Kavanaugh case opens old wounds for many survivors

The moment the camera turned on Christine Blasey Ford as she sat down to testify in front of the Senate Judiciary Committee regarding her sexual assault allegations against Judge Brett Kavanaugh, I started to cry. As soon as she began her opening statement, her voice at times wavering as she fought back tears while recounting what she alleges occurred during a high school party over three decades ago, my body began to shake and I struggled to breathe normally.

Suddenly, even in the security of my workplace and while surrounded by caring coworkers, I no longer felt safe. I was experiencing a symptom of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), caused by a sexual assault I endured six years ago.

When Dr. Ford described Judge Kavanaugh and Mark Judge laughing while they allegedly assaulted her — “They’re having fun at my expense, laughing with each other and I was underneath one of them when they laughed” — I could only remember the voice of my abuser as he laughed while I told him to stop. When Dr. Ford described with scientific precision the fear she felt when Dr. Kavanaugh allegedly covered her mouth with his hand, I felt the same fear I felt when my assailant pinned me down move throughout my body.

Across the country, as Christine Blasey Ford was re-living her own trauma, survivors of sexual assault were undoubtedly re-living their own assaults and enduring symptoms of PTSD. I was re-living mine.

Kavanaugh’s opening statement vigorously denying the allegations against him was also triggering, but in a very different way. His overt anger, his unapologetic willingness to yell and, at times, cut off sitting senators, provoked a palpable physical response I was powerless to control. The hair on the back of my neck stood up, my heart rate elevated, and I had a sudden urge to leave my place of work as soon as possible — a place that on any other day makes me feel safe. According to WebMD, PTSD triggers can include sounds, and a trigger puts your body into a fight, flight, or freeze response.

I’m far from alone. Women across the country are sitting at home, or at their computers, or in their cars, living their lives and trying to do their jobs or care for their families. And, right now, so many of them can’t.

One in six women, and one in 10 men, will be victims of sexual assault at some point in their lives, according to the Rape, Abuse, & Incest National Network (RAINN), and in the United States, on average, there are 321,500 victims of rape and sexual assault every year. The US Department of Veterans reports that one in three victims of sexual assault will experience post-traumatic stress disorder sometime during their lives.

According to RAINN Press Secretary Sara McGovern, the National Sexual Assault Hotline has seen a 57% increase in calls made after Dr. Ford accused Judge Kavanaugh of attempted rape. “We often see an increase in calls when sexual assault stories are in the news,” McGovern told CNN. On Thursday, the day of the hearing, McGovern reported calls to the hotline surged by 201%.

“While watching the hearing I vacillated between nausea, rage, deep sadness, and fear,” Alison Turkos, a multiple sexual assault survivor, told me in an interview. According to Turkos, her PTSD and anxiety has heightened over the last two weeks. “I’m not sleeping well, I’m having night terrors,” she says.

The long-lasting impact of surviving a trauma, especially a sexual assault, can be both physical and mental, says Dr. Tracey Wilkinson, an Indiana-based pediatrician and fellow with Physicians for Reproductive Health. “Evidence shows that there are physical effects (such as high blood pressure, cardiac disease, and high cholesterol) as well as many mental health diagnoses that are associated with the exposure to sexual assault,” she told me.

While Dr. Wilkinson believes these hearings can be incredibly powerful for victims of sexual assault, she also says they can be painful. “Hearing the description of the assault and the subsequent harassment that Dr. Ford endured is daunting and may trigger their own memories of assault,” she says.

But it isn’t just the hearing impacting sexual assault survivors like myself. As soon as Professor Blasey Ford came forward, and in the wake of additional, credible sexual assault allegations made by Deborah Ramirez and Julie Swetnick, it has been difficult for me to sleep, to get out of bed, and to feel safe in public. To the horror of my family, I cringe when loved ones try to hug me or move quickly in my direction to show me positive, consensual affection. It has been difficult to focus at work, at home, and even when playing with my 4-year-old son.

These are all symptoms of PTSD I’ve had before, but hearing the allegations against Kavanaugh and the reactions to those allegations by GOP politicians, political pundits, and the President of the United States himself has brought them back with a vengeance.

“These past couple of weeks have been the hardest of my life,” said Christine Blasey Ford in the hearing. “I have had to relive this trauma in front of the world. And I have seen my life picked apart by people on television, on Twitter, other social media, other media, and in this body by people who have never met me or have spoken of me.”

It’s especially toxic to hear the “why did she wait so long” theme, because I know that there’s no timeline for healing, for feeling safe enough to talk about it. According to one study cited by the US Department of Veterans, 94 out of 100 victims of sexual assault experience PTSD two weeks immediately following the attack, and 30 out of 100 continue to experience PTSD symptoms nine months later. Professor Blasey Ford discussed how her own alleged assault impacted her life in the immediate aftermath — prompting her to struggle in school and in relationships — and in her later life. She made it clear that she was and has been forever changed.

“PTSD and anxiety are not tangible,” says Turkos, “it’s not a broken leg; you can’t see it. And because it’s long lasting, it sometimes feels like people are using a timeline for healing.”

One instance of abuse can impact an individual for the rest of their lives, which is why Dr. Wilkinson encourages all victims of sexual assault to seek out support from people they trust and in a way that works best for them. If you or someone you love has experienced sexual assault, you can call the National Sexual Assault Hotline at 1-800-656-4673.

Braving her trauma, Christine Blasey Ford sat in front of a Senate Judiciary Committee and shared her story with certainty and clarity. She endured hours of questioning, asked to recall her strongest memories of the assault, and defended her ability to remember her attacker. Just like the assault itself, this hearing will no doubt stay with Dr. Ford for the rest of her life.

Just like it will stay with victims of sexual assault and their loved ones across the country.