Telling the stories that don’t get told

Are you sitting comfortably? Then I’ll begin. I’d like to tell you a story. In fact – I’d like to tell you lots of stories. One of the many wonderful things about my job is that I get to work with some fascinating people and uncover some powerful human stories. As a researcher my job is often over once I’ve published these stories in a research report. I’d like to change that. I want to tell these stories in a way that everyone can engage with – not just academics and researchers. I want to share these stories with you – because they are great stories and they need to be shared.

In the beginning   

The first story that I want to tell is a very powerful story – but it’s also very challenging. The story I want to tell is about rape and sexual abuse.

I’m guessing that a story about rape and sexual abuse might sound uncomfortable and unappealing. But what if I told you that this story isn’t going to make you feel uncomfortable – it’s going to make you feel inspired? What if I told you that you’re not going to learn the many ways in which you are different to people who have survived abuse – but the many ways in which you are the same? What if I told you that you could learn something important about yourself by hearing this story?

The story I want to tell is an epic human story. It is epic because it gets to the core of what it means to be human – which means that it’s a story that can teach us about ourselves – if we can have the courage and compassion to hear it.

People who have experienced rape or sexual abuse have experienced extreme vulnerability. They are likely to have lived through an experience that changed their world and left them shocked, confused, scared, feeling guilty, ashamed, distrustful of others, alone, and defective. The challenge for anyone who has lived through this is to rebuild a life for themselves. The challenge is to choose to still be you even though it feels like someone has robbed you of your self (perhaps before you’d even had the chance to work out who you were). It’s one of the hardest journeys anyone can make – and it’s a journey that thousands of men and women are making every day.

I have published a research report that tells the story of a group of women who are on this journey. The report tells their story of feeling isolated and broken; of entering group therapy and realising that they are not alone; of learning how we all respond to trauma and realising that they are not crazy; of rediscovering the bits of themselves that they had ‘lost’ as part of their effort to cope with the abuse; of realising that their old ways of coping were now holding them back; and of finding the courage and compassion to hope for a better life for themselves. Below is a short introduction to the report:

It’s a cold and gloomy Friday in January. The woman sitting opposite me looks physically and emotionally uncomfortable. It’s warm in the room but she still has her coat on. She doesn’t look like she has any intention of taking it off. I can almost see the physical struggle within her. She wants to be here. She wants to do a good job of this. But on the other hand being here, with a psychologist she doesn’t know, talking about her experiences of group therapy is plainly causing her to be anxious.

She doesn’t leave. She carries on telling me her story. She talks about her fear before she started the group. She talks about the women she met on the group and how much meeting them has changed her life. She talks about feeling safe and listened to. She talks about how the group has helped her. How she finds it a bit easier to leave the house now. How she feels scared and nervous about carrying on with her therapy, but that she feels ready. There are tears during the interview, but there is laughter too.

Near the end of the interview I ask her why she has chosen to come out on a cold day to talk a stranger about her experiences of therapy. She says she feels hopeful for the first time in a long time. She says that if the research project somehow helps one other person then everything she has been through will be worth it.

I suspect that she would be shocked to hear it but that woman was the most courageous, inspiring woman I had ever met – except that I was about to meet six more who were just like her.

To read a copy of the research report click here. (The report is about what happened to these women after they were raped or sexually abused. The story is about their recovery – not their abuse. There are no case studies or details about actual abuse in the report.)

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