Your Bill of Rights … for Survivors of Sexual Assault

‘Wow.  That’s a lot of rights!’

The first time I read this, I was sitting with a group of incredible women – all of them were beautiful, talented, intelligent, strong, funny – and they shared one other thing in common:  all were survivors of childhood sexual abuse.

As such, most (if not all) had experienced the loss of knowing and being able to honor some of their most fundamental rights as human beings.  We read this at the close of the group, and one of the women commented, “Wow. That’s a lot of rights!” with a huge smile on her face.  I agree; this is a lot of rights, and they are all YOURS, truly and fully (please read on … ):

Survivor’s Bill of Rights  (from WINGS Handbook, 2008, 2nd Edition)

  • I have the right to healing and wellness.
  • I have the right to make a decision or the freedom to postpone my decision.
  • I have the right to accept that I am human, make mistakes, learn from them, and go on with my life.
  • I have the right to participate in and enjoy sexual pleasure.  Even if I am not yet ready, I claim my right to know that this can be mine.
  • I have the right to joy and happiness right now, today, at this time in my life.
  • I have the right to my anger.  I have the right to turn it into my healing.
  • I have the right not to be numb – to feel any way I do at any given time.
  • I have the right to honor my coping skills.  I can choose what coping skills are still valid and necessary and change others at my own pace.  I can also revert back to them if I need to – they have served me well.
  • I have the right to be heard, to be validated, and disconnect from those who seek to harm or invalidate me, including my family of origin.
  • I have the right to protect and nurture my inner child – to re-parent her or him and to allow her or him to grow and play.
  • I have the right to love and support in all my relationships, to expect respect for my physical, emotional, and sexual well-being.
  • I have the right to safe touch, and to protect myself from all inappropriate behavior.
  • I have the right to love myself, be loved, and be accepted as I am, good points and flaws.
  • I have the right to set boundaries and limits, to say no to anyone including myself.
  • I have the right to grieve for my losses, and not feel guilt for that which was not my fault.
  • I have the right to grow and change, in myself, my relationships, and in all aspects of my life.
  • I have the right to learn to trust others and to trust in degrees as it is earned.
  • I have the right to forgive myself, and to choose whether or not to forgive my abusers.
  • I have the right to be ME.  To accept myself as a unique, precious, priceless individual who deserves the very best of all things.  I deserve to be the person I was created to be.
  • I have the right to see myself as a strong, courageous person who is reclaiming his or her own life.  I am powerful and determined.

If you are an individual with a history of childhood sexual abuse, or sexual assault in adulthood, I’m guessing a few of these really hit home as you read them.  It’s unfortunately quite normal for experiences from the past to sneak into the present moment, and to rob us of not only the ability to fully enjoy our lives, but even to rob us of our most basic human rights.

I encourage you to seek out the support of a trauma-trained therapist who can help you reclaim your life – and your many rights – as you heal from these past experiences.

If you are in the Denver-Boulder area, and are a survivor of childhood sexual abuse, check out the WINGS Foundation, which runs therapist-facilitated support groups for survivors, both men and women.  If you are a survivor of sexual assault or rape as an adult, check out the Blue Bench (formerly RAAP), which provides prevention and care for sexual assault survivors.

And, a PDF of this Bill of Rights, for you, here: Survivor’sBillofRightsHANDOUT_KDunn_0913

What is going on with me? Common Symptoms of Trauma

Have you ever wondered, ‘what is going on with me?’ after a difficult situation or experience?  Let’s say, for example, you had a near-miss while driving, and you later find yourself shaking, hyper-aware of all of the cars around you, breathing shallowly, quick to a bit of road rage, and you can’t stop thinking about what happened, despite the fact that you know you are safe and okay.

KONICA MINOLTA DIGITAL CAMERAI would venture to say that very few of us make it very far in life without experiencing some sort of distressing event or situation (that is, some form of trauma).  Our brains and bodies are wired to respond in certain ways, to help us get through … but sometimes these symptoms feel strange or don’t seem to make much sense, and can leave us wondering what the heck is going on with me?!?  This is even more difficult if the (under-informed) people around you are telling you to ‘get over it,’ or ‘it wasn’t that big of a deal.’

When one experiences, or is witness to, a disturbing event or situation, they often experience various symptoms of trauma.  Different people will experience different responses at different times, and yet all of these responses are completely normal, and will likely diminish over time – particularly by working through them with the support of a trauma-informed therapist.

  • Feeling Vulnerable
  • Shock, Disbelief, Numbness
  • Anxiety
  • Panicky Feelings
  • Hypervigilance
  • Exaggerated Startle Response
  • Intrusive Thoughts, Flashbacks, Unwanted Memories
  • Loss of sense of security and safety
  • Feeling Detached from others
  • Loss of interest in previously pleasurable activities
  • Withdrawal from family and friends
  • Anger, Irritability, feeling Argumentative
  • Mistrust
  • Excessive Fear
  • Clinging to Family and Friends
  • Self-Blame  (“If only I …” “I should have … “)
  • Nightmares, Difficulty Sleeping
  • Sleeping more than usual
  • Changes in Appetite
  • Feeling like emotions are out of control
  • Regression, behaviors from earlier ages emerge, e.g., sleeping with the lights on
  • Difficulty Concentrating
  • Deep Sadness
  • Depression
  • Physical Discomfort or Pain, such as headaches, stomach ache, muscle tension, nausea
  • Feeling Frozen, Immobile
  • Shame
  • Sabotage Behavior (finding yourself getting in your own way)
  • Feeling Overwhelmed
  • Suicidal Ideation – thinking about ending things, making attempts, taking action on thoughts
  • Difficulty with Intimacy
  • Avoidance of certain people, places, situations

When we hear the word “trauma,” we often think of “big T traumas,” relatively big, distinct events such as a tornado, war, child abuse, or a sexual assault.  However, these symptoms may show up for individuals as a result of relatively smaller traumas – “little t traumas” – things such as a consistently critical parent who made a child feel they were never good enough, a feeling that persists into adulthood.  Or, from growing up or living in an unsafe neighborhood, or from experiencing a loved-one’s illness.  It can be easy to dismiss the severity of these “little t traumas,” by comparing them to larger events, but keep in mind that over time, these experiences and situations can be just as damaging, and cause the same responsive symptoms to develop.

 Another important thing to keep in mind is that all of these symptoms are highly adaptive responses to abnormal situations, that allow us to get through and survive.  The problem comes when we get “stuck” in these response patterns, and they start to interfere with our present-moment lives – in a sense the past starts to interfere with the present.

 What can you do about it?

  1. Give yourself a break, and recognize that what you are experiencing is normal.
  2. Reach out for support from people you trust.
  3. Engage the help of a trauma-informed therapist, who can offer you guidance and support in working through your experiences.
  4. Practice extra self-care, focusing on the basics of nutrition, sleep, exercise, relaxation, and spending time with those you love.