Navigating Post-Election Vicarious Trauma and Women’s Advocacy

Trigger Warning: Domestic Violence, Violence, and Sexual Assault

While walking to work a few weeks ago, I felt an all too familiar pang in my stomach as my feet crunched on newly fallen leaves. The unsettling feeling moved up my chest then lodged in my throat and I experienced one of those moments when everything starts to connect. Kind of like the scene in The Da Vanci Code when Tom Hanks solves the cryptex and visualizes the context behind his mission (see video link for obscure but accurate reference: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-ceJ9Ps0n1c). But instead of beautiful music and an emotional upsweep, I felt a sense of dread. As I began to connect my experiences, my work in women’s advocacy, and the incendiary words of a certain President-Elect, I recognized the need to process my own trauma and address vicarious trauma with self-care.

This, my fellow WILLers, has been easier said than done. Every Tuesday and Thursday, I have the opportunity to work for the Ohio Justice and Policy Center and the Family Law Clinic sponsored by Legal Aid. Through these roles, I research policy related to domestic violence, sexual assault, and human trafficking and help facilitate the legal needs of women and others who have experienced this trauma. These survivors have granted me the privilege to peek into their stories, whether through powerful and vulnerable conversations or legal documentation. Their narratives inspire me to do more, but also make my heart weary when I recognize how our political and legal system has failed them. Repeatedly. And that it will most likely continue to do so.

Seeing women sit next to their abusers in order to be granted a protection order is damaging. Seeing policy that only protects women against physical violence while ignoring emotional abuse and manipulation is damaging. Seeing women of color forced out of these systems because they do not represent the ideal “perfect victim” is damaging. Seeing abusers buddy up with cops, judges, and magistrates to avoid retribution is damaging. Seeing stories of women who try to leave their abusers and are forced to return for the sake of their children or financial stability, or worse do not make it out alive, is damaging.

Seeing an abusive Presidential Candidate rise to the rank of President- Elect while perpetuating these oppressive systems and normalizing sexual assault is damaging.

The doubt that the legal and political system casts upon these women and their experiences has forced me to relive my own self-doubt and experiences with sexual assault. When I look into the faces of these abusers, I see the face of men like Donald Trump; they continue to succeed in spite of the trauma and emotional destruction they have left in their path.  How can I be surprised that our systems step on and over survivors when that same system elected a candidate who disrespects their very existence?

I recognize my privilege as I navigate these systems, but this is hard to process. Waking up Tuesday morning after Election Day, I expected to feel a sense of reassurance from the foregone conclusion that, instead of a racist rapist, Americans will have cast their ballot for the first female President. Instead, I had to go back into work on Tuesday and face our client with the knowledge that these systems will continue to not reflect their needs.

So, what to do? As I reflect on these experiences, I prioritize self-care more than ever. Saying no, journaling, taking time to reflect, making healthy meals, meditating, removing social media apps (while still engaging with sexist, racist, xenophobic, and homophobic facebook friends), and reaching out to family and friends have taken priority.  I am working to rebuild myself as I strategize ways to continue this work and rebuild these political systems.

Despite this impact, I am also so inspired by the incredible folks on the ground who have made it their life’s mission to support social justice and uplift survivors. I have never truly recognized the emotional and mental sacrifices they make daily to influence these systems. I also know women running for open and contested political positions in Ohio. I see them, their bravery, and their vulnerability as the highest glass ceiling seems even further away.

I am also continually inspired by the power of communities —like WILL— to support one another and provide healing and validating spaces for growth. I am thinking of all of you during this shift in our political landscape. It is powerful to me to confront times of uncertainty with the knowledge that we all have access to a supportive community.

Rachel Motley is a 4th year Political Science & International Affairs student and a 2nd year WILLer

Survivor’s Guilt

Trigger Warning: This blog post contains information regarding sexual assault and self harm.

About three weeks ago, someone told me that she felt angry hearing me talk about my sexual assault story because she was working through her own experience with rape. She felt my assault was “just a boy kissing me when I was sad and being a dick afterward.” I told her that I understood her feelings, but she could never say that to me again. She ended that conversation by telling me she needed a break from our friendship. I haven’t said anything to her since then.

I was assaulted in 10th grade, during a time in my life when I was desperate for attention and afraid of my own mental illness. In fact, I had just cut myself and my friend invited me over to his house to get homework done. Halfway through, he started awkwardly making me slow dance with him. Every time I told him we were supposed to be doing homework, he would look at me and whisper, “I am studying.”

He put on the movie Pirates of the Caribbean because I had never seen it. He started kissing me. He took off my glasses and told me that if I was uncomfortable to tell him and he would stop. I nodded. The entire situation made me uncomfortable, but someone wanted me and I was so desperate for attention that I couldn’t risk saying no. He shoved his hand down my pants, and then I told him no. He stopped. He straddled me against his middle and shoved my back against a pole in his basement. I was stuck there and he shoved his hand down again. I had already put forth so much effort saying no once that I let him feel around until he was satisfied. Afterward he told me that I couldn’t tell anyone.

It took me three years to realize that what he did wasn’t okay. It took me another year to come to terms with the fact that it was sexual assault. It became a reality when he did the same thing and worse to one of my close friends. It wasn’t rape, and I know that. But that doesn’t make the effects it has had on my life any less prevalent. The furthest I’ve ever gone sexually was when I was assaulted. I can’t go further without feeling him on me. That being said, there is guilt I feel for asking for support when I didn’t experience rape. It has taken me a lot of time to come to terms with my own feelings. The most effective thing I found was peer support. Surrounding myself with other people who had similar experiences allowed me to voice my story and gain insight to the full extent of what happened.

Since realizing my experience in high school was assault, I have been actively supporting campus programs and organizations that deal with sexual assault. I became a part of Students for Survivors and have been advocating for more support on campus. I wanted to turn the experience with my friend into activism, but I didn’t know how. The importance of a terrible situation is turning it around and making a change. Creating change is an exceptionally difficult concept to grasp, let alone master. Every time something like this happens, I ask myself, what steps can I take to enact change? What specifically am I trying to change? How do I stop people from feeling the way I feel? What is the most effective way to do that?

The change I wanted to make was for people like me; people who had been assaulted and struggled with guilt for their trauma when it wasn’t rape. The way I wanted to help was through educating my peers on how to respond to assault, and how to support each other rather than invalidate each other. If we take away each other’s experiences, positive change can never happen.

In this situation, activism was working through invalidation in order to write this blog post. Forcing myself to articulate everything I was feeling was the best way for me to make a difference in my life and in lives around me. It’s hard to be an activist when people invalidate your experience, but that’s when it’s most important. Standing up for yourself and others to educate intolerant or ignorant people is how positive change happens, but it’s easier said than done. It’s not always as simple as telling someone that their experience is valid. It’s not easy when you feel threatened by the people around you.

Being an activist is tiring. Being an activist for issues that directly affect you is particularly tiring because you also have to balance taking care of yourself within that space. In the vein of advocacy for survivors of sexual assault, change can be even harder because the line of trauma is harder to define. In other issues there is a clear line of privilege that can be quantified. Sexual assault is very much defined by the survivor. My personal experience makes me want to make change, but everyone has to define what they want to do for themselves and for their own self-care.

My own experience has helped me to compile a list of the best ways to support survivors as a friend and also for yourself:

  1. Validation: No part of trauma is too small. If it hurt you, it’s important and part of trauma.

Self-validation is harder than peer-validation. It’s easy to tell someone you care about that the things that hurt them are a part of their trauma. It’s a lot harder to tell yourself that feeling violated and hurt is okay. I have struggled a lot with personal validation of my experience because it wasn’t rape. I know that it hurt me and I can see the effects it has in every aspect of my life. Unfortunately, I struggle with feeling like I don’t have a space in sexual assault discussions because my experience ‘wasn’t as bad.’ The thing that keeps me there and keeps me fighting for change are my peers who tell me that it was valid and that I will always have a space. As a survivor, find those spaces where you are accepted no matter what the degree of trauma, and offer the support you wish to receive.

  1. Listen: Listen to the survivor. Let them tell their own story on their own time. Don’t interject or say anything, just listen.

By the time I understood that I had been assaulted, most of my close friends knew what happened. I just needed to admit to myself what it was. I don’t have trouble telling my story because it was five years ago and telling people is how I ask them to understand an important aspect of my life. Not everyone is ready for that, especially when it is something recent. Everyone needs their own time to tell their survivor story. If/when they open up, give them the time to speak. Offer support through physical presence rather than words. When they are done, ask what support they need.

  1. Ask how they need to be supported

Asking how they need support is something I have learned from my friends who asked me what I needed for support. It wasn’t something I realized was so important, or felt so validating.

It can be hard to know how you need to be supported. Getting asked that question forces the person to think. Do I need someone to listen? Do I need constructive advice? Do I need validation? Getting asked, “how can I best support you?” was the most incredible thing because it put the power back in my hands. Power is something that is frequently taken away from survivors, so allowing them to have that back, even in the smallest way, is important.

  1. Provide Resources

There are lots of resources for survivors of assault; the trouble is knowing where they are when you need them. At University of Cincinnati there are several resources for student support.

CAPS (Counseling and Psychological Services): CAPS is a great source for anyone struggling with mental illness. They offer free group therapy sessions for UC students and group therapy for sexual assault survivors called Hope and Healing. Unfortunately, they only offer 10 personal sessions for students per year. This can be less helpful to some students who need more support than 10 personal sessions. However, if you have experienced sexual assault on campus you can ask for extenuating circumstances that allow you as much as you need. They also have a 24-hour crisis support helpline. To see their other services, you can go here: https://www.uc.edu/counseling/services.html

Women Helping Women: They “provides crisis intervention and support services for survivors of domestic violence, sexual assault, and stalking in Hamilton County”. They offer a 24-hour crisis hotline, accompaniment for survivors to hospitals and emergency rooms, court of law advocacy, support groups, and more. They are a great resource for people in Cincinnati specifically. There are also full-time advocates housed on UC’s campus in the Steger Student Life Center, room 559 .To find out more, visit: http://www.womenhelpingwomen.org/services/survivor-services/

The Women’s Center: The Women’s Center offers many resources for survivors of sexual assault. The people there are a great resource for support, and knowledge. One important thing to note is that the staff are mandatory reporters, so if you confide in them they are required to report it to Title IX. This can be beneficial in some instances, but it could also be a challenge if a survivor is not ready to come forward. For more information on their sexual assault resources, visit: https://www.uc.edu/ucwc/advocacy.html

Students for Survivors: Students for Survivors is a new program started by survivors of sexual assault on UC’s campus. While they are a fairly new organization, the two women leading the cause know more about advocacy and support on campus than anyone I have ever seen. For more information, visit: http://www.studentsforsurvivors.com or find them on Facebook at: https://www.facebook.com/studentsforsurvivors/

  1. Don’t push, but stress that you’re there for them

You can’t push or force the survivor to do anything. Be there and offer support, but recognize that the end result is ultimately up to the person.

If someone opens up to you about assault or rape, offer them resources. Unless the survivor is in immediate danger, let them report it. It’s important to let the survivor have the power of reporting, because power is so often taken away from survivors that letting them have it back in any way is helpful. The exception to that is when someone is in immediate danger.

All of these points are helpful from my own experience, and I am in no way a trained professional. There are more resources than the ones I listed to give you professional help and support. If you are experiencing sexual assault or violence, do not hesitate to go to the resources I offered, or to the Women’s Center to get a more extensive list. You are not alone in this.

Julia Draznin is a 2nd year Entrepreneurship & Marketing student and a 1st year WILLer

 

 

Fighting for what is right…but what is right?

Knowing that the week before my blog post was due would be extremely hectic, I tried to write down some thoughts a few weeks early to make sure I had a post done on time. I wrote about losing in the student body election, calling out Student Government for spending $11,000 on a retreat, struggling with balancing classes with other involvement, and adopting a kitten. Looking back, I saw my words were filled with a lot of raw emotions: anger, excitement, sadness, anxiousness, among others. Here’s some of the memorable lines:

“I’ve got a lot of feedback from student leaders on this campus, and someone told me that, in light of losing the student government election last spring, it makes me look jaded. Luckily, green is my color.”

“One person called this issue ‘hullabaloo’. Not only is this arrogant and dismissive, it highlights the narrow-mindedness of a distinct group of student leaders on our campus.”

“You can’t choose when you’re inclusive. Plain and simple.”

“Don’t call me a hater for pointing out your responsibilities, transgressions, and mismanagement.”

Those are all sentiments I still strongly believe, but I think I’ve grown emotionally since I wrote those thoughts down. At that time, I was sick of being appeased and being treated like my viewpoint wasn’t valid. I was tired of feeling like an outsider, and I wrote from a place of hurt. Moreover, I was just feeling tired in general. I wasn’t getting enough sleep, I was snapping at people I loved, and I was focusing more on my feelings than the issues itself. I realized that I wouldn’t be able to create any type of change if I wasn’t grounding myself in what I believed in and thinking about my “why”. It was a chance for me to reflect on why I react the way I do, and how I could channel this energy into creating change.

The first time I was told that my friends and I [who were critiquing student government] were being petty, I snapped. I was angry. How dare anyone think that we are being petty when we are speaking the truth??

The second time, I stopped and listened. I didn’t take that “petty” label and stick it on me, but I listened to why it was being seen as such. Even if I didn’t agree with the reasoning, it was an opportunity to see someone else’s perspective and hear why they reacted the way that they did.

I see my friends and inspirations fighting for systemic changes in the work that they do, but the reasoning of people against those changes are much clearer to me. We stand for what we stand for because it’s what we believe is right. They stand for what they stand for because that’s what they think is right. But it’s not all completely us vs. them, is it? After all, we have to share some values and beliefs about something that give us the opportunity to relate or unite. But is that enough to change someone’s mind to see things your way?

Here’s an example: in our current model, the students who have the most access to leadership opportunities are a reflection of who in society has privilege and opportunity to gain power. I believe that in order to move towards a more just and equitable world, people of marginalized identities must hold these positions of power themselves, not just people who are aware of their experiences and struggles. When I proudly considered myself a “student leader”, I believed that I was contributing to creating changes, and I would take any criticism of the organizations I was involved in extremely personally, as if I was an extension of the organization itself. Now, not being involved, it’s easy for me to be critical of those same organizations that I once loved, but those who are still involved still have their rose-colored lenses on.

Reflecting on how I used to think compared to how I think now made me realize that we are all at different stages of our personal growth and social awareness and sometimes it is important to approach these conversations with respect and kindness. At the same time, these emotions can be rooted in oppression, and it would be tone-policing to tell someone to change the way they share their thoughts just to make yourself more comfortable. It’s a matter of meeting in the middle and acknowledging that nobody is 100% right all the time.

Sometime during the summer, this video of a former CIA agent was being shared all over social media. I love this one because the message is simple: everyone thinks what they’re doing is what is right. Whether that’s for them, or towards others, or what they’re doing with their power to affect change, everyone is doing what they believe will be the best for whoever is involved.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=TnEKEfkdrOU

Last week, WILL had the opportunity to listen to Gloria Steinem speak. Listening to her was surreal and powerful, and she shared a message of empathy and validating one another’s truths. Most importantly, she stressed that when we don’t know, we must listen. Her words were a reminder of what I wanted my feminism to be: intersectional, validating, and kind. And that means it has to be self-validating too. It means allowing myself to believe that I am right, even and especially when people in power are against it. It means uniting people who share my values and reminding them that the work that they are doing is necessary and good. But it also means listening to those who I disagree with and acknowledging these differences as just one part of their whole self.

WILL has become a space to practice what I believe. It has granted me the space to be raggedy, vent my heart out, and figure out how to make my feminism more inclusive. It has taught me to challenge the status quo. It’s also empowered me to stand for what I believe to be right, and reflect on if I am being congruent in my thoughts and actions. Moreover, my peers challenge me and force me to question the problematic behaviors and assumptions that are socialized within all of us.

What I’ve realized is that there’s no best way to get people to understand what you stand for. At the end of the day, it’s up to you to figure out what works best for you, and so long as you aren’t disrupting my safety and well-being, I have no room to tell you that you’re doing it wrong. Find what works best for you in challenging injustice, find ways to practice self-care, and find people who support you and challenge you. More than anything, always fight for what you believe in and for what will make the world a more just and equitable place.

Akshayaa Venkatakrishnan is a 4th year Neuroscience student and a 2nd year WILLer

 

Needing Help Is Not A Weakness… It Made Me Stronger

I have never been someone to ask for help. I like to figure things out on my own, to be independent. I also got anxious when asking for help, I felt like some people may look down on me for needing that help, that I was weak or incapable. Then in my second year college, that changed.

There I lay in my 2nd year college dorm room, before the start of the fall semester. I was alone. I knew I wasn’t technically alone, I could call any of my family members, friends, but I was physically alone. None of my roommates had moved in yet and campus was still pretty empty. The place that I had longed for over the summer seemed dead. “Just get through this week…” I kept reminding myself. “You’re only alone for a week and then people will be here and you won’t have to sit in your room all day.”

Being alone with my thoughts was tearing me apart. I had just gone through a break up that summer. Even though I knew in my heart I didn’t miss him, it wasn’t a healthy relationship, I still wanted that companionship that I had when we were together. But I couldn’t, I sat in my room and sobbed multiple times a day, calling my mom every time I needed someone’s words to flow through my head other than my own. She would calm me but she couldn’t stay on the phone all day. I was scared I was going to be alone the rest of the year, no boyfriend, my friends too busy, my family far away. Even though I knew this wasn’t true and I was over reacting I couldn’t keep these terrifying thoughts out of my head

I started feeling sick to my stomach, not an uncommon occurrence for me. I could usually just eat small amounts for a day or two and it would go away. This time it didn’t go away. I couldn’t keep food in my system for more than an hour or two, I was repulsed by most foods, and the dining hall was a walk away but I began feeling weaker.

My mom was worried about my health so she asked me to make an appointment at the clinic on campus. I went and had blood tests, gave a urine sample for more tests, the doctor diagnosed me with depression and anxiety. Anxiety was something I knew I suffered from but had never been diagnosed by a physician and had never been treated. She prescribed me an antidepressant for both the anxiety and depression. I started to feel much better that day, like a weight had been lifted off of my shoulders.

The next morning I woke up in a state of extreme nausea causing me to run to the bathroom. I called my mother again, sobbing, “I thought it was over, I thought I was better.” She took the day off of work and drove three hours to Cincinnati because she was scared for me. She was scared I’d end up in the hospital. I hadn’t eaten anything in 4 days, water and Gatorade repulsed me, and I had lost over eight pounds.

She stayed the night that night and I was doing better, however, the next morning I was still so sick I couldn’t do anything, I could barely move. She decided then that she was moving me back home, and after a lot of tears and calming down, we started to pack my stuff up and left for home.

Within a week back home I had been able to eat three meals a day again, stay hydrated and started putting on the weight I had lost. I was still super exhausted but was slowly regaining strength. I was visiting friends and spending the time with my family that I really and truly needed. I got a job and signed up for online classes. I wanted to be able to return to UC in the spring. Not long after, many people showed me an outpouring of love. They supported my decision, one of my friends even said that she admired me for taking a step back and asking for help when I needed it most. This was exactly the affirmation I needed.

I met with my doctor frequently so my medication could be monitored and she started me on medication for IBS (Irritable Bowel Syndrome) that was the cause of my illness during my anxious and depressed state. I started feeling better than I had ever felt before. Though the medication didn’t start right away, I could see a true difference when I would go to do something, like driving, that used would have me sweating, heart beating out of my chest, sick to my stomach; I didn’t get those feelings anymore.

Other than medication, I coped with these disorders by writing more, getting out of the house on a daily basis, performing with my old dance group, going on morning runs, and spending time with the people who I needed to be around.

In October I went on a cruise, something I would’ve had to prepare myself for month in advance in the past was something that felt so fun and adventurous now. I started dating again, a thing I feared in the past made me excited. I got a tattoo. I went on a plane for the first time (by myself) and also rode a Greyhound (by myself). I am also now preparing for another trip over spring break. These things that I couldn’t have done in the past with some major preparation, and I can now do much ease.

I am back at UC as a full-time student, I am working part-time through the university, and I am still very involved with many student organizations. I am looking for internship opportunities and growing in my leadership roles. I don’t think I would be in any of these places today if I hadn’t taken the time to myself to heal.

I am happiest than I have ever been. I am healthy. I am in a loving new relationship with some-one who values me for who I am as a person. Most importantly, I am grateful, for the people who stood by me, even when I felt so alone, for the opportunities that have presented themselves to me, and for myself, because I finally took care of me for once. I learned in this experience that it is okay to ask for help when you need it, that needing help isn’t a sign of weakness. I learned that I am a strong person, and most importantly I learned that I am worthy of caring for myself.

 

 

Madison Landkrohn is a 2nd year Psychology student and a 1st year WILLer.

Closing a Chapter

As I am starting the process of submitting my applications for law school and looking towards the next chapter of my life, I’ve reflected on my experiences over the last four years at the place I called my second home—the University of Cincinnati. After much reflection, I am sad to come to the realization that the place that I was drawn to four years ago is not the same anymore. Although I have seen the university make general strides towards bettering itself, I have not seen enough progress towards supporting students who do not fall within the category of

I have seen resources on campus that students utilize and appreciate be swept from under them without even hearing out what the students want. The most recent examples of this are: the elimination of RECLAIM (and the implementation of its makeshift replacements), many words and little follow-through in regards to suggestions from the IRATE 8, and an unsupportive environment for students advocating for change.

But seeing this change of atmosphere during my last year at UC has left me with mixed emotions. My heart goes out to faculty and staff members who know students the best, yet they can only say so much as to not “cross the line.” I’ve learned that politics is everything and everywhere. I am disheartened that I must leave the university in this state, but know that the next generation of students will fight for their beliefs in this institution as well.

Although I am moving on to my next chapter in life, I hope that I can take lessons learned from my years here at UC and use them to navigate my future. I will always call this university my alma mater, but I will never hesitate to call out the truth in support of what students need and want of their university.

 

Tyra Robinson is a 1st year WILLer, Graduating Senior majoring in Communication, and plans to attend law school in the Fall of 2016.