March 2020 was a terrible month. In most places, the start of lockdowns was in response to COVID-19. For me, it also happened when my 17-year-old daughter told me that she had been raped. As a Professor of Gender, Women, and Gender Studies (GWSS) with years of experience supporting student survivors, I knew enough to tread lightly. But she was my dear child, not my student. So when you told me, my heart shattered into a million pieces and fell down the pit of my stomach.
Since then I’ve been waking up every day, and rape was the first thing I thought of. I knew enough to be able to visualize a scenario, although she shared few details. She hasn’t shown any significant signs of PTSD for a long time. I went to college during COVID, so everything was really sideways. PTSD started, shortly after she left. Several months later, after many tearful phone calls, she finally agreed to let me find a therapist for her when she came home. I found a traumatized woman receiving patients, and I spent a brisk summer next to my daughter on the bathroom floors as the trauma wreaked havoc on her precious body. We’ve tried everything from art to yoga to medication to diet. We celebrated if we went 24 hours without either of us crying. We laughed when we could, often because of our frailty.
Rape used to be something that just hurt and pissed me off. Given that I’m a GWSS professor who has taught about sexual assault, violence, and rape – and has cared for survivors for decades – I had a lot of intellectual insight with which to watch her pain. Eventually I realized she got better, which I just did, I It got worse. I needed a shock processor because I was devastated. I was not “on the verge of”. I was on the floor in a puddle of my daughter’s post-traumatic stress disorder and my pain, suffering from secondary trauma.
I am proud of what you did for my daughter. I believe my efforts helped make her, after a couple of years, generally thriving and dealing with mostly PTSD, despite the bouts of deep sadness and anxiety that still permeated her life (and thus mine). But I am not writing to advise on my daughter. Instead, as a GWSS professor, I am writing this article to other professors, particularly those who find themselves in contact with students who frequently disclose their sexual assaults, or who have had the horrific experience of a child or someone else close to you during sex in person. assault or rape. I want to share some suggestions on what you should do for yourself.
- Know that it was not your fault. Unfortunately, rape culture is so pervasive that even GWSS professors who know about it will often blame ourselves for raping our loved ones. If you’re a feminist like me, you started talking to your daughter when she was very young about slut shaming and all the double standards of boys and girls in school. Your daughter has heard your cries. If you’re anything like me, you’d probably think she was raped because she respected your opinions so much that she was sexually liberated and that led to the rapist. It took me talking to a therapist to be able to express that she was raped by a boy/man who abused his power and ignored her wishes, not because of my paternity.
- Consider taking paid leave through sick leave. I didn’t know I could get sick leave. My doctor submitted a form stating that I was unable to work due to depression and anxiety caused by my daughter’s sexual assault. This made me eligible for paid time off for the semester. I only learned about this option because one of the staff saw me collapsed and asked me to look into it. There is no doubt that different campuses and individual job situations for individuals will allow for different accommodations. In the interest of anonymity, I can’t say more, but some options are federally guaranteed, some are provided through union membership and possibly others your HR office can share with you.
- Ask for support. Find the right friends and colleagues to tell, with your daughter’s permission. Unfortunately, they may be able to relate to your experience more than you might expect.
- Get a good therapist who is familiar with trauma. It took me at least three months to find a therapist who had the qualifications and experience I was looking for and who was seeing new patients. Cognitive processing therapy is a wonderful approach. You can learn about it from this podcast. Find therapists who use it.
- Set boundaries with your students. One of the things that frightened me the most about returning to in-person classes is the endless flow of sexual assault disclosures that GWSS professors get, as well as the underlying emotional work that women and/or minority faculty members are already doing. I work with my campus victim advocate on language that lets students know I hear them but I can’t be their entire support system.
- Talk to your children. It should be the boys in our high school and college who stop each other from assaulting their peers. I’ve talked a lot with my son about consent, sexual assault, and other major issues. It is not enough, as I have written elsewhere, to say or know that “my son would never do that.” You need to talk to your son about stopping other kids from “doing that.” Don’t let him expose girls or remain silent when he inevitably hears people who are naked. Talk until he gets annoyed and rolls his eyes toward you. And if you have Netflix, make him watch sex education.
- Self care. I wish I had a better word, because I’m really overly “self-care” as the concept has been commoditized and I feel like an elite. But in addition to the big things I’ve already suggested, make time each day to do something that you find mentally and emotionally nourishing. As professors, we learned early on how to respect our usual writing time. Well, as Janet Alexander and Beth Kelish remind us, we should do the same with self-care. Remove 30 minutes (at least) from your calendar each day and use it for Just for you.
Navigating my daughter’s rape is the hardest thing I’ve ever done from all perspectives – as a mother, wife, teacher, daughter, and person who needs to take care of herself. For those of you in similar situations, I hope this piece will give you a glimmer of stability and hope.