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The issue of sexual assault continues to be at the forefront of many college administrators’ minds, because sexual assault continues to be a problem on college campuses.
Here’s what I learned about healing from my experience, and why I highly recommend a victim’s advocate as a crucial part of your support network.
Revisiting the experience, whether through therapy, flashbacks or for legal proceedings, is never an easy task.
It is, understandably, the reason most people shy away from reporting the incidents or even from seeking help to heal from it. While I believe it was beneficial for me to get past my trauma, that may not be the case for many. I often felt that I had no choice but to share the experience because of the legal implications involved, but looking back, I think it was also a necessary step towards my moving forward. I was too far into denial, and talking about it over and over forced me to recognize it as reality.
This, especially, is where a victim’s advocate can be incredibly helpful.
I asked my victim’s advocate to be present throughout my time at court, which is something you should feel comfortable asking for and a service they will likely offer to you regardless of whether you ask.
My victim's advocate was an invaluable resource to me throughout the experience. Because of her familiarity with the process, she was able to clarify many aspects of the trial for me and ask questions I never would have thought to ask or was too distracted or shy to think of. She took the pressure off of me to always be present and alert, allowing me to relax a little bit and focus on the task at hand: answering questions and reliving my experiences honestly.
She taught me the importance of grounding myself to ward off panic attacks on the stand or even during practice rounds of questioning to help me prepare. My natural reaction to talking about my trauma tended to make me feel disconnected, light headed and a little like I was underwater, watching helplessly as everything else moved around me. (Which is apparently a rather normal response to this.)
She walked me through breathing exercises before going into the courtroom and answered my questions about what to expect. She made sure my rights were always protected when we faced harassment from private investigators and journalists. She was a friendly face to look at while I was on the witness stand, always smiling at me and nodding to show her encouragement. Her presence in the courtroom was a true blessing to me.
This is one bit of concrete advice I would like to share — ground yourself when you feel you’re starting to lose it a little.
As she explained it, this can be anything you can do to remind yourself that you are real, you are actually here and everything is going to be okay. She recommended playing with something in my hands or rubbing my feet against the floor. The physical feeling of something helped a lot to refocus me and reminded me to breathe while talking about my experience.
It took me three years to talk to my family about this.
I could not face the idea of telling them for the longest time because, to me, something about telling my family made it seem even more real which prolonged my hesitations.
When I did eventually share my story, they listened quietly and allowed me to fully explain my feelings back then and now. They did not let me dwell in this sadness for too long once I had made it clear it was behind me, taking the time only to make sure I had all the resources I needed to continue healing before reminding me how much they loved me.
To parents and other supporters who are forced to watch their student try and heal from this, here is my advice.
Give your student time to come to their own conclusions about what they need.
Remind them of your unconditional love and support.
Coax them to seek out help, and provide them with resources to find that help whether that be a therapist or a victim’s advocate.
Encourage them to reach out to their professors during this time for extra help, whether it’s an extension on an assignment or if they're having trouble focusing during class. Their professors will be grateful for the communication and will be happy to offer whatever help or support they can throughout the semester.
Most of all, listen to your student and try to really hear them. They are struggling to figure out what they need and may not be the best at communicating right now, but they desperately need someone to lean on during this time.
Whether or not they choose to report the incident, it may also be beneficial for them to go see a doctor even if they’d rather not complete a rape kit. Their body has been through immense trauma and ensuring their physical health is properly taken care of can help them focus on healing mentally.
If they decide to report the incident, make sure you are all prepared for what that entails. They should understand their rights (and a victim’s advocate will be very important for this) because the process is both invasive and grueling.
Do not pressure them to share more than they are comfortable with, and if they start to breathe erratically while sharing, encourage them to take a minute to focus on their breathing and ground themselves. Remind them they are in a safe space, and do everything you can to help them remember that.
Help your student take the best possible care of themselves and get support when they need it.