#MeToo. It happens the same way every time, whether it’s Bill Cosby, Woody Allen, Roger Ailes, Donald Trump and now Harvey Weinstein: A woman will come forward with accusations of sexual abuse, and then many women will come forward and suddenly sexual assault dominates the 24-hour news cycle. It’s everywhere you turn. Your social media timelines are filled with news stories and women sharing their own accounts in solidarity. Celebrities come forward. Hashtags spring up. It seems impossible to escape; at the salon, the bar or work, people are talking about your worst nightmare.
As a woman who has been raped and assaulted (on more than one occasion), whenever a sexual predator dominates the news cycle I simultaneously rejoice that sexual abuse is being exposed and feel sick remembering my own. On the one hand, I’m overjoyed light is being shined on the darkness that lurks in the hearts of some of the men occupying the highest positions in society. On the other hand, the survivors’ accounts echo my own so closely. It evokes a wellspring of emotions, memories and sensations that remind me of ghosts I’d rather forget.
I’m not alone. In fact, with one exception, every woman I know is struggling right now, just look at the hashtag #MeToo to get an idea of the scope. Getting through a day without triggering your PTSD can feel like traversing a laser tripwire grid and for most of us, living in a Wi-Fi-less cave isn’t an option. Over the years I’ve gathered a massive toolkit to help me cope and it occurred to me it might be helpful to share for all the women (and men) struggling to cope.
I’m not a therapist. I’m a survivor. Here’s how I survive:
1. You aren’t overreacting. Stay away from anyone who suggests you are. PTSD 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. My therapist always reminds me, “Post-traumatic reactions live in the emotional brain which manifests in the body.” For me, it usually feels like anxiety or panic. I’ll have knots in my stomach, and it feels like an elephant is standing on my chest. Everyone’s experience is different; start noticing what physical reactions you’re having to reading accounts, these can be cues that you’ve absorbed too much.
2. Don’t judge yourself. In my experience, recovering from trauma isn’t a linear process. 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. This past week I swung from feeling empowered to feeling dirty to sobbing in the shower to rage all within an hour. Forgive yourself for being bonkers. 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 (and ask for) the support you need to get you through it, it’s an opportunity to slough off another layer of emotional scar tissue and explore deeper levels of healing.
3. 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 having a healthy relationship with your self. My therapist is a godsend. She’s helped me with the feelings of guilt that I had: I either didn’t do enough or I brought it upon myself. She’s helped me with my feelings of being unlovable, broken and feeling like “damaged goods.” Not only can she help me restore some balance between the rational and emotional parts of my brain, she can also call me out on my negative patterns and point out when I might be reaching for an unhealthy coping mechanism such as men, booze, shopping or sex to soothe my soul.
4. Have a plan. The Weinstein story triggered repressed memories for me that caught me dead in my tracks. Luckily this time, I had a plan. I didn’t always. Veterans know what it’s like: 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. My therapist and I came up with a plan for what to do when I’m suddenly not in the moment but overwhelmed with sensations from another time and place. She has me sit down in a chair and plant my feet on the ground. I’ll describe how my bum feels touching the chair. Then I’ll pick a color and start naming items in the room that have that color in them, breathing deeply into my belly while I do so. This helps me reorient myself in space and time. That’s my little technique; I suggest you work with a professional to come up with a plan designed just for you.
5. Knowledge is power. Of the many books that have been helpful to me in terms of understanding how trauma impacts the body and the brain from a scientific perspective, my favorite is, The Body Keeps The Score by Bessel van der Kolk. If you can only read one book about the subject, I’d say read this—Bessel van der Kolk offers tangible and innovative solutions to recovery as well as explaining what’s going on physically. He explains it perfectly, “Trauma robs you of the feeling that you are in charge of yourself, of what I will call self-leadership…” he says, “The challenge of recovery is to reestablish ownership of your body and your mind—of your self.”
6. Self-care. Speaking of self, your first priority is making sure you feel safe and protected while the media cycles. Take it from a recovering addict, your vices might protect you in the moment, but you’re still going to have to deal with your stuff 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, drink some tea. Make sure you’re eating well. Cry. I went to a museum with my best friend. 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.
7. 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 women, before you do anything for anyone else, make sure you’re taking care of yourself first. This is particularly true for those of us working in media and politics and can’t turn the news cycle off. We 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.
8. 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 Garbage Pail Kids who lurk online. They’ll tell you you’re trying to get attention. They’ll call you a lying tramp and worse. Reading other women’s accounts might enrage you and trigger memories you’ve suppressed. Tread carefully. Retraumatization is real. Understand that individual and institutional reactions to your story can cause even more damage if you aren’t prepared.
9. Support other women.* All of them. Even women you don’t necessarily see eye to eye with politically. Sexual assault isn’t a partisan problem and if ever there is a movement all women should stand united on, it’s this one. Resist the urge to be contrarian just for the sake of it. Call your sisters, girlfriends, aunts and see how they’re doing. Have a girl’s night. 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.
10. 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.
11. Compassion, compassion, compassion. Forgive yourself for whatever you’ve had to do 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. You 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 our sexual abuse 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 are victimized, it does not doom us to a lifetime of being a victim.
Reclaim your whole self and let her know — you got this. She’s a survivor and in this moment, she’s safe.
Need help? Visit RAINN’s National Sexual Assault Online Hotline or the National Sexual Violence Resource Center’s website.