On the morning of the Kavanaugh hearings, my heart was beating loudly in my ears. Before entering the office, I told myself I wouldn’t watch and, instead, take space and focus on my work. And yet, the moment I sat down at my desk, something compelled me to turn to C-SPAN and start streaming.
Watching Dr. Christine Blasey Ford’s testimony ignited something in me — an overwhelming feeling in the pit of my stomach. As I watched her speak timidly into her microphone, her eyes darting around the room partially hidden behind strands of blonde hair, I was forcefully transported back into the body of my 13 year-old self as I fumbled through my own testimony at a deposition while my abuser sat across the table from me.
Though this particular moment has been carved into my mind, it is certainly not the first time I’ve felt this way. Over the past year, sexual violence has come to the forefront of cultural conversation and, as a result, the triggers have come in waves. It’s a peculiar thing; sometimes I can hear about violence and stay detached and able to engage. Other times, I spiral quickly and have to work hard to regain my composure. But, when it comes to experiencing a full spectrum of emotions during a time of such national upheaval, maintaining a standard of professionalism and self-command while at work can be challenging — and not just for me.
For Gabrielle Horton, 27, the recent news cycle has been draining. Horton, who works as a production and creative development intern in the podcasting industry, has been directly covering news and politics and, as a sexual assault and rape survivor, has felt retraumatised in doing so. “Watching the hearing, the vote, and just generally keeping up with the news cycle has also forced me to replay my own sexually violent encounters in my head more than usual,” Horton told Refinery29. On the day of the Kavanaugh hearing, Horton was glued to her C-SPAN all day. “For the most part, I wanted to be alone, and found myself in our office kitchen trying to both focus on what was transpiring in the committee room and also try[ing] to do my job as well.”
Elly Belle, 23, is also a survivor working as a journalist and has felt similar pressures since October 2018, when the first #MeToo stories began flooding the internet. And yet, the recent Kavanaugh case has presented unique struggles for Belle. “There's no escape,” Belle told Refinery29. “There have been small reprieves from it, but for the most part I am constantly replaying my own sexual assaults and trauma in my head and relating it to pieces of Ford's story and others stories.”
Despite the difficulty, Belle says she’s had no choice but to continue doing her job, regardless of how difficult the undertaking might sometimes be. “But I definitely did cry and scream a lot last week,” Belle said. “I was in a room full of coworkers while watching the hearing on Thursday and was cursing a lot and retorting back at everything Kavanaugh said and did.”
“To walk in every morning and be inundated with headlines flashing across multiple big screens, it's one of the most triggering experiences to have to live through on a daily basis.”
Alisha Miranda, 32, a digital project manager working in media, says one of the biggest struggles as a survivor has been dealing with the inescapable barrage of news in her open plan office. “There are big TV screens everywhere you turn, with the news right in your face playing around the clock,” Miranda told Refinery29. “To walk in every morning and be inundated with headlines flashing across multiple big screens, it's one of the most triggering experiences to have to live through on a daily basis.”
All of the women I spoke to said that recent events have impacted their mental health in some capacity, on top of making work especially challenging. “It's been more painful to have to consciously process my own experiences constantly, as opposed to them being experiences that live in the back of my mind,” said Belle.
And yet, some feel that the recent news cycle has had some positive effects: it’s helped build solidarity, increased communication among women colleagues and other survivors, and created top-of-mind awareness about self-care. “I work among a lot of women who showed great interest in staying abreast of last week's hearing,” Horton said. “There were some small work team conversations, as it was something we not only were watching but have to cover in our work. Our COO and CCO, both women, sent a joint email expressing their empathy, saying their door is open, acknowledging how challenging these events are to grapple with and process, and we were encouraged to step away from the office if it became too much.”
Dr. Lisa Orbé-Austin, psychologist and executive coach at Dynamic Transitions Psychological Consulting, says that one of the best ways for workers to minimise triggers and retraumatisation is to understand the scope of their work, and stay away from unnecessary tasks that could exacerbate the situation. Though, in media, it can sometimes seem like all tasks are necessary, Dr. Orbé-Austin recommends setting boundaries and not taking on more triggering work unless it’s absolutely necessary.
Further, Dr. Orbé-Austin suggests developing grounding techniques, whether it's breathing, practicing meditation, or taking time to notice the space around you with all of your senses — what you are touching, feeling, smelling, and tasting. This can help bring survivors back into the present moment, and avoid getting swept away by a trigger. Further, it is key to find ways to engage individuals who are able to provide support during times of overwhelm, whether it's coworkers or people outside of work. If no one is available, Dr. Orbe-Austin recommends writing feelings down in a journal or on a piece of paper.
Most importantly, Dr. Orbé-Austin believes that workplaces, particularly those in the media industry, need to be conscious of what their employees may be going through. This includes editors being extra mindful of the pieces they are assigning and understanding that people are allowed to set boundaries. Also, it’s important that employees are provided with the space and time to get away without consequences, whether it’s to take a short walk, work from home, or utilise any other strategies that might minimise overstimulation.
Through it all, survivors like Horton are finding ways to cope, but often, they wish workplaces would do more to make office environments safer and more comfortable for women and survivors — especially in times like these. “At the very least, I wish that companies or individual department heads would bring folks together to encourage a moment for dialogue, for folks to express their feelings or concerns and finding the best way to navigate the political climate,” Horton said, and she was certainly not the only one who felt this way.
“No matter what, every workplace needs to prioritise victims and survivors and anyone who is marginalised or vulnerable to abuse — not only in words and actions but literal policies,” Belle concluded. “At bare minimum, that's what companies and office places owe [us]: the ability to feel comfortable, safe, and prioritised.”
If you have experienced sexual violence and are in need of crisis support, please call the RAINN Sexual Assault Hotline at 1-800-656-HOPE (4673).