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Monday, June 10, 2013

The Importance of Self-Care

A dialogue that is often heard in anti-sexual violence field is around the concept and importance of self-care.  It’s been present in each of the volunteer trainings I have been a part of both as an incoming volunteer or as a facilitator.  It’s been a part of conversations between myself and colleagues and also with supervisors.  Considering the high levels of burn out and vicarious trauma in this field, it makes sense.  However, regardless of how many times we have these discussions, I always realize that there are different ways to incorporate self-care into my life and am reminded as to just how important it is.

Doing this work it can be easy to talk to others about how important it is to have boundaries between work and home life and to have a balance of responsibilities, life, and play.  However the implementation and personal practice of it can be difficult and easily overlooked.  Sometimes it is hard to recognize when self-care is needed or when you are reaching a place of feeling overwhelmed or burnt out.  We get so wrapped up in our own lives, what needs to be done, and the day-to-day that we forget to zoom out and look at the big picture and our overall health.  Perhaps it is because you are just chugging along and handling the normal levels of stress in your daily life and rape crisis work but you are tottering on the edge of feeling burnt out.  Perhaps it is because you’ve been ignoring the signs.  However, when it happens it feels as though there was this one catalyst moment or something that pushed you over the edge.  It is easy to say ‘when I am done with this project’ or ‘I will factor in time tomorrow’ but somehow one project turns into another and tomorrow never comes.

There are other barriers to practicing self-care even when we recognize it is important and needed.  There might not be enough time or perhaps not enough money or other resources to do self-care.  Maybe it feels too overwhelming to work yet another thing into the day.  Maybe it feels as if your attention should be focused elsewhere.  Perhaps the people around us are telling us that the situation isn’t that bad or that we’re overreacting.  Perhaps we’re telling ourselves that we are overreacting.  Maybe putting other people first feels more important and natural for us.

I get it, self-care is hard.  However, regular practice of it can dramatically reduce stress and help us handle those unforeseen emergencies and experiences that may further create the need for immediate self-care.  A problem is that you never know when that catalyst or push-over moment is going to happen.  Crisis and trauma cannot be predicted, which is why they are so appropriately termed.  These unforeseen crises can present themselves in either our personal or professional lives.  Regardless of where it arises, it is almost certain that it will impact all aspects of our lives until we are able to address it head on.  Self-care, especially on a regular basis, can help us to recharge and, as one of my colleagues said, get our superpowers back.

A critical thing to remember about self-care is that it doesn’t have to require a lot of resources be it time, money, effort, or space.  Some of the most effective self care strategies can be short and simplistic.  Keeping this in mind can alleviate the barrier of practicing self-care in small intervals rather than overlooking it all together waiting for an hour or an afternoon to be free in order to engage in some self-care.
It’s also important to vary what you do for self-care.  The same strategy is not going to work time and time and time again.  It’s possible that it will feel repetitive and redundant and create more bad than good.  It is also likely that we won’t have the same resources or access when we need to do self care.  Therefore, by having an active and changing tool box of options, it is likely you will have one that will work for a variety of situations and in a variety of settings. 

Some forms of self care you may only pull out for special moments or to reward yourself for getting through something that was especially energy-consuming.  Usually we can equate this type of self-care with being a type of reward for finishing a specific action and there is a projected time frame of when we will be able to do the self-care.  This can look like purchasing an item you’ve been coveting for a while, getting a massage, seeing a show or concert, or going on vacation.  These options tend to take a lot of time and money.

Other forms of self-care can be implemented regularly throughout out week to keep us feeling fresh and prepared.  These can take much less time and money than the special forms of self care.  These can include:
• Small treats like a frozen yogurt from Angora (yum!)
• Exercise (running, strength, walking, swimming, etc)
• Journaling
• Yoga
• Meditation
• Being or talking with friends
• Reading a book for fun
• Going to an exhibit or museum
• Art (drawing, painting, sculpture, etc)
• Hobbies

There are also methods of self-care that can be done in short periods of time that don’t require much time or space and help to keep us on point until we are able to engage in a longer bout of self-care.  These can be useful for dealing with a particular stressful event or project or when you are crowded spaces or other environments where you can’t control the surroundings.  These can include:
• Deep breathing
• Short meditation breaks
• Stretching
• Reciting a mantra or inspirational quote

There are many ways to practice self-care and it may take a bit of time to figure out what will work for each person.  Recognizing the need for and practicing self-care can make you a stronger and more-aware advocate and individual.  It will go a long way in preventing people from feeling overwhelmed or burnt out. 

Since many of us are engaged in work that serves others or trauma, it’s important to remember the more we take care of ourselves the more that we will be able to take care of others and engage in this work.



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Posted by stacey on 06/10 • (0) CommentsPermalink

Thursday, May 23, 2013

Boy Scouts voting on allowing open gay youth: A step that is just not far enough

The Boy Scouts of America (BSA) are having an overdue vote at a conference today and tomorrow.  They will be voting as to whether to allow openly gay youth to be in their troops across the country.  Previously the ruling was that each troop was able to make its own decision about whether to include or disclude openly gay youth.  Really Boy Scouts?  You need to hold a vote as to whether your organization should be inclusive?

Let’s be clear that this vote is not going to suddenly bring a flood of gay youth to the Boy Scouts.  There are already gay troops across the country.  However, they are currently silenced and not allowed to express who they are.  They are constantly learning from the BSA , perhaps an organization that they love, that they should be ashamed of who they are and that they are less valuable than the heterosexual troop members.  If they dare come out, they risk being kicked out of the troop and perhaps excluded from a group of friends they have had for years. 

I took a moment yesterday to peruse through the BSA website and looked over their motto and benefits of joining their organization.  As many people know their motto is ‘Be Prepared’ which could be pretty iconic for this matter.  They are preparing gay youth—they are preparing them to be told by other parts of society and individuals that their identities are less than and that their participation is something that can be voted on and decided by a majority of people. 

Several of the benefits that really stood out to me were: building self-confidence, promoting diversity, creating fellowship, and providing a positive place.  When we think of these benefits in terms of gay youth troop members, they are laughable.  The BSA cannot expect to build the self-confidence of a population who they are simultaneously trying to silence and exclude.  Those two actions are mutually exclusive.  In the same regards, members cannot truly learn the importance of diversity and fellowship if they are also learning that certain people can be cast out and that their membership can be voted on.

Another problem is that this vote only applies to gay troop members—not to troop leaders or employees.  Is this because BSA believes that eventually the gay youth will just ‘phase out’ of their homosexual identity?  Or do they truly not see the horrible messaging they are still propagating by having this policy?

One benefit that BSA purports that youth will learn is a ‘duty to God’ and have actually used this as a way to prohibit an open gay youth from achieving Eagle Scout status.  Many sects and reglions have embraced LGB/TQ individuals.  Therefore, this standpoint is from one specific religious interpretation.  Many LGB/TQ individuals consider religion a huge priority in their lives as well as another component to their overall identity.  Some struggle to come out because of the religious messaging they received and internalized. 

Troop members, gay or not, will still be learning that being gay is wrong because none of the adults in their lives are allowed to disclose.  They will learn that it still okay to oppress someone based on how they identify simply because you disagree with it.  They will be denied gay role models who can provide advice, influence development, and counterbalance the negative influences that the troop members are receiving.  It is critical for gay youth to see their lives reflected positively in their communities.

On top of the ethical and justice issues that are called into question by the fact that BSA has refused to change their policy in the past and that they have decided that voting on inclusion is the correct path, there are the simple logistics of the matter.  What does allowing openly gay troop members and excluding openly gay troop leaders and employees look like?  And, what’s the point?

If you read the comments (I strongly recommend against this regardless of the topic), you will see a lot of comments equating homosexuality to pedophilia.  One’s sexual identity has nothing to do with having risk factors to perpetrate sexual violence.  It is a horrible myth that is steeped in stereotypes, bigotry, intolerance, and hatred.  Unfortunately this is still an argument that is given time and space in the news and discussions about whether to allow openly gay adults to supervise troops and be employees at BSA offices.  This very unsettling study found that a couple major news sources, CNN and FoxNews, mentioned the concern of pedophilia when talking about allowing gay individuals into the organization.  While there is debate on how reputable these news sources are, it is disheartening to see them entertain an idea and stereotype that has been debunked by studies.

The majority of people who perpetrate, regardless o f the survivor’s age or gender, are heterosexual males.  Sexual violence is about power and control and taking advantage of the vulnerabilities another person may have.  It has nothing to do with sexual desire or attraction. 

Additionally, the BSA have been under huge scrutiny for the past few months in regards to covering up sexual abuse since as early as the 1940s, although it could have went on much earlier than that since the Boy Scouts were started in 1910.  The organization put up a huge resistance to turning over files on people who reportedly abused boys alleging that they were dealing with the issues internally.  Although eventually all materials were handed over and there is now a database that holds all the previously unpublished files.

Logistically, this policy does not make any sense and raises so many questions for me. 

If someone is openly gay as a troop member does that mean they can never lead a troop or work for the BSA?  If someone is openly gay as a troop member, does that mean that in order to become a troop leader or employee they have to move somewhere new where no one will know?  There are many individuals, including those who are gay, who enjoyed their time in the Boy Scouts and want to be able to give back.  Perhaps this is through volunteering or by gaining employment through the organization.  Either way, it will force people to silence and hiding again and to choose between an organization they love and a part of their identity.

At what point does a person transition from being allowed to be openly gay to not being allowed?  Is it a minor versus adult thing?  There are some troop members over the age of 18 who are still working towards achieving the esteemed Eagle Scout honor. 

As one can easily see from this poignantly written op-ed, it is not enough to be closeted at work or in the troop.  It applies to every section of one’s life.  Gay employees and troop leaders cannot afford neighbors or parents of the children finding out lest they report it to the Boy Scouts of America.  These individuals are constantly in fear of losing a position and title that they may greatly value having. 

While it is positive step to potentially allow openly gay youth into the program, it is only a small step and doesn’t fully address the needs of everyone who is part of the organization.  BSA should be pushed to become truly inclusive of its troop members, leaders, parents, and employees.



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Posted by stacey on 05/23 • (0) CommentsPermalink

Wednesday, May 15, 2013

Impact and response: SAPR officials charged with sexual assault

When I first heard the story about the Air Force Sexual Assault Prevention and Response chief who was accused of sexual assault, my heart sank.  As an advocate in this field, it has always been a fear of mine to hear about an advocate assaulting someone.  And then, in the same month, another similar story comes out about an Army enlisted SAPR personnel who assaulted multiple female soldiers of a lower rank. 

The impact that these stories have go beyond the respective bases where these individuals were stationed.  These assaults and charges, especially since they involve SAPR personnel, do not happen within a vacuum and the ripple effect created by these two incidents will impact survivors who have and haven’t reported, military personnel, and environments.  The work to repair the trust and safety in addition to alleviating the new doubts and barriers will be long, hard, and multi-faceted. 

We already knew that the majority of sexual assault survivors did not report their case, either in a restricted or unrestricted manner.  The previous numbers (based on anonymous survey) reflected that almost 3,200 reports were made in FY2011 but the estimated number of survivors was well over 19,000.  The newest report for FY2012 reflects an uptick in both numbers – the number of reports increased to almost 3,400 but the number of people anonymously reporting unwanted sexual contact dramatically increased to 26,000!

What I believe, although there is no scientific evidence, is that this increase in anonymous reports is because people felt safer to report their experiences than in previous years.  It does not necessarily mean that there is an actual increase in the prevalence of sexual violence within the military.  We have seen similar trends in reports of civilian experiences with rape and sexual assault.  While many of these individuals still didn’t make an official report, having more accurate numbers of the people impacted can be beneficial for programs, service providers, funding, and creating policies. 

Historically, there have been dismal reporting numbers of rape and sexual assault.  That dramatically changed with the creation of the Sexual Assault Prevention and Response Office in 2004 and again with the creation of restricted reporting shortly after.  The presence of advocates, the recognition that sexual assault can be incredibly difficult to report, and additional resources for survivors made it easier for many people to come forward.  However, much like in general society, there are still many people who identify as experiencing sexual violence but who do not report or utilize the SAPR office.

The articles that have recently come out about SAPR personnel charged with sexual assault forces military sexual assault advocacy back a few steps.  If survivors cannot feel safe in the one place that is supposed to understand, explain options, provide resources, and advocate on their behalf then where can they feel safe?  One of the most commonly quoted reasons that people don’t come forward, and one that I heard frequently as a Sexual Assault Response Coordinator (SARC) for the Navy, was that people didn’t trust their chain of command to handle their case appropriately.  Now, survivors have to worry about both their chain of command and the SAPR office personnel handling their cases. 

One thing we always highlight in trainings and workshops is that it is extremely difficult for a survivor to disclose, regardless of whether it is to a friend or family member or a formal resource like the police or a rape crisis center.  When reporting to a rape crisis center or the SAPR office, someone is taking a giant leap of faith.  Oftentimes they are talking to a complete stranger and trusting that this stranger is going to be a positive and beneficial ally and resource.  The charges that are now coming out of the Air Force and Army SAPR offices are going to make it exponentially more difficult for survivors across the military to trust these strangers and to have trust in the system. 

Military survivors, both male and female, already face a large number of personal and career barriers to reporting.  The SAPR office and program should be working to break down those barriers and increase the safety and trust of survivors rather than adding additional barriers. 

These incidents are also going to have an impact on the other military departments, units, and the overall environment.  It seems that every day there is a new story focusing on the problematic culture in the military: a general engaging in victim-blaming, a brochure that tells victims to submit, the entire Lackland incident, a lieutenant general overturning an Air Force conviction of sexual assault, and top brass officers stating that they support both the conviction and the overturn decision.  Mixed up in all these stories is the same message over and over again to survivors: don’t report because you won’t be supported. 

The SAPR office is supposed to be countering these statements with trainings, prevention work, and advocacy.  If SAPR isn’t providing a safe environment for survivors then they don’t have a leg to stand on when making recommendations or providing trainings.  If they are taking this issue and the people it impacts seriously, then other departments units, and top officers are going to follow suit. 

The environment that is set up in an office by the people in charge and the social leaders will have a direct impact on the other people who share that office.  It can impact who is hired, the topics that are given attention, the overall attitude, culture, and acceptable behavior.  The fact that the person in charge of the office is committing acts of sexual violence makes me question the behaviors of others working in the same environment. 

Research and anecdotal information has shown us that people who perpetrate are attracted to environments where their behaviors won’t be questioned and they are least likely to be caught.  When working with childcare organizations, we recommend asking each applicant whether they have ever engaged in sexually inappropriate behavior.  While the applicant can lie, it puts across the message that this is the type of environment and culture that any inappropriate behaviors will be called out and addressed.  Therefore, it will be more difficult to get away with these behaviors than at other organizations who may feel too uncomfortable asking that question of each applicant. 

There is an assumption that people who get into an anti-violence field should be trusted and that they are caring, compassionate, and supportive of the issue.  However, that is not always the case.  Some people enter this work as a way to disguise the harm and violence they engage in and to alleviate any suspicion that would otherwise befall them.  Because of course, why would someone who worked to end rape actually rape someone?  Those allegations just can’t be true.  In fact, people can hide themselves in this work, take advantage of the status that is allocated to them, and take advantage of the vulnerable people who are seeking help.  I do not say this to scare people away from seeking services.  Overwhelmingly, the people involved in this field are truly dedicated to the work. 

The same screening process that we recommend for other agencies should be present within anti-violence agencies.  Employees and volunteers should be asked whether they have ever been sexually (or physically or emotionally, …) inappropriate with anyone.  I applied for a victim advocate position with a police force in CO and I was asked this question multiple times during a polygraph exam.  While I’m sure it was uncomfortable for the polygrapher to ask that question, I respected the organization more because they were thinking about the victims I’d be working with in addition to my co-workers and the environment.  During my entire interview process as a contract Sexual Assault Response Coordinator for the Navy, no one ever asked me about any inappropriate behaviors.  I can only assume that is standard across the board.  Needless to say, that is a problem. 

Working within the government and military is a completely different environment then working within the civilian sphere.  One of the requirements of the SAPR program is that each military unit has to have a trained victim advocate.  What that means is if no one volunteers to take on this position, then the commander picks someone and sends them to training. This means that some people sitting through training are not interested in the issue or the job which impacts the services that survivors receive.  Other times, people volunteer for this position because it is seen as  high priority duty and it looks good on evaluations.  As we saw in the Army case, the person was assigned to the position rather than opting into it or even proving an established history of victim services and knowledge of the subject matter.  This process can result in under qualified or disinterested personnel providing services to survivors of rape and sexual assault and giving recommendations to the base commander. 

When working within the Navy, I met many people who were in SARC or Victim Advocate positions who were either underqualified or doing the job for the wrong reasons.  This translates into poor services for survivors, incorrect information, inappropriate materials, and a variety of other repercussions.

Recently Secretary of Defense Hagel stated that all SAPR personnel were to be retrained, recredentialed, and rescreened.  However, who will be in charge of ensuring that those providing sexual assault services are actually qualified?  If those hired to provide the services are being called into question then who is left to create those guidelines?

Hagel has also spoken about eliminating the power of senior commanders to overturn jury verdicts.  Top military officials have frequently shown that they aren’t versed enough in the issue of sexual violence to be making these calls.  Quite frankly, top military officials are at the top because they have spent their lives in the military and had the appropriate experience and behaviors to move up the ranks.  It’s time to allow the experts in sexual violence the chance to provide their knowledge, expertise, services, and passion to the military and to the survivors within the military. 

More than 26,000 survivors each year is a serious problem and every single one deserves access to competent, compassionate, and qualified service providers.



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Posted by stacey on 05/15 • (0) CommentsPermalink

Friday, May 03, 2013

It takes more than words

What is enough for an individual or organization to prove that they are against or that they support a certain issue?  Would this just have to include verbal statements or is there a need for some type of action or behavior change?  What if I told you that I support the environment and green/sustainable energy and attend monthly meetings to talk about this issue?  Perhaps you would think that is fantastic and that this world needs all the people it can get on the environmental movement bandwagon.  However, you would probably not think it was fantastic if you realized that I drove a Hummer, refused to recycle, and decided that I needed to run my dishwasher twice to ensure cleanliness.  (Note: I ride a bicycle, love recycling, and don’t even own a dishwasher).

The point is that the thoughts people have and the statements they make don’t always line up with what they practice and the perception this gives to others.  Based on the advocacy, education, and prevention work that I have done here at BARCC and elsewhere, it is not enough to verbally condone or condemn something.  Actions need to back up those statements. 

Recently at the University of Arizona, a student, Dean Saxton, stood outside holding a sign that said ‘You Deserve Rape’.  The student is quoted as saying

“if you dress like a whore, act like a whore, you’re probably going to get raped. I think that girls that [sic] dress and act like it, they should realize that they do have partial responsibility, because I believe they’re pretty much asking for it”.

The University of Arizona stated that they don’t support his message but also say that his speech is protected and that it isn’t directly threatening any particular person.

Dartmouth College recently had their prospective students day in which a group of 15 current students disrupted a program to protest and highlight the issues of sexual assault, racism, and homophobia that are frequently covered up or ignored by the school’s administration. Many students who were involved in the protest received threats of violence both online and in-person by other students.  In response the school shut down classes for a day and instead held teach-ins to address the campus culture. 

And of course there is the case at UNC Chapel Hill where one of the deans reported that she was pressured by administration to change the number of sexual assault reports each year. 

To reframe, in the past few months, survivors of sexual violence have seen a student blatantly holding a sign that says ‘You Deserve Rape’ and saw zero response from the school.  They saw an administration state that they would charge the protesters and those who threatened the protesters in the same manner.  And finally they saw an administration lie about reports.  These actions have huge consequences. 

Title IX guarantees that students will have equal access to education and campus resources. 

Feelings of safety and equality can be diminished or erased when survivors need to walk by Saxton’s sign on the way to the dining hall, class, the quad, or even their car.  The online and real world threats that so many people received and documented on Real Talk Dartmouth, also create a culture of fear and intolerance.  Despite how these actions are predominatnlty from students, they raise the question about how supportive the administration will be to reports of sexual violence if they allow such messages to be displayed on campus. Survivors and anti-sexual violence advocates may not feel safe or fully able to express themselves in such an intolerant environment, especially if they don’t know where the messages are coming from or whether the administration is supportive of them or not.  

Many survivors blame themselves for part or all of the abuse they experience.  This self-blame can take days, weeks, months, or even years to overcome because of the victim-blaming and rape culture that exists.  Oftentimes survivors are scared into silence because they don’t know how people will react or believe that they will be blamed for the attack. Because of this, many survivors aren’t able to access the resources and support services they deserve. 

Despite UofA’s excuse that the speech was protected, didn’t violate the student code of conduct, and didn’t threaten a particular person.  In an opposing example, Dartmouth scrubbed their campus clean of all chalking and signs that the protestors made about how poorly they campus handles sexual assault and homophobic language and behavior.  Colleges do have control over the type of messaging that is allowed on their campus.  I wonder what UofA’s response would have been if Saxton had decided to hold his sign during a prospective student day or weekend.

As a first-year at college, my room mate and I had taped a Global AIDS Campaign postcard on the door of our room.  After a fire alarm one night, we returned to ‘AIDS is a blessing in disguise’ written on our white board.  We had no idea who wrote it.  It could have been a fellow hall mate, student, or a guest. We also didn’t know if the message was specifically written at us or if it was written solely because of the postcard.  However, it did have what I can only assume was the intended effect: suspicion, hurt, and unease. 

A message doesn’t have to be pointed at a specific individual for it to have an impact.  Blanket and general statements can have just as profound an impact on the people who see it or hear about it. 

Creating a culture that is intolerant of sexual violence and supports survivors takes work.  UofA Health Center referenced a video they had just made about how the men on campus don’t support sexual violence.  However, the hits to that video are far fewer than the people who saw Saxton.  Dartmouth cancelled classes to address the need for respect and tolerance on campus.  Change is going to need more than a video and more than one day of programming.  There are no quick solution fixes, such as shutting down an entire Greek system, that will end racist, homophobic, sexist behaviors or even hazing.  My college disbanded its Greek life in the 60s and it just went underground.  Trust me, the hazing didn’t get any better once these groups were no longer recognized.

Changing a culture is possible but people need to be willing to work for it as it needs the input and help of the school’s administration, staff, and students.  There needs to be collaboration between these groups and the service providers who specifically focus on these issues. It requires holding people accountable for their actions and behaviors.  Time, money, and resources are needed much like they are everywhere else.   However, the most important thing is the belief that it is possible.  Because it is.


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Posted by stacey on 05/03 • (0) CommentsPermalink

Thursday, April 18, 2013

A Collection of Responses

Here at BARCC, we recognize that this has been a tough week for everyone.  It is difficult to articulate our feelings, emotions, and reactions to Monday's tragedy.  I have read multiple blog pieces and news articles and am appreciative of those who were able to articulate their responses.  Two of those pieces are shared below.  Please practice appropriate self-care when reading and afterwards.    If you read other especially poignant, inspirational, healing, or amazing blogs please feel free to share links in the comments below.  

*Trigger warning for mention of the Boston Marathon explosions and for mention of sexual violence*


SUBMISSION 1: Responses to (Un)Seen Trauma

Written by Michelle, a member of the BARCC Survivor Speaker's Bureau:

In the past few days, we have all seen incredibly caring and helpful posts from a variety of agencies that work on behalf of sexual assault and sexual abuse survivors – that any trauma can be triggering, and to be aware and be especially kind to yourself.  I have welcomed these emails, and have appreciated their sensitivity.  These Facebook postings, emails, and such come with helpful listings of available services, and also tend to remind us to:


  • Emphasize self care
  • Use our resources
  • Be aware that what we feel is normal in the face of circumstances outside the realm of normal human experience
  • To remember that our sense of equilibrium will be restored
  • To try and do something positive for the current victims to maintain a sense of agency and control

I appreciate all of these reminders and have used several of them.  I am sorrier than I can ever say for the fear, physical and emotional terror, flashbacks and long recoveries ahead for so many of the victims on Monday’s senseless violence. 

I would like to add an important acknowledgement to my fellow survivors of rape, sexual assault and sexual abuse today that I fear is often absent when we are faced with a public act of terror, and that makes the triggering we sometimes experience during these times feel so complicated.

  • For many of us, no one knows what we have been through – outside of a therapist and a select group of loved ones
  • For many of us, the police did not look for our perpetrator, disbelieved us, or closed our case without seeming to look very hard to find him/them.
  • For almost all of us, there was no public support of our private nightmares.
  • For many of us, the regular triggering we experience is something we mostly keep to ourselves as the news contains so many violations of the body and soul which are now reported instantaneously in print and TV.

I am not comparing pain.  All of it is horrific.  I just want my fellow survivors to know that someone understands their profound sense of loneliness at moments of public tragedy, and sees them and knows that they are not crazy for feeling a confusing spiral of solidarity, outrage and compassion, combined with sadness, triggering fear, and a sense of isolation.  To feel this sense of confusing emotions is not self indulgent or uncaring of the victims in Monday’s bombings, it is part of being human.   I want to reach my hand to survivors who feel invisible and alone too much of the time, and acknowledge that I know they are there, and they are not as alone as they may sometimes feel.


SUBMISSION 2: The Debrief: Whose Trauma/Which Trauma

By: Mimi Arbeit, the partner of one of our CAPS volunteers

Crossposted from Jewish Boston (linked above)

You can also follow Mimi on Twitter: @mimiarbeit

On Monday the people of Boston faced a collective trauma. We were attacked. We were vulnerable. We were victims. Together, we responded. We remembered our strength. We reignited our compassion. We connected our community.

Trauma: one big word that covers so many different things.

As I mentioned previously, April is Sexual Assault Awareness Month. So I had already been thinking about trauma for several weeks now. A very different kind of trauma.

In many ways, these two experiences of trauma have a lot in common. Indeed, events like Monday’s tragedy can be deeply triggering to survivors of sexual violence because of the ways in which subsequent emotional responses mirror their previous ones.

In other ways, these two experiences of trauma are worlds apart. And those stark differences may also be triggering to survivors—heartbreaking—because of the ways in which this coming together in community is so sorely lacking in the daily process that is surviving a sexual assault.

What if the process of coping with the trauma of a sexual assault were as community-supported, open, acceptable, and well-resourced as we are seeing this week following a national tragedy?

One meme circulating my social media today is this quote attributed to Mr. Rogers: “Look for the helpers. You will always find people who are helping.”

Looking for the helpers, and being the helpers ourselves, has helped a lot of us begin to cope with this attack. But people every day are attacked and don’t find any helpers. The people who could be helping are in denial, turning a blind eye, taking pictures, blaming the victim, threatening the victim, or worrying about the perpetrators’ promising futures.

Too often we have looked for the helpers and not found anyone.

So what can we do about this, my dearly beloved community of Jews and Bostonians? As we come together to support each other, how can we make our community even stronger than we were before, even more resilient in the face of trauma, even more connected to each other in love and trust? How can we, in coping communally with this trauma, build the foundation for coping communally with other types of trauma as well?

One way is to consider the effects of this trauma and of other traumas, and to learn about how we can support each other through other traumas by looking at how we support each other through this one.

We can learn through comparing traumas—not calling one more difficult than the other, just trying to learn from the differences and address them. If we can build a system of immediate and long-term support in response to all traumas, I think we will all do better. Here are some of my thoughts:

On the nature of the trauma…

  • Public and private: The attack at the finish line is public information. We can discuss it publicly. We can discuss it at work. And for each of those discussions you have comfortably, think of how many other traumas and how many other conversations we silence because they are uncomfortable, private, TMI.
  • Visible and invisible: Sitting in a coffee shop on campus, a young man walks in wearing this year’s Boston Marathon jacket. I want to say something to him. To show my support. I can see by this jacket that he’s probably hurting. All too often, there’s no jacket for trauma survivors. We don’t tell you. You don’t know.
  • Communal and individual: We all went through a traumatic event on Monday. Together. And we came together to get through it. Facebook posts. Newspaper articles. Candlelight vigils. What about when trauma only hurts one of us? How many of us have access to immediate and ongoing community healing, and how many of us think our pain is an isolated incident of no common social or political interest?

How we talk about the trauma…

  • Acceptable and unacceptable: I’ve heard so much positive support for how much hard work it takes to finish a marathon, for how important the fans are, cheering on the runners. All of the victims on Monday were hurt while doing totally acceptable things. Honorable, even heroic things. So they don’t hesitate to tell their stories. And yet so many survivors of sexual assault don’t tell us theirs.
  • Blameless and to blame: We call the attackers cowards. We find it impossible to fathom how one human being could do that to another. We put all the blame where it belongs: on the perpetrator of the violence. And yet, in the case of sexual assault, we blame the victims instead and teach the victims to blame themselves. We criticize each aspect of their behavior leading up to and during the assault. Let’s be more offended and horrified that these people can’t run their marathons, celebrate their victories, enjoy their human experiences free from violence, as all of us want to be.
  • Shameful and shameless: Do we think that the city of Boston is now damaged goods, and should never host another marathon? Do we all want to quietly move away from Boston now that the city has been victimized? No. Our pride is louder and more colorful than ever. I can’t even try to tell you what it might look like to survive sexual violence free from shame. I’m coming up against the limitations of my own imagination. I’m sorry. You tell me.

How we think the trauma works…

  • Agency and victimization: After the explosions, we chose to help each other, we chose to cooperate with each other, and we chose to grieve together. We are building power in the wake of tragedy. Many survivors of sexual assault feel that even saying they were forced or pressured or manipulated will somehow discount everything they have ever or will ever do to care for and advocate for themselves. In order to preserve their own sense of personal agency, they write off their own trauma as insignificant. Our discussion of the events on Monday gives us a potential model with which to rewrite these narratives so that even when victimized, we still feel like we have agency.
  • Past and present: This week, we’re responding to recent trauma. Let’s also recognize that the attacks could trigger past traumas; for example, from September 11, 2001. The thing about triggers is that they can come any time to anyone. There might be no such thing as “over it already.” Doesn’t work like that. I got through it and then I got triggered and now I have to get over it all over again. And again. And again.
  • Significant and insignificant: Today I saw a misheberach (healing) prayer posted by InterfaithFamily and written specifically to pray for healing of those injured on Monday. Then I saw that the translation of the prayer referred to God as “He.” I know that’s the common practice in our community locally and globally, but for me, referring to God as masculine by default is just one piece in the puzzle of patriarchy that perpetuates sexual violence. I’m not going to heal from one trauma by perpetuating other traumas. All of us matter, and all of our pain matters.

What else, beloved community? What other similarities and differences have you been feeling and thinking about as we cope with the attacks at the finish line, manage our triggers, and struggle to connect? Let’s learn from the process of coming together to survive these attacks about how we can come together to survive the epidemic of sexual violence that has also left so many of us victimized and traumatized. How can our work supporting survivors of the Boston Marathon attacks help us learn to support all survivors of trauma? How can we build a community informed by the short- and long-term effects of trauma, inclusive of multiple types of trauma, honest about multiple experiences of trauma? How can we survive together?

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Posted by stacey on 04/18 • (0) CommentsPermalink

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