Gaining Perspective: Animal-Assisted Therapy as an Alternative Approach for Sexual Abuse Victims

Gaia Altari, "Loose ropes, still tied knots"Today I am twenty-three years old, but I was twenty-one years, two months, and twelve days old when I was raped. It happened on a regular afternoon in my hometown, back in a country that very much differs from this one. I took a cab to go home after a long day of school, just like I had done so many times before, but this day wasn’t meant to end like all the others. And it sure didn’t.

The actual event comes back to me as a series of flashes. A taxi driver takes a route different from the one he was instructed to. Stoplight. Two men hop into the cab, one on each side. The driver accelerates. There’s crying, scratching, and screaming in the back seat, but the car keeps going. One of the men approaches me and undoes his pants, then the other does the same.

“Look at that pretty face…an angel, yet so terrified,” says somebody as they force my legs open.

I don’t look back. The driver turns the music up. A female voice sings: When the man I love takes me in his arms I forget it all. He’s my only hero, he makes me forget it all…

It is now dark outside. No more screaming. The damage is done.

It took me a while to admit that I needed help, and a while more to start looking for it. After all, this was the kind of thing that wasn’t supposed to happen to a girl like me: a princess, raised among privileges available to less than twenty percent of her country’s entire population. Just like most of the horrifying episodes that make the front page of the local newspapers, rape constituted a sort of abstract reality that only took place in a world completely different from mine, an atrocity that I would never be directly exposed to.

My family was crushed, and a poignant feeling of guilt took power over me. Skeptical, I agreed to therapy in order to see my parents smile again, even if it was only for the few seconds that we would speak about the better days to come. During these brief windows of time my mother would evoke all kinds of delightful memories, and my father would transport me to the magical world of poetry that had always brought us together. For entire hours, they would sit on opposite sides of my bed and make me promise that I would do everything in my power to get better. I was determined to fulfill that promise, and so the healing journey began.

First came Dr. #1, a beaming, middle-aged psychologist who would have been patient enough to wait forever in order for me to open up to her, except that I never did. As an answer to my monotonous silence, she would spend our entire sessions rambling about anything she could think of, and answering her own questions in a monologue that at times made me wonder if my presence made any difference at all.

Along came Dr. #2, an archetypal psychoanalyst with his bushy mustache, fancy couch, and leather-covered notepad. Unfortunately, the “talking cure” wouldn’t do it for me either. While I spent countless hours discussing the most intimate details of the day I remembered the most, the world smoothly followed its course without me, the same way that a clock hanging in the next room will keep ticking even if we remain in this one.

Just as I was about to give up and assume that I would have to live a double life — in which I appeared to be doing alright but was actually afraid and miserable — Dr. #3 crossed my path. I must admit that after my previous experiences I had lost all faith in therapy, but there was something about this man that made me feel completely at ease. Perhaps it had to do with the simple fact that he reminded me of my father, or that his bookshelf displayed an exquisite copy of Marcel Proust’s In Search of Lost Time. After all, if there was anyone I trusted more than my father, it was definitely the author of the words that had made me aware of the unrecoverable character of time, a premise that had altered my perception of reality.

Tears came to my eyes as I told #3 what had happened to me. I was now a damaged woman, a woman stained by the evil in the world who bore the fire-heated mark of disgrace on her forehead for all to see. I had been banned from the garden of delights and was doomed to be an outcast. Even today, when I recall the feelings of anger, hopelessness, and dysfunction that I unlocked during those first meetings, I’m not able to identify the exact moment when I started blossoming again. But I did. Months went by, and in spite of my progress I was still lonely and terrified of the world that had so deeply wounded me. I was way too young to give up on everything that life had to offer, but I had tried it all. I had been in therapy for over a year now, and I was starting to believe that my feelings of unpleasantness were indelible traces of an episode that could be digested, but would never entirely vanish.

“Have you ever had a pet before, or even thought about getting one?” said #3 during one of our sessions.

“Are you kidding?” I replied defensively. “I can’t even take care of myself.”

“There you go.”

“The last thing I would want to do is look after another,” I protested. “It would be a complete mess.”

“We’ll see about that.”

So it was that I trusted the man whom I had turned into my own Proustian character, and decided to take home a fuzzy grey kitten with white paws like puffy clouds and big round eyes that awoke in me the purest feelings of compassion. I had never been responsible for anyone other than myself before. In fact, I had never been responsible for anything, which is why looking after Romulo – my very own version of the brave warrior that founded Rome with his brother Remus, turned out to be a double challenge.

Needless to say that the sneaking around, crying, litter-cleaning, sobbing, purring, and eventual cuddling were all new to me, and it took me some time to become aware of the implications of being a pet-owner.

But before I knew it, part of what had been brutally taken from me started coming back, and a desire to open myself to the world found its way back into my everyday actions. I started spending time with my old friends again, and even answered some of their questions about the episode that had drawn me so far apart from them. I bought a new notebook and picked up on my writing (which had unquestionably worsened), signed up for ballet lessons, got an orchid.

Later on, #3 explained how it has been said that animals act as mediators of human-social interactions and how he strongly believed that a relation exists between attachment to an animal and therapeutic gains. Driven by curiosity, I started my own research and learned that studies also suggest that animals have the effect of motivating their owners to engage in constructive conducts, such as taking walks, in the case of dog owners. Apparently, the bonds forged between humans and their pets can result in the reduction of anxiety and facilitation of social exchanges. To the psychologically vulnerable, animals provide an external focus, and this can lead to positive behavioral changes.

My therapy never had anything to do with rituals, and #3 never suggested any special activities that would help me use Romulo to my advantage.

Benefits came from the mere fact of having a new routine that forced me to look after another living being.

It is not about distraction or delegation; I would say it is more about gaining perspective.

I often wonder if it was Romulo, #3, or what #1 had so fervently described as “my inner power,” that has brought me to a point where the dark days have been left so far behind. This, I believe, is a question with no possible answer. I also wonder if any victim of sexual abuse is the right candidate for this alternative method, and haven’t been able to come up with an answer to that either, only that I would highly recommend it. What I do know now is that the princess I once was has come back, even though she has lost her crown. It’s all right. Nowadays, who would want to walk around wearing one anyway?

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