It happens the same way every single time, whether it’s Bill Cosby, Woody Allen, Donald Trump and now Harvey Weinstein, Kevin Spacey, Jeffery Tambor, Matt Lauer, etc: A victim, usually a woman, will come forward with accusations of sexual assault, and then many others will come forward and suddenly sexual assault dominates the 24-hour news cycle and social media. It’s everywhere you turn. Your social media timelines are filled with new stories, survivors sharing their own accounts in solidarity. Celebrities come forward. Hashtags spring up. It seems impossible to escape; at the salon, at work, at home, people are talking about your worst nightmare.
On one hand it might feel good that sexual predators and their sordid acts are being exposed, but on the other hand you might feel sick when these stories trigger memories of your own, as they most likely would. It is always a great thing, a positive step forward, that light is being shined on the darkness that lurks in the hearts of some of the men occupying the highest positions in society, and the ones who don’t have as much power but who assault people just the same. However, oftentimes these stories evoke a wellspring of emotion, sensation and memories that remind of you ghosts you’d rather forget.
You are not alone. In fact, even as it seems the world is ready to face the truth about the extent of sexual assault and is finally ready to do something about it, it is also not an easy time for victims and survivors who might be struggling right now, just look at the hashtag #MeToo to get an idea of the scope. Getting through a day without triggering your trauma can feel like walking on broken glasses, and for a lot of us living in a Wi-Fi-less cave isn’t an option. Nevertheless, there are ways one can cope, the points below might be helpful to some of you (men and women) who are struggling to cope with all the stories of sexual violence in the news.
- You aren’t overreacting. Stay away from anyone who suggests you are. Trauma is absolutely real. Get rid of toxic people who belittle it or question your truth. Trauma isn’t rational. It lives in the body and just because you can understand why you’re feeling a certain way, doesn’t mean you can magically change how you’re feeling. You may feel more anxious and irritable. You may lose your appetite, stop sleeping well or have night terrors. It might feel like there’s a heavy load on your chest, or a knot in your stomach. Everyone’s experience is different; pay attention to the physical reactions you’re having while or after reading sexual trauma stories, these can be cues that you’ve absorbed too much.
- Don’t judge yourself. Recovering from trauma isn’t a linear process. Some days are good, while some are bad. You’ll be swimming along just fine for days, weeks or even years, and out of nowhere, an emotional rip tide strikes, and it’s a struggle not to go under. You can go from feeling empowered one second to feeling dirty and helpless to sobbing in the bathroom to rage all within an hour. Forgive yourself for whenever you don’t manage your trigger or emotions well. It’s natural. Every time you go through a cycle like this, if you can stay open to whatever is coming up and give yourself (ask for) the support you need to get you through it, it’s an opportunity to cut off another layer of emotional scar tissue and explore deeper levels of healing.
- Therapy, therapy, therapy. If you are grappling with complex emotions brought on by latent memories from past trauma, I highly recommend working with a professional if you aren’t already. Therapy is a great place to begin your recovery journey and cultivating a healthy relationship with yourself. A trauma-centered therapist can help you explore and destroy your feelings of guilt and shame: the feeling that you either didn’t do enough or you brought it upon yourself. S/he can help you work through your feelings of being unlovable, broken and feeling like “damaged goods.” Which means they can help you restore some balance between the rational and emotional parts of your brain. A therapist can also help you navigate negative patterns and point out when you might be reaching for an unhealthy coping mechanism such as men, women, booze, shopping or sex to soothe your soul.
- Have a plan. One thing with trigger is that it unearths or pokes at repressed memories. You can be walking along, going about your day and suddenly you’re right there with the smells, the sounds, the lighting, the physical sensations… and you’re no longer here. Working with a good therapist or a supportive person who understands your trauma history, you can come up with a plan for what to do when you’re suddenly not in the moment but overwhelmed with sensations from another time and place. Grounding usually works and can work for you too. It will help you reorient yourself in space and time. I suggest you work with a professional or do some research with someone who is supportive of you to come up with a plan designed just for you.
- Knowledge is power. There are many books on trauma, triggers, and how to manage your pain that could help you understand what you’re struggling with. There are also tons of articles on this site on the subjects that you can learn from. Do your research and read all you can. When you put a language to your struggle it’ll be easier to deal with and you’ll know what help you need and should seek. Trauma robs one of the feeling that one is in charge of oneself, of what is called call self-leadership, the challenge of recovery is to reestablish ownership of one’s body and mind—of yourself.
- Self-care. Speaking of self, your first priority is making sure you feel safe and protected while the media cycles. The unhealthy coping strategies you adopted might protect you in the moment, but you’re still going to have to deal with your issues eventually. Do your best not to reach for the quick fix, but I don’t judge you if you do. We do what we have to do. It’s easy to be blindsided by emotional baggage if you’re just plowing through without any self-awareness, so write about what’s coming up in a journal. Take a bath. Play some soothing music. Meditate. Make sure you’re eating well. Cry. Befriend someone who makes you feel safe and do things together. Go for walks in gardens or on the beach. Play with your kids or nieces and nephews. If you need a health and wellness day—take one. If you’re feeling totally overwhelmed, reach out and get professional help. I cannot emphasize the importance of having a professional guide you through processing post-traumatic reactions—it’s too much to do on your own.
- Put the mask on first. You are no good to your friends, your kids, and your community if you’re falling apart. As Gandhi said, “A drowning man can’t save others.” Before you share your story online in solidarity, before you reach out to other survivors, before you do anything for anyone else, make sure you’re taking care of yourself first. This is particularly true for those working in media and politics and who can’t turn the news cycle off. You become the story. Set boundaries with your time and what you’re willing to share. No job is more important than your mental health. Moderate your exposure and know when it’s time to unplug.
- If you feel inspired, share your story. Great power and solidarity comes from opening up about some of our deepest wounds, fears and shame. There is the expression, “Your secrets keep you sick.” and sharing your story can be immensely liberating. But I urge caution when you do so. Recognize that speaking out might open you up to attacks from the heartless, faceless people who lurk online; or the careless, insensitive ones who you may share with or encounter offline. They’ll tell you you’re trying to get attention. They’ll call you a liar, a slut or worse. Tread carefully. Retraumatization is real. Understand that individual and institutional reactions to your story can cause even more damage if you aren’t prepared.
- Support other survivors. All of them. Even survivors you don’t necessarily see eye to eye with politically or socially. If there is one movement all survivors should stand united on, it’s this one. Resist the urge to be contrarian just for the sake of it. Call your sisters, brothers, friends, aunts and see how they’re doing. Have dinner together. Stay close to one another. It’s also good practice to get out of your own head and see how someone else is doing. Sexual assault isn’t a gender specific problem. Many men have experienced trauma, and ideas about masculinity can make it even harder for men to come forward, so don’t belittle their accounts just because they aren’t female.
- You don’t owe anyone, anything. Details. Stories. Explanations. Attention. Emotional support. Nothing. Surround yourself with love and joy and laughter and compassion. Stay close to people who love you and far away from people who don’t understand what you’re going through, they’ll only make it worse. You don’t need to share your story just because everyone else is. You owe it to yourself to do what’s best for you. That’s it.
- Compassion, compassion, compassion. Forgive yourself for whatever you’ve had to do to survive and whatever it takes now to do so. The best advice anyone ever gave me was to treat myself the way I would treat a child that was hurt and scared. Would I shame that child? Would I tell her to get over it? No. I would hold the child with compassion and make her feel safe. In trauma recovery that’s what you learn how to do—recover your whole self—the parts that dissociated when you were abused or assaulted. We have the power to recover from sexual abuse/rape and use it to help other women and men trying to overcome theirs. We have a voice. We have choices. We have influence. We have the power to recognize that just because we were victimized, it does not doom us to a lifetime of being a victim.
Reclaim your whole self and let him or her know — you got this. You’re a survivor and in this moment, you’re safe.
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