Coping with the nightmare

Survivors of sexual assault face shame, anger, mistrust as they try to move on with their lives

Editor's note: What follows is the fourth part of a series on incest that will run throughout this week. It is the policy of the Craig Daily Press not to print the names of the accused or victims in the cases of sexual assault.

Under cross-examination during the trial that convicted her father of incest and sexual assault last week, the 16-year-old victim quit crying and became angry.

The counsel for the defense pressed the young woman about her knowledge of sex at a young age, asserting the victim had known about sexual practices and terms, that she and her friends had discussed sex, and that she was "curious" about it.

The victim glared angrily across the courtroom.

"I was curious to know about it, not do it," she said.

Her father, a resident of Craig, was found guilty Friday of sexual assault on a child by a person in a position of trust and aggravated incest.

He is to be sentenced in October. He faces a mandatory eight years to life in a Department of Corrections prison.

Because the nature of the trial experience requires skepticism, and because a victim's credibility is a topic of endless contention in the courtroom, mental health experts say the experience can be damaging, though it can be a step toward recovery.

"Cross-examination can be pretty horrendous for the victim," said Laney Gibbes, a therapist who works for Yampa Valley Psychotherapists.

Trials often require victims to "share this horribly humiliating, degrading, shameful experience with a courtroom of strangers," Gibbes said.

Also, "someone is passing judgement about whether they even believe the story," Gibbes said. "That is horribly traumatizing."

However, Gibbes said, some victims feel validated by a guilty verdict.

"Testifying can be therapeutic in terms of the victim getting some control back over her life," said Jane Paulson, a mental health clinician at Craig Mental Health Center.

Some victims feel a responsibility to testify, saying, "I just want it out there so it will never happen to anybody else," according to Pat Tessmer, director of Advocates Crisis Support Services in Craig.

Regardless of the effects of the courtroom experience, "The person is never going to forget," Gibbes said. "That's always going to be a piece of their history."

Not only is sexual abuse damaging but it is complex, Paulson said.

The effects range from shock, disbelief and denial to humiliation and shame, Gibbes said.

This can be true in all cases of sexual assault, but perhaps more damaging in cases of incest, Paulson said.

Because the victim likely depended on the perpetrator for food shelter and general care, the victim looks at the world with distrust.

The victim loses a sense of being able to believe that people are good and victims begin to doubt that other people don't mean them harm, Gibbes said.

Because victims of incest are often repeatedly molested by the same person, they have undergone tremendous anxiety throughout their lives, Tessmer said. The anticipation of the next encounter can leave them in a constant state of worry.

As a result of the years of trauma, victims develop unhealthy psychological traits. Survivors of incest have learned to disassociate, or remove themselves emotionally from the experience, in order to cope. Left unchecked, this behavior can become a damaging pattern in their lives. While disassociation makes the trauma of the moment less fearful, it doesn't help in solving long-term problems that can be compounded when avoided, Paulson said.

In the long term, Gibbes said therapists address the issues of avoidance, intrusion and hyper-vigilance caused by the trauma.

The avoidance manifests itself as an aversion to "anything that reminds them of the actual assault," Gibbes said. They may have anxiety attacks around certain people or things related to the assault.

Intrusion is seen when survivors are re-traumatized by intense nightmares or flashbacks of the assault.

If suffering from hyper-vigilance, one may exhibit a "startle reflex" -- flinching or moving when approached by another person.

To counteract victims' heightened sensitivity, Gibbes said she encourages survivors to keep processing the event, to go back over their story. Gibbes said she hopes clients will begin to vent, to express how they feel about what has happened. She also asks them to retell the story so they can integrate it and place it.

"The idea is, the more they can verbalize it, the better they are able to deal with it," Gibbes said.

The wounds inflicted on the psyche of a victim of incest can be mitigated in the short term, but Gibbes said it requires a lifetime commitment to sort out.

At each stage of development, the survivor must reprocess the experience to "reconstruct how that sexual assault fits in with their current experiences," Gibbes said.

Victims who receive treatment as children may have to revisit the issues again at puberty, when they begin dating, when they reach adulthood, and when they get married. And disclosing their childhood experiences to spouses or partners can be challenging, Gibbes said. Survivors need to approach sexual intimacy in stages, working level by level toward deeper levels of intimacy, with sexual intimacy being the last step.

According to Gibbes, many survivors live at the other extreme, becoming sexually promiscuous. It is a way to regain control, deciding who, when and where with regard to sexual activity. Also, they may gravitate toward sexual occupations, such as stripping. These victims feel empowered by being able to stand nude in front of a bunch of men who can't touch them, Gibbes said.

While it may appear to further victimize them, Gibbes said stripping offers some women a

genuine sense of power and that is positive.

The question, Gibbes said, is "do they feel it as degrading and being objectified, or do they see it as a way of truly feeling powerful in a sexual society?"

Whether they suffer from post traumatic stress disorder, symptoms of avoidance, alcoholism or self-abuse later in life, incest victims are sure to feel confusion and guilt in the short term, especially if their testimony sends a parent to jail.

Young victims may think, "If I hadn't told, my dad wouldn't be in prison," Paulson said. Family members may criticize them, or hold them responsible for a family struggling financially after the breadwinner is incarcerated.

According to Paulson, immediate goals of the therapy attempt to rescue victims from that guilt and help them understand who is responsible for what.

"Dad got himself in jail," Paulson tells them.

Jeremy Browning can be reached at 824-7031 or jbrowning@craigdailypress.com.

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