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

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