A few months before the Harvey Weinstein’s allegations of sexual harassment and rape exploded onto the scene, I spoke to a woman executive who shared with me how she had been sexually traumatized by a male boss earlier in her career.
Wanting to get away from the awkwardness, I told her that she must be courageous to have gotten over it.
She looked me in the eye, smiled firmly and responded: “I never got over it. I got past it, but I am not the same as I was before. I’m tentative, I’m overly cautious, verging on paranoid sometimes, and I never completely relax in the presence of men.”
I apologized to her for seeming to glance over and minimize it and asked her to say more.
She continued, “When it happened, I was horrified which caused me to freeze instead of run and then I was terrified and just did what I could to survive the ordeal. I still don’t know how I made it through it, but one thing I am clear about is that I could never make it through it again. The first time made me brittle and fragile, if it happened again, I believe to my core that I would shatter.” That’s because such assaults cut people to their cores and unless they can heal from that core they walk around carrying a huge abscess of emotional and psychological pus that needs to be drained when bandaids don’t work.
This led me to understand a not often discussed reason why many women who have endured sexual harassment and worse haven’t come forth.
The usual explanations for not coming forth are often first, the fear of retaliation and reprisals beyond even losing their job if they came forward. Second, there is the sheer humiliation of bringing it up which is partly fueled by people visually undressing her in their minds as they imagine her being sexually grabbed in the places she described. The humiliation is also horrendous if it is a male reporting such an act either at the hands of a powerful male or female boss (think Kevin Spacey).
A third and less frequently described reason for not bringing it up is the fear of the trauma being reactivated in them and exploding from their unconscious into their conscious and their belief that it will cause them to emotionally shatter.
However, since so many of these victims of sexual harassment are walking around half alive and since deep inside them they would all like to heal from it, rather than just cope, as more women (and men) come forth to tell their stories, a myriad of others who have been through similar events are feeling psychologically safer and freer to tell theirs.
Why is telling those stories so important?
Because the retelling and re-experiencing of the horrific events is enabling them to begin to heal from it and get over it, instead of just coping and getting past it.
As a result of learning about this and adding that to my work with and studies of people who have been through awful trauma, I am proposing that we abandon the term and diagnosis of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). In so doing, I am cannibalizing my work and even my book, PTSD for Dummies.
Instead I am proposing a new diagnosis that more accurately describes the lives of these people. That diagnosis is RTA which stands for Re-Traumatization Avoidance. That means that deeply traumatized people who believe that a repeat traumatization will cause them to shatter will do anything they can to avoid being re-traumatized.
That includes nearly all the symptoms associated with PTSD. Psychological numbing is an effort to not feel anything; increased drinking, drug use and eating are also ways to try to stuff down anxiety lest it burst into panic; the avoidance of people is an effort to avoid someone saying or doing something that my reactivate the trauma; nightmares are the unconscious pushing into dreams as if to say to you “You haven’t finished this” and finally, the increased startle reflex is what happens when a person are starting to relax and relax their guard which then invites these forces from their unconscious to push through.
Sigmund Freud, given revelations of his sexual activities may not be the best person to bring up, however one of his ideas may be at work here that is worth mentioning. In many of his writings beginning with The Interpretation of Dreams (1900), he spoke of “The Return of the Repressed.”
It is the process whereby repressed thoughts, feelings and memories held in our unconscious reemerge in our conscious lives sometimes as direct recall or more often as symptoms such as (Freudian) slips of the tongue, obsessive thoughts and compulsive behaviors and/or overreacting to an event in the present because of what it reactivates from the past.
When an awful event, especially one that causes us to feel terrified or horrified occurs, we focus on just surviving it while it is happening and we can’t bear thinking about it afterwards because it is too upsetting. At that point, our minds suppress it to push it out of awareness and consciousness. Suppression takes a great deal of mental energy that is not sustainable. Therefore, the next step is to repress it into our unconscious.
However, over time either a. our ability to keep it repressed out of consciousness weakens; b. our minds and brains become more vulnerable to releasing them as with puberty, dementia or Alzheimer’s or constant use of mind altering drugs (marijuana anyone?); c. something in our present life is so similar to that event that it reactivates the repressed memory into symptoms as when having been sexually molested by a parent or neighbor is revived by an unwanted and uninvited gesture from a manager such as a reassuring pat on the back that might be completely innocent.
An analogy of how a repressed memory can come back to haunt and then infect us is how some cancers and other illnesses work that have been lying dormant for decades (also known as a predisposition) which then become activated by some event or even just the passage of time.
What are we to do now?
Encourage women who have been suppressing and repressing these awful memories to their own detriment to come forth and share their stories with each other and into the light of the day as they are doing.
And beyond that?
Given the widespread and sometimes lifelong damage that sexual harassment, abuse and bullying of defenseless and vulnerable people undergo, a few tweaks here such as sexual harassment, anger management or sensitivity training are often not merely insufficient (harassment and anger management training has been going on for decades), they’re patronizing and insulting to the victims of such behavior.
To that end, perhaps it’s time for a new Moonshot Mission such as:
“We believe that corporations, NGO’s, governmental agencies, sports organizations and beyond should commit themselves to achieving the goal, before this decade is out, of establishing and enforcing a zero-tolerance policy regarding harassment, bullying and intimidation in the workplace such that no hard-working individual need fear going to work because of another person’s personality or behavior. No single project in the workplace in this period, will be more welcomed and appreciated by the workforce, or more important for the long-range establishment of trust whenever and wherever people work; and none will be so difficult to accomplish.”
Epilogue: And please accept my apologies to those who will say, “Freud and JFK were not exactly altar boys when it came to their abuses of others because of their power.”