I have devoted a lot of space on this blog to writing about PTSD, C+PTSD, and healing from trauma. I’ve been honest about my own journey towards wholeness. What I share here is an attempt to elucidate the emotional experience behind C+PTSD in specific the anxiety experience.
What I can say for certain about healing from C+PTSD is that it is like a disease that remits and exacerbates. I can go a year and not devote any time to thinking about the man who abducted and trafficked me, my time in captivity with him, or the events that happened to me therein. I rarely think of my father or stepmother. My mother doesn’t come to mind much either in the context of her abusive behaviors. The domestic violence I experienced in my former marriage is no longer foremost in my mind. It’s not the people or specific events that dog me now.
So, what is left after you deal with the details and process the events? What is left after therapy because there is something left?
I’ve had a hard time defining the quality of what remains until a friend sent me a link to this article yesterday:
Vicki Peterson, the author of this article, writes:
“No one gets a prize for “worst” depression, anxiety, trauma or any other combination of terrible things to deal with, and no one should suffer alone. With that in mind, there is a difference between what someone who has Complex PTSD feels and what someone with generalized anxiety or mild to moderate depression feels.
For someone dealing with complex trauma, the anxiety they feel does not come from some mysterious unknown source or obsessing about what could happen. For many, the anxiety they feel is not rational. General anxiety can often be calmed with grounding techniques and reminders of what is real and true. Mindfulness techniques can help. Even when they feel disconnected, anxious people can often acknowledge they are loved and supported by others.
For those who have experienced trauma, anxiety comes from an automatic physiological response to what has actually, already happened. The brain and body have already lived through “worst case scenario” situations, know what it feels like and are hell-bent on never going back there again. The fight/flight/ freeze response goes into overdrive. It’s like living with a fire alarm that goes off at random intervals 24 hours a day. It is extremely difficult for the rational brain to be convinced “that won’t happen,” because it already knows that it has happened, and it was horrific.
Those living with generalized anxiety often live in fear of the future. Those with complex trauma fear the future because of the past.”
This is absolutely true, and most therapists don’t seem to have a clue that there is a difference. Perhaps this will help someone reading this…
I live with a smoldering anxiety that never leaves me. It peaks when I’m happy. Oddly, it ebbs when I’m too busy to pay attention to what’s going on around me, and I suspect that trauma survivors try to stay so busy because it prevents them from feeling this particularistic type of anxiety. When I’m struck with the evanescent beauty of a moment, fear creeps in like a thief and begins to steal my joy. I do not know how to escape any of this. It might be strange, but I’ve tried to make friends with it. I’ve wanted to understand it in an effort to defuse it.
As Ms. Peterson has said, I don’t fear because I’m generally anxious. I do not have an anxious personality. I fear because of what I’ve known. Because of my past experiences. When the worst-case scenario has already happened to you, then who’s to say it won’t happen again? Yes, I’ve survived extreme sexual torture, a kidnapping, human trafficking, and years of abuse in my family of origin. I was duped by my ex-husband for twenty years and sexually assaulted by him. My former therapist told me that I could clearly survive anything. My brain fears that I will have to do it again. Over and over again. This is the flavor of anxiety that belongs to trauma survivors. This is the nature of PTSD and C+PTSD anxiety.
I do practice mindfulness, but becoming mindful does not shut down my anxiety. It often only makes me more aware that I’m fearful and feeling helpless. It can promote the very hypervigilance I’m seeking to escape.
“The remedy for both anxiety and trauma is to pull one’s awareness back into the present. For a traumatized person who has experienced abuse, there are a variety of factors that make this difficult. First and foremost, a traumatized person must be living in a situation which is 100 percent safe before they can even begin to process the tsunami of anger, grief and despair that has been locked inside of them, causing their hypervigilance and other anxious symptoms. That usually means no one who abused them or enabled abuse in the past can be allowed to take up space in their life. It also means eliminating any other people who mirror the same abusive or enabling patterns.
Unfortunately for many, creating a 100 percent abuser-free environment is not possible, even for those who set up good boundaries and are wary of the signs. That means that being present in the moment for a complex trauma survivor is not fail-proof, especially in a stressful event. They can be triggered into an emotional flashback by anything in their present environment.
It is possible (and likely) that someone suffering from the effects of complex trauma is also feeling anxious and depressed, but there is a difference to the root cause. Many effective strategies that treat anxiety and depression don’t work for trauma survivors. Meditation and mindfulness techniques that make one more aware of their environment sometimes can produce an opposite effect on a trauma survivor. Trauma survivors often don’t need more awareness. They need to feel safe and secure in spite of what their awareness is telling them.”
Feeling safe and secure, for me, is key. Safety and security in my relationships and environment seem to be the cure. I know why feelings of relief and happiness trigger feelings of fear and, sometimes, emotional flashbacks. My father deliberately cultivated feelings of happiness and relief in me in order to overturn them and further engage in abuse. He was a pathologically cold man. My mother’s emotional and personality disorders caused constant instability in our family environment. As soon as any sort of happiness was achieved, it vanished just as quickly due to her inability to maintain a consistent mood or affect. She also attempted suicide numerous times. As soon as any family member felt relief that she might be doing better, she would attempt suicide again or lash out in talionic rage against someone in the family. Nothing in my family life was ever predictable. We consistently waited for “the other shoe to drop”. I grew up on edge. If there were ever a moment of happiness, I knew that my mother would ruin it. Or my father. That has proven to be true over the years.
Consequently, when I feel this rising panic borne of this nebulous but constant fear that follows me everywhere, it isn’t generalized. It is quite specific, and I find myself saying, “I can’t go back to that. I can’t do that again. I won’t do that again.” And, I feel frozen and terrified as if an old enemy has found me. I feel a strong urge to cut all ties and run away mixed with a terrible almost existential fear that I will live out my life completely alone. And, yet, I know that this will all pass. It is, as I said, like an exacerbation of an autoimmune disease–an autoimmune disease of the mind and soul.
With that said, what is to be done? Well, I have therapized, read, studied, and pursued many roads over the last twenty years in order to answer that very question, and I’ve had a fair amount of success. For the survivor of trauma, however, consistently establishing safety and security in your myriad environments and relationships is the number one thing to do to defuse anxiety and flashbacks related to trauma. This will always be the first and last step. It is also the first question to ask when you feel that familiar fear rise: “Do I feel unsafe or insecure anywhere in my life or in any relationship?”
I hope that this has been helpful to you. Ms. Peterson’s article has been very helpful and validating for me.
As always, keep going…
As I’ve been taking a brief respite from blogging to gather my thoughts after the sexual harassment problems crescendoed, some interesting things moved to the foreground. And, you can always count on me to share them if there’s something valuable in the mix.
My boyfriend was in town for two weeks. As with any relationship, you are usually discovering new things about each other as the relationship grows. I really enjoy that aspect of relationships. So, a few days before he returned to home base, the whole family went to a water park. My youngest daughter was fully prepared to drag him around to the water slides, and he was game for anything. The weather was perfect for the day’s activities.
It should be noted that my boyfriend is athletically gifted and a natural competitor. He has successfully competed in many sports and earned a black belt in aikido. He was a free diver and is a very strong swimmer. So, when he casually challenged me to a race in the pool, I suspect that there was an expectation that I would lose. I am not known for my athletic ability. I don’t discuss athletics or past athletic glory. I don’t usually like competing. I am the last person to join a team, and I’m afraid of projectiles. I feel awkward most of the time.
As we gripped the edge of the pool preparing to race, bets were made on who would win. I’m pretty sure everyone bet on him. Except I smoked him. By almost an entire body length. Everyone was shocked including him. I wasn’t. Why? Well, this leads me to the reason for this post.
I was a competitive swimmer in my youth. Not just a run-of-the-mill competitive swimmer. A “prodigy”. I hate that word, but that’s what he called me. Who is he? He was my coach, Mike*–a former Olympic swimmer. Mike approached my stepfather during one of my practices to tell him that he would like to coach me personally; he felt that I had the potential to compete internationally. Of course, my stepfather became enamored of him and the idea of it all. Thus began the pressure and the time commitment. I trained 8 hours a day. It was brutal. I swam because I loved it. I did not love training.
Something else, however, was going on. Mike was a pedophile. Every time he would get into the water to adjust my stroke he would slip his hand into my swimsuit. He must have sexually touched me fifty times or more. I remember feeling confused, helpless, and violated. Finally, however, I felt angry so much so that one day I got out of the pool and left the facility. I quit training altogether that day. Without an explanation. My family was extremely angry and held it against me. The beloved pedophile coach? He didn’t say a word. My high school coach? He was livid. No one understood my decision aside from Mike–he knew why I stopped training. Everyone else continued to bombard me with the same question: “Why would you throw away your gift?”
I didn’t know how to self-advocate with words when I was that age. I was surrounded by male athletes and aggressive adult men. My mother had borderline personality disorder, and my father and stepmother were also very abusive. Walking away was the only thing I knew to do in terms of self-preservation. I never competed again, and I never told anyone what happened. I just absorbed the accusations and the label: “You are a QUITTER.”
It all came rushing in this week after I gave my boyfriend a beat down in the pool. My daughters saw me swim. My youngest asked me with awe how I could swim like that. My other daughter asked me why I didn’t swim anymore. And, I remembered. I never even discussed any of this in therapy. It’s not something I think about. It feels like a gossamer memory. Like it almost happened to someone else. Almost.
Consequently, I have been thinking on it for the first time in over 25 years. What is there to be learned, if anything, from this old memory making itself freshly relevant? I was reading a rather timely commentary written by Rabbi Jonathan Sacks Kt MBE in which he discusses the idea of inheritance and identity (“The Lost Masterpiece/ Pinchas 5778”). Rabbi Sacks tells the story of a man named Mr. Onians who spent his life collecting paintings from estate sales. At the end of his life, he had amassed a large number of works that had to be auctioned off after his death. His children saw little value in his collection even though these paintings were so valuable to their father. What no one knew, however, was that there was a lost masterpiece in the collection of mediocre canvases, and Rabbi Sacks’ retelling of how this was discovered makes the reading of his D’var Torah a bit exciting. He brings his story around to a passage of Torah (Old Testament) wherein the spies returned from their reconnaissance mission in Canaan full of fear proclaiming that it was impossible to enter it, thusly, causing the people to declare that they should return to Egypt with a new leader. Well, everyone declared this except for five women and Caleb and Joshua, the two spies who felt confident that Canaan was totally “doable”.
But, who are these five women? Zelophedad’s daughters. I have never heard of this guy or his daughters! Why are they special? I will let Rabbi Sacks fully explain the importance of both the lost painting and Zelophedad’s daughters:
“A great art expert, Sir Denis Mahon (1910-2011), was looking through the catalogue (of Mr. Onians’ paintings) one day when his eye was caught by one painting in particular. The photograph in the catalogue, no larger than a postage stamp, showed a rabble of rampaging people setting fire to a large building and making off with loot. Onians had bought it at a country house sale in the 1940s for a mere £12. The catalogue listed the painting as the Sack of Carthage, painted by a relatively little known artist of the seventeenth century, Pietro Testa. It estimated that it would fetch £15,000.
Mahon was struck by one incongruous detail. One of the looters was making off with a seven branched candelabrum. What, Mahon wondered, was a menorah doing in Carthage? Clearly the painting was not depicting that event. Instead it was portrait of the Destruction of the Second Temple by the Romans. But if what he was looking at was not the Sack of Carthage, then the artist was probably not Pietro Testa.
Mahon remembered that the great seventeenth century artist Nicholas Poussin had painted two portraits of the destruction of the second temple. One was hanging in the art museum in Vienna. The other, painted in 1626 for Cardinal Barberini, had disappeared from public view sometime in the eighteenth century. No one knew what had happened to it. With a shock Mahon realised that he was looking at the missing Poussin.
At the auction, he bid for the picture. When a figure of the eminence of Sir Dennis bid for a painting the other potential buyers knew that he must know something they did not, so they too put in bids. Eventually Sir Dennis bought the painting for £155, 000. A few years later he sold it for its true worth, £4.5 million, to Lord Rothschild who donated it to the Israel Museum in Jerusalem where it hangs today in the memory of Sir Isaiah Berlin.
I know this story only because, at Lord Rothschild’s request, I together with the then director of the national gallery, Neil MacGregor, gave a lecture on the painting while it was shown briefly in London before being taken to its new and permanent home. I tell the story because it is so graphic an example of the fact that we can lose a priceless legacy simply because, not loving it, we do not come to appreciate its true value. From this we can infer a corollary: we inherit what we truly love.
This surely is the moral of the story of the daughters of Zelophehad in this week’s parsha. Recall the story: Zelophehad, of the tribe of Manasseh, had died in the wilderness before the allocation of the land. He left five daughters but no sons. The daughters came before Moses, arguing that it would be unjust for his family to be denied their share in the land simply because he had daughters but not sons. Moses brought their case before God, who told him: “What Zelophehad’s daughters are saying is right. You must certainly give them property as an inheritance among their father’s relatives and give their father’s inheritance to them” (Num. 27:7). And so it came to pass.
The sages spoke of Zelophehad’s daughters in the highest praise. They were, they said, very wise and chose the right time to present their request. They knew how to interpret Scripture, and they were perfectly virtuous. Even more consequentially, their love of the land of Israel was in striking contrast to that of the men. The spies had come back with a negative report about the land, and the people had said, “Let us appoint a [new] leader and return to Egypt” (Num. 14:4). But Zelophehad’s daughters wanted to have a share in the land, which they were duly granted.
This led to the famous comment of Rabbi Ephraim Luntschitz of Prague (1550-1619) on the episode of the spies. Focussing on God’s words, “Send for yourself men to spy out the land of Canaan” (Num. 14:2), Luntschitz argued that God was not commanding Moses but permitting him to send men. God was saying, “From My perspective, seeing the future, it would have been better to send women, because they love and cherish the land and would never come to speak negatively about it. However, since you are convinced that these men are worthy and do indeed value the land, I give you permission to go ahead and send them.”
The result was catastrophic. Ten of the men came back with a negative report. The people were demoralised, and the result was that they lost the chance to enter the land in their lifetime. They lost their chance to enjoy their inheritance in the land promised to their ancestors. The daughters of Zelophehad, by contrast, did inherit the land – because they loved it. What we love, we inherit. What we fail to love, we lose.” (“The Lost Masterpiece/Pinchas 5778″)
I am going to come at this from a different angle than Rabbi Sacks because he compares the paintings to Judaism which works well. As a Jew, I appreciate his midrash of sorts. I, however, want to make a different suggestion in terms of identity based upon Mr. Onians’ vast collection of mediocre paintings, and I’ll use my experience with my coach as a jumping off point.
After I quit training with Mike, many people thought poorly of me. In my family, being labeled a “quitter” was probably the worst thing you could call a person. I disappointed a lot of people, and many people in my community looked down upon me not to mention my peers. For years, I was told that I didn’t have what it takes to accomplish anything meaningful because people perceived that I had quit when things got hard. The social injury was real as was the shame. They were missing information.
And this phenomenon has followed me. My family judged me harshly when I ended my relationship with my mother. No one could fathom that the woman they knew publicly was monstrously abusive to the point of homicidal behind closed doors. So, I was labeled as “a bad daughter”. A “quitter” of relationships.
When I finally ended my relationship with my father, who was my first abuser, his wife told everyone they knew that I was a prostitute. A prostitute! I suspect that’s the worst label she could come up with at the time. Consequently, there are still people in a small Texas town who believe that I am somewhere in the world earning a living as a sex worker. It is ludicrous.
What’s my point?
We might find ourselves surrounded by mediocre people and circumstances much like those paintings. Or, worse, perhaps we are surrounded by the human equivalent of velvet Elvis paintings and Dogs Playing Poker.
We have to find the “masterpiece” in the mix, and it’s damn hard particularly when you’ve been labeled and victimized. Furthermore, I don’t know one person who doesn’t bear at least one label and hasn’t been victimized at least one time. So, what do you do then?
Using my experience as an example, I did not throw away my “gift”. I simply chose not to share it because the price was too high. Sure, I could have been trained by a former Olympian and potentially gone on to compete on the world’s stage, but Mike would have stolen my budding sexuality and innocence from me as payment for his coaching. I already had a father who had done that to me. I didn’t want to relive it in the pool. What everyone else interpreted as quitting was really self-advocacy. I preserved myself, and I never internalized what Mike did to me. I left it behind and also left the experience intact. I was not a quitter. I was an overcomer. Therein lies the “lost masterpiece”, and that masterpiece gets to be inserted into the larger part of my identity. It was a bad experience, but it did not contribute to a degeneration of my internal identity. It helped me form a stronger sense of self.
We must, at some point, look at who we are now and who we are becoming with intention, the past be damned. In order to change our trajectories in life and head in the direction that we want, it is vital to examine the metaphorical canvases surrounding us. Like the Onians family, did we collect them? Who put these images on our walls? Do we need to take some down? Get rid of all of them? What have we inherited that we actually never wanted? There are masterpieces in there somewhere to be sure, but where are they? How do we identify them? Lastly, what do we love about our lives that we want to bring forward with us, and what do we wish to leave behind? We will inherit what we love. In order to do that, we must decide what we find lovable first. And that means taking a very personal inventory. We may not be who we once were. It is not possible to walk long distances and explore new possibilities in someone else’s shoes–even if those shoes were once ours and just don’t fit anymore.
“I won’t tell you that the world matters nothing, or the world’s voice, or the voice of society. They matter a good deal. They matter far too much. But there are moments when one has to choose between living one’s own life, fully, entirely, completely—or dragging out some false, shallow, degrading existence that the world in its hypocrisy demands. You have that moment now. Choose!”
Life has a way of hitting the Reset button, and I must admit that I appreciate that. And, honestly, this Reset is too good not to share.
One might perceive that I am all Doom and Gloom what with writing a blog like this, but that is far from the truth (In fact, I just spent ten minutes dancing to K-Pop in my bedroom as a study break. I highly recommend BTS’s “Illegal”).
Anyway, after the visit to the Respondent’s attorney this morning to sign the settlement agreement, I went to visit my lovely esthetician for some *ahem* personal waxing. I just wanted to feel like a normal human being again, and, besides, I already had the appointment scheduled. I felt it was time to get my focus back. There’s nothing like having hair ripped out of sensitive body parts to do just that.
Brazilian waxing is an odd experience. I won’t lie. I am by nature a very modest person. I hated labor and delivery for this very reason. All those people sauntering in and out of the room while your body is on full display? I never grew accustomed to it. I could say it’s my disposition combined with being raised by stoic Scandinavians in a very gender-biased Southern culture. The advice I was given for almost all contexts of life was, “Remember to keep your knees together, dear.” Consequently, the fact that I can even lie on a table in a Figure 4 position and tolerate hot wax being poured and torn off my lady parts is an authentic victory for me. I feel empowered and ultra-hygienic when I leave my esthetician’s house. It’s one of those luxuries that I don’t take for granted.
So, there I was today, lying on her table, recounting the past month’s events as she loudly empathized with me. She’s like my Jewish auntie: “Oy, no! Did he really? I can’t believe it! What did you doooooo?” ::rip::
As I waited for her to finish, I looked up at the ceiling. It was then that I saw it. A spider. Before I could say anything, he descended directly onto my chest. I managed to yell out, “SPIDER!”
My esthetician shrieked and started hitting me in an attempt to kill the spider. I was stuck on the table. There was wax on me, and, you know, I had no pants on! Where was I going to go? I couldn’t offer any assistance at all.
“Did you get it? Did you get it?” I asked, feeling helpless.
“No…no….not yet…no,” she quickly answered.
More hitting. Then shoving. It crawled on my arm. I felt it. I screamed. Then, it crawled under me. She shoved me to the side of the table.
“Is it in my hair?” I asked beginning to panic. I am somewhat terrified of spiders.
“I got it!” she exclaimed.
For a moment, we were silent and wide-eyed, and then we started laughing almost hysterically. I’m not sure why. I think that she is afraid of spiders, too, and we were experiencing a massive dump of stress hormones. I felt ridiculously vulnerable lying almost buck ass naked on her table while a spider crawled on me, and she had to kill an insect she feared.
I gave her an extra big tip and left her house feeling a little more like myself than when I arrived. So, I’m hitting the books, studying for my first midterm tomorrow, and getting on with things spiders and settlement agreements be damned.
And thank you for sharing the journey with me. I have appreciated that more than I can adequately say.
If you are new to my blog, I will bring you up to speed.
In January 2017 I enrolled in 4-year graduate degree program in order to specialize in Traditional Chinese Medicine and integrative medicine. A month after I began my program, a man in my program began harassing me. At first, I brushed it off as obnoxious behavior, but I started changing how I dressed in case it was more; I was anxious. I stopped wearing make-up and started wearing hoodies, ponytails, jeans, and Converse sneakers. In other words, I dressed like my 14 year-old. Alas, he continued to target me including unwanted sexual touching and battery. This continued intermittently for a year.
I documented every encounter in detail. I reported it to my college’s administration, thusly, beginning what has come to feel like the Battle Royale. The college administration would not implement Title IX procedure or policy due to cronyism. I had to attend classes with him, tolerate continued nonverbal harassment, and then finally another confrontation. Finally, I petitioned the court for an Harassment Restraining Order (HRO), and it was granted although temporarily because the Respondent (the harasser) contested it meaning I have to appear in court for a hearing.
This brings me to the present. His family asked to meet with me in order to reach a settlement agreement to avoid the hearing. Initially, I thought, “Why would I do that? I’m going to do my best to keep that HRO.” Then, I spoke to another woman at my school who has endured the same process. I’m incredulous. What are the odds? Two women in four months filing for HROs from two male students in the same graduate program? I then opted to file an official complaint with the Department of Education’s Office of Civil Rights (OCR), and, after a telephonic interview and review of my complaint, they will be officially investigating my college for discrimination.
So, yesterday, I met with the Respondent’s family for three hours at a local restaurant. It was surreal. They don’t want a hearing. They want to reach a settlement agreement. It was long and exhausting, and, to be honest, I truly empathized with them. I’m a mother. I understand their point of view. They were honest with me. They recognized their son’s deficits and his wrongdoing. It must be noted that his family is from another country and culture. Their culture’s family norms differ from popular American family norms. If an eldest son commits acts like he has towards me, then it brings shame to the family as a whole; and, the family as a unit takes on the debt–not just the individual. I understood this, and this is largely why I agreed to share a meal with them. I am not litigious by nature and prefer negotiations when at all possible. As a lawyer who is near and dear to me said, “If you are litigating, then both sides have lost.” The pending hearing would require litigation.
They did not bring their attorney with them. I mirrored that as a sign of cooperation. And, what I can say with complete confidence is that you should never attempt to do anything like this without an attorney. They wanted me to sign a contract agreeing to drop the HRO. They were very concerned that their son’s life would be ruined with the label of “harasser” or “sexual harasser”. As concerned as they were for me and my sense of safety, their concern was always first and foremost for the future of their son. I expected that. Parents are the best advocates for their kids–even when their kids behave very badly.
I had to push quite hard for strong contractual stipulations and be able to defend my position in a persuasive way in order to convince them. I succeeded on the points that mattered the most, but the experience did not feel empowering. I felt blamed somehow. They blamed me because I sought out the legal system for help because their son would not respond to “Stop,” and “Leave me alone.” This morning as I negotiated on the phone, his father asked me, “Are you trying to ruin his life and future?” I paused, took a breath, and answered, “No, we are in a settlement agreement because your son refused to comply with the school’s code of conduct and violated his second warning. He is now suspended for a third violation and restricted by an HRO granted by a judge. He is ruining his own life. I’m merely insisting that the document I sign is enforceable in a court and protects me and your son. Isn’t that what you want, too? Legal protection for his interests?”
After that, the negotiations went smoothly. I am not thrilled with any of this. In the end, the Respondent will continue on with his life and educational privileges, and I will have absorbed the wrongful acts. It doesn’t feel just enough.
I have been sitting around in my pajamas all day today. I have midterm exams next week, and I just don’t care. That will pass. I will rebound, but what I can say is that this is the “real” reality of sexual harassment. The other woman at my school who was forced to file for an HRO? Her harasser will return to complete his education after she graduates. My harasser will continue his medical education as well. What are the truly meaningful consequences for these men for harassing two women for over a year? What kind of medical practitioners will these men become?
I am profoundly troubled by the unknowns, but this is what I do know:
Never sign anything without consulting your attorney.
Also, attorneys cost not a little money which is likely why victims of harassment probably don’t receive the advocacy they deserve nor report the harassment. It has been a pain in the ass the whole time complete with insomnia, panic, anxiety, and crying jags. And, it’s not over. The OCR investigation is only just beginning, but I’m ready for it. Appropriate changes will be made and enforced–by the Feds!
At least when I leave this school, I’ll have left a mark on it–for the better– even if my harasser still gets to attend classes there.
I feel like I’m writing installments for a weird soap opera–“Tune in today for the continuation of the saga. Will there be an investigation? Will the administration give up their lazy ways and comply with Title IX? Will there still be a hearing? What about the other known harassers at the college? What happens when parents get involved? Find out what’s next on ‘The Cowardly and The Compliant’. Brought to you by the Department of Education’s Office of Civil Rights.”
The current situation is not what I imagined when I decided to return to grad school. Sexual harassment was not on the menu. Sure, I anticipated that a graduate medical program would be hard. It should be difficult. And, when I realized that my harasser was going to continue in his pattern of predatory behavior after a year of intermittent harassment, I anticipated that reporting him would be unpleasant. Reporting sexual harassment is always unpleasant because you are forced to disclose what has happened to you, and that inevitably provokes feelings of vulnerability and shame. It also raises internal doubts like, “What if no one believes me?” and “What if I am blamed for the harassment?”– and the oft asked question “Why did you wait to report it?”
The questions that are asked of victims of myriad types of harassment and sexual harassment in specific seem to inherently blame the victim, and I suspect that this is the case because there is a culture of blame surrounding sexual misconduct embedded in our culture. Anyone who has been sexually assaulted, raped, and/or sexually harassed knows this. The psychology that arises within victims after experiencing the aforementioned is almost always one of self-blame as well: “Did I do something to make him/her think I wanted that? I think it might be my fault.” And, too often, others are more than willing to agree with that sentiment–“Well, maybe you were too friendly with him/her. You are sort of flirty.” There is, however, something more at play…
“I think the biggest factor that promotes victim-blaming is something called the just world hypothesis,” says Sherry Hamby, a professor of psychology at the University of the South and founding editor of the APA’s Psychology of Violencejournal. “It’s this idea that people deserve what happens to them. There’s just a really strong need to believe that we all deserve our outcomes and consequences.”
Hamby explains that this desire to see the world as just and fair may be even stronger among Americans, who are raised in a culture that promotes the American Dream and the idea that we all control our own destinies.
“In other cultures, where sometimes because of war or poverty or maybe sometimes even just because of a strong thread of fatalism in the culture, it’s a lot better recognized that sometimes bad things happen to good people,” she says. “But as a general rule, Americans have a hard time with the idea that bad things happen to good people.” (The Psychology of Victim-Blaming)
I have encountered this phenomenon for 26 years. Generally, people are very uncomfortable with the idea that they could do all the right things in life and still suffer. The summer before I started undergrad in the 90s, I unknowingly lived next door to a man wanted by Interpol for human trafficking and other crimes. He had multiple aliases. He was extremely charming and very smart. On a hot, summer day in August, he abducted me, and I got to experience human trafficking. I can’t begin to count how many times it has been insinuated to me that I should have known he was a criminal. I have been told directly a few times that it was my fault. I understand the reasons. People cling to the idea that if you do everything right, then you will escape tragedy.
You won’t. Sometimes the unspeakable happens, and there is no good reason for it. And, I don’t know about you, but that is hard to live with. I’ve lived with the fallout of that horrible experience for the last 26 years of my life. Consequently, on good days, I feel a strange sympathy for the people who blame me for being trafficked or harmed in other ways. They have to in order to feel safe in the world. It is, of course, a grand illusion. I know that, and there is cold comfort in my understanding their perspective. Still, that understanding prevents me from feeling re-victimized when I have to make difficult decisions like filing a complaint against my college with the Office of Civil Rights (OCR).
And how is that going, you ask?
An investigator with the OCR called me last week for a phone interview. We talked for an hour and a half. She said that she would notify me this week via email if their office decided to open an investigation into my college. I learned last night that the OCR is probably going to investigate my college. This is not a small thing. This will likely take six months. This is a federal investigation. The school will know that I am the one who filed the complaint. It’s somewhat anxiety-provoking. If I’m not currently on their Shit List, then I certainly will be once they get wind of the investigation.
Why did I go so far as to file a complaint with the OCR? I did it because I learned of three other harassment cases at my school that took place within a year of each other, and the administration of the college failed to act in all cases. Another student also had to file for an harassment restraining order (HRO), and it was granted. A teacher is currently being stalked by a student, and the student who harassed me also sexually harassed another woman at my school engaging in unwanted sexual touching. A female student even went so far as to publicly retaliate against another student for attempting to report a student for sexual harassment. In all cases, the college sided with the harassers, thusly, creating a sexually hostile environment. By definition, this is discrimination based on sex which is why it is reportable to the OCR; it is a violation of Title IX. It is also wrong. Something should be done about it. I’m in a position to be the person who does something.
As for the dreaded hearing, it is scheduled for next week, but the parents of the man harassing me have requested that we meet. He is 26 years-old, but it appears that his parents take responsibility for him and his actions. They do not want a hearing. They want to have a “sit-down” this week. None of this feels real to me. Honestly, I’d just like to go to school and become a doctor, but there are dragons to slay, I guess.
Next week, I have midterms.
Stay tuned for next week’s installment of “The Cowardly and The Compliant”. Will MJ meet The Parents, keep her HRO, and pass her midterms? Who’s to say…
Amidst the #Metoo movement and Harvey Weinstein perp walk, one might begin to believe that dealing with the nuts and bolts of reporting sexual harassment would suddenly get easier. It really hasn’t, but it doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t. You totally should.
Realistically, it might cost you something. Why? Well, reporting it doesn’t mean that it will stop. You might actually experience retaliation. You could get fired if you’re being harassed in the workplace and report it. Teachers could treat you differently if you’re being harassed at school. You could become a pariah if the person harassing you is well-liked.
In the past month, I’ve witnessed all of this, and I am trying to figure out exactly how I feel about it. I was never naive about what could happen when I decided to report my harasser to my college’s administration. The last time I reported sexual harassment I was fired. I actually lost my job! The company was in the middle of an IPO, and they didn’t want any trouble. Rather than fire the harasser, they fired me–the woman who talked.
The best part of this story, however, is that, during that time, I was having coffee once a week with a man who was a former FBI special agent. We originally met at Starbucks where I often studied. He was a regular. I was a regular. Somehow, his regular coffee visits turned into coffee with me. We discussed politics and current events, and he liked French literature which is what I was studying. He always wore a seersucker suit with a bowtie. His name was Charlie. He retired from the FBI and became a foremost expert in administering polygraph tests. Think Robert DeNiro’s character in “Meet the Parents”. He traveled all over the world administering polygraph tests. I would try so hard to tempt him into telling me stories about his latest trips, but the man was a vault. He would just smirk and redirect the conversation.
On the day I was fired from my job for reporting sexual harassment, I went to Starbucks seeking sugary consolation and ordered the most fattening drink they had. I found a hidden corner table, licked whipped cream off a spoon, and cried. Charlie came in for his regular black coffee and saw me. He was always very affable and gentle, but, when he saw me crying, he wasn’t affable at all. He became the FBI agent. The interrogation began. Why was I crying? Who did it? What happened? I told him the whole story complete with the disgusting details of the harassment and the humiliating firing while stuffing a peanut butter cookie in my mouth. He nodded. He pulled out his business card, wrote a number on it, and said, “Call this number and tell them I sent you.”
It was a lawyer. I groaned and told him that I didn’t want a lawyer. I just wanted to put the situation behind me. He insisted. I reluctantly called the number the next day. The woman on the other end of the line curtly told me that everyone was busy until I said, “Charlie told me to call.” Suddenly, she said, “One moment please.”
In a matter of seconds, a male voice was on the line. He arranged an appointment the next day, and I met with him. As it turns out, the lawyer I met that day was former White House counsel, and he was exceedingly polite and accommodating. He listened to my entire story. Had “The West Wing” been a TV show at that time, I would have felt like I was in an episode. In the end, it was decided that there was nothing I could do. I was wrongfully fired, but some injustices you just have to swallow. That never felt right to me. I think men and women are just plain tired of swallowing against their will.
Ten years later, a class action lawsuit was filed by a class of women in that company that fired me, and they won. And, I received a check in the mail for a few thousand dollars. As it turns out, that company made a habit of firing women who reported sexual harassment. My reporting the harassment–and being fired–established a record. There is no legal record if you don’t report the harassment. That is one reason why you must report harassment. It is vital to establish a record. In this way, if someone is harassed after you and they report it, the record shows that others have made reports as well. And, this is how you build a case.
Why is building a case important? Well, in the case of institutions, it becomes vital because an individual case of harassment can rarely take down an institution or, at a minimum, bring disciplinary measures. Institutions have far more resources in terms of money and legal representation than any one person; but if a group of people (like a class) can show a pattern relating to an institution (like a group of women and my former company), then traction can be made in terms of legitimizing complaints.
In my current situation, I reported to my school’s administration that I had been harassed. They failed to implement Title IX policy. I documented that. My harasser harassed me again. I documented that and reported it. The school failed to implement Title IX policy again. I filed for an HRO and a judge granted it. My harasser is contesting the HRO, and I have to attend a hearing. I also reported the Title IX implementation failure to the Office of Civil Rights (OCR). The OCR has contacted me, and I speak to them this week via a phone interview. If the OCR decides that my case is not severe enough to pursue, then at least there will be a record. If anyone else reports anything to the OCR in the future, then my case will be on record and will also establish a pattern.
Proper documentation and reporting are vital even if you are afraid. In fact, I can guarantee that if you are experiencing harassment, you will be anxious. I am, but fear of intimidation and retaliation is exactly why harassment in various settings has been allowed to persist. Yes, this is exhausting. Yes, I don’t even want to go to school. I’m weary of looking at the administrators. Had they done their jobs in the first place, I wouldn’t be in this position. I can state with certainty that I don’t want to go to court. Alas, the rest of society is in a position to put a stop to a culture that condones harassment because large numbers of people standing together with a unified voice are far harder to intimidate and retaliate against than a select few. Maintaining that unity over the longterm is how we will change this culture.
I encourage you to initiate change by educating yourself and those around you. We can potentially build a world where #Metoo won’t even be a thing anymore.
Resisting Rulemaking: Challenging the Montana Settlement’s Title IX Sexual Harassment Blueprint (this is published in Notre Dame Law Review and provides an excellent “blueprint” for what schools, colleges, and universities should do under Title IX policies and procedures in the context of harassment. It is also excellent in terms of educating oneself in the language of Title IX and what one’s rights are as well as what one should expect in terms of what Title IX provides. It is a must read if you attend a school that receives federal funding aka FAFSA funding.)
I never thought I would entitle a blog post as such, but, alas, I now know how to file for an HRO–an harassment restraining order. I’ve been writing about sexual harassment in my medical school program because I’ve been experiencing it for over a year now. I’ve followed every procedure to the letter, and the harasser will not stop. He has escalated to making veiled threats against my children. He is a 26 year-old dude for crying out loud. Only five years older than my daughter! And yet he has fixated on me. It has created a very strange reality; I’m actually afraid.
On Tuesday last, I went out to dinner with another student who has experienced similar circumstances in our program, and I had a wonderful time. She is a very courageous woman who has navigated the legal system with the help of an advocate from a local women’s advocacy center. I felt profound admiration for her tenacity and deep anger for the injustice of her situation. As she narrated her story to me over dinner, I could scarcely believe it. A restraining order? Against a fellow student? In our school? And the very next day, I had to do the exact same thing.
The student who has been harassing me escalated his behavior. I felt paralyzed. Lo, guess who was just a room away. My new friend who was just with me the previous evening. She swept in and took me to the women’s advocacy center. I disclosed the situation to two advocates, showed them all my previously filed legal documents with the Office of Civil Rights, the legal disclosures filed with the school, and personal documentation of his past actions. The advocates unanimously agreed that the best course of action was to fill out and file an HRO. In this way, the police could act upon my behalf, and steps could be taken to keep me and my minor children safe.
Can I just say that none of that felt real to me? I felt out of body and triggered by the entire circumstance. I was having a problem speaking words. But, I did it. I filled out the HRO and printed out every piece of supporting evidence for the court. My new friend and another woman from school went with me to the courthouse on Friday morning as I filed the HRO. At that point, it is a petition for an HRO. A judge has to grant it. We went to a diner across the street, had breakfast, and waited together. The court called me a few hours later. My hands were trembling when I answered the phone.
The judge granted it. I now have a restraining order against my harasser. He has 20 days to contest it, and, if he does, I have to go to a hearing with an attorney.
There are obvious reasons why this situation is unjust and wrong. I could go into great detail about it, but I won’t.
To me, however, there is one reason why this situation has been really good. I have experienced the support of fellow women in a truly meaningful way in the context of social injustice. There have been people in my program who have looked the other way and pretended that nothing was going on. Teachers and administrators as well. Even worse, other students have observed the harassment and buried their heads in the sand so to speak. The community at large has condoned the harassment, and this is what perpetuates it. Think about it. If an entire workplace of employees protested sexual harassment, then would it continue? If an entire university or college protested sexual harassment and violence, would the administration continue to support the student perpetrators? Consider Penn State. Well, they couldn’t. They must get tuition from somewhere. Sexual violence, hatred, and bigotry are as much a community problem as they are an administration problem. One blames the victim while the other condones harassment and violence through silence.
It’s a difficult subject because once you start to speak up on behalf of someone else, you start to become an advocate; and advocacy will always cost you something. You could experience retaliation. Other people may distance themselves from you because they associate you with the people you are advocating for–guilt by association. You could become a proxy representation and begin to receive more abuse than anyone else. Look at Martin Luther King, Jr or Harvey Milk. Advocacy doesn’t end well sometimes. There are risks, and, let’s be real, who signs up for this? No one. But, who signs up for harassment? No one. Someone has to do something. Don’t they? Who’s going to be the person who stands alongside victims and say, “I stand by you. This won’t continue. I’ll do something about this”?
Here’s the thing. Nothing will change in a meaningful or permanent way if we don’t start standing up for one another. And, I’m not necessarily talking about change on a macro-level. I’m talking about micro-changes. Using my college as an example, there is an established and documented pattern of sexual harassment within the school environment as more than one student experienced it. We also experienced and continue to experience an apathetic response from the administration. We are referred to law enforcement if we need help. One might say, “Well, that is the school’s right. They don’t have to help their students deal with harassers. What’s the problem?” Good point.
The problem is that if a school receives federal funding, then they must comply with all Title IX laws concerning discrimination. Under Title IX, sexual harassment falls under discrimination, and the legal language is very specific about definitions and what a school is required to do about it. If a school does not comply with Title IX, then they are in violation of it. They have broken federal laws. If a school is aware of discrimination and fails to address it, then they are not in compliance and must be investigated.
This is where documentation and reporting are absolutely vital. The more people who are willing to report what they see, the better. The more people who are willing to do this in a legal sense, the better. Victims of harassment on school campuses can get little action from the Office of Civil Rights (OCR) without documentation. This is, however, how real social change comes about. We’ve seen it happen right before our eyes this year what with the Weinstein Effect. Story upon story came forth, thusly, destroying Harvey Weinstein and Miramax Entertainment. Witnesses finally came forward to corroborate other witness statements. It was never one big event that took down the giant. Just a community of people who stood up for each other in real time and risked something.
I, therefore, challenge you. We can’t complain about sexual harassment and terrible bosses, fellow employees and students if we ourselves won’t say anything or support another person experiencing it. If we see it and know about it but fail to do anything, then how are we essentially different from the harassers? We are creating the environment that enables the abuse. Social injustice will not stop until the environment that supports it makes no room for it any longer. That begins with you. And me.
Title IX: Know Your Rights
The Office of Civil Rights and Harassment Complaints
About the Office of Civil Rights (OCR)