Warning: This piece includes frank discussions of sexual assault.
It may not be physical pain but it can be excruciating.
Waking up from another nightmare, only to go through the horror of reality that you have been raped. Some don’t believe you. Some say that it was your fault because you should have dressed or acted differently. Others ask why you didn’t fight harder, why you didn’t call the police right away, or how much you had to drink. The memory of it is everywhere. It is on your clothes. It is in your hair. It is in your eyes, still red, deprived of sleep and hope.
This is the reality that most sexual assault survivors face on a regular basis. As a clinical psychologist who works with trauma survivors, as well as being a survivor myself, I find that many sexual assault survivors have a difficult time opening up about their experiences, while many may suppress or avoid them, hiding behind substance use, TV binging, or other distraction methods. Many survivors may believe that people will judge them, misunderstand them, or that they have no one to talk to about the assault.
This is why comic books and TV shows, such as Jessica Jones, are not only helpful, they are necessary. Briefly, Jessica Jones is a Marvel superhero whose family is believed to be dead after a tragic car accident. Jessica herself is experimented on without her consent and as a result obtains various superpowers, including super-strength and an ability to jump to an abnormal height. Jessica uses these abilities to become a superhero in helping other people. That is until she meets the Purple Man, A.K.A. Kilgrave. Kilgrave is a supervillain, who uses mind control to manipulate others, forcing them to do whatever he commands. When he meets Jessica, he uses his powers to manipulate her into engaging in a sexual relationship with him, as well as to commit multiple crimes and murder an innocent person. Even though Jessica is physically stronger than he is, Kilgrave, like many real-life perpetrators, is able to use his influence to force her to do what he wants. When Jessica is finally able to get away from him, she withdraws from others, keeping even her closest friends at a distance. She drinks heavily and engages in other reckless behaviors.
Like many trauma survivors, Jessica is highly irritable, jumpy, and easily angered. She has frequent nightmares and flashbacks about her assault and avoids talking about what happened to her. Her symptoms last a significant amount of time following her assault. Jessica appears to meet the criteria for post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). PTSD comes up often on the news and is frequently thought of as a disorder associated with warfare. However, anyone, regardless of their life circumstances, can develop this disorder. PTSD can result from any traumatic event, such as witnessing a death of a loved one, sexual and/or physical assault, emotional abuse, car accidents or any other near-death experience, a sudden death of a loved one (even if not witnessed), as well as life-threatening illness, such as cancer. Although many people might experience something traumatic in their lifetime, most people recover naturally over time, while a small percentage (approximately 10%) of people exposed to trauma may develop PTSD.
Why does PTSD develop? Some people may have already experienced traumatic events in the past. Additional traumas can make someone more vulnerable to developing PTSD. For example, Jessica Jones was involved in a terrible car crash with her family as a small child and believed her family to be dead as a result. This event, coupled with multiple other losses and followed by sexual assault and Kilgrave's manipulations, resulted in Jessica developing the condition. In addition, the way that we cope with trauma can predict how quickly we may recover from it. Jessica’s initial way of coping is not helpful to her. Abusing alcohol, getting into fights, and withdrawing from social support allows her a means to temporarily escape her emotional pain, but this greatly intensifies her PTSD symptoms in the long-term.
Traumatic experiences can also affect how people feel and think. When we are exposed to something dangerous, our body may associate all similar experiences with danger. For example, in being hurt by Kilgrave, Jessica may feel unsafe with any other British person or whenever she sees anyone wearing a purple outfit. By running away from any situation that feels uncomfortable, we might actually reinforce the belief that all similar situations (such as all British people or all people wearing a purple outfit) are dangerous. On the other hand, remaining in the situation long enough to assess the true safety or danger of the given situation can make it easier to manage PTSD symptoms over time.
Finally, PTSD can affect the way that we think. Many trauma survivors blame themselves for what happened even though the traumatic event was not within their control. For example, Jessica feels extremely guilty over murdering Reva Connors (Luke Cage’s wife), the woman that Kilgrave forces her to kill. Even though Kilgrave uses mind control to force Jessica to commit this crime, Jessica blames herself. Many trauma survivors like Jessica continuously go over the incident in their mind, wondering what they could have done differently, blaming themselves despite the fact that, at the time of the incident, they did not have all the information that they obtained after it occurred. This belief that one “should have known better” is called hindsight bias. Hindsight bias can lead to prolonged PTSD symptoms because it leads to the trauma survivors believing that they ought to have acted differently when, in fact, they may not have been able to, or may not have had all the information.
How do people with PTSD recover? Most people recover over time. However, some people can use additional help. This is where therapy comes in. When selecting a therapist, it is best to try to find someone who specializes in treating trauma (or any other specific condition you may need help with). Therapists who specialize in trauma can help trauma survivors by assisting them with processing the traumatic event in a helpful way, to help the individual rethink their story as a survivor, rather than as a victim. Some types of therapy include helping people change the way they think about the traumatic experience, as well as how they relate to themselves and others. For example, connecting with other people, as Jessica, Patsy, and other survivors of Kilgrave’s assault do in the TV series, can help people feel less alone, as well as more supported. In addition, our traumatic experiences can make us stronger.
Surviving abuse, assault, or a car accident can give us a different perspective on life. Such traumatic experiences can allow us to be more empathic toward other survivors and can make us more motivated to help others, potentially allowing us to find meaning in our lives. Many trauma survivors recover when they find a sense of connection with other survivors or when they are able to find a sense of purpose in appreciating individual moments with loved ones, times of safety, good food, and other similar events. This is called post-traumatic growth. Post-traumatic growth can make us more resilient, it can remind us of our strength even in the most difficult instances. And like Jessica Jones, it can remind us that we are stronger than we may have initially thought. Because we are survivors and that makes us superheroes.
If you or a loved one experienced sexual assault, call or message RAINN the sexual assault hotline. If you or a loved one are experiencing a mental health crisis, call the suicide hotline: 1-800-273-8255 or text the Crisis Text Line: 741-741. To find a mental health professional in your area, type in your zip code on Psychology Today.