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For sexual trauma survivors, the COVID-19 pandemic can be triggering, calming, and everything in between

Hear from sexual trauma survivors around the world about how they’re coping and showing up for themselves during the covid-19 pandemic
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Content Warning

This story contains descriptions of PTSD symptoms, the effects of trauma and mention of suicide.

I’ve spent the last 16 days in my apartment in DC talking with sexual violence survivors around the world about how they’re holding up during this covid-19 pandemic and here’s what I’ve learned: Trauma is super complex (you’re like umm…hello yes we’ve known this) and shows up in, different, conflicting and at times surprising ways.

I solicited insights from survivors around the world, and heard from people across the US, Canada, India and the U.K., who shared with us how their trauma is and isn’t showing up right now and messages that they’d like to share with fellow survivors during this unprecedented time. I wanted to write this story because I think it’s important for all of us to really see that there is no right way to feel and our relationship to our trauma and what’s happening in the world is super complicated and that that’s okay and normal! Most of all, like everything I write, I want us all to feel less alone and more connected to each other. And as much as I love the sound of my own voice (I really, really do), this felt like the right time to hear from others!

As I read through all the survivors’ words who submitted, I found myself relating to so many seemingly different experiences. A lot of people described an unexpected calm or comfort, which I have felt, which for me stems from always feeling like I’m the only one who sees danger everywhere and now that everyone else is on the same page I feel a kind of relief. Many people described this being a very triggering time for a variety of reasons, and I really resonated with that too. I’ve found it really triggering to see people in leadership, namely 45, deny our reality and pain and try to collectively gaslight the nation. I’ve felt old voices of old coping mechanisms come back as I find myself going into survival mode and I’ve felt safe huddled in with Franklin and Charlie in our apartment…and sometimes I feel that all in the same minute. No wonder I am sleeping a tight 14 hours everyday.

There is, however, a specific experience so many survivors are enduring right now that is different from my own, which is that they are trapped in a space that is not safe for them. As we read these words, maybe we could each visualize our hearts expanding and growing full of compassion and love, and then see ourselves sending out all that love, warmth and comfort to all the survivors around the world who need it the most right now.

A content warning note: With permission from the survivors, I’ve edited some of the responses for brevity and also with a mindfulness of wanting to share with each other while somehow not inadvertently triggering each other. It is impossible to avoid all triggers, but know that I’ve tried my best with my own biases to make this both honest and hopefully not triggering.

For some sexual trauma survivors, there is a strange sense of calm and familiarity during the COVID-19 pandemic

“I agree with posts saying how weirdly relaxed I feel. When I say relaxed…I do feel anxious but no more than usual. I am deeply saddened by what’s happening but feel a strange comfort in the chaos which feels awful to admit! I do feel strange hearing friends and family share that they are not sleeping well or describing symptoms of anxiety. I have experienced this my whole life so hearing others talk about it as something new and unusual makes me frustrated at myself for always seeing it as “not a big deal”. – Krista, United Kingdom

“I am a survivor of sexual assault and a survivor of my mother’s suicide. The first anniversary of my mom’s suicide was St. Patrick’s Day and I’ve felt a sense of impending doom for the last few months leading up to it. So there’s this really odd feeling of, “Oh my god it’s actually happening.” and at first it seemed like it made it worse, but now it feels like i’ve been preparing my whole life for this. As a trauma survivor, I feel like everyone else wears blinders and can’t see the danger that exists in the world. It’s weird because this pandemic is now something that has been selectively let through the blinders. I wouldn’t say that it means they understand me now. But finally, I’m not the only one who sees danger and I don’t feel alone and crazy anymore, and that has almost eased the effects of the pandemic for me. It’s also odd because this is how I lived after my mom killed herself. I lived in fear and never left the house. And everyone else’s lives just went on like normal and it was invisible. It’s a little better that suddenly everyone is so supportive and checking in on people’s mental health. There’s an all in this together supportive vibe that exists now that didn’t exist for me after anything traumatic I’d be through.”  -anonymous, Chicago

“It is weird…major disruptions in my routine like the current situation usually freak me out– and I’m definitely freaked out! But in a way, it doesn’t feel quite as bad or isolating as it usually does. I think because everyone is freaking out. Usually it feels like it’s just me freaking out which leads to the internal voice and trauma response of, “You’re overreacting.” “What’s wrong with you?” and “You’re making a big deal out of nothing”. I think there are many times when I don’t/can’t validate my own feelings (which stems from trauma), and I guess at this moment I feel validated in those feelings, because, for those without trauma histories (like my husband for example) are feeling more anxious, scared and frustrated.”.- anonymous, Boston

Some sexual trauma survivors are experiencing triggers, the return of traumatic responses, and old coping mechanisms during the COVID-19 pandemic

“My trauma is showing up a lot in my dreams and flashbacks/instructive thoughts again. Also I find myself wondering how my abuser is doing during this pandemic and then feeling guilty for thinking of them. In my process of healing and recovery these triggers and thoughts feel like I’m going backwards but then I remember to use all my self-soothing tools, like breathing exercises, speaking kindly to myself, singing my favorite songs, etc. I feel like if I didn’t have to learn to regulate my dysregulated nervous system the past 7 months from my recent trauma then I wouldn’t have such a well of strength and resilience during this crisis. And now I can offer some of my healing practices to friends and loved ones who are struggling with social distancing and anxiety for the first time. So for me my trauma is showing up which makes it a challenge, but my healing is also showing up in full force which I’m honestly amazed by and so thankful for.” – anonymous, New York

“It is scary. They made our hospital the COVID center so we will come in direct contact with patients. It is bringing up my anxiety, and the helplessness of the whole thing is bringing up my trauma. But I am managing, my support system is helping and cooking and managing things around the house helps too.”- Aparna, a doctor in Bangalore, India

“I am stuck in the house with two preschoolers and it’s difficult. Add in my trauma to mix and the unprecedented instability of society and I’m wiped out by lunch. I’m triggered by other people’s selfish decisions, by those who decide not to social distance, and those who decide to hoard supplies. Other people’s selfish decisions have already given me so much grief and pain; are they going to give me coronavirus, too? But thankfully, I’ve been practicing self-care in the midst of anxiety, depression and uncertainty for years.” Caitie Sangalis Houston, TX

“The trauma is showing up for me right now in how I feel in my body. The lingering sense of unease/danger within society at this moment brings me back to my little girl body and mind, and how she could never tell if the next room or place she was about to enter would be safe- or if it’s just another trap and, subsequently, another opportunity for more hurting.”- Lauren, Ontario

For some sexual trauma survivors home is not a safe place and requires going into survival mode

“I’m twenty years old, home from college due to the Coronavirus, and my parents are Facetiming my abuser in the living room. There’s no space here, in my childhood home to consider what it means to me that the face of the man who assaulted me graces dozens of framed photos around the house.

The COVID-19 pandemic is a trauma in its own right for so many individuals all over the world. For trauma survivors, being home can be retriggering. The loss of stability and control, the isolation, the uncertainty can be physically exhausting. I’m back in the house where the abuse happened. I’m back with the people who love the man who did it. The scared little girl that is always inside of me, that I try to keep soundly tucked away, is so close to the surface and that feels frightening.

While I was away at college, I had the privilege of distance, where I could take all the time I needed to understand the resurfacing trauma. Now that I’m home I just have to survive. Life feels so out of control right now, and at the center of it all is this big ugly secret that has the power to rip my family to pieces. I have to get through every day. Sometimes that means forcing a smile when his name comes up in conversation. Honestly, it means unhealthy coping mechanisms, like disordered eating habits.

This is what being a trauma survivor in the face of the COVID epidemic looks like for me. Check on your friends with child abuse and sexual abuse histories. Go on social distance walks with them and tell them you want to listen. If you have a story like mine, care for yourself. I nurture the little girl in me that feels all around me. I let her bring her favorite stuffed animals to bed, even though it feels silly. I crawl into my mom’s bed sometimes and lay on her lap, even though I’m taller than her. Every single one of us is fighting to get by these days, and the only way we will is with community and self-care.”  -BNL from New York

What is a message you’d like to share with fellow sexual trauma survivors right now?

“If I want to say anything to other survivors, it’s that it’s totally okay and normal to have complex/conflicting feelings about this. It can change from day to day, and that’s a community. I know we are going to get through this.” -anonymous, Chicago

“My message to other survivors would be to keep reaching out to your support networks,  even if every bone in your body is telling you to retreat father into yourself. You do not have to do this by yourself.” – Lauren, Ontario

“For the first time in many people’s lives, the world isn’t safe. But we, as survivors, have known this for years. We’ve been on the journey of learning how to live as fragile people in a dangerous world for a long time. Healing from sexual trauma looks different for everyone, but it’s hall marks are all the same: resiliency, courage and perseverance amid an uncertain future. None of us know if/when/how relief for our pain and fear is coming, but we know that we cycle through the ups and downs of it and that what is right now isn’t forever. Because our trauma happened in relational contexts, we’ve learned to practice measures of social distancing for our mental health. We know how to hold our boundaries strong while being flexible and creative in pursuing safe connection with others. We’re used to naming our overwhelming emotions and sitting together in the unspeakable depths and tenisons. We are resilient and resourceful in just the ways those around us need our unique strengths. We know that admitting and accepting our fragility makes us stronger.” -Caitie Sangalas, Houston, Texas

“If it’s not triggering for fellow survivors, now is a good time as any to share your healing knowledge with others. The whole world is experiencing a collective trauma.” – Anonymous, New York

“We will get through this. One day at time. Protect yourself and your loved ones. STAY HOME.”- Aparna, a doctor in Bangalore, India

“Find something that makes you laugh every day. If nothing has presented itself to you, seek it out in others, get them to tell you ridiculous stories or bad jokes. This always makes things feel a little brighter for me.”  – Krista, United Kingdom

“To fellow survivors I want to say you are not alone! It is understandable that things might be harder for us right now.”- Anonymous, Boston

A note from me, Alisa!

I just want to say thank you to every person who shared with all of us in this story. I am so grateful for all of you. I echo everyone’s words of offering kindness to yourself and validation of however you may be feeling right now. Know that wherever you are that I see you, I know your pain is real and it matters, and no matter how hard and triggering this gets it will not erase all the work you’ve done in your healing. It’s all still there, even if it doesn’t feel accessible right now. For now, we must take care of each other and that starts with taking care of ourselves. Sending you all my whole heart full of compassion, warmth and resilency.

For support right now

For extra support, here is a list of resources for survivors:

The National Domestic Violence Hotline is 24/7, confidential and free:1-800-799-7233 and through chat.

The National Sexual Assault Hotline is 24/7, confidential and free:800.656.HOPE (4673) and through chat.

We are Her survivor digital meet up

Breathwork one on one virtual support with sliding scale

List of additional survivor resources that’s being regularly update