I’ve sat through over ten years of sexual assault training from the military.
The company I worked had yearly training that covered parts of this.
I only had the courage to stand up and say something once. Unsurprisingly it was after I’d been through therapy for my abuse two years ago. When you’ve had someone stalk, rape, and abuse you these things1 are different experiences.
I’ve become fairly adept at hiding my facial expressions in these situations. Every word has a different meaning. When someone makes a joke when talking about victims or sexual harassment and everyone laughs it’s painful. Someone gets up and in a serious tone and facial expression uses victim terminology it physically hurts. Everything takes on a different context and feels like it’s directed at you. The words hit with physical impact.
I’m always irrationally worried that everyone will find out about what happened because I can’t hold it together. And that they’ll judge me poorly. Avoidance is another coping mechanism in this situation. It hurts, but it’s really not that bad. Or worse, they treat me like a broken thing that needs to be fixed.
I can always tell the difference between someone who’s truly experienced these types of situations and those who know someone who has. The tone is different. The words are different. Empowerment in the situation is entirely changed. The power in those trainings is different. People aren’t allowed to make light of the situation when someone’s had things happen to them.
I realise that humour is a coping mechanism for something uncomfortable, but it demeans the experience for humans that have experienced them personally. Especially when someone sitting in that situation is right in the room. The cognitive connection I made in my head for a long time was that their laughter was how they’d react to what happened to me. It’s still there now, but I can usually catch it instead of letting the shame process run to completion.
The single time I stood up and said something it felt like I was being judged. I didn’t cry, but I’m pretty certain I had tears in my eyes. Being clear and concise was incredibly difficult. All I wanted to do was run out of the room.
And the question I chose to answer was simple. What would make a person in that situation reluctant to come forward?
Turns out the answer is simple as well. It shocked the group I was with.
A lot of the time when I share, I get treated like I’m different. I expect that, because everyone needs to use their own learned coping mechanisms to come to terms with news like this. There’s a naivety to the groups in all of these situations. Even with the astounding abuse statistics there’s a bravado that the group in that room is of high enough standards that they’d never have to seriously deal with it.
When I shared with a military group you could hear a pin drop. From something as simple as explaining victim terminology and the destructive power of sympathy actions. Or how painful it is when the co-workers want to talk about nothing but the thing that separates you from them. It becomes like a tattoo on your face that marks you as damaged.
The scary thing. Ten minutes later they were right back to making a joke of the entire situation. Some defended actions that were incredibly indefensible. Like requiring a verbal “no” to meet a standard of unwanted sexual advances. Because apparently, from the scenario, a physical removal of hands from body and pushing someone away doesn’t mean no. The volunteer in a play-acted event was patted on the head and encouraged to accept advances from a superior. At the end the volunteer was treated like a little child who should be cuddled and told the bad man was gone.
Somehow I became the only one verbally standing up for the other side of things.
Why bring this up now?
My MBA programme had a module on business and ethics where some groups tried to cover abuse. I can’t even hazard a guess as to what the intent was in a business course context. If there was one, using the correct terms should have been a part of the presentation. It was the hardest thing I’ve ever had to sit through. I can’t remember much about it. People I knew and respect were using victim terminology. Taking all power away with the description of unbroken survivors2 by judging them and placing them in a powerless situation with the choice of words.
Ten minutes later I somehow pulled it together for my group’s presentation. But I couldn’t stick around after that and left after that session. I missed the next two hours of presentations in the last class of the term. After the weekend I sent an email to the class that covered at a very high level why I couldn’t stay for the second session. A bit of my personal abuse story. How to constructively talk about these things when they come up. The victim terms to avoid. Most on the team apologised for the topic.
It’s taken a few months of weekly psychologist sessions, but something came out from it. I don’t feel like the school is safe. Rationally, I know this isn’t the case. In December I nearly took a year off from the course. Other factors played a role in considering it, but this was the crux of it. It’s continued to be uncomfortable in mixed classes this term with new people. The feeling isn’t shaking loose. Sitting in a classroom in this school is entirely uncomfortable. I’ve tried four or five sitting locations and found a place that’s mostly agreeable, but it’s in a corner and makes engagement and interaction difficult.
I haven’t gone out socially with the full class since. For whatever reason the group feels unsafe for me. It’s gone from being a source of great craic to apprehension. The social anxiety I’ve worked so hard to push back for the majority of my life has come back. But it only applies to full group gatherings. I still go out with some incredible friends I’ve made in the class that have stuck with me. When I try to talk around the subject with people not in that group, the suggestion is to let it go and move on. If it were that simple I would.
I’m sure I have the potential to handle this in a different way. I’ve been cognitively aware of how I’ve been dealing with this since it happened. What I haven’t found is my own coping mechanism that will allow me to get comfortable in classes again. Without that I haven’t been motivated to work ahead on readings. It saps my thinking capacity. I hear such fundamentally simple things come out of my mouth in group work meetings and classes that I tell myself to mentally shut up.
What a lot of people don’t understand about memories is they’re rooted deeply in smells, colours, sounds and other incredibly small triggers. A friend walked up behind me a few weeks ago and rubbed my shoulders saying, “You look tense”. I about jumped out of my skin. With the classroom feeling unsafe it’s no wonder. If I could nail down the trigger I could come up with a way to cope and deal with it.
What’s incredibly frustrating is that I’m really enjoying the city of Dublin and the friends I’ve made. The dichotomy of the situation is so frustrating. Here I am doing something I’ve worked toward for roughly a decade. I look back at my work history and I’ve never been this docile in similar situations. I’m in the one geographic location that I’ve felt comfortable. And in this one building that comfort level is missing.
Every once in awhile a switch flips and I can feel my brain come back online at full strength for a few minutes. And it’s glorious. When the light dims I fight desperately to keep it going, to no avail. I’ve given up holding myself to “Full Power” brain functions. Always being “ON” takes too much energy. Beating myself up over my best is a useless waste of energy. I love where my brain is at and accept it.
The one thing that it’s completely killed is my confidence. The work I do to prepare makes sense and comes out in class discussion without my participation. I just have no will to put my hand up. Participating is something I don’t have any interest in doing at this point. I tried to force it early in the term and it really never caught on. It only drained my will.
The main thing that’s driving me now is not letting down my team. I made the call to stay on the MBA programme and I won’t let them down. This is something I’ve worked toward for over a decade. I started out growing up in a trailer part in Wisconsin. I left undergrad when I didn’t know what I wanted to do and I was spinning my wheels. I’m here now though. I’ve given up a lot to get here. I’m going to finish this.
At this point I’m not sure if what I’ve got is courage, strength, or something else. I realise I’m not in top shape to participate in the MBA programme, yet I’m still doing the work. I know what I bring to the table in discussions is subpar, so I don’t provide it. I know right I’m Captain Buzzkill in a social situation with the group, so I avoid it.
I listen to comedians constantly now, Louis CK being the majority. Foo Fighters is in heavy rotation. Dave Grohl’s writing has always spoken to me. It seems like he’s used music as a way to positively deal with the loss of his friend, Curt Cobain for twenty years. On the Wasting Light album, it feels like he’s finally getting to a good place. I follow a lot of Kamal Ravikant‘s suggestions from Love Yourself Like Your Life Depends on It. I’ve used James Altucher‘s Daily Practice to codify it and make it part of my day. I’ve read a crap ton of things from the Dalai Llama. Even more on cognitive processes of different emotions.
However this ends up, permanently part of my life or just a stage, I love it. It’s reinforced how important it is to understand how words are important in defining feel. I have a new appreciation for people in my life that take the time to ask what’s going on. Even more for the ones that don’t shy away from having a meaningful discussion that could be uncomfortable.
I know I still have the parts of me that aren’t coming to the top. They’re likely changed drastically and I’ll have to get to know them again. The things I’m learning just by being on the MBA aren’t going to be as sharp as they could be, but that’s okay. As much as there’s talk about image control, I don’t mind if sharing this might hurt my career. Because there’s other people out there who don’t share and deal with these things without sharing. I know because I’ve run across them in the most random of places. And sometimes reading about someone sharing can help them more than anything.