Here are the steps to take to protect your mental health while navigating worries or memories about abuse.
1. Don’t immediately accuse people.
Rage is a common response if we suddenly suspect we were abused.
Many people experience a a strong impulse to go after the abuser, or call everyone that knows them to let them know “I think I was abused by this person”. It can seem, in the moment, the ‘right thing to do’.
But here’s the thing. Discovering you might have been abused puts you in a very vulnerable mental and emotional state. Even if anger and the cortisol rush of stress is making you feel energised and powerful, you aren’t. If someone turns around and accuses you of being dishonest, or picks a fight you aren’t ready for, not only might you lose support from people you need on your side, you might find your mental health deteriorating quickly.
It’s not that you can’t or shouldn’t make a case of abuse! It’s that the best time to do so is when you have had time to work through your emotions and thoughts and are feeling more stable.And it’s also something to do when you have support to help you navigate any fallout.
2. Don’t assume just because you have symptoms you were sexually abused.
Sexual abuse is sadly common. It’s estimated one in four children experiences some sort of sexual abuse. The reality might be higher. And many people block out memories of sexual abuse. So yes, maybe you were abused.
In our society sexual abuse has the most shame around it of all traumas. So it becomes the one we all assume is the problem if we have symptoms but no memories. But this means other very real and also serious traumas and mental health problems which might be the actual issue can get overlooked.
The best thing to do here is to accept that something has happened to give you mental health symptoms. It might be some sort of abuse. Then reach our for professional support for the symptoms, tell your therapist what you suspect, and take time to work together and see what surfaces.
3. Don’t obsess over exactly what happened, obsess over what you are going to do next.
One of the easiest ways to completely re-traumatise yourself is to become obsessed about knowing ‘exactly what happened’.
Of course this is normal, and is part of many people’s process of healing. We want to know the details. And it’s okay to feel really angry, frustrated and sad that you can’t get the facts.
But until someone builds a time machine, we can’t go back in time and find out exactly what happened to us. We simply do not have any control over finding out the exact facts. All we can do is accept that something difficult and tragic happened, and we have some facts but not all. And then we can focus on what we DO have facts and proof about – our symptoms.
You can’t change the past but you can work to manage your symptoms. And that is what is actually going to help you progress towards healing, not obsessing on details you’ll never be sure of.
In fact it’s the time to lessen any unnecessary stressors. Are there social events you can say no to? Obligations you can back out of? You need down time to process your emotions and be with those who support you.
The only new thing you want to be doing here is building a support team and seeking out help, like therapy, self-help books, and support groups.
How can you send a message to yourself you deserve to be taken care of? Can you go to bed early, say no to the social event you don’t want to go to, start taking long walks, take that bubblebath you always mean to but don’t get around to?
6. Do find support.
Be wary of reaching out to people who won’t be able to handle your experience. Feeling letdown is just one more thing to feel bad about you don’t need.
And be careful you don’t mistakenly turn to someone who is a gossip. It’s up to you when, how and if other people find out about your experience, not someone else.
If it is possible to reach out to more than one person, that is ideal. Working through abuse memories can mean you need a lot of support, and it isn’t always fair to expect one person to provide all that.
This is why it’s also highly recommended to find any and all support elsewhere. There are online forums which can be useful, and you might want to consider a support group. Google to see if there is one in your area.
Some people do try to navigate abuse in childhood themselves. Over many years they might reach a level of acceptance. But that same level of acceptance can be achieved in a fraction of the time with the right support.
Why leave yourself to live a half-life when help is actually available?