This article contains descriptions of abuse that may be upsetting to some. If you or someone you know is experiencing domestic violence, help is available. Call the 24/7 National Domestic Violence Hotline at 800-799-SAFE for confidential support.
Ashley-Lauren Elrod was only 6 years old when she was sexually abused by a family member. The abuse continued until she was 10 years old.
The only reason anyone found out about the abuse, she says, was because when she was in high school, another survivor also came forward.
From there, Elrod says, the Chicago Children’s Advocacy Center and the police were called, charges were filed, and her abuser was arrested and prosecuted.
During this time, Elrod struggled with her mental health, but “it’s not a norm for my culture to seek a therapist or someone,” she says.
So, she went to college and focused on trying to build a career in the entertainment industry.
“It all, in a way, got swept under the rug,” Elrod says, “and buried under my perfectionism, which was this mask that I wore for so long.”
But in college, she faced sexual harassment while working as a stand-in actress. “Sleazy producers think they can just do whatever because they were above you,” Elrod says.
She was experiencing revictimization, or repeated exposure to abuse.
Eventually, it became so overwhelming, she says, “that I kind of went into a breakdown in 2013. Everything just came to a head.”
Elrod officially received a diagnosis of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), and she’s been in therapy ever since.
Today, she’s also studying to get her mental health counseling certification to help other sexual assault survivors, and she’s on the board of advisers with the organization that helped prosecute her abuser.
But the road to get there wasn’t easy.
No matter how many times someone experiences abuse, it’s never their fault.
It’s nice to think that lightning never strikes twice, but that’s simply not true.
While there are plenty of theories around why someone might experience domestic or sexual abuse more than once, one thing is clear: The ramifications of revictimization can be catastrophic.
It’s difficult enough for rape survivors to be believed once. It’s even harder to be believed multiple times.
“We don’t believe survivors in general. We completely doubt their credibility,” says Shana Maier, an author and professor of criminal justice at Widener University.
“They’re rarely believed the first time, so I think when it happens a second time, there’s a whole other layer of victim blaming and victim questioning,” Maier says. “I think this points to the general societal attitudes.”
In other words, when someone survives domestic violence, sexual assault, or rape more than once, people are more likely to think something is wrong with the survivor than the perpetrator (which is the very definition of victim blaming).
People have a hard time believing that bad things just happen to anyone, Maier says. Instead, they like to believe that bad things only happen if someone did something or had some sort of vulnerability to begin with.
“Individuals try to figure out or point out what the survivor did differently than what they would have done because it makes them feel more safe in the world,” Maier says.
In reality, questioning the survivor or victim blaming misses the larger issue.
Instead of asking why someone experiences abuse multiple times, it’s more helpful to look at why the abuser is likely to repeat that behavior more than once.
“There’s a lot of research showing that abusers often don’t just abuse once,” Maier says.
It’s incredibly difficult to come forward with your story of abuse.
Some people need time before coming forward. They need to find the strength on their own.
But when they do and are met with nothing but questions or doubt, it makes everything harder.
“Stop saying, ‘Why didn’t you come forward sooner,’” Elrod says.
“It doesn’t matter. You’re not in a situation where you can tell me when I should have come forward or not, because you are not inside my head. You’re not inside my body. You don’t understand what happened… so don’t judge.
“Some people might have the courage right after it happens to go tell someone, and that’s amazing. But for a lot of us, we just can’t do that,” Elrod says.
This is especially true if the abuse came from a family member, or it happened more than once.
“My first acceptance or normalizing of abuse actually started when I was 5 years old,” says Jamie Wright. “I had a very tough childhood that was plagued with a lot of trauma. I was molested, I witnessed my mom experience domestic violence.”
When Wright met her significant other, who ended up being physically abusive, she didn’t really notice red flags right away. “I didn’t know how to recognize emotional abuse,” she explains.
It had been a whirlwind romance. They met in August and were engaged by September. He turned violent by December when he grabbed her by the neck and shook her.
In April 2020, she ended up calling 911 and fleeing to a women’s shelter after he hit her so hard with a laptop that he knocked some of her teeth out.
Looking back, Wright realized he had started becoming emotionally abusive as early as late September and October. She just didn’t see it right away.
And that’s not unusual.
A lot of people who are subjected to emotional abuse don’t see it right away. It can start very subtly.
“I didn’t have the tools to understand that when he called me outside of my name or when he made me feel like I was the person that was wrong for just being who I was, that it was emotional abuse,” Wright says.
“It was only at the point that he knocked my teeth loose that I learned those tools.”
What’s more, emotional abuse can often lead to feelings of anxiety, guilt, and low self-esteem, which, in turn, make you more likely to normalize abuse going forward and less likely to seek help.
Wright says that her abuser was physically abusive to her twice before the incident that ultimately drove her to leave.
But both times, the abuse happened when they were on trips, and she didn’t know anyone nearby. “I was afraid to call the police because I was outside of my comfort zone,” she says.
It’s also difficult to end a relationship. Many survivors have loved their abuser at some point, and while they may want the abuse to end, they may find it hard to walk away from that person.
When people don’t listen to survivors, it makes it less likely that others will come forward.
It also makes it less likely that survivors will seek the kind of mental health support they need. This can have serious consequences.
According to RAINN:
- 94 percent of women who are raped experience symptoms of PTSD during the 2 weeks following rape
- 30 percent of women who are raped still experience PTSD symptoms 9 months later
- 33 percent of women who’ve been raped have contemplated suicide
- 13 percent of women who’ve been raped have attempted suicide
That level of trauma — especially when left untreated — can damage not just your health but also your career and relationships.
“Meeting with a therapist or psychiatrist allows trauma survivors to confront their fears gradually and safely,” says Leela Magavi, regional medical director for Community Psychiatry.
“Everyone heals from trauma in a different way, and a psychiatrist or therapist can help guide the healing process at a pace that feels comfortable,” she says.
Therapy can also help survivors avoid destructive patterns.
“One of the most important things we have is an inner voice,” says Catherine McKinley, associate professor at the Tulane University School of Social Work.
“Experiences of violence or mistreatment can silence that voice, but we can nurture it and heal. In time, we can again listen to our inner voice when it tells us this situation is not good for us,” she says.
“When a person feels more empowered, they are less likely to accept bad behavior from others and enter into or stay in relationships where they notice red flags,” McKinley says.
The National Domestic Violence Hotline (800-799-7233) is confidential and available at all hours.