Painful. Gut-wrenching. Heartbreaking. Unbearable.
That’s how women described listening to Thursday’s Senate Judiciary Committee hearing, where Christine Blasey Ford testified that Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh had sexually assaulted her when they were both in high school.
“I had to tune out the second he began to get hysterical,” Marie said, referring to Kavanaugh’s angry, defiant and sometimes emotional testimony. “I had flashbacks to the way my ex-boyfriend would yell at me. Even through the TV, it terrified me.”
From her home in New Bern, North Carolina, Marie – who asked that her last name not be used to speak openly about her own sexual assault – watched the hearing in her living room with her two sons. As Ms Ford recounted her story, Marie became so anxious she asked her children to leave the room.
The committee on Friday voted along party lines to send Kavanaugh’s nomination to the full Senate for a floor vote. But sexual assault survivors were still grappling with the emotional fallout from Thursday’s hearing, “triggered” by the memory of another alleged victim that forced them to confront their own painful memories.
It was not long after Kavanaugh was seated in front of the committee that he became visibly angry. When that happened, Marie told The Washington Post, she froze, flooded with memories of a former boyfriend who she says raped her when she was 20 years old.
“Whenever Kavanaugh interrupted female senators while they were asking him questions, it’s the same exact thing my ex would do when I tried asking him something and he didn’t like me sticking up for myself,” Marie said.
Women across the political spectrum called in to C-SPAN during hearing breaks to talk about their experiences being assaulted. The Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network reported a 201 per cent spike in calls Thursday as well as “unprecedented wait times” for its online chat.
The Crisis Text Line, which provides crisis intervention, saw the numbers of people reaching out with stories of sexual abuse double in October 2017, when the #MeToo movement began. The organisation says it’s the highest number of sexual abuse reports they have seen since the since the 2016 election.
Such responses are common when sexual assault is in the news, said Nancy Glass, associate director for the John Hopkins Centre for Global Health.
“When people hear others telling their stories, it can ‘trigger’ them, it can bring back memories of their own experiences, even if it’s from a long time ago,” Ms Glass said.
The result can be surprisingly physical. The chemicals and hormones released in the body during a traumatic experience can also be released when the experience is remembered, Ms Glass said. They are like symptoms.
“Your adrenaline is going. Your body is producing an inflammatory response. It can cause you to feel anxious, sick to your stomach, get headaches,” Glass said. “It has different reactions to different people.”
Ms Glass says she has worked with survivors of sexual assault for 25 years, and the hearings brought to memory the many horrific stories she had heard throughout her career in public health.
Like combat veterans, sexual assault victims can suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder, or PTSD. The triggering of a victim’s PTSD occurs when they are prompted to remember or relive the trauma, whether by a car backfiring or a fraught sexual assault hearing on Capitol Hill.
Ford’s testimony – and her perceptible anxiety – also reminded some victims of the shame they felt about their experience and the common decision to not tell anyone about it.
“The hearings reminded me of being a victim of a similar flavour of assault – of the confusion that followed, and not wanting to make a big deal out of it,” said Chelsea Rider from Portland, Oregon.
“It seems so sensible at the time to just sweep this stuff under the rug and try to move forward,” Ms Rider added. “But you just never know where your attacker will end up.”
Lisa Barnhill watched the hearings from her living room near Missoula, Montana. She says was raped in 2012 at a party by a man whom she trusted. She says she tuned in to Ms Ford’s testimony, but five minutes into the cross-examination, she had to tune out.
“You could hear Ford’s voice shake,” she said. “When they started bringing our graphs and asking about where her house is in relation to the party – it was too much.”
Ms Barnhill says she tried to carry on with her day, and then began to feel the memories of her attack return. “It was like this feeling in the pit of my stomach,” she said. “I started reliving my experience. My hands were shaking. My whole body was shaking at times. My heart was pounding.”
Kristie, who also spoke on the condition that her last name not be used, said the hearing continues to devastate her.
“There are some similarities in Ford’s story and my own,” Kristie said. She told The Washington Post her rape also occurred at a high school party where kids were drinking. She woke up to a classmate attempting to remove her clothing.
“I repeatedly told him, ‘No,’” Kristie said. “Over and over, I said, ‘No.’ I tried to push him off and fight back. He was stronger than me, taller than me, and bigger than me. I had been a virgin, and that was forcibly taken away from me.”
Kristie says she and Ms Ford have another unfortunate commonality: she can’t recall key details that many think she should be able to remember from that night.
“I cannot remember the exact date or month, though I know the season,” Kristie said. “When people claim she must not be telling the truth because she can’t remember the date I thought, ‘This is what people would say to me.’”
Watching the hearing from her home in Ocean View, Delaware, Kristie said she felt her chest tighten. She said she has lost her appetite since the hearing ended on Thursday evening.
“I felt her pain to my core. I thought about when this was me, how scared I was,” Kristie said. “How scared I still feel every day.”
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