Reflections from a Professional Responder
As a counselor, I never really know the story of a new client coming to see me. I can take classes and attend trainings and read books, but in the end, it is impossible to be completely prepared, because everyone’s experience is so unique. What I have found to be effective with all people coming for help, however, is the ability to provide a safe place for someone to tell his or her story. The power of allowing and encouraging someone to talk has always amazed me. I can recall several sessions where the only words I’ve uttered are, “How can I help you?” After an hour of telling their story, clients will stand up to leave and say, “Thank you so much for your help!” And all I did was listen to them.
But that’s the power of listening, and that’s the power that you have as a responder to someone who has been sexually abused. There are definitely steps you can take to prepare to be that safe person. You can attend a trauma response training. You can get help with your own trauma so that you can set it aside to be present for the survivor. You can role- play with another person or even in front of the mirror to practice encouraging nonverbal skills and open-ended questions.
As a parent of four children, I have been preparing to be their safe person since they were born. I've done this by letting them know every day that they are loved. I've encouraged them to talk to me about their day and their interests, even if it's something I'm not all that interested in (I've heard everything I ever need to about Minecraft). By demonstrating to them that I want to hear about everyday experiences, I am letting them know I will also listen to them about the important, and even traumatic, experiences. I have talked with my children about healthy, appropriate, and God- pleasing sexuality; so that they will know if they have witnessed or experienced something that is not. And we have talked about the danger of secrets, and the power of talking. If you are blessed to have children in your life, show them that you want to and are capable of being their safe person, even amidst the fear and uncertainty of sexual abuse.
I have had days when I’ve talked with 10 or more clients in a row, hearing story after story of abuse and heartache. Secondary trauma is real, and it is important to care for yourself as a responder. Practice emerging from the sadness and darkness of the abuse by finding joy and something to be thankful for in the people and experiences around you. Pet your dog, laugh with a friend, enjoy your favorite food, marvel at the sunset. By building up our strength and joy, we can more easily offer it to those who are hurting.
With your listening, you provided safety for the survivor who confided in you. But we can't just be listeners. We need to be listened to as well. Find a safe person for yourself and share what you are feeling and experiencing. I talk to my husband when I come home at night (leaving out names and details, of course), and I talk to colleagues who understand what it's like to be a listener. When the sadness of a particular story is sitting heavy on my heart, I talk to God, knowing that He has more power than I do to help the hurting, and that He is the ultimate Safe Person. "In peace, I will lie down and sleep, for you alone, LORD, make me dwell in safety"—Psalm 4:8.
Finally, as a responder to someone who has been sexually abused, remember that you are not alone as a helper. You have a tremendous power to impact survivors by listening with empathy, validating their experience, and advocating for their voice. But you don’t need to do it by yourself. In talking with JoLanda, I have been amazed by the number of people and organizations God has placed alongside her as she has struggled through her own journey of healing from childhood sexual abuse. Now she, in turn, is offering help to others through opportunities for counseling and writing through T.A.L.K. Organizations like Christian Family Solutions, where I work, provide individual counseling and group support for those who have been sexually abused, and those who are loving and supporting survivors in their life. And there are countless other organizations and people who are dedicated to helping survivors of childhood sexual abuse.
If you have been a responder, or if you are preparing to be a responder, thank you from the bottom of my heart. I see the darkness in this world more than I would like, but against darkness, light stands out even more. Thank you for being that light.
Sarah Reik, Licensed Professional Counselor Christian Family Solutions