Some days are hard. Really hard. Sitting across from someone and holding space while they tell a story that, unintentionally, triggers your own trauma. When I first began my work as a therapist, I was concerned with how I would manage hearing stories similar to my own, of sexual trauma, without letting my own trauma interfere. I was concerned that I would project all of the lessons I learned from my own rape and selfishly want someone else to make the same choices, but this has not been the case thus far.
As a rape survivor, I understand more than most what it truly feels like to have no voice and to not be heard. I lived through the police interviews and had to deal with the unimaginable rumors at school and in the community and can remember, rather vividly, what it feels like to be screaming and feel like no one noticed. As a therapist, it is impossible to separate those memories from my work and that can be helpful. When I hear stories of men and women who have been violated in similar and different ways than me, I do not think of what I did in those moments, but what I needed. I needed to be heard.
All survivors of trauma need to be heard
When I sit down with a survivor of sexual assault, I do not picture myself at 16 feeling lost, but I remember the feeling of no one listening or caring. I make sure that I am present for the person in front of me because they are what matters. I have cared for the 16-year-old who was traumatized. Still taking care of her every day, by making sure that every client I sit in front of has a space where they are heard and given the chance to heal from their trauma in their own way.
There is no “right” way to heal from sexual assault. I did what was best for me at the time and I encourage all of my clients to do the same, regardless of what that looks like for them. I can remember all the different people coming in and out of my life with thoughts on what I should do and what is best for me. No one except for me knew what was best. I work my hardest to give my clients that space and empower them to believe in themselves because only they know what is best for them.
You are not alone
What has truly astounded in my work is the amount of people affected by sexual assault. The majority of my caseload has experienced some direct or indirect form of sexual trauma, from child sexual abuse to sexual harassment, or rape. It seems impossible to escape in the field and in the societal climate of today. I remember when I first started graduate school, I was worried that I would not be able to manage working with survivors of sexual trauma and wanted to avoid doing so out of fear.
However, after working in the field, I am more worried by how impossible it would be to avoid. The unfortunate reality is that many of us are feeling triggered regularly and struggling to find an oasis. There is sexual assault in politics, celebrity gossip, and even our favorite comedy TV shows and movies, making it hard to catch a break. While it is great that we do not feel alone in our struggle, it is important that we find a way to take time to separate from it.
Working as a therapist as a sexual assault survivor truly is a unique experience. I believe that working from this perspective has been helpful, though unspoken, for myself and my clients. While discussing the importance of self-care, not blaming yourself for your trauma, and the power dynamics of rape, for example, with my clients, I am also reminding myself of these messages.
As a young therapist, I was worried about how I could successfully leave that part of who I am out of the room, but through my experience, I have learned that bringing that broken and scared 16 year old in the room with me is beneficial to my clients, as well as myself. It is through her experiences that I have learned to love and care for others in such a deep way. I have experienced the darkest side of people that I wish no one else would have to experience, though so many of us have.
By bringing that part of me in the room, I am not speaking to my clients from lines that I have read in a textbook or what has been regurgitated to me in a training, instead I am speaking from what I have experienced and what I have been through. I choose not to disclose my trauma to my clients, as to not take away from their time and their struggles, but I am always in the room as a survivor of sexual assault, whether or not it is said.
One of my first clients as an intern said to me,
“I feel like you really understand what is going on. I don’t feel like you are speaking to me from a textbook.”
That moment has stuck with me years later. I would not endure the mental and emotional struggles of this job if it weren’t for the fact that I care about people. I want my clients, all of my clients, to feel heard and understood by another person, not by a person who studied hard in school. I have been blessed, yes blessed, with the hardships that I have faced that give me the perspective and the wisdom to understand how hard it truly is to overcome mental illness, particularly trauma.
I still experience bad days and really bad days that allow me to tell my clients that trauma work is an uphill battle, but one that can be conquered, not because I learned that in a training, but because I live that reality everyday. I am full of empathy for all people who are struggling, but I am also filled with hope because my darkest days are behind me and I believe they are behind my clients as well.
Perspectives Therapy Services is a multi-site mental and relationship health practice with clinic locations in Brighton, Lansing, Highland, Fenton and New Hudson, Michigan. Our clinical teams include experienced, compassionate and creative therapists with backgrounds in psychology, marriage and family therapy, professional counseling, and social work. Our practice prides itself on providing extraordinary care. We offer a customized matching process to prospective clients whereby an intake specialist carefully assesses which of our providers would be the very best fit for the incoming client. We treat a wide range of concerns that impact a person's mental health including depression, anxiety, relationship problems, grief, low self-worth, life transitions, and childhood and adolescent difficulties.