Updated: Aug 14
I get these questions all too often. The ones that stump me; that have me lying awake in bed at night wishing I could actually do something. These are the questions I cry over and the ones that I rarely get to answer publicly because the topics are so sensitive. The most common question like this of all is some version of this one, which I got from an anonymous reader last week:
From the age of six to fourteen, I was repeatedly raped by two of our church leaders. Now, thirty years later I’m finding it hard to cope with my abuse. I want to know if you have any advice for how to cope with this sort of thing.
This email lurked in the back of my mind while I tried to go about my week. I couldn’t stop thinking about it. I don’t know how to answer this and have it actually help anyone in this situation, but I couldn’t help but feel I had to try. So, I emailed Anonymous back and asked if I could post my answer to my blog. Anonymous said yes. So, here goes.
Before I offer any advice, I’d just like to say that I’m sorry this happened to you. Whether it was at the hands of religious leaders or anyone else, this should not have happened to you and I am deeply saddened that it has. I’d also like to acknowledge that this level of abuse is not something I understand. I have had shitty days and crappy things happen to me, but this is beyond any trauma I have experienced. So, my advice is coming from a place of naivete and lack of experience and should be taken with a grain of salt. I offer it because I feel I can’t just say nothing.
So, the first thing I would suggest that you do is to seek professional help. I am honoured that you came to me for advice, but I have not been trained to deal with these sorts of situations. I don’t really know what you need to cope. There are many trained individuals out there who do know how to help you, though. There is no shame in seeking help – reaching out to me was a form of that. We already know you can do it. Now, all you need to do is find someone who can help on a more profound level than I ever could. Of course, it costs money, but consider an investment in your own future. Prioritize it. Get it done.
Once you’re actively seeing a professional who will help you develop coping methods, my suggestion to you is to make sure you’re engaging in self-care on a regular basis. Eat well, get exercise, sleep normal hours, keep your house tidy and make sure you’re showered. Beyond that, treat yourself. Indulge in your favourite pastimes and spend time with your favourite people. You’ve lived in a cruel world long enough. Make your world as happy and cozy and enjoyable on the outside as you possibly can.
Talk to people who have been through similar experiences to yours. Realizing you are not alone can help you to understand that what happened to you is not your fault. It can help rid you of any guilt you may have about it. You might also learn new coping methods from others who have found ways to cope. Find a circle of people with whom you can openly talk about how your past is affecting you today. That group of people might be in the form of group therapy or it could just be a group of people you’ve found online. Either way, they should be a safe place to turn to when you need to talk about what’s going on in your head.
I’d also rid your life of any toxic people; people who do not offer much support or who are constantly negative and attract unnecessary drama, just say goodbye. Life is too short to deal with people like this. You’ve got your own demons to fight, don’t take on the demons of other people.
Find something to do that keeps your mind off things. A hobby or even a job that you really love. Something that truly draws your focus and maybe even gives you a sense of accomplishment. Along with that, find ways to lift yourself up. Don’t wait for other people to do it. Give yourself credit for the things that you do, especially if they are not easy for you. Don’t compare yourself to other people. Other people haven’t been through what you have. Other people haven’t survived what you have. Sure, some may have similar stories, but none of their stories is the same as yours. You alone have lived yours and you alone have survived it. That means all the credit for getting as far as you have is yours and yours alone. Recognize that accomplishment. Praise yourself for that accomplishment. This can be the catalyst for a snowball effect of positivity, which you need and deserve.
Finally, ensure you have love in your life. If that means you have to adopt a puppy, then I guess you’d better get a pooper scooper. Seriously, though, if you let an animal into your heart, you’re going to be repaid tenfold.
This is my advice, as a layman with zero training in any of this. This is how I imagine I would cope with a similar situation. That said, you’re so much better off getting a professional’s opinion and I hate saying that because it sounds like I am brushing people off, but it's the most responsible way to answer you. Your mental health is just as important as your physical health. As such, you should see someone trained a knowledgable about it, just like you would for a broken bone.
In the meantime, reach out to the online atheist community. They’ve been an incredible source of support for me and other people I know, and I’ve no doubt they’d do the same for you. You’ve got to know you’re not alone and that, though we all might be real-life strangers, we are here for you.
Anyone struggling to cope with these things or similar, please feel free to write to me and let me know what’s going on. firstname.lastname@example.org
What would your advice be in this situation? Let me know in the comments!