Michelle Palmer is a licensed clinical social worker and the executive director of the Wendt Center for Loss and Healing. Throughout her career, Michelle has worked with both child and adult survivors of sexual abuse and sexual assault, as well as other types of trauma. The goal of her work is to help survivors regain a sense of hope in the aftermath of trauma or grief.
How to help others
Q: How can we be there for a loved one who has experienced sexual assault or abuse?
Everyone navigates traumatic experiences differently. For some people, it can take a great deal of time. Be an engaged and empathetic listener for as long as it takes. They may have moments when they’re short-tempered or fearful. If your friend lashes out, try not to take it personally. Show them grace.
Respect whatever legal recourse your loved one chooses—even if they choose not to take any. That is their decision to make and theirs alone. If you notice that they seem to be struggling emotionally, don’t be afraid to suggest that they find a therapist.
Q: How can we avoid victim blaming?
Be careful not to ask questions that imply judgment, like, “How many drinks did you have?” “Why did you go home with him?” “Do you think you might have given mixed signals?” When someone tells you they have been sexually assaulted, the only response you should offer is, “I’m so sorry that happened to you. I’m here for you whenever and however you need me to be.”
How to cope
Q: What can help us cope immediately after sexual assault or abuse?
You need space to deal with the emotional impact of trauma, but bottling up feelings will eventually take a toll. Give yourself permission to feel angry—but direct those emotions at the perpetrator, not at yourself. Coping with sexual assault and abuse can be an incredibly isolating experience. Look for other survivors to connect with.
You might find some solace in reading. The Body Keeps the Score by Bessel van der Kolk is a great nonfiction option. If you’re more interested in fiction, Lucky by Alice Sebold is a good choice. Visuals can be a different story, because they can trigger strong feelings. It may be wise to avoid movies or TV shows that depict physical trauma.
Q: What can we do to foster our long-term recovery?
Many of us grow up assuming that the world is a safe place and that we have some control over what happens to us. Sexual assault shatters those assumptions. There are steps you can take to rebuild your sense of security. Therapy can be an important tool; because of the nature of sexual assault, most people need some professional support. It can also be beneficial to help others avoid or cope with a similar experience. Study after study shows that you can “bounce forward” if you make your ordeal mean something. Consider volunteering at a clinic or advocating for policy changes that would benefit other survivors.
Q: How have you seen survivors of sexual assault find meaning after this type of trauma?
Generally, they find meaning in the simple fact that they endured. They came out intact in ways they didn’t think were possible. They gain new confidence and think to themselves, “If I can survive this, I can survive just about anything.”
Q: What does Option B mean to you?
To me Option B means recognizing that we all have a choice even in situations or moments that feel completely out of our control. Often that choice is deciding how we move forward.