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7 Things to Remember If Dr. Christine Blasey Ford and Judge Kavanaugh's Hearing Is Difficult for You

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Sometimes the news isn’t as straightforward as it’s made to seem. Jordan Davidson, The Mighty’s editorial director of news and lifestyle and Sarah Schuster, the mental health editor, explain what to keep in mind if you see this topic or similar stories in your newsfeed. This is The Mighty Takeaway.

Editor's Note

If you’ve experienced sexual abuse or assault, the following post could be potentially triggering. You can contact The National Sexual Assault Telephone Hotline at 1-800-656-4673.

By Jordan Davidson and Sarah Schuster

On Thursday, Dr. Christine Blasey Ford and Judge Brett Kavanaugh testified in front of the Senate Judiciary Committee regarding Ford’s allegation that Kavanaugh sexually assaulted her 35 years ago when she was 15 and Kavanaugh 17.

Ford, a psychologist, first brought her claims to her local representative, Rep. Anna Eshoo (D-Calif.) and as an anonymous tip to The Washington Post. After speaking to Rep. Eshoo, Ford wrote a letter to Sen. Diane Feinstein (D-Calif.), outlining the allegations. Ford asked for anonymity, but her name was ultimately released. On Sept 16., after it became clear to her that she could no longer remain anonymous, Ford went public detailing her allegations to the Post. She agreed to testify publicly the week following.

During the hearing, Ford described the long-lasting effects the assault has had on her life from poor grades in college, conflict in her marriage, anxiety, PTSD and claustrophobia. Ford told the committee she spoke about the events in private therapy and couples counseling in 2012.

After disclosing the alleged assault in therapy, Ford said she did her best to try and move on. “After that May 2012 therapy session, I did my best to suppress memories of the assault because recounting the details caused me to relive the experience, and caused panic attacks and anxiety,” she said.

Ford added she decided to speak publicly because she felt it was her “civic duty.” As the congressional committee has noted, Thursday’s hearing is not a trial — it is essentially a job interview for a lifetime appointment to the highest court position in the United States.

This is not the first time a sexual assault survivor has testified in front of the Senate Judiciary Committee regarding allegations made against a potential Supreme Court Justice. Twenty-seven years ago, Anita Hill testified with claims against Justice Clarence Thomas. Hill’s claims did not have an impact on Justice Thomas’ hearing as he was ultimately given the position.

Because of the highly publicized nature of this hearing, the current #MeToo movement and the prestige of being a Supreme Court Justice, news and social media commentary related to the allegations may feel virtually unavoidable.

Here are seven things to remember if this news is difficult for you. 

1. Your experience is valid, whether or not you speak out in a public way.

In order to give what she believed was relevant information about Supreme Court nominee Kavanaugh, Ford not only recounted a traumatic event in front of members of Senate, reporters, White House staff and cameras — she also publicly faced questioning about the credibility of her story and the reasons behind why she came forward.

The fact that Ford had to do this is exceptional and incredibly brave. But it also isn’t the norm, nor should it be.

Your experience with sexual assault doesn’t have to be public to count. If Kavanaugh was not Trump’s Supreme Court nominee, Ford would still be affected by her experience. If you’re not required to, or simply don’t want to, speak about your sexual trauma in a public way, that’s OK. You have every right as a survivor to decide whether or not to tell your story – and women and men should not be expected to publicly and eloquently recount their story in vivid detail in order to be believed.

In saying that, that doesn’t mean those who’ve experienced trauma should suffer in silence either. Survivors have every right to seek support from friends, family and mental health professionals. Process your trauma in the best way for you, but never feel like it has to be public to count. Everyone deals with experiences differently, and (thankfully) not everyone will be in the position Ford finds herself in today.

2. It’s OK to still be affected by trauma that happened a long time ago.

For those who don’t understand, it might be shocking to see an accomplished woman like Ford still affected by what happened to her so long ago.

If you’ve had an experience like Ford’s though, you know this isn’t shocking at all. Although time can offer some healing, that doesn’t mean the effects of trauma completely go away. It doesn’t matter how long ago it happened. Even as an adult, you are allowed to feel whatever you’re feeling, no matter how much time has passed.

As an example of this, in her testimony, Ford recalled the alleged incident with Kavanaugh came up during a couple’s counseling session in 2012, when she and her husband were arguing about remodeling their home. Ford wanted a second front door. Her husband and others didn’t understand why. It was then revealed that Ford’s desire for a second front door was connected to the trauma she experienced as a teenager. Trauma can creep up on us, years and even decades later, coming out in ways we wouldn’t expect. It doesn’t matter how long ago it happened.

3. It doesn’t have to be rape to count.

Ford was not raped. This doesn’t mean what happened to her was OK, acceptable or can be excused. But, like many women, Ford said one of the reasons why she didn’t report was because she wasn’t raped. Sexual violence of all kinds can have life-long effects and should be taken seriously. Just because some may have experienced more violent assaults doesn’t make your experience less legitimate. Just because other people had it “worse” than you doesn’t mean your experience doesn’t count.

4. It’s OK if your memories of what happened to you are “fuzzy” or “incomplete.”

A lot of people, from those involved in investigating the allegations to people on social media, have questioned Ford’s ability to remember events from 35 years ago. During her testimony, Ford explained that while the events before her attack are fuzzy, she actually has a pretty clear recollection of the attack and who was there when it happened.

In her testimony, she used science to explain why she was so sure:

It’s just basic memory functions, and also just the level of norepinephrine and epinephrine in the brain that … encodes memories into the hippocampus so that trauma-related experience is locked there [while] other memories just drift.

While some people have clear, and sometimes haunting, memories of their trauma, this isn’t the case with everyone. James Hopper, Ph.D., an expert on the neurobiology of sexual assault, and David Lisak, Ph.D., a forensic consultant, explained why some victims of sexual assault have incomplete memories of their trauma in TIME.

They wrote that in states of high stress or terror, our prefrontal cortex is impaired – and sometimes even shuts down – due to a surge of stress chemicals. “This part of our brain is responsible for ‘executive functions,’ including focusing attention where we choose, rational thought processes and inhibiting impulses,” they wrote.

When the executive center of the our brain goes offline, we are less able to willfully control what we pay attention to, less able to make sense of what we are experiencing, and therefore less able to recall our experience in an orderly way…

Victims may remember in exquisite detail what was happening just before and after they realized they were being attacked, including context and the sequence of events. However, they are likely to have very fragmented and incomplete memories for much of what happens after that.

The incredible impact fear has on our executive functioning both explains why some people have “encoded memories” of their trauma, as Ford explained, and why others have memory impairments. Either way, how much someone can or cannot recall about their trauma is not their fault.

As some repeated to Ford: As a survivor of sexual assault, you are not on trial.

5. It’s OK if Ford’s testimony makes you question whether or not you did the right thing by not reporting or if you feel you need closure.

The majority of sexual assaults go unreported. According to the Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network (RAINN), approximately two out of every three sexual assaults go unreported. There are a number of reasons why people decide not to report — from fear of testifying or concerns their attacker might retaliate — all valid concerns considering that out of every 1,000 rapes only six perpetrators will go to jail.

While it is your choice whether or not you want to report, Ford’s decision to report her assault 35 years later, has left a lot of sexual assault survivors wondering what they would do if they were in her position. It’s also led a lot of sexual assault survivors to question if they made the right choice. If you are questioning your decision, reach out to someone you trust or a licensed mental health professional to talk about your feelings and reservations. You can also reach out to legal counsel to see what your options are. Depending on the type of crime and when it occurred, your state’s statute of limitations may prohibit you from pressing charges. A lawyer can walk you through your options.

If you feel you need closure but do not want to report or cannot file charges, work with a mental health professional to determine what finding closure looks like for you. That may mean writing a letter to the person who assaulted you or those who were unsupportive in the aftermath, attending support groups or slowly sharing your story with others and reclaiming the narrative. If you are uninsured are concerned you cannot afford therapy, you can find affordable therapy options online or by state through Open Path Collective.

6. You can unplug from the news and social media.

While this hearing is important, you are not required to watch it. If listening to Ford or Kavanaugh’s testimony is triggering, turn it off, log out of social media and contact someone you trust. You don’t have to talk about why you find the hearing triggering if you don’t want to. You can instead choose to practice self-care or do something to take your mind off of the testimony. You can also choose to listen to Ford’s testimony only, and not Kavanaugh’s.

Social media can be an incredibly dark place. If you are seeing negative comments or remarks that jeopardize your mental health, feel free to unplug or block, mute or unfollow those whose words or views you find harmful.

As disheartening as social media can be at times, it can also be used for good. Many survivors have used social platforms to share their stories as well as reach out to support Ford and other survivors. A group of 15-year-old girls started a petition in support of Ford, which almost 78,000 people have signed. An ad in The New York Times was signed by 1,600 men in support of Ford. The ad was modeled after an ad placed by 1,600 Black women in support of Anita Hill, 27 years ago. Through the noise, there is good out there, you just need to know where to look. Hashtags like #MeToo, #WhyIDidntReport and #IBelieveSurvivors are great places to start if you want to read the stories of other survivors.

7. It’s OK to need help today.

If this news has been hard for you today, and you’re feeling emotional, raw or triggered, know support is out there. Reach out to your safe person. Be kind to yourself, and employ whatever self-care tactics you need. Healing is complicated, and reacting to news about sexual assault doesn’t mean you’ve taken a step backward. Whatever you feel right now is OK.

If you need support right now, here are some resources you can turn to:

We’re here for you. We believe you, and we’re happy you’re part of our community.

Header image via CSPAN.

Originally published: September 27, 2018
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