How to help a relative cope with past sexual assault?
March 19, 2013 7:00 AM   Subscribe

My elderly mother in law recently confided in me that her now-deceased husband sexually assaulted her decades ago and it haunts her daily.

This was my wife's beloved father and my father in law. I only know that it happened twice and out of the home, more than forty years ago, and it was "really bad". So the memory is specific. There are emotional symptoms through the family and I knew he had been physically abusive before my wife was born.

Mother-in-law said she wishes she could erase her memory so she could enjoy some peace and rest, but it never leaves her. She worries something is wrong with her, that she can't just forget it or get over it.

I could only think to tell her that she didn't deserve to be hurt then, or the shame now, it is normal to still feel angry and hurt, she doesn't need to suffer alone and there are many professionals who can help her deal with this, if she decides she wants that. And of course family and friends are here for her too.

My wife does not know this about her father, who died a few years ago and whom she is missing. It was told to me in confidence and I will not break that.

What are supportive and helpful things I can say to my mother in law about this, if she wants to talk about it again?

What resources are available to help her manage the memories and shame?

She is old and wants peace.
posted by anonymous to Human Relations (10 answers total) 3 users marked this as a favorite
Trauma and Recovery may be helpful.
posted by suprenant at 7:18 AM on March 19, 2013

I'm sorry, I know its an AskMe trope, but the best thing you can do is help her find a good therapist that she can build some trust with and deal with the pain she's feeling.

My mother had trauma when she was young (partly sexual, but other stuff as well), and she never properly dealt with it. She self-medicated with alcohol, which eventually killed her.

There aren't tips or tricks for dealing with lifelong PTSD. She was violated and betrayed by the person she was supposed to trust more than anyone. The fact that (I gather) no one else knows means she has been bearing it alone. She has decades of pain to process. You can obviously be a support to her, but you can't give her peace all by yourself.

As for what you can do, you highlighted a few things. Make sure she knows you don't judge her for what happened, that she can always talk to you in confidence (within the bounds of how much you're willing to keep from your wife), and offer to take her to therapy appointments yourself. She's been dealing with this by herself for so long that she may view therapy as a waste of time. It may take some time to change her mind. Be a support but try to keep therapy on the table.
posted by dry white toast at 7:19 AM on March 19, 2013 [1 favorite]

Steer your MIL to a good therapist. Your wife doesn't have to know why she's in therapy, if your FIL recently died, it may make perfect sense.

You must be a great person for your MIL to confide in you like that.
posted by Ruthless Bunny at 7:20 AM on March 19, 2013 [9 favorites]

A therapist who deals with PTSD can definitely help her. There are good therapies for this - EMDR has a good record and there are cognitive behavioural techniques that can very quickly help her. All this stuff with a willing client is comparatively fast, 2-6 months of treatment to see benefits. She may not want to do "talk therapy", especially with shame complicating things, but she sounds like an excellent candidate for PTSD-specific therapy. After that, she may want to continue therapy for the shame stuff.

Ask how she sleeps - hyper-vigilance and nightmares can be a side effect. She may want to redecorate or change her bedroom furniture so it's not the same space in her memories of insecure sleep, and to install door and window locks for the emotional sense of safety. There are mild sleeping aids like anti-histamines that can be taken to help her sleep with more security.

Tell her that it is utterly normal. Not everyone who suffers a trauma gets PTSD, but plenty of people do, very brave and strong people. It is the brain trying to cope and getting stuck.
posted by viggorlijah at 7:23 AM on March 19, 2013 [2 favorites]

I'm usually all about therapy, but if this is the first time she's disclosed the assault to anyone she may need to take it slowly.

Sexual assault hotlines and crisis centers are not exclusive to people who have just been assaulted. You can find a local one here. Local crisis centers often have counseling and referral services, too.

One thing you can do to help is be there when she calls - you can even make the call and talk to the person yourself until she's ready to get on the phone.

I'm sorry this puts you in an awkward position with your wife, but your mother-in-law clearly knew you were a good person to confide in.
posted by camyram at 7:42 AM on March 19, 2013

You know, in order to work up to going to counseling I had to do months of phone counseling, and then the in person visits were as awful as I thought they would be. Physically damaging to my body, I had illness and pain. My mothers goes to therapy but has NEVER gone to sexual abuse oriented therapy and I think honestly she might have made the right choice.

I feel like providing support for what is happening right now is where most sexual abuse counseling winds up (the intensive past related talk therapy is kind of not so highly recommended depending on the persons desires). I am a fan of bodywork, meditation, yoga, and other here and now related relaxation and healing activities. She may REALLY REALLY want to get it all out and talk about it which can be worth doing if she wants it, but it's not some sort of fix where you talk about it and then things are better. For some people it can make things worse, and there are very legitimate reasons many people avoid every having to endure the misery of receiving "support" for sexual trauma. Trauma services are not very research based and are not very well regulated and can wind up being not helpful depending on what your needs are and how well the type of response/therapy matches those needs. Really- providing ongoing support and comfort to those coping with trauma issues, without putting too much focus on "Here is support for the sexual abuse! This is sexual abuse related support! You're here to be supported about SEXUAL ABUSE in case you forgot... " is really better in the long term than having to endure a counselor that is there for sexual abuse related reasons.

For me, after years of trying different things, I have realized that what I personally like most in therapy is just to be in the presence of someone who knows I've been through a lot and can feel empathy and even sympathy for what I've been through without making it really emotional or hard for me. If that makes sense. It's a hard skill to develop and very few of my friends are very capable of putting forth emotional energy towards supporting my feelings and emotions without falling down the wormhole into their own feelings about my trauma (which is more work for me and not helpful though simultaneously appreciated if that makes sense). Sometimes I just want to cry and a shoulder to lean on and someone who will not fall apart under the weight of my pain. If you chat with her about what her needs are, just let her know there are lot's of different types of support she can seek and not all of them will have the same goals.

Some amount of therapy will definitely be helpful and I highly recommend you help her find some, but help her express what kind of support feels right to her and trust her instincts about what she feels ready to talk about, what kind of support she wants, and what feels healing rather than overwhelming in terms of support. Therapists aren't magicians, they have their methods which work well for some but can be the wrong thing for others so you do need to learn how to stand up to therapy techniques you don't like even when the "expert" demands you accept their method. The science behind trauma recovery is not sufficient for any one to really claim that level of "expert" knowledge. Reading might be a less threatening way for her to work through some of her feelings and learn more coping techniques and what kind of supports are there.
posted by xarnop at 12:07 PM on March 19, 2013

I want to add, from what you wrote, she sounds really ready to share this experience and not be so alone in coping with it and therapy is great for that. Setting up some grounding comforting routines to keep her supported through the difficulty of talking about this in therapy, will make the process smoother and more supported and that's what I mean about the massage, body work, gardening, cooking healthy comfort foods and sharing meals together, taking a craft lesson-- these are activities you or other family members can do with her (or recommend to/gift to her) to lift her spirits and help her feel supported while she goes through the process of talking about this and opening up to some of the harder emotions. Remember you can laugh and make jokes and do fun things, play cards, have a game night. Coping with trauma issues doesn't mean everything needs to be sad or about trauma issues (in fact it's much better that it isn't!).

Also, make sure you get some support to, being any where near trauma issues is hard for most people.
posted by xarnop at 12:18 PM on March 19, 2013

I think it'd be helpful for her to know that it's not that shocking, and OF COURSE she's still haunted by it- anyone would be! Just letting her know she's normal would probably be very helpful.

Later on you could mention that there are therapies just for this sort of thing. (I got a lot out of EMDR and it was especially awesome because it was SHORT compared to talk therapy!) If you say OMG PTSD THERAPY STAT! she might feel even more "broken." Basically, if I were you, I'd play it pretty cool.
posted by small_ruminant at 7:30 PM on March 19, 2013 [1 favorite]

Counselling doesn't have to be about talking personal business for an hour. Part of the job of a trained psychologist is teaching the coping strategies for dealing with those painful and intrusive memories. It's worth considering and offering.
posted by chiquitita at 12:12 AM on March 20, 2013

I don't think it is possible to forget. This is human nature (and probably not terribly healthy if you do manage) What you want to do is lessen the pain, so when you do remember it hurts less and less to none. We usually recommend forgiving. This can be hard to do, but some steps: Acknowledge how he hurt you. Acknowledge what he cost you. Acknowledge how this all made you feel. Pick something, say 'I forgive you for X' (not to his face, obviously, thats neither safe nor productive) Pick y, z, Z+, till you have forgiven him for everything. You will probably feel better. Till the feelings come back, which is also natural, and then you... forgive again!
posted by Jacen at 5:04 PM on March 20, 2013

« Older Accountant needed for complicated residence...   |   I can't be Catholic any more. Newer »
This thread is closed to new comments.