trauma therapy

The Perpetrator Next Door

Don’t walk alone at night.  Hold your keys between your fingers for protection.  Stay in well lit areas.  These are just some of the lessons I remember learning at a young age.  Doing these things were supposed to keep us safe from being attacked, from being sexually assaulted, from being raped.  Back then I thought that rapists were scary people that jumped out from bushes at night to attack.  

In reality, the numbers of rapes when the perpetrator is a stranger are the minority. 

8 out of 10 rapes are committed by someone known to the victim

The majority of children and teen victims know the perpetrator.

Of sexual abuse cases reported to law enforcement, 93% of juvenile victims knew the perpetrator:

  • 59% were acquaintances

  • 34% were family members

  • 7%  were strangers to the victim

For these and more statistics see RAINN.

There are terms like “date rape” and “acquaintance rape.”  Part of me thinks that these terms water-down and minimize the crime.  Part of me wonders if the intent of these terms were to illustrate that these crimes could be committed by people we know. But why come up with another term?  Rape is rape.  Rape is a crime.  

Rape and sexual assault impact a person mentally, physically, emotionally, socially, behaviorally, and spiritually.  When this crime is committed by someone known to the survivor there may be additional layers of confusion and struggle.  I’ve heard some say that if it was that stranger in the bushes, it would almost be “easier” (it’s never easy) because you could avoid the person, there wouldn’t be common friends, and more.  It’s almost like we think when the rape or sexual assault is committed by a stranger it’s more “clearcut” (for lack of a better word).

Some of the fears and thoughts of self doubt a survivor may have include:

  • I thought I could trust this person.  Did I do something to mislead them?

  • What does this mean about me and my ability to judge who to be friends with?

  • If I talk about this, am I going to lose friends? Will people believe me?

  • My body reacted like I enjoyed it. Maybe I really wanted it. Maybe I like this person.  

  • There must have been some kind of misunderstanding because this person wouldn’t intentionally hurt me, would they?  

  • And more… 

What if the perpetrator was someone that the survivor was in a relationship with, someone they continue a relationship with, or that they begin a relationship with after the fact?  This happens.  A partner may take things further than what was wanted.  Maybe it was the first time.  Maybe it was the 30th.  When a survivor continues a relationship with the perpetrator, it may leave friends and loved ones confused. 

Why would a survivor continue or begin a relationship with their abuser? Maybe the survivor is invested in the relationship and part of them finds a way to justify or rationalize what happens.  Maybe they fear people won’t believe them. Maybe a part of them is struggling with shame and having victim blaming thoughts. Maybe they fear that the consequences (ie social, financial, family, career…) of ending contact would be great. Maybe they hope new memories will outweigh the traumatic event.  Another reason may be related to the self blaming thoughts that can happen when the physical body reacts to sexual stimulation even when it’s unwanted.  Our body reacts to sexual stimulation and it is beyond our control.  What happened is still sexual assault and rape.  

The survivor should be empowered to make decisions about their healing process and this includes whether they have contact with the perpetrator. The survivor may want to avoid the person. They may want to take legal and/or judicial action (if the crime involved students on a campus). The survivor may want to do nothing or do nothing for now. They may want to have a conversation with the perpetrator in hopes of an apology or an explanation. Every survivor is different. Deciding what to do next is part of survivor taking back their control.

This Ted Talk tells one story.

The first time I watched this I had a wide variety of reactions.  There are some excellent points made.  There are some parts that I struggled with.  These events, these crimes, can be complex.  Maybe we know people on both sides of the story.  Different parts of us may be pulled in different directions at different times.  These crimes happen and they happen between people who know each other.  What happened is still sexual assault and rape.  

It would be nice to think we live in a world where if we did everything “right” we could be sure that nothing terrible would ever happen.  If we avoided that road at night, stuck together, and held those keys we would be safe.  Rape and sexual assault can happen at our friends’ homes, in dorm rooms, at the office, and in our own bedrooms.  They can happen at anytime of day and no matter what we are wearing. The perpetrator may be someone known.  When these crimes happen, the perpetrator takes a person’s control away.  The perpetrator is the one who is responsible.  It is still sexual assault and rape.

Things don’t have to stay this way. We can change the conversation about sexual assault and rape. We can support survivors when they share their story. Survivors can heal. We can have conversations about sexual consent beginning at a young age. We can provide sexual assault prevention education and bystander intervention trainings. The person next door could be the person that helps you in your time of need.

April is Sexual Assault Awareness and Prevention Month. If you have been impacted by sexual violence and need support, call the National Sexual Assault Hotline 800-656-HOPE (4673). If you are in San Diego, call the Center for Community Solutions 888-385-4657. For more information, visit the RAINN website. Contact me to consult further on this topic or to schedule a therapy appointment.

Healing Conversations

Too often trauma gets dismissed as just in our head, but the pain is real. We feel it in our muscles, our cells, our hearts, our heads. And while there’s no magic fix, no pill to make it disappear, we can ask for help. And we can tell our truth whenever we are ready.
— Grey's Anatomy

How people respond when we share our stories of trauma can have a tremendous impact on our healing.  Last week’s episode of Grey’s Anatomy was titled “Silent All These Years” and it did an amazing job addressing sexual and domestic violence.  It followed 3 main story lines which included providing support immediately after the crime, conversations that happen years later, and talking about consent.

When someone shares their experience of sexual assault, rape, or domestic violence, it may feel like opening up a wound, or it may feel like sharing a chapter from a book that happened long ago.  There can be a whole range of emotions depending on where the person is in their healing journey.  How it feels can also vary based on who they are sharing with and the context.  There is no right or wrong way to feel. 

It is up to a survivor to decide who to tell and when.  Again, there is no right or wrong way.  Some may reach out for help immediately to one, or to a few, or to many.  Some may not speak about it for years.  Some may share at one point and then never talk about it again.  For some, this may be a conversation that they come back to again one day in future relationships.  Some may find that it gets a little easier to share their story as time goes on.  For some, it may feel just as overwhelming as the first time.  There is no right or wrong way to feel.  There is no set timeline.

There is however, a right way to respond.  When someone shares their story, they are being vulnerable both with you and with themself.  When the person is met with compassion and support, it can contribute to greater healing.  When the person is met with doubt or victim blaming, those responses can be internalized.  One of the best responses is “It’s not your fault. I believe you.”

Towards the end of the Grey’s episode, we see a survivor being brought to surgery by her doctors.  When they enter the hallway, it is lined with women.  No words are needed.  The message is powerful.  We are here to support you.  


Scene from Grey’s Anatomy: Silent All These Years

It’s the showing up that matters the most.  It’s the compassion.  It’s the solidarity.  It’s someone saying, “It’s not your fault. I believe you.” It’s knowing that we are not alone. When we are met with those things, our strength grows. It is in those moments and in those conversations that healing is happening.

April is Sexual Assault Awareness and Prevention Month. If you have been impacted by sexual violence and need support, call the National Sexual Assault Hotline 800-656-HOPE (4673). If you are in San Diego, call the Center for Community Solutions 888-385-4657. For more information, visit the RAINN website. Contact me to consult further on this topic or to schedule a therapy appointment.

You Are Not What Happened To You

“I feel like I’m damaged goods.”  This statement and other similar statements can come from people who have experienced trauma.  The trauma may have been a sexual assault or other crime, it may may have been a toxic relationship, it may have been a near death experience.  Why so often do survivors believe these events leave them forever damaged?

Trauma does change us.  Some of what it can impact includes how we think, the emotions that we feel, our behaviors, our physical response to stimulus, and more.  This is a normal response to an event that has shook our world. In time, many will return to their previous (or similar) way of functioning.  Some may do this naturally on their own and some find their way back with the support of others.  

There are people who hold the belief that what happened to them has left them “damaged.”  Trauma impacts our view of ourself and our place in the world.  It’s not uncommon to have thoughts like “I’m bad”, “This was my fault,” or “I have no control.” 

I think we like to believe that awful things can’t happen.  When something awful does happy we try to figure out why.  We want to know what we can do to make sure something awful never happens again to ourself or to loved ones.  We start to come up with reasons and justifications like “If only I had…” The amount of victim blaming that we hear in society, especially around sexual violence, further compounds the blame that we place on ourselves. 

Through the support of loved ones it is possible to begin changing the way we think about our trauma.  When someone says to us “it’s not your fault” and “I’m here for you” it goes a long way.  We no longer feel alone.  Their statements of support start to counter the self blame statements that are in our head.  The more we hear these statements of support the more we start to believe them.

Therapy can also help us to heal and to shift those negative thoughts about ourself.  EMDR therapy helps the brain to process an event.  Instead of having a negative thought about ourself we have a positive thought like “I’m good,” “It wasn’t my fault,” and “I have control.”  IFS therapy helps us to release the negative energy, thoughts, and emotions about an event.  Once that unburdening happens it invites us to take in other positive qualities like calm, confidence, connection, and courage. EMDR and IFS are two of the therapeutic approaches that can help individuals to heal from their past trauma.

Through support and therapy a person can reach a different understanding of the event(s) and the meaning can change.  It no longer defines the person.  It is part of their story but it’s a matter of pages and not the whole book. Experiencing trauma does not mean that a person is damaged. The person may change in some ways or their path may change. Life changes us in all sorts of ways.

“Yes I have been through awful things.  It wasn’t my fault though.  I’m strong.  I’m going to do amazing things.”  This type of statement and other similar statements have come from people that have worked through their trauma.  I have heard these statements from clients in my office.

Are you ready to start your healing journey? Contact me to make a therapy appointment.

jordan-donaldson-jordi-d-686908-unsplash.jpg

Numbing the Pain

Tell me more about your pain.  Where do you feel it in or around your body?  What does the pain look like?  How long has the pain been there?  Can we get curious about it?  What does it want you to know?  

Some clients can go through these questions with a level of openness and imagination.  Some clients may have a quick reaction of “Hell NO” when asked to explore their pain.  They want to talk about what to do to make the pain stop.  I’ve also heard everything in between the extremes.  It can be uncomfortable to make room for emotions that we don’t like or don’t want to feel.  

Many of us are experts at what helps us numb the pain.  We distract with Netflix binges.  We over compartmentalize and try to lock those boxes away where we can’t feel them.  We over eat.  We shop.  We drink.  We use drugs.  We overwork.  We daydream.  There are endless ways that we shut down uncomfortable thoughts and emotions.  We all have our go to’s.  Some days these methods “work.”  But sometimes what we are trying to do to cope with the pain ends up causing us more pain.  

The problem is… that you cannot selectively numb emotions… You can’t numb the hard feelings without numbing the other affect and emotions. When we numb those we numb joy, we numb gratitude, we numb happiness, and then we are miserable and we’re looking for purpose and meaning. And then we feel vulnerable so we have a couple of beers and a banana nut muffin. And it becomes this dangerous cycle.
— Brene Brown

A question that I often ask my clients is “How’s that working for you?”  Then we explore how it helps and how it doesn’t. Whether it’s using substances or other avoidance tactics there is always a reason why we do the things we do.  At one time it worked.  That reinforced the behavior.  Chances are though that it’s not working so well anymore.  That’s why you are reading this blog.  That’s why you are thinking about making a change.  

There are some ways we numb the pain that are “less harmful” than others.  All methods have the potential to become harmful especially when done to an extreme.  When we continue to do something in an effort to cope despite negative consequences we are entering the realm of addiction.  When we start talking about addiction whether that be to a substance or a compulsive behavior we also start to talk about judgement.  Judgement may come from ourselves or from others.  Likely it is both.  

Part of me wants to stop and part of me doesn’t.  When we acknowledged the ambivalence the work can truly begin.  Tell me more about the part of you that wants to stop.  Tell me more about the addict part.  There are things to be learned from both.  

It’s “easy” to numb the pain.  It’s more challenging to make room for it.  It’s “easy” to judge our addict part and our “bad behaviors.”  We all have a critic inside that has a lot to say about what we do.  It’s more challenging to spend some time with that addict and that critic (and the many other parts we have).  These parts have a lot to say.  They have been doing their best to help us through life.  They have been trying to protect us from that pain.  

In order for any behavior change to be lasting we need to look at what is fueling the behavior.  There’s a reason for it.  Once we get to know the part that feels like this behavior is the only solution we can start to heal it.  Then we can look at our pain and begin to heal that.  

I want to invite you to take a look at the ways you numb your pain.  Maybe there’s a part that looses itself in TV.  Maybe there’s a part that likes to shop.  Maybe there’s a part that uses substances. Let’s get curious about the part. How long has that part been around?  Do you remember what was happening when it came into existence?  What does it fear would happen if you didn’t do this?

Next the inner work begins. Healing is possible.  Change is possible.

The question is not why the addiction, but why the pain.
— Gabor Mate

When the News Is Triggering: Self Care for Survivors

It has been an especially rough few weeks in the news when it comes to the topic of sexual assault.  Several women have come forward accusing Supreme Court Nominee Kavanaugh of sexual assault.  There are the ignorant statements in response to this from other political leaders including President Trump (someone who has also been accused of sexual assault).  Then, there are the sexual abuse cases involving priests. Today, Bill Cosby was sentenced for 3-10 years for sexual assault. This was the sentence for the criminal case involving one of the women who came forward. For survivors of sexual assault and all those impacted by (and dedicated to preventing) these crimes - loved ones of survivors, advocates, educators, professional supports, and more - it can be both overwhelming and triggering to follow these events in the news.  

Some days, it feels like you can’t keep your eyes away from the headlines.  Then, even though you know you probably shouldn’t, you scroll down to the comments.  That’s when the blood really starts to boil (at least for me).  There is so much misinformation and a general lack of information out there regarding sexual violence and the impact of trauma on an individual. There’s so much victim blaming and minimization of these crimes.  Some survivors choose not to watch the news at all in effort to protect themselves from being triggered.  Some survivors may not be able to take their eyes off it.  Maybe it’s a way to desensitize. Maybe they’re trying to understand other people’s perspectives.  Maybe because they are looking for the comments of support from advocates and other survivors.  Maybe they are wanting to leave comments themselves.  However you are reacting to these events, it is important to practice self care. 

Tips for Self Care:

  1. Utilize Your Supports.  Reach out to friends and other survivors.  Reach out to local agencies and hotlines.  Talk to a therapist. Process your thoughts on these events and what it may be bringing up for you.  Know you are not alone.  

  2. Try Not to Personalize Comments. This can be VERY hard. Survivors may have a part of themselves that self blames or may have people in their lives that made statements that were victim blaming or judgmental.  When reading these comments it can fire up those negative thoughts. These people who are making ignorant comments do not know you.  They do not know your story.  They likely don’t even know facts on the stories they are commenting on.  Breathe.  Scream if it helps you.  Write a response if it helps.  See Tip 1 and talk to your support system. 

  3. Find Balance in Information You Take In.  In addition to the various news outlets, try to follow organizations that provide support to survivors.  These include RAINN, Victims Rights Law Center, YWCA, and local rape crisis centers.  They are also posting statements and articles in support of survivors.  They are sharing important educational information in efforts to make people better informed.  People are commenting words of support and compassion.  Take those statements in.  

  4. Sweat It Out.  Physical exercise is one of the best forms of self care.  It is especially important for survivors.  It helps you to get connected to your body.  It helps you to feel physically strong.  It can help to clear your mind.  Put on those sneakers and go for a run or take a class.  You will notice a difference. 

  5. Find Creative Outlets. Many people benefit from expressing their thoughts and emotions through art work, journaling, and music.  Maybe you create these works yourself or maybe you enjoy appreciating others creations. Find what inspires you. 

  6. Identify What You Need to Heal.  Healing isn’t always linear.  What you needed when you first began this journey may be different from what you need now.  Some find healing through sharing their story, some through a new form of therapy, some by taking legal action (i.e. with criminal or civil charges), some become advocates or educators, and much much more. What do you need to do for yourself at this time?  It’s ok to try something new.  How you heal may be different from others and that is ok.  Take care of you.  

  7. Know your limit.  There may be a point when you can no longer take in the news.  Maybe you need to take a break.  Maybe you need to walk away completely.  

  8. Know Times Are Changing.  The previous administration was committed to improving prevention education and decreasing sexual violence (Obama’s Title IX Guidance).  There are college campuses that provide bystander intervention and trainings on consent.  Military provides these trainings as well.  Some schools are starting these important conversations for youth at younger ages.  The #MeToo movement is strong.  People are coming forward with their stories.  People are passionate about preventing this violence from continuing, about bringing perpetrators to justice, and about supporting survivors. 


This week I found myself getting to a place of curiosity about and calmness towards the people who are making ignorant comments about sexual violence (between the moments of blood boiling).  I wonder what they may have experienced and what messages they have received about these types of crimes.  I reminded myself that it has not been that long that we have been talking more openly about these crimes and providing prevention education.  Many of these individuals making statements do not know how to define sexual assault, rape, or consent.  They haven’t learned about bystander intervention.  They do not know how trauma impacts an individual.  A lack of knowledge doesn’t excuse their ignorant and insensitive remarks. It does help me understand their perspective a bit more (I don’t agree, but I get where they’re coming from more). 

I wish someone would do a presentation for our elected officials so that they would have this information.  The Department of Justice’s Office of Violence Against Women comes to mind as a possible presenter because of the grant work I took part in on college campuses. Maybe then, politicians would have compassionate statements about those coming forward with their stories of sexual assault. Maybe then, they could make better informed decisions (for example, who has the values we want represented on the Supreme Court).  If these elected officials could at least experience the trainings that are now mandated on many college campuses and by military branches they would likely learn a lot and their perspective could shift. 

Who knows what headline we will see next and what statements will come from our political leaders.  Times are changing, not as quickly as I would like, but they are changing.  I encourage all survivors and people who care about this topic to take care of yourself.  These stories in the news will keep coming.  We all have an important role to play in how history is rewritten for survivors through our support, advocacy, and education.  I have hope that things will get better.   I hope that one day when I read an article about sexual assault accusations that the quotes from our leaders will consistently be a commitment to finding the truth and justice or a statement of compassion and in support of healing.  A movement has started. #MeToo 

If you have been impacted by sexual violence and need support call the National Sexual Assault Hotline 800-656-HOPE (4673). If you are in San Diego, call the Center for Community Solutions 888-385-4657.