WASHINGTON ― It began as a pain in my stomach; not the sharp, grueling kind, but that feeling of uneasiness that knots up your insides.
I had been sitting on a plane, trying to squeeze in a few more minutes on the Internet before the flight attendant asked me, for the third time, to turn off my phone before takeoff. It was a Friday afternoon, 33 days before the presidential election, and I was heading to New Orleans to visit my family for the weekend. I wanted to try to take my mind off this presidential race, even for just a few days.
An article popped up on my Twitter feed touting newly surfaced audio from 2005 that revealed Donald Trump having a “lewd conversation” about women. I plugged in my headphones. “When you’re a star…you can do anything” to women, the man who is now the Republican presidential nominee bragged. “Grab them by the pussy.”
My stomach churned. Reporting on women’s rights, sexual assault and sexism is my job, what I’ve written about for the last six years. I’ve covered Trump’s denigrating comments about women so many times that I’ve memorized a rundown ― “dogs,” “pigs,” “slobs,” “disgusting,” “Miss Housekeeping,” “Miss Piggy,” “blood coming out of her wherever.”
Like all female reporters, especially those who write about rape and abortion, I’ve had to develop a thick skin. I laugh it off when men I’ve never met call me “ugly,” an “idiot,” a “cunt” ― or, my favorite, “Bitch Bassett Hound” ― on Twitter. I’ve had to let it go when they threaten to publish my home address and pay me a visit, or send me an email with the subject line, “BIG ears... tiny brain!!!” after I appear on cable news. I’ve learned by necessity to separate my work from my feelings when I cover a politician speculating about what women’s bodies do in response to a “legitimate rape,” or when I interview women with horrifying stories of sexual abuse.
But listening to the Trump tape as I sat on that plane felt different. A nominee of a major political party was caught boasting about sexual assault in a graphic way, talking about women as objects and feeling entitled to their bodies. I knew that I’d be expected to contribute to The Huffington Post’s coverage once my plane landed, making cold calls to women Trump has interacted with throughout his career and asking them about what may have been the worst moment of their lives.
The nausea in my stomach crept up into my throat. My chest felt heavy and squeezed, like someone was sitting on it. My jaw and teeth ached, and I realized I’d been clenching them. By the time the flight attendant reached out with a bag of pretzels, I was breathing into a brown paper bag I’d found in the seat pocket. I walked to the bathroom of the plane and hovered over the toilet, hoping my body would purge what was making me sick.
For me, as for many women, Trump’s comments were personal. They triggered memories of an assault that I thought I had processed and put behind me more than a decade ago.
“My chest felt heavy and squeezed, like someone was sitting on it. For me, as for many women, Trump’s comments were personal.”
I was raped at a fraternity party in college. The details of the attack are hazy, because I was barely conscious. I remember waking up in the back of a police car, bloody and bruised, in the early hours of the morning. The cop offered to drive me to the hospital and asked if I wanted to press charges, but I was too afraid ― afraid of not being believed, of my parents learning what had happened, of being known as “the girl who cried rape” on campus, as I’d seen happen to others.
I told very few people what happened, choosing instead to forget. But there it was, 15 years later, bubbling to the surface as I faced covering a presidential candidate who more than a dozen women have accused of sexual assault. The scene played on repeat in my mind.
My anxiety symptoms didn’t go away in the days after the Trump tape broke. I listened to a new recording of Trump giving a radio host permission to call his own daughter, Ivanka, a “piece of ass.” Trump lashed out at the reporters confronting him about the sexual assault allegations and mocked and insulted his accusers. “Believe me, she would not be my first choice,” he said of one woman accusing him of groping and forcibly kissing her on an airplane. He brushed off his comments as “locker room talk” during a debate, and at a rally he made a groping gesture to mimic what his accusers said he did to them.
Some of Trump’s fellow Republicans scolded him for his remarks. But the vast majority of them continued to endorse him, and even some who had first sought distance from their party’s nominee quickly fell back in line. Others even expressed doubt as to whether grabbing a woman by her genitals is really sexual assault, or whether Trump actually did the things he described. They questioned why the women accusing him took so long to come forward.
The pattern is painfully familiar to many women who have been subjected to gaslighting at some point in their lives, or have been told that they are misremembering their own reality. It’s a common psychological abuse tactic that makes a victim question her own sanity, and it has happened to me more than once. A friend of the man who assaulted me called me a few months after the attack to make sure I knew that my rapist was a “really good guy,” and that what I thought happened probably didn’t.
Just the act of writing down the misogynistic words of Trump and his defenders, over and over, has taken a toll on my body. It’s been difficult to sleep, to eat, to focus on work. My stomach is still upset, my chest still tight. Clothes that fit me a month ago are hanging off me.
In writing this, I’m not asking for sympathy. I decided to share my story because I suspected that many women feel the same way. And when I put the question out on social media, dozens of rape and sexual assault survivors responded with similar tales of feeling triggered by Trump. This election is literally making women sick. It’s such a common phenomenon, in fact, that the DC Psychological Association is planning to hold support groups for women who are experiencing symptoms of anxiety from this political climate.
“We’ve seen a lot of emotional distress because of the stuff going on with the election,” said Dr. Stephen Stein, president of the DCPA. “Certainly with women who had been traumatized before, or had been assaulted or raped or molested, there’s something very unique in this experience that’s enormously painful and scary for a lot of people.”
In sharing my own experience, I wanted to give a voice to women who have been quietly suffering through the election, and to illuminate just how damaging and toxic this political climate has been. Here are a few stories women have shared:
Jamika Scott, 29, Tacoma, Washington:
Scott, a children’s advocate in the domestic violence field, has felt nauseated and lacked an appetite this year, because the campaign has triggered memories of her own 2011 assault.
“After the first day of coverage of the ‘Trump tapes,’ I was shaking while trying to fall asleep and even had a horrible nightmare, reminiscent of the flashback-like nightmares that came for years after being drugged and raped by a couple of guys,” she said. “It’s not hard to believe, or even surprising, a man like Trump is an offender of this sort and magnitude. What’s hard is the realization the damage is already done in many ways. He’s validated and emboldened the wrong population of people, and I can’t help but think the men who raped me are watching Trump and finding solace and purpose in his words and actions.”
“I can’t help but think the men who raped me are watching Trump and finding solace and purpose in his words and actions.”
“So, everything that’s been going on ― the women who were victims of Trump, the countless headlines, the endless coverage on television, the people crawling from the depths of a dark hole to defend Trump, the constant fight women have of defending our humanity, etc. ― has me in full PTSD [post-traumatic stress disorder] mode,” Scott added.
“I’m anxious, restless, hypervigilant and scared. I don’t feel safe and nothing feels right or OK,” she said. “Work is hard, sleep is hard, eating is hard. My body feels pained and heavy. I’ve wanted nothing more than to hide in my room with Netflix and a warm blanket. It feels like being drugged, raped and not believed happened this morning, and not years ago.”
Clare Lyons, 27, New York City:
Lyons, a registered nurse, was assaulted in April 2014 by a man who had been accused of attacking other women in the past. She has spent the last two years in therapy and practicing meditation to work through her PTSD, depression, anxiety and panic attacks.
This election cycle has been “brutal,” she said.
“I’ve tried to be present and cognizant of what effects the past few weeks’ coverage would have on me, but mindfulness has not been enough,” Lyons said. “I haven’t been sleeping, I’m really not eating much. When I do sleep I have nightmares about my assault, about my abuser, about screaming until I am exhausted but without producing a sound. I have found myself dissociating simply to get through my day. I am in pain. I have been forced to relive my experience over and over. And over and over and over.”
“I have found myself dissociating simply to get through my day. I am in pain. I have been forced to relive my experience over and over.”
“I feel nauseated, I feel achy. I have headaches. I have chest pain,” she said. “My whole entire being hurts. I am carrying the weight of my assault again at the forefront of my mind, every waking moment of my day. In some ways I am grateful that something as stigmatized and ubiquitous as sexual assault has been brought into such a bright public spotlight, resulting in some very insightful and empathetic discourse regarding what it means to be a woman.”
But Lyons said she suffered for coming forward about her assault.
“I feel as though I am silently, slowly, drowning. I know what these women feel. These women are me; I am these women. Some people won’t ever understand. And they’re lucky. I wish there was a way to convey how much this hurts, how tender and beaten these parts of me are. I wish I weren’t sitting here, unable to function, writing an email to a stranger about conceptualizing the post-assault experience. I wish I didn’t fantasize about screaming to fucking Donald Trump what it’s like to crawl in your own skin, to want to claw yourself out of the body that you inhabit. To cry until you vomit, until your throat is raw, to not be able to do anything because nothing feels good and nothing makes anything feel better. I am sad, I am tired, and I keep going on, because what else is there to do?”
Jamie Lee Marks, 31, Washington, D.C.:
Marks says she was in a three-year relationship with a man who physically abused her, stalked her, and once punched her in the face. When she watched Trump’s behavior toward Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton in the second presidential debate, she started crying at a local bar.
“I was so embarrassed, but I let myself cry. I was like, ‘Wow, he’s calling her the devil,’ which affected me on a such a deep level. I’ve heard that before. I’ve been treated like that before. [My abuser] used to call me fat, call me the devil. The fat-shaming comments, blaming me for anything anyone’s ever done to me, blaming Hillary for Bill’s indiscretions and what he potentially did to people ― that’s very abusive. Getting huge rallies of people to scream, ‘Lock her up!’― it’s wild how abusive it is to me.”
“[This election] has brought up feelings about what happened to me that I haven’t thought about in a while, and they’re interrupting my life.”
“I’m all blotchy from talking about it,” Marks said. “I have the flu right now. It’s real symptoms ― my immune system is weaker because of the stress. I’ve been getting migraines for about a month, which is interesting. I got a fever Tuesday and had to take a sick day. I’m generally a pretty healthy person; illnesses don’t usually take me out. The fact that I had to call into work makes me feel like I need to seek a counselor and talk to somebody. [This election] has brought up feelings about what happened to me that I haven’t thought about in a while, and they’re interrupting my life.”
Kristin Fleming, 39, San Ramon, California:
Like others, Fleming said the news from the campaign has left her feeling “literally nauseous.”
“It terrifies me to think someone who’s supposed to be a leader is perpetuating this rape culture, because my abuse came from a youth pastor when I was 15,” said the graduate student in psychology. “He was a leader in the church. People looked up to him, people respected him, even after the abuse occurred. I thought, ‘This is exactly what is happening on a much larger scale.’ It’s been driving me nuts.”
“I think a lot of women have experienced a man thinking they can just overpower her, or they have a right to touch her or grab her butt.”
“That interview [Trump] did where he talks about, ‘I can do that because I’m a celebrity, women just let you do it’ ― I had tears and uncontrollable nausea and anxiety hearing that,” Fleming said. “Because I’ve been told that by men before. I think a lot of women have experienced a man thinking they can just overpower her, or they have a right to touch her or grab her butt.
“The way Trump was standing behind Hillary [during the debate] as she was trying to speak, right in her personal space, right behind her ― that made me really anxious. It was not a good feeling. I worked at Macy’s shortly after my attack, and [my attacker] started stalking me there. [Trump’s behavior in the debate] totally reminded me of that ― I would be folding sweaters at a table at Macy’s, and I would turn around and he’d be right behind me, to the point where I’d have to hide in a fitting room until he’d be gone.
“Thinking about my 10- and 12-year-old [children] watching the news, hearing what they’re saying, I think, ‘I can’t believe we’re living in a world where the possibility of this man who has done these things could be our president.’ And I have to explain to my kids what the word ‘pussy’ means. I just can’t believe that’s what’s happening. I’m going to school to get my master’s in psychology, and I just had to start taking antidepressants again to keep me level through my midterms and finals this quarter. [The election] has had more of an effect on me than I was really willing to admit.”
Jade Salazar, 31, Washington, D.C.:
Salazar suffered from PTSD after she was raped 12 years ago, but thought she had mostly recovered from it ― until this election.
“When I actually heard the recording of Trump on the bus, when he said the thing about ‘grab their pussy,’ I definitely felt sick to my stomach,” she said. “I was interested to hear what he was going say about it in the debate, and then to hear him say, ‘It’s locker room talk,’ that’s when it really started to make me sick and become something I couldn’t shake.
“I’m healed from as much as you can be, but then it becomes such a big national discussion, and you hear things like that, it triggers it.”
“I keep having dreams with Trump in them. It’s like if you have dreams about a monster.”
“I’ve had such anxiety, I had to refill a Xanax prescription that I hadn’t needed in a long time, just because it was too much,” Salazar said. “I haven’t been able to sleep. I keep having dreams with Trump in them. It’s like if you have dreams about a monster; he’s this ominous presence in all my dreams, and they wake me up in the middle of the night. It’s a constant, pressing anxiety, making me exhausted. I’m just very distracted, too. It’s this underlying fear of what happens if he actually does get elected.
“I do volunteer work for the D.C. rape crisis center. I feel like between that and all the other discussions of feminism, we’ve come so far in the past 10 years and have opened up the discussion so much. I feel like if Trump gets elected, we’re going to suddenly go backwards. It’s like half the country saying I’m worthless.”
Need help? Visit RAINN’s National Sexual Assault Online Hotline or the National Sexual Violence Resource Center’s website.
Editor’s note: Donald Trump regularly incites political violence and is a serial liar, rampant xenophobe, racist, misogynist and birther who has repeatedly pledged to ban all Muslims — 1.6 billion members of an entire religion — from entering the U.S.