Hello there, Papabear!
I've never written to you before—I enjoy reading your kind-hearted advice to other people from time to time when I'm feeling down myself though. Thank you for running this website and column!
Now for the problem.... I have a friend who is a survivor of some sort of sexual violence. This was sometime years before I met her. I completely understand her need to still talk about it and the angry, sad emotions that come with it as well as the painful process of healing, but I'm never quite sure how to react. She's never told me outright what happened—mostly she gets incredibly angry and tearful when talking about rapists and "rape culture" and toxic social norms against women, to the point of obviously making herself upset (close to tears). She sometimes brings this subject up out of the blue, doing a 180 from something pleasant like flowers to how unsafe it is for her as a woman to exist anywhere public. Although it makes me uncomfortable to talk about rape in general and see her upset like that, I know it's important for me to hear her out and support her in what obviously was one of, if not the worst experience of her life. My discomfort is FAR less than anything she experienced and that's the outlook I maintain.
My question, though, is how do I respond to this? I always try to make sure she can talk to me about whatever she needs, wants, or feels inclined to, but beyond that I'm lost. My inclination is to put an arm around her, but I'm afraid it would upset her more if she considered it unwanted. I'm all for feminism, equal rights, and making the world a safer place for women (as well as people in general), but I hate to agree with her when she so viciously attacks people (in general, usually no one specific unless it's a public figure) for things like enjoying "Family Guy" or "Friends" or "Playboy." So usually I just remain silent until I have to give an occasional "That makes sense" or "That's understandable," which feels a little cold and short. I can't claim to understand how she feels or the emotions involved in the subjects for her with what happened, but I do want to be able to help still since she obviously needs to get these things off her chest. But she doesn't seem to ever feel much better afterward. What do I do? Of course I'll continue to listen to her, but what can I do or say?
One more thing I should add is that she's been (and maybe still goes?) to counseling.
Thank you for your time! And of course, thank you in advance for your kind-hearted response!
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Thanks for the compliment. You’re obviously a kind and compassionate person yourself. I’m very sorry for what your friend has been through and understand your frustration in not being sure how to help her. Professional counseling and/or group therapy is, of course, highly recommended for a person in her situation, and I hope she is still attending sessions.
Your friend has definitely not recovered from her rape. She is still very very angry, and she has not been able to overcome the terrifying feeling of a loss of control of her life, which is, really, what rape is about: it’s not sex so much as one person dominating, humiliating, and subjugating another. Because of this, she is projecting her fears onto everyone else. Everyone becomes a potential rapist, and she even feels society as a whole is against her, condoning such acts as part of a “rape culture.” With her in this mental state, it is very wise of you, indeed, not to make any physical contact that might in any way be construed as sexual or even merely intimate. You will have to be satisfied with comforting her in other ways until she is more emotionally stable.
She needs to overcome her anger and feelings of mistrust. You mention it’s been several years since the rape. If she is currently getting therapy and it hasn’t helped, she needs to shop around for a new therapist; if she has stopped therapy, she needs to return to it. A good place to start would be contacting RAINN—the Rape, Abuse, and Incest National Network, at 1-800-656-HOPE (4673).
As for you, if you are willing to be very patient and go down a very long road with her, the best thing you can do is expose her to positive people and situations whenever possible. One of those positive people can be you. You and others in her life must be very careful not to let her down or feel misguided or betrayed in any way. She also needs to be exposed to groups of people in non-threatening situations. If she is a furry, sad to say, I would not recommend her hanging out much in the young, rather oversexed furry crowd where she might run into people who will ignorantly hit on her without knowing what she has been through, which could set off an explosion.
Many people who have been raped turn to faith for strength. If your friend is a religious person, she might find comfort in that. There are several books written by rape survivors who discuss how their faith in God helped them to recover. She doesn’t have to necessarily follow an organized religion to find help in this way, however. If she is a spiritual person, she can find comfort in many other older belief systems that existed long before Judaism, Christianity, Islam, or other faiths. Getting in touch with her spiritual self and the Spirit around her could potentially be very healing, and maybe something you might suggest if she hasn’t tried it.
In the end, she needs to recoup her faith that not everyone is out to get her, that danger does not lurk around every corner. Yes, there are bad things in the world, including rape, but obsessing over them and allowing herself to feel only hatred and fear will destroy her from within. There may be a number of reasons why she is still so angry. Perhaps her attacker was never caught or justice was never served; perhaps she was abused by a close family member and no one believed her when she told others in her family. I don’t know, and neither, apparently, do you, but she likely has many unresolved feelings that are eating her up inside. It would be very helpful for someone to know what happened, exactly, which would help with treatment. It would also help in understanding why certain things seem to trigger outbursts of anger. Without this knowledge, you will need to tread very lightly around her psyche.
I wish I could be more help, but I hope what I have written here might give you ideas that will eventually assist you and your friend. She is lucky to have a friend like you in her life.
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