You may know someone living with the trauma of sexual assault. Roughly 44% of women and a quarter of men have experienced sexual violence. There’s no timeline for healing. The survivors in this episode have spent months and years finding ways to make themselves feel better physically, mentally and emotionally.
Living With Trauma
Sammy: I’m Sammy Caiola, health care reporter for CapRadio. This is After the Assault, a podcast about sexual assault survivors and their search for justice and healing. This is Episode 5, Living With Trauma.
I’ve got to give you a content warning: we’re going to be talking about sexual violence in this episode.
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The first four episodes were about how to report a sexual assault to law enforcement, and how to navigate the difficult maze of the criminal justice system.
This episode, we’re going to hear about how trauma impacts survivors for months and years after an incident happens … and the steps that they take to try to move forward.
Penny: Healing is so incremental. People say, oh, here's this, you know, here's this healing thing. You know, here's a list of 10 healthy things that you can do and you can do all 10 of them every day, all day for months on end. And that's not where healing is. That's just a drop in the bucket.
Aurora: I'm making progress, you know. But it's taken me fucking forever. It's forever. My whole life, you know. And it's still a problem. And I am making progress. But damn, it takes so long. It's just so unfair.
Jesa: Acknowledging that this is just, you know, this can this can always happen. Like a panic attack could happen sometime in the future. I don't know. And it's just I can still live my life and I can still face all those things and and live with getting triggered now and, you know, here and there. And just it doesn't make me any weaker.
Sammy: I’ll take you through what a trigger actually is, and how it affects everyday stuff like eating, sleeping and socializing. We’ll talk about guilt, and coping mechanisms … and what survivors do that makes them feel BETTER.
You probably know someone who is a survivor. Roughly 44% of women and a quarter of men have experienced sexual violence. One in two transgender people are sexually abused or assaulted at some point in their lifetimes.
And understanding what survivors are feeling … could put you in a better position to offer support. Here’s survivor Annie Walker.
Annie: I think I would want the general public to know that we are hurt, we're not broken. We just need help to heal. We need support. We need love. We need people to understand us.
Sammy: This is After the Assault, Episode 5: Living With Trauma
Sammy: I worked with eight survivors to shape this project. They met with me monthly to talk about their struggles and their successes … sometimes we were in the recording studio, sometimes not. At CapRadio, we refer to them as the “survivor cohort.”
Some of these women knew each other before the project started, and some were strangers. Over time, the cohort became a sort of support group. They asked each other questions about intimate topics … like what to do when you feel isolated, or what dating looks like after assault.
Annie: After what’s happened to me I don’t want anyone to look at me in any way and desire me sexually in any way. Does anyone else feel this way?
Others: I actually do relate to that.
Sammy: A lot of the cohort members feel like this changed them in a really big way. They're just not interested in doing the things that they used to like to do. Some of them have become more forgetful, they're quicker to anger, or they're more easily overwhelmed.
And that's created some common ground for them … it's this shared sense of loss. They described healing from sexual violence as a type of grieving.
Laura: I think that you lost a part of yourself that you're not going to get back.
Annie: I think it feels like you lose, for me, like your whole self. And, you know, yeah, you don't know how to get it back. Like you don't know who you are anymore. So it's like you're grieving. The person that you were.
Laura: Like, your entire thought process about how you went about your life almost has to change. The way that you go out, the way you leave the house. Just even being in the grocery store is different. Being more aware of your surroundings and having to reprogram your brain.
Penny: Yeah, for me there was a self that I lost that I was never going to get back. There was like a person who was there that was gone. It was like a death and having to grieve that person. And then sort of rebuild a new person. From the ground up, and I'm still in that process.
Annie: Yeah, same here. It's like you wonder if that process will ever and or how long it's going to be until you figure out who you are again.
Sammy: I asked psychologist Mandy Mount about this. She runs the sexual assault resource center at UC Irvine.
Mandy: There's a real shift in worldview that happens for people, which is part of, can be part of what people are experiencing when they talk about losing the self that they felt connected to earlier, right? It's that sense of safety in the world. Safety in their body, safety in their relationships. In part that gets challenged. And there's a sense of loss that goes along with that. There's a grief in losing a sense of security.
Sammy: I’m not an assault survivor. I really wanted to understand what it’s like to carry this kind of trauma around.
To find out, I went grocery shopping with Maddie Bernal. She’s a survivor.
We went to a big, warehouse-type store with high ceilings and wall-to-wall shelves.
She says because of memories related to her assault, being here puts her on edge.
Maddie: I am brought back to those memories, which then creates like this hypervigilance. So even just walking in here today, I ended up looking around at people, and I'm like, oh my God, they're all staring at me, like, oh my God, what's going to happen? And I had to step off and go like, OK, chill the fuck out, [laughs], and I texted my husband … like, I'm freaking out for no reason, and it's litterally like I'm looking at one person … is it him? No, that's not him. Is that his mom? No, that's not his mom. OK, that kind of looks like him, but it's not him. It's a constant having to reground myself. , I’m like ‘oh my god they’re all staring at me, oh my god they’re all staring at me. Chill the fuck out. I texted my husband. I’m freaking out for no reason….. I’m looking at one person like, is that him? … it’s a constant having to reground myself.
Sammy: While we shopped, I remember Maddie was really off. She kept looking at her shopping list, and she texted her husband. Once in a while she had to pull over the shopping cart in a less busy part of the store so that she could take some breaths.
Maddie: Yeah, I’m by myself so I’m getting more worked up than usual. And it’s not even like I’m noticing myself getting worked up, it’s I’m getting worked up and then all of a sudden I’m in the middle of a hot flash and I’m halfway to panic and I’m like OK cool down.
To stay calm, she says she usually comes here with her mom, or a friend.
Mount says it’s normal for trauma survivors to react this way when there’s a lot of stimulus … especially if it’s something that reminds them of the traumatic event. When Maddie was looking around at everybody in the store thinking, ‘is that him?’ … that’s called “hypervigilance”.
Mandy: People who've experienced sexual violence typically become really good at monitoring their environments. And that can be really great to the extent that it assists them in avoiding harmful situations in the future. But where it can become problematic is because it becomes very, very taxing on one's nervous system. It's exhausting to constantly be on high alert and to sense danger everywhere you go.
Sammy: Many of the survivors say they struggle with this ... Especially when it comes to possibly seeing their perpetrators around town.
Some of them have even changed their habits to make sure that doesn’t happen. Psychologists have a word for that too — it’s called ‘avoidance’, basically staying away from anything that brings up memories of the traumatic event.
Erin: I don't like to get in my car and drive and be out in public because I feel like I can't focus. I can't pay attention to what's going on. I can’t enjoy my company. I can't enjoy my friends because I'm constantly looking at the door or looking who's walking by because I don't want to run into who assaulted me.
Maddie: There's a whole section of town I don't go in and avoid like the plague. And it's so embarrassing to have to explain to my boss, “I can't work with that client because they live in this part of town.” Well, why won't you go there?
Monica: So many times when I worked as a server and there was a time where I was going to have to serve my rapist and I worked in this place and I'm like, I'm not taking that fucking table.
Sammy: This is all part of something called Rape Trauma Syndrome. That's not an official diagnosis, but it is a term mental health professionals use to describe symptoms common to survivors of sexual violence. Some of the symptoms are similar to what you might think about for PTSD — like flashbacks, panic attacks, and that hypervigilance.
Mandy: Negative thoughts about oneself or the world, feelings of detachment, feelings of hopelessness, feelings of depression or sadness, having difficulty generating positive emotions or enjoying activities that were previously pleasurable. It could include things like self-harm, or difficulties with concentration, irritability with others, as well as feelings of guilt or shame.
Sammy: And these symptoms can get worse when someone encounters a “trigger.” That’s anything that reminds them of the attack. It can be seeing a person, an object, going to a certain place.
Penny — she asked us to alter her voice and omit her full name— told us that she was being triggered by any vehicle that looked like the one her rapist drove.
Penny: I went through a period of time where I would have a panic attack every time I saw a gold car or every time I saw a German car. I have a 30 minute commute. So you can imagine how many gold cars or German cars one might see. Because he had a gold German car.
Sammy: Even certain sounds or smells can throw a survivor off kilter.
Maddie: Doritos. Mountain Dew. Cannot be in my house. I just can't.
Aurora: Honestly just bar smell. Just ugh … like the icky, ugh ....
Maddie: Even sounds. Like I can't listen to Metallica anymore.
Annie: Yeah. I can't listen to music that’s like anything like high energy or ... I just feel like it gets under my skin. I’m all about like smooth jazz … anything that’s calm …
Others: Kenny G only.
[jazz music] Sammy: Mount says it’s important for survivors to keep track of how they’re doing, and to use coping mechanisms like meditation and exercise to try to stay grounded.
She says if a loved one sees a survivor in their lives struggling, they should ask that person what they can do to help. Most counties have a rape crisis center that offers free therapy to survivors of assault.
Mandy: But there's a lot of other tools that people might feel drawn to that can help them depending on what it is that's particularly calming for them. For example, maybe using music or walking in nature or engaging with nature through gardening or other types of ways of engaging with people's environments, again, bringing them into the here and now.
Sammy: Without healthy coping mechanisms to lean on, some survivors might turn to destructive habits. Some of the survivors I talked to said that after they were raped, they started to do things that they considered unhealthy ….
Annie Walker says she started overeating ... she stopped exercising ... and she stopped getting dressed up.
Annie: I know I don't want to be objectified or desired. I know that's there. And I feel like for most of my life or a lot of my life, I have been, whether that be jobs that I've been in working in bars or things like that. Or just my personality. I just yeah. I just I don't think I want, after what's happened to me, I don't want anyone to look at me in any way and desire me sexually in any way.
Sammy: Aurora Jimenez says she felt the same way.
Aurora: I mean, I like stopped shaving everything. I like stopped taking care of my body, my physical body. I tried to defeminize myself, if you can't tell. But I really just went the polar opposite of what I naturally gravitate to because I didn't feel comfortable being attractive anymore.
Sammy: For Jesa David, it wasn’t about appearance. She started taking more risks in the months after the assault.
Jesa: Just not caring enough to take care of myself, like, you know, I'd be out riding my bike like at midnight or whatever. I had a bike accident even. I just didn't even ... I think I sprained my wrist and it just kind of was like, oh, just another thing. And if that happened to me today, be like, oh, God, I injured myself. I need to be more careful. And I just didn't have that attitude for so long.
Sammy: Jesa says it took her a few years to figure out why she wasn’t taking care of herself. And it all tied back to her trauma.
Jesa: I didn't love myself anymore because of what had been done to me, because that deep devaluing of me, I took it to heart. And I didn't even realize that because it didn't occur to me like because I've never had that before. I've always, you know, I love myself. And it took me a long time to get that back. And it took a long time to feel like I deserved anything good.
Sammy: Mount says harmful behaviors often stem from self-blame. And some of that comes from this idea in society that people who are raped did something wrong or could have prevented it by drinking less, or wearing something different … it’s pervasive in America.
According to the National Sexual Violence Resource Center, over a third of female rape survivors have contemplated suicide at some point after their assault, and 13% have attempted it.
And that’s why we all have to work harder to give survivors support.
Mandy: Because they deserve it, because what happened to them was not their fault, because healing is possible and because they deserve to thrive and be supported and receive care. And I think that's so important for people to know.
To learn more about reporting a sexual assault in Sacramento County and supporting survivors on their healing journeys, visit CapRadio.org/After.
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Sammy: Healing takes time. The survivors I talked to, some of them struggle with triggers on a daily basis. Others, it’s more of a once-in-a-while thing. Many of them talked about wanting to snap their fingers and just get over it … but it doesn’t work that way.
There actually are phases of Rape Trauma Sydrome … there’s the acute phase, where somebody might be having mood swings or memory issues. Then there's the adjustment phase where they might try to avoid or escape their trauma. Then finally there's this resolution phase, where they start to accept that the rape was part of their lives, and attempt to move forward.
memory issues and mood swings are common. The adjustment phase, where someone might try to avoid or escape the trauma, and the resolution phase … where they start to accept that the rape is part of their lives and attempt to move forward.
Here’s Aurora, and then Jesa.
Aurora: It involves meditation, it involves self-love practices, self speaking, honestly telling myself that I'm okay the way I am, just as I am. I didn't deserve any of this. You know, that internal dialog, which apparently some people don't have, but, you know, really giving yourself those pep talks. But take a bath, you know, and like love on yourself. Give yourself a pedicure. Really simple actions that seem almost impossible at the time, but really just like practice self-love on a very practical level.
Jesa: And it doesn't even have to be a specific thing. Like yoga I think is great, but it's not for everybody. But taking that time and requiring myself to be someplace for an hour where it's just something for me, it's just something for my body. And yoga classes make sure to point that out. They're like ‘have an intention for this class’. I'm like, I just want to do yoga for an hour, like That's my intention. But it still put it in my head like I'm here giving myself time instead of making myself do something on my to do list or something that'll, you know, be fruitful later. I just have this time where I'm taking care of myself, which was definitely hard for me to do for a while.
Sammy: Living with and healing from this kind of trauma can be expensive.
In California, the state Victim Compensation Board, or CalVCB, can help victims of sexual assault and other crimes pay for some of these expenses. This is stuff like mental health care, dental care, medical care, home security.
CapRadio’s Data Reporter Emily Zentner has been taking a look at how sexual assault victims are using these funds.
Emily, it’s good to have you back to shed some light on this.
Emily: Happy to be here.
Sammy: So, you’ve been diving into how the state is compensating victims and how victims are using that money. What kind of help are they looking for? What did you find?
Emily: Mental health care was a major expense for sexual assault survivors … Between July 2019 and June 2020, it was the number one expense CalVCB compensated sexual assault survivors for by a long shot.
Sexual assault victims got around 2.3 million dollars for mental health care. That’s about 70 percent of the around 3.3 million dollars total that CalVCB paid to sexual assault survivors that fiscal year.
Sammy: How do sexual assault survivors differ from victims of other crime that the state compensates for?
Emily: Mental health care was also the number one expense victims of child abuse were compensated for … About 80% of the compensation that went to child abuse victims in that 2019-2020 fiscal year was for mental health care, so it was an even larger portion than for sexual assault victims.
A few other crimes, like assault, kidnapping and stalking, also had mental health as the number one expense victims were compensated for … but those portions still were a lot smaller than sexual assault or child abuse, which were the only two offenses where more than half of the compensation that was paid out went to mental health care.
Sammy: Yeah. Emily, thank you so much for giving us a look at the cost of mental health care for sexual assault victims.
Emily: Of course.
Sammy: Something to keep in mind is that traditional mental health care isn’t the only way survivors can work to heal from their assaults.
Penny told me that she sought out alternative medicine to try to feel better.
Penny: I've been through physical therapy, I've been through acupuncture. Um, I've done all sorts of weird alternative medicine things.
[biofield tuning sound]
I tagged along to a ‘biofield tuning’ session. This is a type of sound therapy where the practitioner uses a tuning fork to create frequencies that are supposed to relieve stress
[tuning fork rings]
I talked to Penny about it in the parking lot after her session
Penny: I feel like I released some stuff. I feel better when I leave.
Sammy: Other survivors say they’ve gone to therapy on and off since the incident.
But sometimes they still feel stuck. Here’s Erin Price-Dickson, followed by a few other members of the cohort.
Erin: I unfortunately don't do anything for myself I say, like, I want to get back into yoga. I've told myself maybe getting into boxing and martial arts sounds like that. I didn't even think of that. But that's like another good idea. But I keep saying I'm gonna do all these things, like go start hiking again. And I just haven't. So I need to do that. I need to do that for myself. But I don't know, I'm at this weird stage where I'm just not … I just think about it, but I don't act on it and I need to get out of that.
Jesa: And maybe that's where you are right now. Okay. It won't be forever.
Aurora: Yeah. Right. Like the seed. You don't see it sprout up right away. It's got to soak in water. It's got like shed its skin and then it starts to grow. You know, it's like maybe you're just shedding your skin.
Jesa: The intention is there, though.
Aurora: Exactly. The seed is planted.
Erin: Yeah, that’s a good analogy, I like that.
Sammy: Survivors say the best thing that friends and family can do to help is to be patient. There’s no timeline for healing.There's no real finish line to cross. Don’t assume that the survivor in your life is over it just because a certain number of months or years have passed.
Sammy: In the next episode, Guide To Being an Ally, survivors speak about what loved ones did that helped them after the assault.
Laura: Some good ways that I appreciated, just friends coming over and just sitting with me and not even me having me talk about it, just having somebody physically present to sit there and help me take my mind off it. Just watching movies at home. Being in a safe place. Being with me in my safe place.
Sammy: You can learn more about reporting a sexual assault in Sacramento County and supporting survivors on their healing journeys, at CapRadio.org/After.
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Marci: My name is Marci Bridgeford, and I'm the director of community response at WEAVE, Sacramento’s rape crisis center. We support survivors of domestic violence, sexual assault and sex trafficing. We have a 24 hour, seven day a week support and information line you can call at any time at 916 920 2952. You may also reach out to us via our message boards and chat features on our website at WEAVEINC.org
Sammy: After The Assault is a production of CapRadio in Sacramento, California.
Emily Zentner is our data reporter.
Catherine Stifter edited our podcast and Sally Schilling produced it. Paul Conley mixed the sound. Mark Jones is our audio engineer.
jesikah maria ross directed the project in collaboration with Nick Miller, CapRadio’s Managing News Editor. Joe Barr is our Chief Content Officer.
Music is by Jay Urban, Audio Chords from Pond 5, Empyreal Glow, Ben Sound and Anchor.
We would like to hear from you. Go to CapRadio.org/feedback to tell us what you think about what you heard in this podcast. We welcome your comments and your questions. Visit CapRadio.org/feedback.
We want to thank Annie, Aurora, Erin, Jesa, Maddie, Monica, Laura, and Penny for helping us shape this project.
Thanks also to Sacramento’s Sexual Assault Response Team and area advocacy groups for their ongoing consultation and participation.
After the Assault was produced with support from USC Annenberg Center for Health Journalism’s Impact Fund.
I’m Sammy Caiola, thanks for listening to After the Assault.