Content warning for this post: sexual violence (I discuss writing about it but do not describe any incident)
I dove into writing a section of my book last week involving sexual violence. It is a subject central to the world in which this story takes place and central to the story itself. And good chuck, I was in a bad mood this week. It took me a few days of blaming this month’s mix of PMS hormones before I realized that, no, this mood is not that one. This mood, this irritability, is the story giving me an emotional hangover, working itself out, demanding attention and retreating from it. This mood is the undercurrent of rage and helplessness and empathy that always attaches to me when I am met with these stories, real or fictionalized. It just so happens that this week in Evidence class is also the section on the rules of evidence in sexual assault cases. Rape shield laws, their exceptions, and the policies underlying both. All while holding this character’s hand through her story. WHAM! Right in the feels. What do I do about this?
A few years ago, I was a community organizer for an anti-sexual violence project in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, called Project Envision. We were working on addressing community-identified root causes of sexual violence and developing programming directed to address those causes. I worked with such wonderful women with such horrifying stories. I have seen incredible feats of personal strength. And in this organization, I first learned about self care.
Self care is a practice. It asks the individual to account for and to take care of their own needs while doing their work (usually in the context of social work or social justice). These can range from asking people to avoid certain triggering words to making time for a weekly bath with a good book to giving yourself permission to walk away when it is time, whether temporarily or permanently.
My personal approach to self care comes from Trauma Stewardship, a book and program that focuses on helping people whose jobs deal with other people’s traumas. The goal is for the individual to be able to do their work without burning out or creating their own traumas by denying their own needs. It transformed the way I approached my own life and my own work simply by telling me that I could give myself permission to walk away (although I often need to remind myself of what I’ve learned). I spent a good portion of my life treating it as if it was something to be sacrificed for other people. Not gifted, but sacrificed. If I wasn’t constantly working to make the world better, to be a better person, be perfect really, then I was just shit. That’s it. Perfect or shit. Cluing me into the fact that I am important – well, I started writing again even while juggling law school and everything else. There is something so incredibly freeing about saying, “I can just leave.” It makes staying much more valuable.
What does this all have to do with writing about sexual assault? You’ve probably guessed, but hell, I’m going to tell you anyway. We put our characters through so many things, break them to find out who they really are. We watch it. We create it. We live it. Even when what they go through is not the trauma of rape, we are the caretakers of their whatever traumas we put them through. And at times this role is going to take its tole. For me, I need to make sure that I give myself but do not sacrifice myself to them and to the story. Self-care needs to be part of my writing process.
And to start with, I am going to give myself permission to walk away if I need to. And permission to write fewer words than my daily and weekly goals. I am going to remind myself that there is no need to rush this process.
So, dear readers, what kinds of traumas have you read or written that have really affected you? What kinds of things did you do to address your own “emotional hangover”? Do you practice self-care? What do you do just for yourself?