The glitz and glamour of sexual assault

[I wrote this last winter, shortly after the second debate. I don’t remember why I never published it. I also don’t know why I’m publishing it today. Maybe because I can’t seem to write anything else coherent and this is an easy way out – posting something I already wrote. Maybe because this topic is always worth addressing. I suppose the why doesn’t even matter, anyway.]

I posted this on Facebook, following the debate a few weeks ago:

Just a friendly PSA: women don’t come forward for fame. Women come forward to bravely speak their truth so they can survive and be free.

A friend commented [sarcastically], “Nothing like the glitz and glamour of sexual assault.”

Yup – I know that’s what I always wanted. You too, right?

It is infuriating and terrifying to think that people out there still believe that the only reason a woman would share a story is because she made it up while trying to get in the spotlight.

Absent a serious mental condition, women don’t go around making up stories to ruin someone’s life in the interest of fame.

Newsflash: the reason so many of us don’t tell, or didn’t tell for so many years, is because we didn’t want to be in a spotlight.

It’s not a club that anybody wants to be in. But we find ourselves there – and so we find a way to survive. And that often happens by sharing our stories. Not because, “Ooh! This would be so cool to talk about, and maybe I’ll become rich and famous!”

There was nothing exhilarating or glamorous about anxiously sitting on a couch in front of a friend, trying not to throw up or panic, trying to look her in the eye, drenched in the shame I thought was mine, as I spoke the words and told her my stories. There was nothing fun and exciting about sitting in therapy and working through the years and the memories.

It was freeing. Liberating. Relieving. Terrifying. Worth it.

But not glitzy. Not glamorous.

That’s not how this works.

Sometimes, a survivor does become famous. But when that happens, they’re not famous because of what happened to them, or because of who hurt them. They’re famous because of their bravery in speaking their truth. Because of the hope and courage they give others. Because of the freedom they then feel, and inspire in others.

The problem is, the people who are going to read this are the ones who agree. The ones who have the same thoughts. The ones who don’t get it, who are still so ignorant, those are the ones who will never see these words. But we write, and we talk, on the off chance that someone reads something, and talks to someone who talks to someone who talks to someone who had a different opinion, and through the grapevine, they are educated and enlightened. 

Lessons learned. Again.

You know how when there’s a leak in your house you usually fix it right away, but sometimes you just ignore it? Because it’s really not doing that much damage and it’s probably only leaking because it’s raining and it’s going to stop raining eventually.

Right. Except.

The thing is, you don’t know when it’s going to stop raining. Or when it’s going to start raining again. And how hard. Because despite your best efforts, and the best predictions and forecasts, sometimes storms just come. And sometimes they come out of nowhere, and you haven’t fixed the leak, and it makes an even bigger mess.

And then you have to figure out how to fix the damage from the leak. There’s no point in wasting time wishing you had fixed it earlier. Hindsight is 20-20 and all you can do is deal with what you have in front of you.

So you get mad at yourself, and you complain, and maybe you cry, but then you do the Next Right Thing. You call the repairman, and tell them that even if their schedule is crazy, you need to be fit in. And you don’t, you can’t, feel bad about it, because that’s their job. And you have to fix the damage to your house. No amount of avoidance or wishing is going to make it go away.

And you remind yourself: next time, for the love of all things holy, don’t ignore the leak. No matter how tempting avoidance is, remember that the likelihood of the leak just stopping is slim to none. Patch it. Fix it. Face it. Call the repairman. Well before the damage occurs.

Body memories

[Ed. note: I wrote this a week ago and immediately got stuck in anxiety about posting it. Vulnerability is hard, and it’s scary to imagine how people might feel or react, even when deep in your heart you know that you’re just telling your story. And even if you’re a person who preaches being brave, it doesn’t mean it’s always easy. It’s terrifying. But here’s the thing: vulnerability brings healing, to yourself and to others. And also, there’s this, that was a perfectly-timed reminder (thank you, Laura):

So with that: press publish. Vulnerability is bravery is healing.]


When people are surrounded by something all the time, they naturally become an expert on it. Sometimes that can cloud their perspective – they forget that not everyone else knows everything that they know.

My brother probably forgets that even the basics of coding are not necessarily common sense. My husband might occasionally have to remind himself that not everyone knows the basics of what our healthcare system involves. I live autism and language/learning disabilities day in and day out, and have for years. Invariably, each year when “Autism Awareness” circulates, I find myself thinking, “really? But we all KNOW about autism.” Well, I do. And my coworkers do. And the colleagues and contacts I follow on social media do. But everyone? No, they don’t.

This is all normal. We live and breathe something and so to us it becomes obvious.

People who don’t deal with anxiety might not know what it’s like for someone to experience it (which is a large part of why I write about it – education, and to reduce stigma, and encourage bravery). The same can be said with trauma. It occurred to me recently that I write a lot, in great detail, about anxiety. And the response is always overwhelmingly positive, from the texts and messages and emails that I receive. But while I’ve certainly acknowledged trauma in posts, I actually haven’t written that much about it. Part of that is I didn’t feel a need. Part of that is I didn’t know where to begin. Part of that was, quite honestly, fear – because while I know most people would have a positive reaction, I also know that not everyone else would. And I talk about facing fears and being real and being brave, but oh, it can be scary and hard.

Anyway. One day last week on my drive home from work, I was thinking about a conversation I had  had with a friend who was experiencing a recurrence of a PTSD symptom. Particularly, I was thinking about how most of us experience(d) symptoms, but they aren’t necessarily talked about. And so, just as with autism or coding or healthcare, other people just don’t know. And how could we expect people to support us, advocate for us, be our cheerleaders, if they don’t know what we experience?

So I decided to start here, in the mixed-up middle, because that’s always the best place to start.
People hear about PTSD and might think of flashbacks, of a soldier hearing a loud noise and bolting under the table, thinking he’s back in Afghanistan. Flashbacks are real, and they certainly exist for sexual trauma as well. I have heard from many survivors that flashbacks are the hardest symptom. For me? One of the hardest parts was what I call body memories.

The best way I can explain this is, have you heard of phantom limb pain? How someone can have their leg amputated, and cognitively know their leg isn’t there, but they feel it, and it hurts? Body memories for me were like that. I would get a feeling being touched, being invaded, and I would feel it in my body as if it was happening. It wasn’t a flashback. I knew exactly where I was, I wasn’t dissociating or losing time, I was going about my day. But while my brain was very present in the here and now, my body was stuck in the past.

Certain touches, or even smells or places, or memories would trigger it – but sometimes it would happen from nothing at all. Let me tell you – it is a very hard thing to be at work, smiling and confidently working with students, but inside have your skin be crawling with sensation.

I draw attention to body memories because they happen. And they are often invisible. In college sometimes they’d leave me curled up under blankets in bed, but over the years they became quite functional. You’d never know it was happening unless I told you.

Which is why I’m telling you.

(For the record – they happen much less frequently now, fairly rarely. And when they do, they don’t last for days and weeks on end. And they don’t paralyze me the way they used to. (A lot of which I attribute to not hiding my stories as shameful secrets anymore). But as with anything, they could come back. Things come and go in waves. The difference is, as I said to my friend, it’s no longer like falling off a cliff and shattering into a million pieces. It’s more being a strong tree, rooted in the ground, during a storm. You’ll sway and bend, but you won’t break, you won’t uproot, you won’t shatter, you won’t die. You will survive. )

And I’ll end this right here, in the middle, too. Because there will be more to come. There needs to be, you know? Nobody should have to suffer in silence. Nobody should feel that people don’t get it, and so therefore they can’t talk about it.

Next time you’re at work and someone acts “off” – maybe their brain is stuck in a memory. Maybe their skin is crawling. Maybe not, but statistically? It very well could be. So smile at them and send them love and compassion. They will feel that you’re a safe person, and maybe that’s all it’ll take for them to talk, to let it out. That’s how it happened for me and I am grateful every single day for those people who became my safe harbor, who helped me become that tree rooted down in the ground, who helped me know that I. will. not. break.

The intimacy of a panic attack

There was a recent episode of “This is Us” that had people talking (this is not a spoiler, not to worry). It involved Randall coping with anxiety that quickly increased in severity, and eventually showed him in the midst of a full-blown panic/anxiety attack.

It hurt my heart. It was gut-wrenching and painful and beautiful, too, because during his panic attack, his brother came and sat on the floor with him and just held him.

There are few things so vulnerable, so intimate.

I can count on one hand the number of people who I have wanted to see me in the middle of a panic attack. Some people have witnessed it just because it happened when they were around. But usually? I prefer to ride it out on my own, touching base after the wave has passed.

I don’t think there’s a right or wrong way to do it. You get through the hard times however you get through them. Some people want to be physically hugged through a panic attack – others push loved ones away. You do what you need to do.

There have been very, VERY few times in my life that during a panic attack that I have actively sought out someone. It is hard to be that vulnerable. It’s hard to be that intimate. It’s hard to let someone bear witness to your struggle.

What I CAN tell you, is that the times I have sat in front of someone, allowing them to see me at my most vulnerable, as I shook and sweat and gasped and hyperventilated and felt the color draining from my face – those times ended, interestingly, with me feeling more empowered after. I think it’s similar to how being upfront and telling it like it is in a medical setting has a positive result. There’s something very empowering about thinking, I could not be more vulnerable right now – and yet I’m going to let someone bear witness to my struggle. I’m going to trust them to love me through it and I’m not going to tell them what to do or what to say. I’m going to ride out what’s happening right now, and they will figure out how to help or what to do. It’s empowering because it’s allowing me to be me, and not feeling shame or embarrassment about it.

Like I said – it’s rare. I much prefer to handle it on my own. But from time to time, there’s something special about it. There’s something beautifully intimate about experiencing a hard time with someone else, and something powerful about embracing the struggle, and letting it float out there freely, letting it move through you, and not feeling like you need to hide.

You be you. You do you. You embrace you. And the right ones, the loved ones, those special ones that are in your tribe for a reason, will love you for it, and love you through it.

I believe the children are our future

The world has felt scary and unsafe lately. While that used to be a “Jen-thing” for a good chunk of my life (i.e., let’s work on this in therapy, why does the world feel so scary for no reason?) it’s currently….not. I’m not even slightly alone in this feeling, and honestly, rather than that being comforting, I only wish it was a Jen-thing rather than our reality.

And one thing I tried to figure out back in January was, what the heck am I going to do/talk about/say to/work on with my students? We’re in a situation where we as educators and therapists can’t share our fears or beliefs with our students (which could be a whole post in and of itself ), but where our students are aware of what’s happening in the world, regardless of their own beliefs about it (which at many of their ages, are just their parents’ beliefs being parroted).

So after a lot of thinking and toying with different ideas, I decided to do a project around “World Issues”. It started about a month ago, with us talking about Martin Luther King Jr., and how we had a day off to celebrate him, and why we celebrate him and what issues he cared about. Then we brainstormed other issues that exist in the world or in our community. You guys – kids KNOW. They hear things and they are aware, and they care. They very quickly rattled off issues and examples that they’ve heard of or witnessed in our world and community. Here’s an example of one group’s brainstorm (excuse the horrible picture quality):

The dialogue that happened was powerful. For each group it meant different things – sometimes simpler and sometimes more in depth, but the point was, they all had reactions and feelings about these topics. I could write for days about each group and the conversations we had, but I’ll just share this one: One student said “war? But that doesn’t happen anymore. There hasn’t really been a war wince World War 2.” And then another student said, “War happens all the time still, like in Syria,” and the first student responded, “That can’t be right. If a war was going on, the United States would do something about it and make it end and not just ignore it.” I know. Powerful.

Politics came up here and there – how could they not? But we kept things factual (“yes, that did happen, yes, that order was signed, yes, some people are upset about it, yes, some people are happy about it”) and moved on.

Then they each chose an issue that they cared a lot about. With two different graphic organizers, they brainstormed and organized information on their issue. The project culminated in them writing a paragraph about the issue of their choosing, and for my students, this is no small feat. All of the steps involved in writing a paragraph when you have significant learning/language disabilities and challenges, maybe with ADHD and anxiety also, can take up to 5 or 6 48-minute sessions. Which is why their end products are so wonderful and move me to tears. (For the record, I also got moved to tears when they wrote a paragraph comparing and contrasting two different types of penguins – they are just such smart kids, such hard workers, and it is not. at. all. easy for them)

So: enjoy. Here’s the final products (with a pretty bulletin board display to come, hopefully next week) of some of my wonderful 6th-8th graders. Read one or two or all of them – because this is the world from the next generation’s perspective. This is the future.

Write and breathe

Did you know that exhaling activates the parasympathetic nervous system? That’s the part that calms you down, brings you back to baseline. I love that fact. I love it in part because it means there’s actually something really easy we can do when we’re anxious: exhale. Long exhales. I also love it because I knew, for years, that “take a deep breath” was not always helpful. There are about a million reasons why. But I think one of them is because breathing in, in and of itself, actually isn’t the solution. If we aren’t careful, we breathe in too quickly, or too deep, and exhale too short, and we end up hyperventilating and more anxious than we started. The key is to breathe overall. In deeply if it’s helpful and cleansing – but out, slowly, for longer.

I have felt anxious on and off the last few days. This isn’t anything new for me. Anxiety comes and goes, it’s a part of me, and in learning and accepting that, I don’t worry when I’m anxious. I very infrequently panic, like I used to, What if I’m anxious forever? It just doesn’t work that way. There’s nothing to panic or worry about. I will be prone to anxiety forever – I will not be in an anxious state every moment of every day forever. And anxiety in and of itself, while at times unpleasant, isn’t a bad thing.

Anxiety means one of two things: something is happening or upcoming that is on my mind, or something is subconsciously working itself through – meaning I’m not (yet) aware of what it is, but it’s doing its thing. These things aren’t brilliant revelations – but having spent years thinking I was anxious “for no reason”, it’s always a comfort to remind myself that there IS a reason. I just might not know it. And in a way it’s kind of cool (kind of), that my body can work things through even before it has been able to effectively communicate to my brain. Quite efficient. Sometimes unpleasant, yes, but efficient nonetheless.

Oh, goodness. There isn’t a point. I can’t always have a point of writing, can I?? Mostly what happened is that I haven’t written in so long. And the more I don’t write, the more I feel it building inside of me wanting to burst. Kind of like when you have to pee (I know, but seriously, it’s a good comparison). And then today I thought, Ugh, I wish I could just write something, I know it would feel freeing and cathartic. And then I told myself Uh, you can. Just go write something. And then I argued back, But I have nothing profound and no words of wisdom and no good moral or lesson. And then I countered, Right. But. Who cares, remember?

Ah, right. Who cares. Write from the mixed-up middle, and you don’t need an ending, and you don’t need a beginning, and you don’t need a point.

Fear.

This will not be well-written. Or profound. Or unique.

I don’t care.

I’m afraid. And heavy. With a pit in my stomach.

My heart starts to race each time I see a news alert on my phone. What now? I wonder. I don’t feel like I can go more than an hour or two without checking Twitter, in case something has always happened. And something has always happened.

And it’s only been a few days.

And it’s not one of those times where I can say to myself, I’ll step back from the news. Give myself a break. The way I have before in stepping away from horrific coverage of a natural disaster, for example. No, it won’t do me any good to not be aware of what’s happening right now.

Lies are being told. And luckily, we are all calling them for what they are: lies. We have to do this. Because years ago, lies were spread, and horrible things happened because of it. Like: slavery. Like: the Holocaust. Like: hatred of minority groups. But what if people stop realizing that they’re lies? Start thinking, Well, if they’re being told over and over again, they must be true. What if we stop getting access to the truth?

I’m afraid because he/they are already trying to quiet our voices. What’s to stop them from blocking our ability to communicate? Will we wake up one day and newspapers won’t exist anymore? Twitter? The internet?

I’m afraid because even though we can march and we can fight and we can make calls and we can write and we can protest, we CAN’T stop all big legal things from happening. The things that, only a few days in, are already happening. And that’s not pessimistic, that’s just the truth. It’s not to say that we don’t have power, because we do, and I firmly believe that, but there’s also certain executive power that’s beyond us, and it feels helpless.

I’m afraid because this sounds like the beginning of many of the dystopian books I’ve read and used to love. How at the beginning, someone comes to power. And then they make certain rules. And all of a sudden, society is completely different. And we read those books thinking, Wow. That’s so crazy. Thank goodness that would never happen to our world. Except. Could it?

I’m afraid because that isn’t too far-fetched. And the thing is – this isn’t anything that anyone else isn’t feeling. These aren’t unique worries. Most people I interact with on a daily basis feel the exact same way. But instead of feeling reassured that others feel the way I do, it just feels disheartening. Because secretly I think we all want someone to hug us, to hold us, to say to us, Oh, honey, don’t worry. Your worries are just worries. But you can let them go, because they’re not going to happen. They’re not real. Observe them and let them go.

Except nobody can say that to us this time. Because they’re real worries. Real fears. Real things that could happen.

And there’s not a lot we can do about it. Except cling to each other. And hope. And tell the truth until they sew our mouths shut. And refuse to go down without a fight.

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