Whenever I hear a new accusation against Brett Kavanaugh, I know that my next few days at work are going to be especially rough. I’m a therapist who treats many victims of sexual abuse, and since the Kavanaugh sexual assault allegations have exploded, I know each new story will lead to a call or text begging for an emergency session by a re-traumatized patient. (Kavanaugh denies the allegations.)
Studies conducted by the National Violence Against Women Prevention Research Center Medical University show that nearly one-third of all rape victims develop PTSD at some point and that it does not recede for more than one in 10. This syndrome can cause depression, anxiety, nightmares, intrusive thoughts, flashbacks, alcohol or drug problems, and suicidal thoughts.
Barely a half-hour after Michael Avenatti released the deposition of a third Kavanaugh accuser who swore the nominee attended teenage parties where girls were drugged and “gang raped,” a patient I’ll call Jean who had been the victim of a date rape seven months earlier texted, “I don’t know how much longer I can go on. I’m in so much pain.”
I was on a subway and instantly texted back, “I’ll be home in under an hour. Can we talk then?” She refused, writing, “You can’t change my past.” I responded, “No, but you can share your feelings with someone you know cares.” Five excruciating minutes later, the word “OK” appeared on my iPhone screen and I finally took a breath.
Is this #WhyIDidntReport moment more triggering than the #MeToo movement?
Not every survivor of sexual assault responds to triggers in the exact same way. Still, I am not the only trauma therapist who has noticed an uptick in his or her patients’ agony post-Kavanaugh — more than after Harvey Weinstein was outed last fall. This time around, many women are tapping into their feelings of helplessness and fear rather than releasing their long-suppressed rage.
“What’s happening now is similar to #MeToo in that it raises the never-ending controversy about why sexual assault victims don’t come forward sooner,” said Diane Petrella, a Rhode Island-based psychotherapist and life coach whom I corresponded with on email. “It’s somewhat different because of the political forces at play and the possibility of Kavanaugh having a position of greater power over victims’ lives should he be confirmed. The stakes are high.”
The day after the Senate hearings, I had an initial session with a woman in her 60s whom I’ll call Eve. She hugged a box of Kleenex to her chest while sharing the cascade of emotions she’d felt while glued to her television. Listening to the testimony and the “old white men falling over themselves to apologize to Kavanaugh for what he’d endured” was a “jolt” that allowed her to finally acknowledge to herself that what she’d experienced at a fraternity party decades earlier was rape.
Since she was inebriated at the time, she blamed herself. Decades later, the Kavanaugh news and the conversation surrounding it made her realize that she hadn’t invited an attack. I congratulated her for letting go of feeling responsible for something horrific that had been done to her.
Another patient I’ll call Amanda was groped by a 15-year-old neighbor when she was 10. After gathering the courage to tell her mother what happened, she felt devastated when her parent told her to forget the incident because “no harm done.”
An obedient daughter, Amanda kept silent and struggled to push the memory down. Then a few weeks ago, while reading #WhyIDidntReport stories on Facebook, she had a panic attack. The next day, she had another. She now has a prescription for the anti-anxiety medication Clonazepam and is working in therapy to finally give a voice to the long-buried emotions that have hindered her for so long.
Best ways to handle triggering news cycles
Since victims of abuse cannot live in a bubble, it is vital to know how to best armor yourself against the daily reminders of misogyny and abuse that come with the news cycle. These guidelines are good to keep in mind even if you are not a survivor yourself but want to support survivors in your life. And while all of these suggestions can help, therapy and medication might also be necessary.
Unburden yourself selectively. Don’t isolate. Feminist activist and columnist Amy Ferris asserts that it is crucial to find others who have endured similar trauma who will understand and anchor you.
“What really helps is camaraderie and women saying to one another, ‘I believe you. I’m wrapping myself around you. I’m holding you. We must stand together,’” she said in a phone conversation when I asked about what survivors should be doing during this triggering time.
That doesn’t mean you’re required to post on social media and read and comment on other people’s memories of their experiences. While this can be valuable, it is perfectly okay to remain anonymous and not feel “guilted” into public pronouncements. Most healing is finding one or more people you trust enough in non-digital spaces or joining a support group for survivors where you can break open that secret compartment and share even what might feel dirty or shameful.
Spend time alone. Allow yourself the gift of self-nurture. Spend a day by the ocean or in the woods; meditate or journal. Tell people demanding your time that you are not available for a specific block of time. Take a personal day from work if you need a break from office stress.
Limit media viewing. Some abuse survivors need total news blackouts — no Facebook, no TV, no news. One patient said, “Just hearing the name Kavanaugh raises my heart rate.” I warned several people who I knew were particularly vulnerable not to watch last Thursday’s Senate hearings; they’d hear soon enough about the outcome.
Avoid polarizing political arguments. Now is not a great time for survivors to engage in political debates with family, friends, or co-workers in real life or on social media who might feel differently than you on these issues. One doesn’t have to be a survivor of assault to know how these no-win exchanges can make you feel unheard, unimportant, furious, and anxious.
Challenge your self-attacking thoughts. It’s all too common for survivors to hold themselves at least partially responsible for what happened. And the more you berate yourself, telling yourself, “I should have known better,” or, “I’m so stupid,” the more these noxious thoughts seem like “truth.”
“A survivor’s greatest fears are currently being articulated on TV and online — you were drunk; it’s your fault,” said Dr. Christine Nicholson, a Seattle-based clinical psychologist whom I spoke to on the phone about the debate surrounding the Kavanaugh hearings. “I often suggest survivors shout at these internalized self-recriminations: ‘Shut the fuck up!’ This helps them get rid of their rage.”
Remind yourself you were violated. Tell yourself over and over again: Your attacker committed a crime. It is not okay, and nothing you did — whether wearing a short skirt or inviting a first date home for a nightcap — means you invited assault. It is not your fault.
Work to create political change. Whether calling your representative to make your opinion heard, marching at a rally, organizing for candidates, and/or running for office, being an activist at whatever level feels comfortable can help kick away that feeling of helplessness.
At the end of my lengthy telephone session with my patient Jean during which she tremulously voiced her heart, she texted me, “You made me feel better. Thank you.” I had done nothing other than listen and validate and help her realize, at least for a little while, that she wasn’t alone.
Patients’ names and identifying details are changed.
Sherry Amatenstein is a licensed clinical social worker and a therapist based in New York City. Her latest book is the anthology How Does That Make You Feel? True Confessions From Both Sides of the Therapy Couch.