act forced upon a woman, man or child without their consent, it is an act of violence that the perpetrator uses against someone they perceive as weaker than them with the goal of obtaining pleasure by controlling and humiliating the victim.
Relevant data on sexual violence from the National Sexual Violence Resource Centre in the U.S.A shows that 1 in 5 women and 1 in 71 men will be raped at some point in their life. The number of men who suffer sexual aggressions increases to 1 in 16 when talking about the student population. Furthermore, 1 in 10 women has been raped by an intimate partner and 8 out of 10 victims knew the person that sexually assaulted them.
This statistical information is relevant for two main reasons: 1. It reveals that sexual abuse isn´t something exceptional that happens to an unfortunate few, in reality it is a social problem that occurs with frighteningly high frequency. 2. It serves to debunk some of the myths that we tell ourselves about sexual abuse and sexual aggression.
Culturally, we have painted a picture in which sexual aggression happens to girls that are not careful, it is always violent, and is usually perpetrated by a stranger. However, this happens in only a minority of cases. Usually, there is already some sort relationship established with the attacker, there is some trust in that relationship and the aggression it is not necessarily physically violent. It is more insidious and manipulative than we might think.
So, with these facts in mind, understanding how trauma affects the human brain and how common emotions in survivors of sexual abuse are the feelings of being alone, judged and misunderstood, this group found its reason for being.
In order to better understand the experience of the group, I´ll start by explaining the way in which our group functions: it is a structured group with the goal of providing the members with a greater understanding of trauma, the psychological consequences of victimisation, and the process of recovery. We undertake a total of 10 sessions, each session has a similar structure and focuses on a different topic, for example: safety and self care, or anger. It is strongly recommended that attendees of the group also participate in individual therapy, it will be the combination of both experiences that will deeply help the healing process.
Each session started with a quick check-in to share how the week had been for everyone, this was followed by a 5/10 minute relaxation technique, with the rest of the session dedicated to discussing and sharing experiences related to a specific topic relevant to overcoming trauma. Lastly, we distributed voluntary worksheets to be completed for the following week. We would always finish with another check-in to evaluate how everyone had experienced the session and to ensure the participants well-being. Understanding and knowing the structure of each session helped participants to manage the anxiety of the unknown, as did knowing each week’s topic in advance.
I have just outlined a very functional description of our meetings, however a much more emotional description was given to me by a participant: “It’s almost as if we all came in with Band-Aids on, took them off for an hour to expose and survey our wounds, and then managed to put them back on with a kinder, healthier adhesive that would carry us through to the following Tuesday when we would be able to safely let our wounds air again.”
A goal of the sessions is to create a support group where participants can share and feel understood by others going through a similar experience. Sometimes, survivors don´t feel understood by friends and family, they feel they have to mask their true feelings or they feel they have to be very careful with how they express themselves. The idea of the group is to provide a sense of belonging to a space where there is no judgment. In the words of one of the participants: “The group provided community, and focused on demolishing our feelings of isolation, providing hope in that we are not alone in our recoveries”. “The knowledge, the camaraderie, the trust, the laughter, the tears. It was a room free of any compounding shame or guilt that we survivors already feel so often”.
Not only is the group a safe environment, guided by a mental health professional, there are also specific rules in place to ensure everyone’s personal and emotioanl safety. As an example, one of those rules is that we don´t share specific details of our own traumatic past experience but focus on the healing process in the present. (It is recommended that said individual experience is worked in individual therapy).
“I have been doing trauma related work for 4 years now, and this was the first of its kind that didn't allow any of us to disclose specific, personal events. This kept it professional, scientific and gave a comfortable and needed distance from our own specific traumas. This made it easier
to learn the facts about general trauma and trauma work. To be honest, at first I was a bit sceptical - a therapy group without talking about my own unique experiences and hurts? How could this be empowering or helpful? But as I attended the first couple sessions I understood the great wisdom in that. It creates distance from one’s own pain and triggers and trauma, thus allowing the healing to take place from a different angle.”
I cannot put enough emphasis on the bravery that is necessary to take that first step and come to the group - imagine how scary and overwhelming it is to share your inner fears and intimate experiences with a group of people. Those days before actually starting the group are beautifully described by one of the participants: “I had minimal exposure to healing from sexual trauma in a group setting and had no idea what to expect from another one, particularly in another continent. I worried about how we would approach topics and share as a group. I worried about not having started on the first day and being behind and disconnected from the other group members. I worried about the possibility of being engrossed in a means of recovery that went against what I’d learned in LA. I worried about language barriers. I worried about comparing my experiences to others. I worried about being triggered. I worried about content and quality. If there was something to worry about as my first day of group approached, trust me, I worried about it. Diligently. In hindsight, to say I was pleasantly surprised that none of my worries came to fruition would be an insult of an understatement. What I found in that group was something that I couldn’t have ever imagined “
However, once the group started a special kind of magic happened, and the group healing started. The members started bonding and sharing, and in that simple act of hearing and helping someone else with a similar experience, one’s own healing also happens. The realisation that “I´m not alone and that it´s ok to not be ok” starts to take form. Sometimes all we can ask is that, while we struggle to rise from the mud and bloom into a lotus flower, we not be alone. That is what the group is for.
I cannot stress enough how grateful I am for the brave women that attended this first group and how enriching this experience was for all of us. Observing their interactions, how friendships were forged, and the way in which they guided and helped each other is something I will always cherish.
Proofreading and editing: Gráinne Keeshan