I’m not sure when exactly it happened but somewhere along the way my culture decided the perfect pairing for motherhood is wine. Brands like Mommy Juice play up this association and “wine play dates” where moms can share a bottle while the little ones play have popped up all over. Bloggers joke about hiding wine in old Starbucks cups so they can drink when they’re at PTA meetings.
Secondary traumatic stress is the experience of being triggered by another person’s firsthand account of abuse. It is not something ugly you are doing to others, not a lack of sympathy. It’s what happens when it’s all too much to take in, particularly as a trauma survivor.
When celebrities are accused of domestic violence or sexual assault, there’s a timeline that always plays out. Sometime between today and next week, I expect many of my friends will be dealing with secondary trauma.
First, there’s the allegation, full of naked truths and ugly details. The knowledge that another man has fallen, is unworthy of his fame and adoration. That part doesn’t trigger me. It saddens me.
Then there’s the memories. Even if I’m calm, I’m introspective. I remember times I’ve been abused for my gender, beginning in early girlhood and going on until my current celibate hermitage.
Then comes the wave of other stories from friends, tales of degradation and abuse. Those are hard, and I’m torn between a desire to offer comfort and shield myself from details. I try to do both, badly.
Hard as all that is, I can cope with it. I can medicate and distract myself and spend part of my day focused on life affirming things. I can get through it.
If that’s all there was to a celebrity abuse scandal, I could deal. But it isn’t. There’s a far uglier and more damaging stage we can’t seem to escape.
The doubts start, the self-appointed agents of the court who crop up to offer what they imagine is reasonable doubt. “We weren’t there” they’ll say with faux wisdom, as if we victims didn’t realize most abuse occurs behind closed doors.
The doubts turn to excuses, reasons the victim is at fault, why truly they’re to blame for “making” an abuser mistreat them. Sympathy is absent and resentment runs high. How dare that victim tell us the truth when we didn’t want to hear it!
This is called retraumatizing the victim, and we know doubts in the presence of honesty cause it. Victim blaming does it even more.
The secondary trauma and retrauma of your disbelief does more to harm victims than you can imagine. Woody Allen didn’t abuse me, he abused another girl. But all the people who hurt her by doubting her hurt me too.
When you refuse to believe a celebrity you like is capable of abuse, I know you won’t do the right thing if one of your friends is an abuser too. You’ve marked yourself as unsafe, and there are hundreds of thousands just like you.
This is why partner violence, family abuse, and sexual assault run rampant, because when faced with the knowledge someone you admire behaved abhorrently, most of you attack the victim for bursting your bubble.
This week, Amber Heard filed for an emergency restraining order against Johnny Depp, who she is attempting to divorce. I believe her. I’ve read the account of his physical and verbal abuse and it rings true, as a DV survivor. False abuse allegations are rare; domestic violence is common.
But other people are not so ready to believe. They like Depp, maybe they’ve liked him for decades. They love his art and his looks, and don’t want Heard “ruining” that for them. So, although she is the victim and did nothing wrong, fans and gawkers are expressing anger at her for daring to say something (to a judge to get protection. She hasn’t given press interviews or anything.)
I’m here to take on the expressions of disbelief and the objections to believing Heard I have seen, one by one. Such statements are in bold italics with my responses in standard text.
My cult leader was not beautiful, not when I knew her. She was short and fat with thinning gray hair, dressed in floral print mumus and cracked black leather loafers and went by the nickname Giggy. Carol Balizet was cute in the black and white photos of herself she’d papered her bedroom walls with, photos of herself as a teen and young adult. She was charismatic, which is not the same as beautiful. It lasts longer.
When she spoke, it was as if she was illuminated by a psychic spotlight. She glowed. It didn’t matter very much that she often spoke nonsense or else had her facts twenty years out of date. She spoke with such confidence and authority, I believed her. Sometimes she would shine that light on me, approve of me or make me feel special, and it was like being chosen by the sun as its favorite.
I understand why “natural cures” are so appealing. They evoke pastoral scenes and ancient herbalists; they create nostalgia for a fictional simpler yet healthier time. They feel knowable to the average person in a way the advanced chemistry behind pharmaceutical medicine doesn’t. Dietary supplements are a legal category in the US, not subject to Food and Driug Administration oversight, so they don’t carry all the scary warnings prescription medications do.
I’ve had mixed success with “natural” remedies. Melatonin for wakefulness worked, but after years of use mint stopped soothing nausea and started to cause it. Eating tryptophan rich foods like pineapple, yogurt, and turkey has kept my Obsessive Compulsive Disorder in check for the past ten years, but it doesn’t touch my depression.
Going to the gym daily, even if it’s just to walk very slowly on the treadmill for twenty minutes, does help maintain what little core strength I have, which in turn reduces back pain. I use marijuana daily for physical and emotional pain, and it does its job.
I’m disabled. I have disabilities. It’s okay, breathe. You can cope with this knowledge. You don’t need to call me “differently abled” or pretend the “dis” is an unimportant part of the world. There are things I can’t do that are particularly valued or required in the world and culture I live in. It’s a truth, and acknowledging it won’t kill either of us.
Disabilities exist. One in four US adults have a disability. People in every nation have disabilities. Our prehuman ancestors had disabilities. Animals can have disabilities, inborn or acquired or foisted on them by humans like my poor declawed cat. Disability exists and it’s okay to admit that head on.
You’ve probably encountered this type of mealy mouthed watered down “activism” before: We’re all human! Oppressors and oppressed, victims and abusers, prisoners and wardens, we’re all human! *cue sitcom Christmas episode level cheesy music* It’s a message that betrays a naive wish to skip all the hard work of justice, right to the peace and comfort of unity. It may be consciously well intended, but it is detrimental to real healing and real equity.
“We’re all human” is erasure, in several ways. It erases the ways we’re not all treated human. Like a white person defiantly “correcting” a Black Lives Matter” activist by shouting “ALL lives matter!”, this statement pretends away the life and death consequences of bigotry. It sweeps under the proverbial rug varied life expectancies and lifetime risks of violence, homelessness, and incarceration. It ignores our struggles. “We’re all human” obfuscates the problem that a cultural archetype of a default “human” already exists, and we don’t all look like it.