I work as a campaigner and educator around sexual abuse. I follow many survivors and activists on social media who speak out about their experiences, and I also research the topic as part of my Ph.D. studies. My life pretty much revolves around sexual abuse. In that way, it is quite similar to my childhood.
There are many jobs that require professionals to bear witness to the worst of humanity. This can be first hand on the front lines or secondarily through hearing accounts in courtrooms, therapists’ offices, multi-agency meetings, or sitting at a desk reading through paperwork. Vicarious trauma is a well-studied phenomenon where learning about another person’s suffering causes the listener to suffer similar distressing effects.
In a research study conducted in 1989*, five nurses assisted researchers in a case record review of 1,215 rape crisis centre records. Each nurse was tasked with reading through the often sketchy accounts of sex attacks against other women to determine demographic predicators of sexual abuse. During a debriefing session, members of the research team reported symptoms of psychological distress indicative of the ‘rape trauma syndrome’ experienced by the victims whose accounts they had read.
The researchers suffered from insomnia, nightmares, anxiety, anger, and fear, as well as cases of somatic symptoms such as nausea and generalised pain. They also noted changes to their own behaviours, for example, avoiding certain dark streets or re-checking locked doors. The researchers reported struggling to maintain their attention whilst conducting the work and limiting the time they spent collecting the data by leaving early to avoid it.
Avoidance of the reminders of traumatic events is a common symptom of post-traumatic stress disorder yet many survivors of sexual abuse end up in careers related to its prevention or providing support to victims. Wounded healers, survivor activists, and lived-experience experts play prominent roles in support services, education, and research.
So how do we cope with reading, writing, and speaking about sexual abuse every day, as part of our livelihood, when we’re still recovering from having experienced it?
In my work with REIGN, I have recounted the story of my own abuse to audiences of hundreds, many times over. Occasionally we’re asked the question ‘Is it therapeutic’ to express the traumas of our childhoods to rooms full of strangers? Do we experience some sort of cathartic release?
The simple answer is no, not in the way the askers are implying. In truth, it can sometimes be bloody difficult and we tend to do it half dissociated. However, there are undeniable therapeutic benefits to the work we do in general. At the forefront for me is the social activism aspect. The best way I’ve found to prevent the build-up of emotional pain and anger from disrupting my life is to turn it into something productive. I focus on trying to fix the situation and right the wrongs that lead to my abuse. We can’t go back in time and stop it from happening but we can make society aware of the injustices and failures, and provide practitioners with the insights and understanding to help children at risk today.
A secondary benefit to working in sexual abuse as a survivor is the element of controlled exposure. Before joining REIGN I would try to avoid all thoughts and reminders of my own experiences but the flashbacks kept popping into my mind like an arcade game of whack-a-mole with a missing hammer. I am now able to acknowledge the reality of sexual abuse and handle it with intellectual gloves. This works (for now) as a compromise between the all or nothing approaches I’d tried and failed with before. This trauma is going to be with me no matter what so I might as well make good use of it.
Coping with the after-effects of sexual violence can feel like a full-time job in itself and I do still get triggered and overwhelmed easily if I expose myself to too much information about it at once. ‘Self-care’ is vital for survivors working in the field of abuse, and I don’t just mean taking bubble baths or looking at kitten memes (though if that works for you, go for it.)
What has been helpful for me in managing my trauma in the face of constant exposure is having hobbies and an identity outside of sexual violence. Maybe for you, it’s cross country running, maybe it’s video games, maybe it’s your family, or fashion sense, or religion. This isn’t just an activity to do when taking a break from your work, but something your friends would know you by and use to describe you. Maybe it’s your sense of humour, or your bordering-on-concerning obsession with collecting fabrics. You have to be able to trust yourself that you are about more than trauma and abuse.
You might struggle at first but it’s important to stay aware of your own limits. Get to know when too much is too much and have someone safe you can talk to about it if you do find yourself triggered or upset from overexposure. Find someone who isn’t going to tell you to quit your job because you’re obviously too damaged to deal with it. Find someone who understands and appreciates why you do what you do, even with the risk and price involved.
Take breaks even if you feel you don’t need them and give yourself time and space to process what you’ve read or heard on all the different conscious and subconscious levels. You might not feel the effects of a trigger right away because your defensive shields are in place, but be aware that later that evening what you thought you handled fine intellectually could hit you hard emotionally. Let yourself feel without judgment. It’s not a weakness to feel your own emotions.
Take note of the small victories. I’m not going to pretend it isn’t depressing reading about human suffering and atrocities every day and you will have times where your efforts to help fix this shit seem futile against an undefeatable onslaught of powerful and protected rapists, pedophiles and psychopaths. It’s going to make you feel small and weak and exasperated. In these moments, turn your attention to the effects you can implement. So you haven’t managed to change a particularly harmful government policy, put a gang of perpetrators behind bars, or save the world today. Perhaps what you did today was nudge a social worker towards googling ‘trauma-informed approach’ or helped an anonymous survivor who follows you on Twitter to feel less alone. These apparently smaller things have a worth and a ripple effect, even if you never get the chance to measure them.
For the nurses in 1989 who read through 1,215 rape crisis centre records, three of them worked alone and two worked together. For the two in the pair, having another investigator present enabled them to ventilate their fears readily to each other and benefit from mutual emotional support. There are a lot of us out there living as both survivors and professionals in sexual abuse. Let us be open about it and aware of the challenges we face. Let us go easy on ourselves and each other, know when to comfort, know when to encourage, and keep up the good work.
*Alexander, J.G. & de Chesnay, M. & Marshall, E. & Campbell, A.R. & Johnson, S. & Wright, R. 1989. ‘Parallel Reactions in Rape Victims and Rape Researchers’ Violence and Victims, 4(1) pp. 57-62