I am going to write an in depth post about trauma in general, and sexual abuse in particular at a later date. However, I feel the need to address the current hearings on Brett Kavanaugh’s appointment to the Supreme Court.
I work with many sexual abuse survivors in my practice, and this week has been very distressing for them, as well as for me. I do not intend for this to be a political post. Rather, I am using this example to illustrate the secondary trauma and vicarious trauma that survivors routinely face. The original trauma is the assault or assaults, and the resultant physical and psychological scars. While physical injury heals more quickly, psychological injuries may persist. Survivors may carry with them a sense of shame, self-blame, and a sense of being dirtied or damaged. They routinely fear repeat assault, and may be hypervigilant of their surroundings. Some may repeatedly check at home that all doors and windows are locked, and others may always make sure they know all the exits to any room they enter. Others avoid environments where there are likely to be a lot of people, or unknown people. Strangers are seen as potential predators unless proven otherwise. They frequently experience flashbacks or nightmares, chronic sleep difficulty, and chronic anxiety and depression.
The secondary trauma is the response of the family system/community/academic/work environment/legal system. These responses range from disbelief, blaming, shaming, rationalizing, excusing or normalizing predatory behaviors (ie.”boys will be boys”), and ignoring reports or failing to act on them in a way that makes the survivor feel safe, protected, and heard.
The third level of trauma is vicarious trauma – the trauma of hearing of someone else’s assault. In the Senate confirmation hearings, the details of Dr. Ford’s assault may have brought up the reliving of similar details from one’s own history. Survivors may relive details in their conscious memories, in nightmares, in flashbacks, and in bodily sensations, for instance experiencing the sounds, smells, tastes, or sensations of violation to their bodies as if in real time.
The Senate hearings have caused a range of reactions in my clients, from disbelief, to fear, to rage. These clients once went through something terrible, then received a poor reception from various public bodies when they marshaled up the courage to tell others, and now must watch as another tells her story and is largely ignored by segments of the population. It gives the message that society does not care what an alleged perpetrator may have done, as long as his or her record is otherwise commendable.
I think this is why we are seeing unprecedented numbers of women, and men too, step up for the first time to disclose their own experiences with sexual assault. On Friday, 9/28, two women, survivors of sexual assault, interceded Arizona Senator Jeff Flake as he entered the elevator, and told him in no uncertain terms that they would not accept his or anyone else’s ignoring of the pervasive issue of sexual assault. Their messages were so powerful and poignant, that I believe these two women are the reason that we now have a legitimate FBI investigation. Look at the power of two voices who came forward to give a message that said look at us, don’t dare ignore us, we matter.
As Delaware Senator Chris Coons stated, there has been an “ocean of pain” in this country. I think that all survivors, loved ones of survivors, and anyone who objects to the callous and dismissive treatment of people who have been sexually assaulted need to show our country in the best way that each of us can that we care. Because it matters.
Dr. Stephanie Schacher is a clinical psychologist who practices in Westport CT. She specializes in trauma, PTSD, and working with survivors of sexual assault and childhood abuse.