In 2009, at the age of 20, I was raped and beaten—nearly left for dead, by a stranger who helped me change my flat tire. Thanks to: an amazing roommate who (despite my hesitation) put me in her car and took me to the hospital, a sex crimes detective and attorney who were determined to put this man behind bars, and a supportive circle of friends and family who urged me to take time to heal, I was able to seek justice and become a voice for survivors who’s stories might have otherwise gone unheard.
Over the past nearly 10 years, my empathy and my experience have anchored me in the fight to end sexual assault. As a Women’s Studies Scholar and international photojournalist for women’s organizations, my efforts have taken me to some of the most conflicted regions in the world. While embedded within Rape Crisis Centers, it has been my responsibility to amplify the voices of the survivors whom I have had the humbling privilege of fighting for. To this day, it has been one the most meaningful and rewarding roles of my career.
But when I told people what I did for work, how I travelled to opposite ends of the globe to document and aid in the war to end sexual violence, I often got the question, “why not here?” And so after awhile I started to ask myself the same question and truly reflect on what in my heart pulled me so far from home to fight a battle that I knew was happening in my own backyard. It was then that I realized perhaps I was taking the easy road, as I found that survivors of sexual assault in conflict and developing countries are more often believed than survivors here in the United States, where rape culture is deeply engrained in our societal norms.
I realized that I was so intimidated and overwhelmed by the thought of confronting this culture that implicitly perpetuates sexual assault, that I opted instead to travel to some of the most dangerous parts of the world to advocate for an end to sexual violence. Following this realization, I decided to join the fight at home, as well as continue my efforts abroad.
For the past eight years, as a speaker and rape prevention advocate for colleges and universities around the United States, much of my mission has been dedicated to breaking down the barriers that discourage survivors of sexual assault to report the crime. This means speaking their truth, going against the system that keeps them quiet, and empowering peers and bystanders to not only believe them but also support and believe IN them.
Although the #MeToo movement illustrates a dark time in our national history, it also brings courage and hope to dismantling the foundation on which this rape culture stands. I am so grateful that in a matter of only a few months, the #MeToo movement accomplished what I had been striving to do for years—to empower survivors to speak their truth, and for people to believe them and support them.
So then what’s the next framework of the conversation? Where should survivors focus their attention after sharing their experience? We should also ask, where should survivors focus their attention if they feel they could not share their story (since they owe that to no one). In either case, their focus should be on themselves and the road to recovery and healing.
Through my own experience, I found that although I reported my assault, voiced my story, and had an amazing support system of friends and family, I still had to deal with the trauma that the assault left in its wake. Like many other survivors, I battled with shame, guilt, depression, addiction, anxiety, PTSD and unhealthy behaviors such as eating disorders. Outside of resources like counseling and support groups, I knew I had to find a way to equip myself with the tools and practices to care for Me, from the inside out. And so I fostered a #MeFIRST mentality by committing to a nurturing routine of self-care and self-love that literally saved my life. It wasn’t until I put myself first that I could even begin to explore ways to be an advocate for other survivors.
Although everyone’s routine is personal and unique to them, here are some examples of the ways that I practiced and continue to practice self-care:
#MeFIRST, Self-care for healing
- Welcome Your Brokenness
As with any wound, you have to tend to and nurture the pain in your heart for it to properly heal. This means acknowledging the injury and letting ourselves feel all that we need to in order to process and recover. When we throw a band-aid over our wound without caring for it, the wound can fester and cause turmoil in our lives, as it did in my case. Acknowledging and caring for the wound might be painful, just as cleaning and disinfecting any injury typically is, but it’s necessary for proper healing. Ultimately, we have to expose our wounds and let them breath, rather than ignore them. This is the first step to recovery. Some ways to do this are to: seek counseling, join group therapy for survivors, journal, confide in friends.
- Become aware of your space and set boundaries
Boundaries are the personal property lines that support your healing. Recognize what aspects of the outside world you’re letting in to you, or who or what you’re allowing to speak into your life. Is there anything that brings you down? Perhaps someone you follow on social media, or perhaps social media itself? Perhaps a negative or unsupportive friend? Maybe a T.V. show you’ve been watching or music you’ve been listening to? Find a way to unplug from the things that take you to a low place and make an effort to surround yourself with uplifting, comforting and positive outside factors. Bottom line, make YOU a priority by becoming protective of your space.
- Communicate with your support network
After you’ve committed to a self-care plan, communicate this to someone you trust. Explain to them your boundaries and the things that bring you more stress, grief and anxiety–especially when it comes to triggering situations and environments. Align yourself with friends who you can rely on to be there for you, who make you feel like you’re not in this alone. It’s OK to ask for help and lean on people when it’s hard to stand alone, just make sure you’re surrounding yourself with people who will lift you up and not drag you further down.
- Get outside
Research has shown that people who spend more time outdoors experience less anxiety and depression, as well as lower blood pressure and heart rate variability. Nature has also been shown to decrease rumination (repetitive, negative thoughts) and brain activity associated with mental illnesses. In addition, plugging-in to nature and staying away from artificial light helps to synchronize our biology to natural circadian rhythms, which helps to regulate our sleep, our moods, our stress levels, and our hormones. So what are you waiting for? Get outside! This doesn’t mean you have to go hiking every weekend, but perhaps walk to class instead of drive, plan a picnic, read a book under a tree, go for a run, the possibilities are endless!
- Practice Mindfulness
Sometimes living in the moment is easier said than done, especially when dealing with past traumas that are sometimes hard not to dwell on. Whether you’re experiencing shame, depression or guilt from your past, or anxiety and stress about the future—setting your mind on the present has been a proven way to quiet and calm your thoughts and emotions and improve your overall wellbeing. A few mindful practices that helped me were: meditation, journaling, praying and going to church, mindful breathing where I focused on each individual breath, daily gratitude lists, mind mapping or observing my thoughts, body scanning by becoming more aware of physical sensations present in my body, and more.
- Eat Healthy
Did you know that your gut produces more of the “feel good” neurotransmitter, serotonin, than your brain? In fact, it’s estimated that 90% of serotonin is made in the digestive tract. So what does this mean? The healthier you eat, the happier you are! Scientists are learning that the intimate relationship between the gut and the brain is bidirectional: just as your brain can send butterflies to your stomach, your gut can relay its state of calm or stress to the brain. Ultimately, what you put into your body not only affects your brain’s functions, but also affects your mood, perceptions of the world and the clarity of your thoughts. These staggering facts can be attributed to the $1 million that the National Institute of Mental Health spent on research to study the relationship between the gut and brain. And today, many neurologists and psychiatrists are realizing that antidepressants are often less effective in treating depression than proper dietary changes. In other words, “comfort food” (such as fast food, ice cream, pizza and alcohol) is not the same as “calming food.” So fuel your body with nutrient-rich and stress-reducing foods.
Exercise also plays a role in the production of serotonin by increasing it. You don’t have to workout everyday or get a gym membership. Simple changes like walking to class or lunch, going for a hike or bike ride, or even doing a home workout can make a huge difference. Want to take a class? Try yoga, spinning, kickboxing, and more. Stretching is also another great way to connect with your body and release stress.
- Make plans to do things you enjoy
Put it on your calendar and follow through. When you have activities, events, trips, etc., to look forward to, you become more positive about the future.