Updated: Jan 16
In an interview with Ms. Ariel Landrum‒a licensed marriage and family therapist who specializes in working with survivors of childhood sexual abuse, military members and their families, and the LGBTQ+ community‒HERFight was able to learn more about the work that she has been able to achieve with sexual abuse survivors.
When asked what first inspired her to become a therapist, she explained how she always had an interest in it when she was younger. Her internships‒spanning 3 to 4 years‒were also heavily focused on children and those who experienced abuse, which naturally led to her specializing in the career. Her goal is to help heal those who have experienced trauma to allow them to grow into their true potential.
To help survivors, Ms. Landrum uses coping skills and questions that coincide with the clients’ ages and pinpoint what their goals are and what they want to achieve by the end of their sessions. This may include how they see themselves, such as through their identity, and how they want their futures to look like, such as being a college graduate. Regarding the questions that coincide with the clients’ ages, she uses many Pop Culture references, such as Avatar or Marvel, to connect with the issues that the client is facing and to create an environment or scenario that they will understand and be able to use to overcome their barriers safely. She also uses forms of art to help survivors express themselves and channel their trauma.
Laws on what qualifies as sexual harassment or sexual assault vary from state to state. For unwanted grabbing or touching, some states will only see it as an assault if it is underneath the clothes of the victim. Depending on the duration of the abuse and the role of the abuser in the victim’s life, some survivors will not consider their experiences to be sexual assault until much later, as the abuse has already been normalized in the relationship. Often, victims are groomed from a young age by older relatives or even friends who will try to bribe the victim to “pay them back” with sexual favors. From the false trust built by the perpetrator, victims often do not consider the harasser’s actions to be abuse, instead viewing them as something intimate, special, or even a “deal” where if they do what the abuser says, then they will get something in return, such as being able to play video games with them.
It is common for survivors to develop mental health issues, such as PTSD, depression, anxiety, or bipolar disorder. If they did not receive help or were told by others, such as family, that it was “their fault” or that it was “not a big deal,” then their mental health can further worsen. The age of the individual may also affect the way that others respond to their search for help or therapy. Depending on the response, it can negatively or positively affect the survivor. For example, girls who have physically matured sooner than others in their age group may be told that it was “their fault” for what happened because the clothes they were wearing were “too tight or revealing.” They may also be told that since they are no longer “pure,” they will never find love or someone who will want to marry them. Ms. Landrum further explains, “[These] make it hard to overcome the experience and have resilience and start to heal. But if you received intervention right away, or were believed right away, if you had actual active support, you’re probably less likely to experience these diagnoses [although] that may not be true for everyone.” Additionally, when trauma has occurred, it is a natural reaction for the brain to become defensive, as it couldn’t control the experience where the trauma occurred. This conflict may then cause some survivors to develop bipolar disorder.
Coping mechanisms differ for everyone. For example, when someone experiences abuse, they may turn to food for comfort, while for others it may be the complete opposite; if they have experienced oral sexual abuse, then they may not see their mouth as a safe place and refuse to eat or drink. Other mechanisms include mindfulness, communicating with partners, or body changing, such as tattoos to cover sexual abuse scars. “Engaging in drugs and alcohol, to sort of numb the pain or remove the memories or to prevent the reminders, [or] anything to avoid it,” Ms. Landrum continues on the several different coping mechanisms. They may avoid certain people, smells, foods, sounds, or actions that may trigger a reminder of the trauma. Healthier coping mechanisms include seeking help from a counselor or joining survivor groups to better understand what has happened. Some survivors even become advocates, lawyers, attorneys, or therapists to ensure that others will never have to experience what they had to go through.
When helping her clients, Ms. Landrum puts them in situations where one of their loved ones are the ones who have experienced the sexual abuse. This helps the clients understand that what they have gone through is not their fault and that they are not the ones to blame for what happened. She then has them “talk” to their past selves at the age that they experienced the abuse, which helps them determine if they have truly accepted their past. Often, it is harder to remove the shame, guilt, or self-blame if people around the survivor are blaming them for the abuse.
It is crucial for parents, guardians, and caregivers to believe their children when they tell them about sexual abuse and to not label them as attention-seekers. It is also important to recognize the signs of sexual abuse, as the victim may be fearful that whoever they tell will not believe them and that they will be labeled a liar. Adults often do not fully understand children or teens, so it is important to find someone who does and will listen to those who come forward to seek help for the situation they are in.
Regarding their story, some may choose not to tell anyone if they believe that their parents, for example, may seek retaliation and attempt to harm the perpetrator, which may then lead to dire consequences. Others may not come forward out of fear that no one will believe them or that it will only make things worse for them. Further, adults and children tell their stories differently, as children may not be able to fully express what happened to them.
When ready to come forward with your story, Ms. Landrum suggests to “look into speaking to a counselor, advocate, or therapist to explore [your] trauma narrative and how [you] want to share it.” Others may have the strength and empowerment to just tell their truth, while others may not and may instead be ready to move forward without their narrative following them. If ready to tell your story, start with the important, trustworthy people in your life, such as parents or partners. And, most importantly, understand that you get to choose who to tell and that you have no obligation to tell those you are not comfortable with telling.