Growing up, I never had the sheer volume of friends that it seemed like every one of my peers had. I remember trying desperately to make new friends and to connect with people, but it seemed like at the end of the day I just couldn’t relate to most kids. I’m not saying all of this because I want you to feel sorry for me or even because I had some socially under-privileged childhood. I didn’t. I guess I’m beginning this post this way to illustrate our emotional need for quality over quantity. I had and still have great friends, just not a great many of them. And most of the time, especially in a crisis, that’s a very good thing.
My dad loved to point this out and he did so often. I would come to him troubled over my lack of popularity and jealous of how easily it seemed some kids could “fit in.” He would smile, look me in the eye and say, “James, in life we spend most of our time alone. Even the people with tons of friends – they’re alone. If you can go through life with 2 or 3 really close friends by your side, you’re probably doing better than a lot of other folks.” Needless to say, at the time, his response was not what I wanted to hear. As I’ve grown older, however, I’ve come to appreciate that lesson immensely. My dad taught me to value the friendships I do have, to expect the people I love to be there for me, and to expect myself to be there for them. Its a lesson that has formed my life’s purpose and given me a lot of hope in good and bad times.
So what exactly does all of this have to do with sexual assault, sexual abuse, and rape?
In my short time as a SARC advocate and employee, I’ve heard more stories of sexual violence than I might have imagined hearing in my lifetime. Before joining SARC 8 months ago, I was blissfully ignorant of the epidemic that is sexual assault. In that time I have come to know many survivors, advocates, and concerned citizens from every walk of life who are deeply committed to ending sexual violence in our community. Most have been personally affected by sexual violence either as a primary survivor, or as a secondary survivor – someone who experiences trauma when someone they care about is victimized. Its those secondary survivors that I’m hoping to reach out to today.
I met three such survivors on an accompaniment recently. The three women didn’t know it (at least I don’t think they did), but it was painfully obvious to me that they were suffering. A fourth young woman – the primary survivor – sat stoic and calm on a hospital bed and dispassionately described being sexually assaulted by a person she trusted. She only broke her poker face when she started to blame herself and her actions on the night in question. We talked about going to the police. She asked questions about the reporting process, the forensic exam, and what to do if her attacker tried to contact her. We talked about her plan for after the hospital and what resources we could offer her here at SARC. She smiled a few times and tried desperately to keep that poker face locked in place.
The three women looked on. Their eyes welled and they comforted one another as the fourth told her story. They all broke down in tears at least once, desperate to take their friend’s pain away, and they worked with everything they had to feel that pain with her in the moment. It was a difficult and beautiful scene to see so much heartache wrestling with so much love. When the SANE nurse came in to take the patient history, I decided it was a good time for me to get some information from the three women. This is standard practice for SARC. We collect some basic info and offer services to any family and friends involved in an assault, even if they don’t meet the criteria to be considered witnesses.
When we found a quiet spot out in the hallway, the three women unloaded on me with questions. They wanted to know about every possible outcome for their friend. They wanted to know what to do, where to go, and who talk to. They kept asking what they should do for her. It was almost as if they wanted an instruction manual or some insider tip on how to take all of her pain away and fast-forward to the end of this horrible experience. What they didn’t realize is that they were already doing everything they could, and sadly, the one thing that many survivors never have anyone do for them. They were being there.
When we finally found seats outside of the forensic exam room, the three women told me all about the beautiful personality and exciting life of their friend, the survivor. They told me about her hopes and dreams, and her wonderful family. They told me about getting the phone call in the days before and how 2 of them dropped everything to drive in from hundreds of miles away and just be here. In the three hours we spent together, they experienced extremes across the spectrum of emotions, and looked to console each other and be consoled simultaneously. As our time went on they took on different roles, with one asking logistical questions about police reports, one texting updates to the survivor’s parents, and one asking me “why?” in a desperate attempt to make sense of all of this.
In a strange way, their pain was relief for me, and I am happy to have witnessed it. So often our advocates arrive to a hospital where there are no friends waiting impatiently outside. There is no family member eager to console and protect a survivor. However, on that day I didn’t have to ask, “Is there someone you can talk to?” or “Is there someone you’d like me to call?” I guess I never really thought about how difficult those questions are until I sat back and appreciated not having to ask them.
When we think about rape, I think we want to believe that the trauma ends when the violence does. We want to believe that when the bad guy is gone the survivor must be getting better and that it can’t possibly get any worse after the fact. The truth is however, that it can and often does get worse. The poking and prodding exam, the awful questions and reports, the rapidly jarring memories, the sterile confines of a taupe hospital room, and the doubt, fear, and stigma raging in your mind through all of it are far more than just the icing on the cake of a horrific event like rape. They are a horrifying part of the trauma. Yet there is something hopeful in friendship. Not happy, but hopeful. There is something in a true friend being there that soothes just enough to get a survivor through those moments.
People often ask us “My friend was raped… What do I do?” The answer is honestly tough to come by, because its different for everyone. At the root of it, however, is the simple act of presence. Being there. I learned from those three women that there are no perfect words for empathy. There is no game-plan and there is no point in knowing all of the facts, numbers, and resources without a firm commitment to being there. Some friends handle things better than others, but I can attest to the fact that the survivors who have real support have a much better chance of thriving beyond survival. The point is that friends try. They’re present. They’re committed to being there.
If a friend or family member confides in you that they were sexually assaulted or raped, be there. Listen to them, cry with them, get mad with them – whatever you have to do – but be there. Be quality and not just quantity. Understand that you can feel with them and that’s a beautiful thing.
Be there. They’ll be better for it.
*Whether you’re a primary or secondary survivor, please consider counseling with a trained and licensed professional counselor to deal with the trauma of sexual violence. You don’t have to face trauma alone. SARC counselors are available for appointments free of charge by calling (979) 731-1000.
Sexual Assault Resource Center