*********TRIGGER WARNING, THIS BLOG CONTAINS CONTENT DISCUSSING SEXUAL ASSAULT AND THE IMPACT IT HAS. PLEASE BE CAUTIOUS IN READING, IF YOU BECOME OVERWHELMED OR EXPERIENCE PHYSICAL PAIN WHILE READING, PLEASE STOP READING IMMEDIATELY TO PREVENT EMOTIONAL FLOODING****************
Within the past few weeks as a nation, we all saw a woman come fourth and endure intensive scrutiny over her assault. These past few weeks we have borne witness to a system that has been around longer than any us, a system that is still the deeply entrenched dominate discourse. These past few weeks, we have all felt so much- some of us tried to mentally prepare while others of us were completely blindsided to the overwhelming power the hearings of Dr.Ford and Kavanaugh. These hearings left those who have survived assault, harassment and/or violence no choice but to relive the parts of ourselves that made us feel uncertain and unsafe all over again. These parts that gave us initial cautious hope, these parts that may have been covered up wounds, were torn open. As individuals and as a nation we began to look into ourselves, our beliefs, our histories, our peers, our society and (hopefully) how we choose to treat survivors of abuse.
The response felt by survivors of assault was profound- the mixture of overwhelming helplessness, flashing back to their own moments of survival both emotionally and physically, feelings of confusion and a struggle to find a place of safety in an environment that tells you that you must prove and justify your trauma.
We all heard many people ask- “why didn’t so-and-so just come forward?” As we hear often with those in domestic violence relationships, “if it’s thatbad, why don’t you just leave?” These questions are not inherently bad, but these questions tell us that we must become a more trauma informed society with better education, training, with less presumptive judgment and more listening.
Many survivors of assault do not come forward, as the process is often all too re-traumatizing. In the year 2018, we still have trained first responders and medical professionals asking, “why didn’t you do more to get away?” “why would you wear that?” or “how did you not know any better?” reinforcing the survivor’s worst fears that they invited this in somehow or should/could have changed the outcome. It is critical for first responders have the ability to recognize shock, that lawyers and judges recognize the process of encoding traumatic memories is scientifically different than how other memories form. There is an inherent lack of understanding that when the brain and body is overwhelmed by a threat( such as an assault) not only does the body go into an uncontrolled autopilot response of freeze, but that this is a normal natural protective survival body response that has been formulated for over 300 million years.The lack of knowledge and understanding of how trauma is experienced, memorized and how generally uninformed many community helpers/responders are ( doctors, police, firefighters, therapists, teachers, etc) is doing a disservice to all of us. This results in not only exacerbating symptoms of trauma in the induvial, but less of a tolerance for how adequately care and understand for those who need critical support.
What about the memories? If it was THAT bad wouldn’t we remember it? After all, we can all remember getting into a bad argument with a significant other, getting fired from work or when we received really bad news. Well, traumatic memories are different- very different. What we know about the brain, what Dr.Ford began to explain about norepinephrine and the stress response during the hearings was that trauma memories encode in an entirely different way than regular non-traumatic memories. These memories are not sequential, nor are they linear- they are fragmented with focus on certain details: face, sound, sensation. We question why people do not remember how they got home, who they called,however we neglect to consider the myriad of reasons, all tied into the neuroscience of the brain: shock, dissociation; the very reason there is nothing for survival purposes to recall these generalized. In order for the body to endure the overwhelming flood of pain and violation, it must go into shock and dissociation to survive. In documented cases when men and women sustain a large medical injury (shot wound, stabbing) they also go into shock for the same reasons- the body is protecting itself from the overwhelming unproductive pain.
Now having the science, in looking at the emotions surrounding why someone did not come forward, there are many reasons to consider. Asking someone to recount the most violating experience time and time again, often when the victim is still in shock has long tern consequences. It is crucial to take into consideration that perpetrators can (and often do) have power, privilege and influence as such as bosses, professors, family members, higher social status, economic or racial privilege, in addition to a whole host of other factors. This makes coming forward far more difficult- knowing you are facing someone who has more social support, status, or privilege than you. In coming forward in a professional setting when looking at discussing sexual harassment, the fear of losing a job, fear of being labeled as a problem employee, being labeled as a “woman scorned” and fears of being passed up for promotions often outweighs any potential benefit in reporting.
There is a terrible mistaken belief out there that one can just accuse someone else of assault, rape or harassment and it’s an automatic approval to sue for a bunch of money or to have the person fired. If one were to truly ask around and look at the everyday person’s experience of coming forward, they would quickly realize the ease of such accusations could not be further from the truth. The process of lodging a complaint, being interviewed for statements, collecting evidence and so fourth is an often long, arduous process with extreme stress.
To all survivors, I want you to know, I will respect you no matter what you choose- choosing to come forward or choose to not report. Both are impossibly difficult choices- there is no right or wrong. All I can ask of you is you do not do this alone, in your time and when you feel ready (as ready as any person can be) to seek out healthy support. It is okay to be unsure, it is okay to feel scared, righteous, angry, numb-it is okay to feel whatever you feel. This is your life, your own story and no one else has a right to make opinions or facts for you. If you are a survivor reading this, please do know, even if just a small part, the assault is not your fault. If you are someone who loves and wants to support a survivor, please understand the process of “just come forward” is never that black and white. If you don’t know what to do, it is okay to simply ask “ how can I be there for you.”
Please click on link below for national sexual assault hotline:
Alexis has been a part time contributor to the online website Patientworthy which is dedicated to education and awareness of rare and serious diseases. Links to articles written by Alexis: