Column: In handling assault, loved ones care for both the victim, themselves

-A A +A

By Tiffany Erspamer, PsyD, LP, Guest Column

April is Sexual Assault Awareness Month. When I consider this topic, I not only think about the victims but also their loved ones and larger communities. It’s important to consider the systemic impact of life challenges, trauma and mental illness.

In one of his books, best-selling author Mark Nepo writes, “Light is in both the broken bottle and the diamond.” As a psychologist, this quote resonates with me. It’s an honor to walk alongside clients who bravely face their own difficulties in efforts to move forward and live full lives. Even more broadly, it reminds me of the inherent interconnectedness of life, and the beautiful (albeit messy!) way in which we all impact one another.

Several years ago I had the opportunity to work as a therapist in a Military Sexual Trauma unit at a veterans hospital in Hampton, Va. Much of the work I did revolved around helping partners, children, parents and other family members come alongside their loved one who had experienced sexual violence. 

This is often a terrifying, shame-ridden, confusing, sad and angry time for both victims and their significant others. Victims typically experience a variety of psychological, physical, emotional, and relational reactions that not only impact their own lives but also the lives of the people they love. Some individuals will reach out for support, while others will isolate themselves and hold their emotions tightly inside. The same variety of responses that exist for victims is also present for family members and loved ones. For some family systems, loving communication and support will come easily, while for others this may be more challenging.

If you are a family member or loved one of an individual who has experienced sexual assault, I encourage you to give yourself permission to seek your own support and help. There are support groups and therapeutic services aimed at offering services to families of victims of sexual assault. 

Secondly, encourage your loved one to seek support and therapeutic help, if appropriate. Professional assistance may be beneficial in providing education about sexual trauma and its impact on both the victim and family system. Nothing will be able to erase the pain experienced by yourself and your loved one, but there are resources available to offer support and assistance. 

Finally, be prepared for your loved one who has experienced a sexual assault to demonstrate various and changing reactions to their trauma. Some days, they may want to talk about the experience and at other times be withdrawn and angry. Expect this of yourself as well! Be a steady and loving support system, recognizing that working through the ugliest corners of pain is part of the healing process. One of the most impactful (and challenging) things you can do is to demonstrate kindness and unconditional love to yourself and your loved one during this difficult time. More information and resources may be found online at the Colorado Coalition Against Sexual Assault (www.ccasa.org).

Tiffany Erspamer, PsyD, LP, is a Quality Assurance Specialist at Community Reach Center, a nonprofit mental health center with five outpatient offices in Adams County. To learn more, visit www.CommunityReachCenter.org or call 303-853-3500.