Actress Chloe Dykstra says that after she published an essay accusing ex-boyfriend Chris Hardwick of emotional and sexual abuse, she was "attacked relentlessly" online to the point that she contemplated suicide.
In an interview with Time, the first interview she's given since publishing the essay, Dykstra said that groups of people online were dedicated to disproving her, and she became terrified that people would find out where she lived.
Though Dykstra didn't name Hardwick in the essay, most readers figured out his identity. He has since denied the allegations.
"After months of reading horrible things about myself, I got to such a low point that I considered ending it," she said. "I didn’t really have guidance because you can’t really Google, 'How to handle being an accuser?'"
Dykstra makes an important point — in fact, sexual assault survivors often wait to come forward (or don't come forward at all) because they fear they won't be believed, or that they'll experience retaliation from the alleged perpetrator or even the alleged perpetrator's supporters.
Susanne Babbel, PhD, a therapist specializing in trauma, says that bullying on social media (especially after being emotionally and sexually abused in a relationship) is certainly a form of abuse, and the emotional impact of it can lead to stress, anxiety, depression, and even suicidal thoughts. Moreover, if someone has come forward about a powerful person, or even someone who has support from others, the backlash can be devastating.
"Whether one speaks up about their abuse by their relative, partner, boss, or anyone else, they're often met with denial or disbelief," Dr. Babbel says. "The fans, friends, or relatives of an abuser commonly have difficulty accepting the truth because they don’t understand that the abuser can be one way in private and another way in public. In an attempt to feel safer themselves, they try to negate the truth, sometimes by attacking the survivor."
For many survivors there is already a feeling of shame, and then for others to criticize or tell you it didn't happen only exacerbates that sense of shame.
And as Dykstra says, there's often little guidance for survivors themselves to take care of their mental health after coming forward. In fact, Marcia Norman, PsyD, a clinical psychologist in Winter Park, FL, says that survivors are often made to feel an inordinate amount shame over being sexually abused, let alone coming forward about it.
"It takes a lot of courage to talk about sexual abuse," she says. "For many survivors there is already a feeling of shame, and then for others to criticize or tell you it didn't happen only exacerbates that sense of shame. The person who is finally sharing their story is made to feel as if they should have stayed quiet. It is a way of blaming the victim and of keeping the power structure in balance."
For all those reasons, coming forward with sexual assault allegations can be traumatizing — society certainly punishes those who do. And because of that, it's crucial to have good people on your side if you're opening up about your experiences.
"It is so very important to have strong support when you come forward with what happened to you," Dr. Norman says. "Surround yourself with people who love you, believe you and who you trust. This is very important. You need all the support you can find, as it can be very traumatizing to talk about sexual abuse as it can trigger painful feelings all over again."
In addition to getting support from loved ones, it's also important to reach out to professional networks like the Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network (RAINN) sexual assault hotline, or to a therapist who can help you manage your mental health.
If you are thinking about suicide, please call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-TALK (8255) or the Suicide Crisis Line at 1-800-784-2433.
If you have experienced sexual violence and are in need of crisis support, please call the RAINN Sexual Assault Hotline at 1-800-656-HOPE (4673).
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