Welcome to Sexual Assault Awareness Month (SAAM)! For this year’s SAAM Sitdown, we’re joined by Nurse Kim to delve into what happens AFTER sexual assault…from medical care to self-care, from telling your support system to telling law enforcement, we go through the various routes a survivor can choose from to start the healing process. We shed light on this scary subject in the hope that should you or a loved one ever find yourself in this situation, you’ll have a better idea of what to expect.
WCET believes and supports survivors. We are here for you 24/7 on 800.441.5555. You are not alone.
ORIGINALLY POSTED AT RAINN.ORG
“My patients are some of the strongest people I know. They are definitely not alone.”
Tarhata Brazsal experienced rape and intimate partner violence from her high school boyfriend. After the relationship ended, Tarhata told her sister and cousin about what had happened.
“I believed this was a normal thing that happened in relationships. The environment I was raised in catered to what boys and men wanted. I was used to living in a cultural and social perspective of masculine dominance with women being quiet and obedient.”
Though she is glad she disclosed the abuse, Tarhata says speaking about it brought up many difficult emotions. “There were a lot of after-effects. The rapes kept coming into my mind like a broken record. I could not function. It felt like the PTSD, shaking, anxiety, paranoia, anorexia, and suicidal thoughts had completely taken over my life.”
Some of the people Tarhata trusted most blamed her for what happened, insulted her, and made her feel ashamed for telling the truth of what happened to her. Many of them knew the perpetrator and chose to believe his side of the story. “No one wants to believe that a person they know and believe is a ‘good guy,’ would do something like this.” After getting through that difficult period, she found herself surrounded by the people who had stood by her and supported her. “After years, I eventually found people who were healthy and safe. I found out who my real friends and family were, and I let the others go.”
Several months after telling her sister, she told a close friend of hers who reacted in a supportive way. Her friend told her that it may be helpful to share her story with others. “I owe everything to that friend. He wanted to hear my story and told me that others wanted to hear it, too.”
The next day she found herself in her friend’s former high school, prepared to share her story in front of a group of students. “I started telling my story and soon realized that absolutely no one was paying attention. None of them were taking me seriously. I got angrier and angrier. I was so mad that nobody was listening; I just wanted to be heard. Fifteen minutes in, I remember banging my fist on the desk, yelling at them. That’s when they started listening.”
Tarhata was worried that she had acted inappropriately, so she was surprised the next day to find messages on her phone of love, support, and gratitude for telling her story. Because of hearing Tarhata’s story, several of the students had gone to the school counselor to discuss their own experiences of sexual violence for the first time. “That’s when I found my voice—and I’ve been sharing my story ever since.”
Tarhata has blended her career as a nurse with her mission of sharing her story and advocating for other survivors by becoming a sexual assault forensic nurse examiner. She finds immense fulfillment and purpose in doing everything she can to create a trauma-informed, patient-focused experience for those under her care. “When I’m called into a case, I am totally about the patient. I look at them through a lens of amazement at how strong they are and how much wisdom they have,” Tarhata says. “At the end of every interaction I let them know how much I admire them to sit there with me and go through an entire exam after having been through such a traumatic experience. My patients are some of the strongest people I know. They are definitely not alone. I do my best to tell them this and honor their strength.”
To best support survivors, Tarhata says, we should just listen. “Listen and let survivors speak their truth. It seems simple, but it takes a lot of patience, introspection, and selflessness.” She emphasizes that it is important not to ask survivors details of their experience, rather to let them tell their story in whatever way they choose and at whatever time they choose. “Offer yourself to be part of their healing process but do it on their timeline.”
Tarhata knows from her own experience that patient and non-judgemental listening can be truly healing. Her sister has been her biggest advocate, listener, and supporter throughout her healing process. After learning of the sexual assault, Tarhata’s sister did not pressure her to go to the police, but instead she listened and waited for Tarhata to feel ready to report it. “She didn’t make me do anything I didn’t want to do. She waited until I was ready. She gave me the power of choice. Everyone was trying to make me do what they thought would help me. People were trying to force me to act in a certain way, but my sister didn’t. Because of that, she truly gave me my voice back.” In addition to going with her to all of her medical appointments and counseling sessions, her sister would also help her continue eating even when Tarhata felt like she couldn’t. “I was too paranoid to do the simplest things like going to the grocery store. My sister would often come by and give me food, knowing that I had absolutely nothing in the fridge.”
Tarhata remembers one incident in particular in which her sister’s support saved her life when she was experiencing a period of depression and suicidal thoughts. “I was driving over the Bay Bridge in San Francisco, and I wanted to drive myself off the overpass. I turned the wheel and was about to do it. But then I thought about my sister and how she listened to me, and I decided not to go through with it,” says Tarhata. “She may not have been there, but she saved my life.”
Another important aspect of Tarhata’s healing has been finding the strength to spend time outside again. “I had been indoors for so long and hadn’t been eating, so I was really pale and my cheeks were sunken in. I felt so ashamed, and I was paranoid about people seeing me.” She started by going on walks around the park, and when she got her rescue dog, Bonkers, he motivated her to continue spending time outdoors. “My dog was everything to me. When I was scared to go outside, he would walk with me. When I didn’t eat, he would eat with me. Everything that made me feel uneasy, he would be the one to keep me calm. Bonkers came to all of my speaking events—everyone knew him. It’s funny how a little rescue dog can rescue you.”
A few years later when Tarhata’s friends started having children and she and her husband had their son, she realized there was a lack of engaging and appropriate children books about healthy touch and relationships. She also found that the books that did exist did not feature any characters of color, something that had been a barrier for her seeing herself in characters in children's books when she was growing up and did not want her son to struggle with.
She decided to talk to parents and teachers about where students were learning about healthy touch and relationships. Students said they wished they learned more about this. There was a gap between teachers who thought that parents would talk to their children at home, and parents who thought teachers would educate students on the topics at school. Tarhata decided to do something about this—she conducted research and wrote her master’s thesis on a nurse-led program for elementary school students on healthy bodies and relationships. She then wrote an illustrated children’s book that will soon also be available in Spanish and Tagalog.
She recommends to parents that they reframe consent in child-friendly language and start talking about it early. “Consent is needed in every social setting. For kids, consent can be about sharing crayons with a classmate. I also like to use the concept of ‘red light, green light’ to talk about consent.” She says that some people resist talking to kids about these topics because they do not discuss sex yet, but Tarhata says it’s about learning respect, boundaries, and appropriate touch—which can be discussed at any age and applied to many topics.
“What is motivating me right now is that I am a mother. Everything that I am doing is not just for me or other adults, it’s because I want my son to be a good human being. This is my way of passing on leadership to the next generation and giving them the tools they need. The spotlight is now on them, and I’m excited for their future.”
“What’s my call to action? It’s for individuals and our society as a whole to be open and talk about this. Discussing sexual assault used to be so taboo. As a society, we are healing together.”