As April brings another Sexual Assault Awareness Month into effect, I can’t help but think about self-care. I’ve written about sexual assault in a variety of ways throughout the past eight years here on The Siren. Somehow, I just can’t bring myself to write another post about rape.
I know it’s important. I know I should because I have a platform and an audience (thank you!). I know I should because there are people in our community who see me as an authority or even as a champion for the cause. Thank you for that. But I’m tired.
Let me explain what I mean by way of a personal anecdote.
My five-year-old is obsessed with stories about real-life people right now. She learned about Martin Luther King, Jr. in school this year and was immediately begging (seriously, begging) to know more about him. We watched youtube videos of his speeches. We read a pretty delightful, age-appropriate bio by Brad Meltzer called I am Martin Luther King, Jr. (part of his generally delightful “I am …” series).
This led us to other Meltzer biographies, including I am Rosa Parks, because in the hierarchy of the kinds of people my daughter is interested, the line starts with girls. Once she found out that there were women who did the same work as Dr. King, my kid wanted to know about those badass women. I don’t blame her, really.
And this led us to one of Rosa Parks’ most famous quotes, “The only tired I was, was tired of giving in.”
Most of the time, I am buoyed by words like these. I chastise myself as having it easy as a white, middle-class woman who lives in relative comfort compared to the realities for women like Parks. Or of the enormous challenges faced by local heroes, such as Ruby Duncan, who fought for welfare rights against a system rigged against poor black mothers.
Recently, however, I’ve started to see this kind of thinking as a kind of self-harm. These women are inspirations and there’s nothing wrong with holding them up as such. But at the same time, we should not be internally bludgeoning ourselves because we are not good enough, not fighting hard enough, not making a difference enough. We must silence this damaging inner voice that we allow to drown out the real fatigue in our bodies, the mental exhaustion, and the emotional heaviness that we suppress, deny, and pretend does not exist.
We are not failures because we sometimes get tired – whether that is physical, mental, emotional, or psychological. We are not failures for needing five minutes, five days, or five months to rest, recharge, reboot.
Social justice is a marathon, not a sprint. We have to take care of ourselves so we have the energy for the endurance we need. And it is important, too, to remember that it’s not a one-person race either. This is a generational relay race. We got the baton from others and we pass it on to the next generation.
I’ve been thinking about this in terms of being a mother and how I model social justice to my daughter. It’s more than that, though. I’ve been thinking about this in terms of allowing myself to practice self-care on myself – to walk my talk. I’m as guilty as anyone of not doing this, of pushing it to “later,” or just plain feeling like I don’t deserve it.
This came up for me in a real way when I was on an assignment at my day job at Vegas Seven magazine. I toured a bunch of unique and strange million-dollar homes around town for our real estate issue, out this week (shameless plug, alert!). It was a time-intensive but fun story. I love interior decorating and design and almost went into that field instead of writing. So I enjoy seeing inside people’s homes, not as a voyer, but because I love seeing the creativity and imagination people have. Obviously, as a journalist, I enjoy hearing people’s stories and a story like this always has fun and unique stories.
These homes were all next-level places – including a castle, a Star Trek house, and an underground house. It was that last one that turned out to have some unforeseen consequences for me. Now, I want to preface this by saying that no one involved in this story in any way was being inappropriate. No one said or did anything that triggered me. But as I toured the famous Underground House – which is a house constructed entirely underground, roof, trees, grotto and all! – I was triggered.
Why I was triggered had nothing to do with the people I was with or anything about my job. Everyone else was fine. Everything was actually fine. I want to make a point to make that clear, because I don’t want anyone to think what I was feeling had to do with them. It did not. My feelings of being triggered as a survivor of sexual assault had to do with me and my personal history of trauma.
To put it succinctly: I felt trapped.
I was, after all, several feet underground. For whatever reason, there was a moment for me when I suddenly felt very upset and triggered because I felt trapped. I was not actually trapped. There was a large open door with stairs leading out and an elevator – both of which I could have used at any time. No one was making me stay underground. No one was doing anything while I was at that property that was a problem. This was about the kind of lasting issues survivors of sexual violence can have. We can go through all the therapy and healing in the world. We can be happy, well-adjusted, functional adults 99.9 percent of the time and no one would even suspect that there was trauma in our past. But there is that fraction of a percent of the time when things can go sideways without warning. Bam! Triggered!
In the moment, I used the tools I’ve learned to help myself. I don’t know that anyone was even aware that I was having an issue. I went and sat down and just took a mental break for about five minutes. I counted to 10 silently in my head while I breathed in and out slowly and calmly. And then I got back up and finished my business. When the interview was over, I got in my car and drove to the office and finished work that day. I didn’t complain to anyone or talk to anyone about what I had felt. It wasn’t anyone else’s problem to fix or something that even would have a fix. When I went home that day, I talked about it a bit with my husband, took a shower, and went to bed. The next day, I woke up feeling fine. That was that.
On that day and in that place, my tools worked for me. Still, the fact that it had happened, especially while I was at work, troubled me for several days. I was no longer triggered or upset, but I was worried that it would happen again or in a way that would not be so quiet or accommodating. As much as I have shared here on The Siren, in my real-world life, I don’t talk much to people about my feelings or share deep, personal problems. I’m actually a pretty private person, believe it or not. It would be deeply humiliating to me to have the after-effects of trauma encroach on my work.
As much as I fight for survivors to have a safe space in the world to tell their stories and live their truth, the reality is our society is not yet at a place that accepts and understands a trauma survivor’s journey. I know that some of my coworkers are aware of my history, either because they have read The Siren or just heard it about me from others. I am not naïve enough to think that I can give testimony in public hearings, be interviewed on TV, or write a blog that shares my story of being raped and then be shocked that a person whom I just met already knows that about me. The humiliation I am talking about is not that people know my story or that they know I was sexually assaulted. I don’t feel ashamed about that, because that is nothing for me to be ashamed about. That was something done to me. The shame about rape rests solely on the perpetrator, not the victim.
No, what I do feel humiliated by is the vulnerability that comes with being triggered. I do not want my coworkers or sources or even strangers on the street seeing me in an emotionally fragile state. I do not want people to perceive me as weak or hysterical – two insults commonly hurled at all women. I know that is bad feminism, because I should somehow rise above that and not care what people think about me, but I’m only human. I can only rise above so much. I can only be so strong. Like every other person on the planet, I have weaknesses and failings and things that cut me to the bone.
And this gets me back to this issue of self-care. Because I’ve been denying myself some much-needed self care. It’s not a weekend getaway or an indulgent pedicure that I need – although those are delightful treats. What I need is to cut myself a break from … myself. I need to care for myself the way I care for any of the survivors I meet, who tell me their stories through tears and choked sobs. When I see them, I see their humanity and their amazing strength for all they survived. I don’t see them as weak at all. But when I myself am, in rare moments, reduced to such a state (internally or externally), the first thing I do is beat myself up for not being stronger, for not being a better example, for letting these things still hurt.
I’m not saying that I’m going to suddenly embrace crying in public. But I think it is time for me to stop holding myself to an impossible standard, one that I would never hold other survivors to. The reality is that I’ve managed to be not only a functional adult person for a couple of decades (turning 40 this fall!), but a mom and a wife and an award-winning journalist on top of that.
I think it’s time I cut myself a break. And while I’m at it, I encourage you to do the same for yourself. We all deserve it.