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Yesterday morning at 10 a.m. EST I, like so many of us (11 million of us, specifically) was sitting in front of a screen, watching Dr. Christine Blasey Ford give her testimony. I was trying to check out of my hotel quickly so I could join my colleagues at our headquarter office where folks were gathering to watch together in the conference room. As per usual, I was running a little behind. I didn’t want to miss a second of it, so I ended up staying in my hotel room and watching from my laptop.
I watched. I kept watching. I sat there alone in a sterile hotel room and I wept. I looked up into the enormous framed mirror directly in front of the hotel room desk and saw my face and saw my history and saw all of our histories.
I used to work on a sexual assault hotline. I talked to victims and survivors immediately after their attack and knew how to counsel them through an ER medical evidence collection kit (“rape kit”). Almost every woman or queer or trans person or femme I know and many, many queer and trans men I know have experienced sexual assault. Among my closest circles, we’ve talked about it openly. We’ve talked about it at open mic nights. We’ve stood on stages and raged about it together. Sexual assault is just in the air around me because of who I am — a queer, Korean, feminist woman.
I’ve become, unfortunately, a bit numb. Or, rather, I’m able to separate my personal trauma from my empathy for others. I’ve heard so many sexual assault stories that I’ve lost count. Sometimes I actually can’t remember which story belongs to which of my friends, to be honest, because we all have them and they all start to mingle together into a red, pink, purple, blue, bruised-up, twisting smoke.
I didn’t expect to cry. I have hardened myself as an advocacy mechanism, as a survival mechanism. Yet there I was, crying as I heard Dr. Ford’s voice shake in her opening testimony, heard the tears she was choking back, listened to a story too similar to my own, and most of all grappled with my own guilt that I don’t know if I have even an ounce of the courage she does. I don’t have the courage Dr. Anita Hill had over 25 years ago.
Would I do this? Put my body and integrity on the line for the sake of the nation, for the sake of all survivors and all people’s civil rights? The stakes are so high and yet, I don’t know if I could. Could I survive the death threats? The public shaming? I don’t know and that shook me. I still don’t feel able to claim my trauma, on some level, because…because I tried to believe I wasn’t really raped for a million reasons that I’m not going to unpack right now that boil down to Patriarchy and Rape Culture and Internalized Shame.
What happened next was that I sent an impromptu all-staff email to everyone at my office and our offices statewide. It just felt necessary to name it, that so many of us are survivors and that this hurt and that trauma is valid. I named it and I suggested people do what they need to do to take care of each other right now. Take a break. Take a breath. Take a walk. Talk to a friend. Whatever. I just put it into the interoffice email ether. I got a flood of personal responses back from colleagues at all levels of management in the organization, saying, “Thank you. I needed to hear that,” or “I feel less alone.” It was one email and it connected us to each other in that moment and I felt grateful. It helped me get through the day.
I want to talk about reciprocal self-care or community care. It’s a survival tactic that is a part of my personal activist self-care. For me, I get a good feeling out of supporting other people and connecting with other people and creating safer spaces for people to be real. I love that. It nurtures my soul to nurture others. That’s the “reciprocal” part of reciprocal self-care.
I’ve never been particularly good at individual self-care in the stereotypical sense. Like, taking a bath or whatever. It’s not that it doesn’t help when I do. I’m just horrible at slowing down to do that kind of stuff. It’s not in my nature. I think we need radical, reciprocal self-care right now, at this moment, as we’re all dealing with our shit in our own ways.
In social justice and activist spaces, doing reciprocal self-care can help connect us on an even deeper level to our work by connecting us to each other. Community organizing is, at its core, about building relationships and investing in community power. So often, though, we get lost in the work and focus on the collective power as the only goal. We forget to prioritize our selves and each other as human beings. We can’t build collective power without strong, loving communities. We just can’t.
Reciprocal self-care is as easy as checking in on your friends online or IRL. It’s as easy as sharing tips and strategies for dealing with trauma on social media. It’s as easy as jumping into an Autostraddle feelings atrium so we can all be in our feels together. It’s as easy as reminding each other to breathe.
My beautiful friends, I’m here right now as an act of reciprocal self-care and also to encourage you to try it out yourselves. Yesterday I also posted to my friends on Facebook, “What are you doing to stay grounded today?” Dozens of friends replied with comments ranging from staying hydrated to teaching yoga to going out with friends to eating pizza.
We hear a lot about “mindfulness” when we talk about self-care. I don’t think mindfulness is a reasonable goal when you’re flailing around with deeply rooted pain and completely depleted emotional energy. Mindfulness is achieving a mental state of being fully present in the moment, finding a calm and even mental state by acknowledging and honoring your feelings and thoughts and body. I mean, it sounds really nice. If you’re good at practicing mindfulness, I’m happy for you! I’m terrible at it. Part of my self-care is allowing myself to be terrible at it. What I do think is necessary to survive is to stay grounded.
Staying grounded is not about achieving a state of mental calm or even about being fully present. It’s about tethering yourself to the world. It’s the things we can practice and do to keep our minds from floating away from our bodies when we’re experiencing trauma. It’s a survival technique and it works. Here are some examples of ways people can stay grounded, but really anything you do that helps you feel more ok when you’re experiencing trauma or stress counts!
Enjoy a meal.
Take the time to really taste your food. Enjoy each bite. Focus on the way it makes you feel. Indulge in comfort food or a dessert or a good drink or anything that fuels you.
Be with others.
Surround yourself with people you love be that friends, family, children, grandparents, pets. Anyone who lets you be 100% you and can help make you feel connected in your relationship with each other.
Allow yourself the luxury of being alone in a place you feel safe. Close the door to your office. Take a walk by yourself. Take a few minutes of alone time in your bedroom listening to music. Take a few minutes of alone time in the bathroom if that’s all you can get.
Name three things.
If you feel yourself floating away, look around the room you’re in. Name three things. Focus on each one and note something about it (color, shape, purpose). Name three things you’re touching right now (the floor, your chair, your keyboard, your clothing, etc.) Focus on each and note something about it. Come back and notice your state of mind. Do you feel nervous, agitated, calm, energized, scared? Name your emotions. Be with your feelings, whatever they are.
Breathe in and out.
Do a breathing exercise. An easy one is just to inhale and count to four, then exhale slowly and count to four. Repeat at least three times or until you feel grounded in the moment. There are great visualization breathing apps to help with this if it’s a technique that works for you.
Use your nose.
Waking up our sense of smell can help keep us grounded. Smelling something strong makes us immediately more alert. Smelling something pleasant makes our brains go to a happier place. Light a favorite candle. Keep fresh herbs nearby. Smell lavender (calming) or peppermint (energizing). Burn some incense. Bake brownies. Follow your nose!
Those are just some ideas. If you feel your world spinning around right now, maybe try something to just focus, for a few minutes, on tethering yourself to the ground. That said, I don’t think it helps to try to squash down our feelings. If you’re feeling rage, feel it. If you’re feeling sad, feel it. If you’re feeling like you need to disassociate from the news, do it. If you feel like you need up-to-the-minute livestreams going all day, tune in. If you need to seek out others, do it. If you need to be alone, do that. If you need to meditate and practice mindfulness, yes, go, seek your peace! If you just need to scream and throw things and let it out however it’s gonna come out, do that, too.
If there’s something I learned from working with sexual assault survivors and being one myself, it’s that no two people deal with trauma the same way. Some laugh. Some rage. Some cry. The very last thing a survivor needs is to feel like they need to conform to some “typical” or “proper” way of reacting. This is why true advocates for survivors will never pressure them into speaking to the police or reporting. The most empowering thing you can do for a survivor is to deeply listen and let them make their own choices about what to do next.
Let’s do that for each other. Let’s make radically caring space for each other, OK? Let’s honor each other’s choices as survivors of the cishetpatriarchy. Some of us will be in the streets fighting. Some will be in the courts fighting. Some will be battling from the internet or our phones. Some need to tune out and not engage right now at all. None of us are “doing it” wrong.
Friends, let’s all do what we need to do to survive and heal. Let’s make space for all of it. The very last thing any of us need today is even more guilt and shame about not performing trauma or anger or feminism or activism correctly. Take care of yourself first. Take care of yourself by taking care of others, if that feels like something that feeds you like it feeds me.
This is reciprocal self-care. I’m opening it to you to participate in. We’re doing it together, right here, right now.
Here’s what I know, above all else. We will survive this and I truly believe we’ll come out stronger, even if he is confirmed. Especially if he is confirmed. WE WILL SURVIVE AND WE WILL WIN. For Dr. Anita Hill and for Dr. Christine Blasey Ford and for all of us. It’s not over, even if the confirmation is successfully blocked, it’s not over for us. We will outlast them all.
Now I want to ask you all: What are you doing to stay grounded today? How are you surviving?
Share your grounding and survival techniques in the comments. Share this article to your friends who maybe need a little community care. Close your screen and go look out a window. Go scream into the void. Just be here, today. I’m here with you!
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