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Triggered

For survivors of sexual assault, the #MeToo movement opens old wounds

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Love it or hate it, the #MeToo movement isn't going anywhere soon.

Tarana Burke founded an activist organization fighting sexual assault called Me Too 12 years ago, but the hashtag erupted into 12 million social media posts in October after actress Alyssa Milano suggested survivors of assault or harassment amplify their voices during the early days of the Harvey Weinstein scandal. Between October and today, with recent allegations of the so-called less explicit sexual misconduct by comedian Aziz Ansari—and the countless op-eds supporting or decrying the movement—the internet is saturated with news of sexual trauma.

And so we're clear, yes, #MeToo is absolutely about challenging the patriarchal system that has allowed this type of behavior to continue. And, yes, it is also about holding sexual predators accountable, even, in Dylan Farrow's words about her father Woody Allen, taking them down. "Why wouldn't I want to take him down?" she said in a recent interview with CBS This Morning. "Why shouldn't I be angry?"

Some of the young women speaking out against—and directly to—Larry Nassar during his January sentencing for over 180 counts of sexual abuse told him how much they hated him. Who can blame them? Being unheard and dismissed for years can breed resentment.

Yet as empowering as the #MeToo movement has been for the cause of amplifying and uniting women's voices, the constant news cycle detailing violations against women and women's bodies has also had an overwhelmingly painful impact on many survivors—an opening of old wounds, so to speak. And the re-traumatizing didn't surface overnight last October with Rose McGowan and Ashley Judd outing Harvey Weinstein for sexual misconduct.

The resurfacing of old traumas, for many, began with the detailed accounts of many of Bill Cosby's 60 accusers growing increasingly vocal with their detailed testimony to the press. For others, it was the shock of former Stanford student Brock Turner being dealt a slap on the wrist for sexual assault during his 2016 trial (he served three months of his six-month sentence). For others, it was the election of Donald Trump, just weeks after his infamous audio tape bragging about his ability to sexually assault women and get away with it that pushed survivors into tailspins of anxiety and fear, painful memories of past assaults bubbling to the surface.

This was the case for Sarah (all names of survivors have been changed in order to protect their identities). The Sonoma County–based sexual abuse and domestic violence survivor, had two simultaneously triggering incidents occur in the fall of 2016; the first was the election of Trump.

"Just seeing this prick with a microphone in his hand and people listening to him, that he could be listened to and that he could be a fucking president," says Sarah. "It's like being raped all over again. It's like being abused and stalked and minimized all over again."

The second trigger was learning that a man new to her neighborhood, who displayed increasingly suspicious behavior, had several violent sexual assaults on his record.

"I have PTSD from domestic violence in the past, so it kind of created this environment, like a mental environment and a physical environment for me, that grew increasingly unbearable," she says. "I would just get this immediate sick feeling in my stomach and was paralyzed with fear when I found the door unlocked. Every time [my husband] walked in the door, I was jumping through my skin. I was waking up in the middle of the night screaming."

Sarah reached out to the YWCA for cognitive-behavioral therapy and began taking anti-anxiety medication to help her get through her resurfacing trauma.

Lauren, a Marin County resident and childhood sexual-abuse survivor, says her stress response manifested in the form of insomnia and burning sensations on her hands and feet. Concerned that she was experiencing a nerve problem, she made an appointment with her chiropractor, who found no physical reason for her symptoms. "I also started to feel like, 'Am I losing my mind?'" says Lauren.

Lauren had volunteered at a rape-crisis center in the past, where she educated people about the motivations and behaviors of predators. Yet it wasn't until she saw her therapist that she made a connection between the endless news cycle of sexual harassment and the emotional and physical impact it was having on her.

"The fires were happening too, but it was the #MeToo news that really strung me out more than anything," Lauren says. "There was the constant news and having to see what we'd known and just how devastating it was."

Lauren's therapist reassured her that her reaction was normal and that several clients had approached her to discuss the impact the sexual harassment stories had on them as well.

"It helped, too, that [my therapist] acknowledged that my past would make this a more difficult situation," says Lauren.

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