Life After Sexual Harassment: Talkspace Weighs in on How to Open Your Heart Again

This anonymous quote finds very relevant currency when it comes to the #MeToo movement, an invariable deluge of reports and testimonials from women around the world about their personal traumas with sexual harassment and abuse. The floodgates, or windows, continue to open as more than just Hollywood moguls are exposed for their sexual misdeeds and machinations.

As the Windows Widen, the Road Stretches Out

Indeed, according to Bustle, an online magazine dedicated to issues influencing and driving women’s lives, the responses to actress Alyssa Milano’s importune last fall via Twitter numbered 1.7 million tweets in less than 45 days following her tweet.

Some of these doors to women’s personal stories about sexual trauma remained closed for decades before the revelations about Harvey Weinstein and Bill Cosby-not to mention a slew of other actors and politicians-started to appear in the press.

The sharing of these stories-i.e., opening a discourse-proves critical for women to get back on track with relationships and their lives in general, according to the founders of Talkspace, an online avenue to licensed psychotherapists and treatment for mental health issues.

However, Roni Frank, who co-founded Talkspace with her husband, Oren, said the road to overcoming the humiliation and self-loathing that often results from this sort of trauma stretches much farther than these women’s original tweets and other social media divulgences.

“The road to recovering or getting back on track can be as long as it took to tweet about it or share it otherwise with others,” says Frank.

Deanna Ward, a licensed marriage and family therapist, substantiates Frank’s assessment in an article appearing in Greatist, a website devoted to articles on well-being.

Ward indicates that the road is slow and long because it centers on regaining one’s trust in others.

Not Just About Sex

“It isn’t really about sex. It’s about control . . . a lack of choice,” says Ward. She adds that it can also be about humiliation . . . sometimes making the victim experience self-loathing and disgust in themselves because of what they were made to do.”

“It is a violation in the worst way,” notes Ward.

Frank and Talkspace therapists agree that overcoming the original trauma imparted from such violations centers on the ability to keep your window of communication open to those in your post-#MeToo life.

Shedding the Shame, Opening Up

One Talkspace mental health expert points to losing the shame of the original event or events as a starting point to your therapeutic discourse. “The victim must lose the shame over the event in order to communicate openly with a new partner,” says the Talkspace therapist. “This requires trust and belief in a post-event partner, one that is willing to just listen to you and not be frightened or inhibited by your life-changing story,” says the therapist.

This is where Talkspace, which tears down the doors and barriers otherwise presented to clinical sessions with psychotherapists, poses a road to regaining a full life, Frank says.

Being able to talk to a therapist in real time via your cell phone, perhaps even schedule an in-person session if the therapist deems it necessary, creates a much less intimidating atmosphere than traditional therapy, says Frank, who also heads clinical services and writes a blog for Talkspace.

“Therapy will always have the mission of helping people live a happier and healthier life, but the methods of working with and reaching clients are evolving rapidly,” notes Frank. Online services, such as Talkspace, make therapy more readily available and even affordable to women needing to talk about their incidents and subsequently be honest with themselves. “This is one of the vital first steps: self-honesty,” she said.

When one is honest with oneself, she says, the shame and humiliation, as cited by Ward, begin to crack and crumble. Frank says Talkspace therapists, particularly, “focus more on the strength of their relationships with clients, rather than symptom reduction.”

A Type of PTSD

Beyond being able to communicate their personal stories of sexual violence, says marriage and family therapist Ward, women need to look at their trauma much the same as other PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder) victims.

Another Talkspace blog writer, Reina Gatusso, speaks to the PTSD factor in one of her articles. In fact, she says victims of non-consensual sex, sexual abuse, or similar domestic violence face the risk of developing what is known as Complex PTSD.

“People with Complex PTSD will generally experience common PTSD symptoms like flashbacks, nightmares, and physical reminders of the event like nervousness or increased heart rate.” She adds, “They may also try to avoid or block out memories of the traumatic event emotionally.”

The danger in trying to hold back these memories, she says, lies in the very real risk of becoming numb-to not feel anything at all, for example, in a new relationship. This can greatly hinder the individual’s social life, relationships in general, and overall wellbeing.

“People with Complex PTSD may experience periods of dissociation, meaning they will lose attention, concentration, and connection to their immediate surroundings as a defense mechanism against overwhelming stress,” says Gatusso, a graduate from Harvard College and Fulbright fellow in cinema and gender studies at Jawaharlal Nehru University, Delhi, India.

This virtual isolation of self, a hazard to fostering trust with any new partner or even circle of friends, poses the biggest obstacle to recovering from sexual violence and harassment, according to Gatusso and others.

“There are so many different avenues that people can use to find themselves again,” says Kristen Paruginog, founder of Break the Silence Against Domestic Violence, in the Greatist article.

However, “You have to love yourself first, a challenge for so many of us,” says Paruginog. It is the essential piece to the puzzle when finding new, trusting relationships after a PTSD event such as sexual violence.

“Getting into a relationship means that you are giving yourself to somebody else, and you can’t give to other people if you can’t give to yourself first,” she says. “Have fun, rely on your friends, love on them, let them love you back, and fill yourself up.”

She encourages such women to seek out healthy friendships and networks with similar women to explore their new lives and to heal. Together, with people who have shared similar experiences, healing can begin.

Talkspace blogger Gatusso also offers some advice in treating Complex PTSD as it relates to sexual violence and harassment.

Reach out for help. Don’t try to travel the road alone. A therapist trained to work with trauma survivors can guide you back to the path to healing.

-Employ grounding techniques. These encourage stabilization by reminding you to stay in the here and now, where you are safe, rather than feeling threat and panic from the past. Suggestions include walking barefoot and feeling the ground beneath your toes, paying attention to sounds, sights, smells, and textures around you or just going somewhere safe and cozy to pay attention to the resulting feelings of comfort. Stay in the present, and block out (but not avoid) the past.

-Try therapeutic techniques offered by your licensed therapist. These may include cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) or eye movement desensitization and reprocessing therapy (EMDR). The former basically consists of actual talking therapy to help you manage your PTSD. The latter focuses directly on the memory of the traumatic event but changes the way it is stored in the brain, thereby reducing and eliminating the PTSD symptoms.

The Long and Short of It: You Can Heal

The main gist shared by all in the psychotherapy field, according to Frank of Talkspace, is that victims of sexual violence and harassment can heal when they reach out for help.

Whether induced by sexual violence or other traumatic episodes, PTSD and Complex PTSD remains a common malady, unfortunately. Surviving something as emotional and mentally traumatic as sexual violence requires patience and, of course, time. For example, one must step into new relationships slowly yet honestly, as Ward notes, in order to establish trust in the relationship and manage such emotions as humiliation, shame, and guilt and to lessen the effects of flashbacks.

Neither Path is Easy

As one victim puts it in the Greatist article, survivors of sexual violence are forced to make an “awful choice: We can either expend exhausting quantities of energy resolving our issues or sit with unresolved trauma time bombs that can go off basically whenever, harming our relationships and ourselves,” said Jo Beckwith.

“For a very long time, I was enraged by this injustice,” she notes, “but I had to make the decision to stay there in my trauma and wallow, or wade into the muck that was contaminating my relationship and begin the process of uprooting it.”

She added that the help from counselors, friends, and her supporting, loving partner persuaded her to choose the uprooting option over the wallowing alternative – a difficult but rewarding path.

“It took years of hard conversations, agonizing counseling sessions, and difficult decisions to identify my issues, lessen reactions, and leave unhealthy coping behaviors behind, but every step of that journey was worth it to be where I am today,” says Beckwith.

“Choosing to face the reality of the trauma that you have experienced is one of the most uncomfortable processes you can choose . . . but the payoff can be immense,” she concludes.

How Online Therapy Fits into the Picture

Frank, at Talkspace, points to the ease and anonymity of therapy via text messaging and video chatting with a professional as a main asset for her company. This fosters an environment in which the survivor of a sexual assault or harassment feels more comfortable, she avers. “It allows her to open up more willingly about what happened, her resulting emotions, and even her flashbacks,” Frank says.

By creating a more conducive arena for facing one’s own self-loathing and humiliation, a therapist can more easily find common ground, a starting point if you will, and begin the process of healing, Frank notes.

She adds that not everyone has the privilege of access to bank accounts as large as the celebrities we see in the news today related to #MeToo. Most of those who survive sexual violence are not celebs and six-figure workers, she notes.

“Talkspace helps clients who do not have enough income to pay $75 to $150 per session fees or the time to commute back and forth to an office.

“It also allows people to see a therapist confidentially rather than risking someone seeing them at a therapist’s office and telling others,” she says.

Moreover, Frank notes, a therapist can deal with a client’s anxiety, flashbacks, mistrust, or skepticism as it is happening when video chatting with a client. The asynchronous nature of such allows the therapist to monitor the emotion or symptom more acutely, as it is unfolding-at least if the client is conveying it in an honest, uninhibited nature.

Ultimately, such real-time analysis can suggest whether a patient must set up an in-person appointment or simply call back the therapist.

Frank thinks Talkspace and similar online venues can help to reach more of the “#MeToo” survivors than traditional therapeutic means.

Beyond “#MeToo” to a Wider Awareness

Most psychotherapists, including all who are quoted in this article, attest to the “#MeToo” movement’s general broadening of knowledge about sexual assault and harassment.

According to the article in Bustle by JR Thorpe, the value of the movement even reaches beyond the personal therapeutic benefits. Thorpe writes that the mere user data linked to the hashtag of “MeToo” reveals the movement’s effect on user curiosity and education about this matter.

“While searches for #MeToo itself peaked in the U.S. in mid-October (of last year) and have since dwindled, Google searches about the definition of sexual assault and harassment . . . have been gradually on the rise since October,” he writes.

Another interesting fact Thorpe adds is that data also indicates that Google searches for “workplace harassment” continue to gradually rise since the initial Twitter flood.

His article continues that some people were also very interested in googling #MeToo alongside “men,” but this search was only really popular in the U.S.-New York and California, specifically – “which indicates that perhaps it wasn’t a widespread idea.”

Thorpe’s article in Bustle, however, points to the overall point of the #MeToo movement. It’s general intent, he claims, is to heighten the visibility of the scale to which this harassment and assault reaches. “And it has (done this) in ways that perhaps nobody predicted,” he writes.

He cautions, however, that visibility isn’t enough. “The fact this hashtag has encouraged more allegations against prominent male abusers to be made public is a good thing,” he writes, “but the way in which people are talking about assault and harassment is now more open than ever before, it and can teach us about the problem in unprecedented ways.”

All these facts bring us back to Talkspace which provides digitally attained therapy, an unprecedented treatment venue, and the type of comfortable environment that Frank cites as critical to dealing the with problem of post-event trauma. In this case, the knowledge and healing must begin not only personally, but socially worldwide.

Melissa Thompson writes about a wide range of topics, revealing interesting things we didn’t know before. She is a freelance USA Today producer, and a Technorati contributor.