I read an interesting article a couple of weeks ago, on exposure therapy for young rape victims. Edna Foa, a psychologist at the University of Pennsylvania, led a study last year to test the results of this controversial technique, which is usually reserved for veterans with PTSD, on girls as young as 13.
The article noted that the traditional treatment for girls who have been raped is supportive counseling – kind words and protective environments aimed at helping the victims forget all about what happened to them. Unlike supportive counseling, exposure therapy requires the girls to talk. They tell what happened to them. They tell their horror stories over and over again until finally, they are not scared anymore.
Foa’s study had astounding results. After 14 weeks of exposure therapy, 83 percent of the girls in the study no longer had PTSD, compared with 54 percent of the girls who had traditional therapy. I’m not a scientist, but nearly a 30-percent improvement sounds impressive.
So what was it about the exposure therapy that worked so well? It seems counterintuitive. At first, the article admitted, exposure therapy is very traumatic for the victims. They have to re-live the rape, not just once, but during every therapy session. Foa explained that at the beginning of therapy, the patients get very upset about what happened to them. Their symptoms – presumably anxiety, fear, depression – worsen. At the point where a traditional therapist would veer back toward kind, helpful words, an exposure therapist continues to have her patient repeat her tale again at the next session. Somewhere along the line, after many sessions, the patient begins to realize that the story is in the past and that it doesn’t control the present. “They get a new perspective,” Foa explained.
I like this idea of perspective and of owning our stories, even the painful ones. If you’ve been reading here awhile, then you know that I’ve been rethinking my past. I’ve been retelling my own stories, thankfully none of them about rape. When I began this blog, I could not have explained why I felt drawn to dredge up the past. Now I can tell you that the experience of telling my stories has been hard but good. Sure enough, it makes me anxious at times. Medication and extra sleep help me deal with the side effects, but it’s not easy. Still, for me, feeling the pain has been life affirming. That’s my pain, and it’s okay to feel it.
To me, exposure is not so much a process of letting go as one of acknowledging what I hold onto and why. I think the same thing goes for the 13-year-old rape victims. Telling their stories is a concrete activity that gives them power over the past. Rather than fighting the memory of their trauma, they can shape it. It’s healing.