Abuse Survivors: Surviving the News

Image: Person sitting on a bench. (Ryan McGuire from Pixabay )

Whenever there is a high profile case of sexual crime in the news, those of us subject to bad memories may have a rough time of it. Even if the news is good (justice is done) our reactions may pose a challenge, bringing up a round of anger, distraction, anxiety, or numbness.

I try to remind myself that I’m having a normal reaction to an abnormal set of experiences. In other words, my emotions are not some sort of failure on my part. They are the same emotions that kept me alive and that brought me to this day, and as such, I respect them. Any fault lies with the person or people who caused my injuries, not with me.

It’s up to me to cope with the situation in the present. Here are some strategies for dealing with a survivor’s responses to sex crimes in the news:

  1. Turn off the TV, the radio, and social media. We are not required to be 100% informed about every aspect of the news. There is no quiz coming. It is healthy to turn off the news when it is upsetting. Much of it is framed in a way to keep us tuned in (“After the commerical, we’ll interview so-and-so” ) but you already have the basic information, so turn it off.
  2. Make use of the comforts that work for you. Hug your pet. Curl up with a favorite blanket. Watch reruns of shows you find comforting. Exercise. Go outdoors. Walk the dog. Pray. Focus on work. Play empowering music. Do the things that have comforted or strengthened you in the past.
  3. Reach out. If you have a therapist, check in with them. Tell your spouse or partner what’s going on with you. Tell a good friend you are having a rough time.
  4. If you want advice, ask for it. If you don’t want advice, say so. The people who love us cannot read our minds. Speaking up about advice – either way! – is a way of taking control of our lives, and of being responsible for our emotions.
  5. Express your feelings. Write, make art, make music, dance, exercise, put those feelings out there in the world, instead of leaving them to fester inside. Don’t worry about grammar or making art for the ages, just express yourself. If a masterpiece accidentally results, wonderful, but right now just focus on getting what is inside OUT.
  6. Be wary of self-medication. Some things masquerade as “comforts” but don’t serve us very well. Be aware that alcohol is a depressant drug, and some cannabis can evoke paranoia. Many prescription drugs can be useful if used according to directions, but they are harmful if misused
  7. For spiritual resources, see Jewish Resources for Abuse Survivors. For many of us, the damage is spiritual as well as physical or emotional, so spiritual healing is part of the larger process of recovery.
  8. Finally, if you feel an urge to self-harm of any sort, REACH OUT. Call a therapist, or call the National Sex Assault Hotline at 800-656-HOPE (800-656-4673) or the National Suicide Prevention Hotline at 800-273-8255.

There is a Jewish saying for times like these: Gam zeh ya’avor – “This too shall pass.” The news will change, the world will go on, the past will keep receding into the past, and with effort and support, healing can take place. Today is not forever.

Yom Kippur and #MeToo Issues

Image: A tree-lined walkway in autumn, with light at the end. (Johannes Plenio /Pixabay)

I’ve written before about some of these issues, in Jewish Resources for Abuse Survivors, but Yom Kippur is approaching and I gather from Twitter that I’m not the only survivor feeling twitchy as the Day of Atonement approaches.

Issue: Loss of Control: Over the years, I’ve realized that one aspect of Yom Kippur is that we give up a lot of our autonomy for a day. For many Jews, that’s a useful thing. We have a list of things to do which fill the 24 hours of the day, and we do them, and there isn’t room for anything else. If we are born Jewish, or have been Jewish for a number of years, there is also the communal expectation that we will do these things weighing upon us. It doesn’t feel like a choice – it’s just what we must do. For a person who has had trauma involving control over their body, some of usual Yom Kippur observances can be triggering.

Reply: If the loss of control is a spiritual barrier, then perhaps some alternative observance would be more effective. If sitting in shul becomes too much, it’s OK to quietly exit and take a walk, even just a walk down the hall. If fasting is likely to trigger problems, make alternative plans. Tell yourself ahead of time that you are free to do whatever you need to do to take care of yourself. You are free.

Issue: Guilt & Shame: For many of us, shame was a big part of the abuse experience, used like a weapon by an abuser. Remind yourself that shame is different than guilt: a guilty party has something for which to atone. The person who feels ashamed is turned inward on themselves in disgust or anger. The Day of Atonement is very much about guilt, and about the cure for guilt, which is teshuvah. Shame, however, doesn’t need teshuvah; the one who suffers from shame is a wounded soul in need of healing.

Reply: Healing from shame is not a one-day project, but it can be done. For Yom Kippur this year, try resolving to be as gentle with yourself as you would be with a five year old who felt horrible. Think about a trusted person to whom you could reach out, even a little bit, with the shame that has bound you. That person might be a therapist, a rabbi, or a good friend. Then in the days after this Yom Kippur, reach out and say, “There is this thing bothering me and I need help.”

Issue: Anger: One year I felt angry during Yom Kippur. We kept reading the Vidui prayers, listing sins, and it suddenly put me in touch with my anger at things that had been done to me. I was furious! I wanted an apology this minute! I could barely sit still. I fumed all the way through the prayers, and at the same time, I knew that wasn’t what I was supposed to be doing, and I felt angry and ashamed about that.

Reply: For some of us, there’s a point at which anger is progress. If you have had trouble feeling angry, then this response to Yom Kippur is really a gift. Follow up on that gift with a call to a therapist, if you have one, or get a therapist, if you don’t. This is an opportunity to get work done. On the other hand, if anger is where you are stuck lately, maybe lists of sins aren’t the healthiest reading right now. Take a walk, get out into nature, exercise, do something else to blow off the energy.

Are there emotions or experiences with Yom Kippur that I haven’t addressed here? Do you have ways you deal with these issues? I encourage you to share what you feel comfortable sharing in the Comments section.

Here is a psalm I keep in my machzor (HHD prayer book):

The Holy One is a haven for the oppressed, a haven in times of trouble.

Those who know Your name trust You, for You do not abandon those who turn to You, O God.

Sing a hymn to the Holy One, who reigns in Zion; declare God’s deeds among the peoples.

For God does not ignore the cry of the afflicted; God who requites bloodshed is mindful of them.

Have mercy on me, O Holy One; see my affliction at the hands of my foes, You who lift me from the gates of death,

so that in the gates of Fair Zion I might tell all Your praise, I might exult in Your deliverance.

Psalms 9: 10-15