Illustrations by Katty Huertas/The Washington Post
Illustrations by Katty Huertas/The Washington Post

‘Traumaversaries’ can be hard. Here’s how 4 sexual assault survivors honor theirs.

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Sitting on the cold metal bench of an Italian police station on Nov. 12, 2008, Keri Potts had one thought: I should’ve ordered the wine and cake.

The night before was supposed to be her last night of vacation. Potts, then 31, and her friend Lynn went to one last dinner at a Roman cafe. She felt like she’d overindulged on the trip, so she opted for water over her favorite red wine, and also declined dessert.

She didn’t know that just hours later, she would be fleeing an assault and attempted rape, ultimately leaping over a balcony in the dark to escape her attacker. Sitting on that bench between hours of questioning, the gravity of what she faced began to settle in. Plus, she was hungry.

“Oh my god, I almost died, and I denied myself something I love so much,” she recounted thinking. “The arrogance that you’ll live another day! I just thought: No, never again. Don’t deny yourself. Don’t ever take yourself for granted.”

Now each year around the date of her attack, Potts treats herself to those two pleasures: a glass of red wine and a slice of chocolate cake. On the 10th anniversary, she threw a benefit for Pathways to Safety International, an organization that provides resources to Americans who experience sexual assault abroad and on whose board she now serves as president. She asked friends around the world to toast to her and sliced into a multitiered cake.

Commemorating the anniversary of trauma isn’t just symbolically meaningful; it can also be a tangible way to counteract what psychologists call anniversary reactions. Survivors may experience increased feelings of unease, guilt, shame, anger, anxiety and more around dates associated with trauma.

This happens because our brains catalogue clues associated with traumatic events, said Jocelyn St.Cyr, a licensed independent clinical social worker who works with trauma survivors. When that time of year rolls around, environmental clues like weather, holidays or dates on the calendar might trigger alarm bells in our brains as a protective mechanism: This happened before, and it could happen again.

“Our bodies have a hard time telling time,” St.Cyr said. “Even though we know logically it’s been five years, 10 years since something has happened, our bodies sometimes don’t recognize that.”

Because of this, our bodies can often enter fight-or-flight mode around trauma anniversaries, a phrase sometimes shortened to “traumaversaries,” said St.Cyr, who works with victims of sexual assault, child abuse and domestic abuse. She often advises clients to prepare for them in some way: Limit stress intake, automate your daily tasks and seek additional support from loved ones and therapists if possible.

However, she also stresses that there’s no one-size-fits-all formula for any kind of healing. And for survivors with multiple anniversaries or trauma associated with ongoing incidents, this healing can be more complex. Still, those who do not have one specific anniversary date may find empowerment in designating a specific day or time to commemorate their healing.

For Jessie Losch, 36, that day is Aug. 11. On that day years ago, when she was 21, she was sitting in her parents’ basement to keep cool; it was a hot and sticky day in the New Jersey suburbs. For the past few years, she had been plagued by panic attacks, disassociation and flashbacks associated with ongoing sexual trauma she experienced at 14. But in that moment, she took an expansive breath, the first she’d been able to take in a while, and thought: “Maybe, maybe this is what the start feels like,” she said.

“It was with such fierce desperation that I was like, I needed to cling onto this or I will go backwards,” Losch recalled thinking. “I need to mark this, and I need to mark it permanently.”

Her mind immediately turned to a tattoo. She traced a hamsa, a palm-shaped symbol of protection popular in North African and Middle Eastern cultures, on a scrap of paper and took it to a tattoo shop to get it inked permanently on her right foot. For her, the tattoo symbolizes both the protection of the hamsa itself and the act of taking her body back after so long of feeling like it was not her own — an act of agency that directly contrasts with the violation and harm of her trauma.

Since then, Losch takes time each August to remember that moment and to take stock of how far she’s come. She’s also gotten two other tattoos associated with her healing: the word “enough” repeated on her left foot and rib cage.

“When something harmful and physical has been done to your body without your consent … there’s really a symbolic and ritualistic sense of reclaiming and reconnection in putting love back into it,” Losch said.

Tattoos or less-permanent physical changes like haircuts can provide tangible reminders that time has passed, while also providing an opposite or different experience to the trauma, St.Cyr said. This doesn’t have to be a change of appearance; it can be as simple as rearranging some furniture or going to see a new movie that didn’t exist at the time of your assault, she added.

Why ‘trauma-informed’ care is spreading from the therapist’s office to yoga classes and tattoo parlors

Even for survivors with specific traumatic dates, the fog of these anniversaries rarely lasts a single day, but can extend throughout entire months or seasons, St.Cyr said. Because of this, they can sometimes take people by surprise — and cause them to blame themselves or falsely think they aren’t making progress in their healing.

“That time of year will roll around and they don’t know why they’re feeling all these feelings,” she said.

Marking your calendar can serve as a reminder to be gentle on yourself, put coping plans in place and reach out for extra support, St.Cyr said. “Be patient with yourself. It can feel like each of these times is a setback, but really, each time it’s your body trying to heal through it,” she added. “And so whatever you can do during those times to work through them can help you for the next time.”

This past January, Aditya Tiwari, 23, was reminded of an upcoming anniversary through an unwelcome memory on his phone: a snapshot from around the first of two violating experiences in 2017.

At first, he began to sink back into the old memories, back into feeling like the vulnerable, scared 17-year-old he’d been at the time, he said. He let himself feel it, just for a moment, and then directed his thoughts to the present: He’s now a poet living in England and advocates for queer people in small Indian towns like the one where he grew up before the country decriminalized homosexuality.

“I have found strength even when it felt out of reach,” Tiwari said. “And I think it is because I chose to speak. I chose not to hide these experiences.”

One night in January, he opened the window of his apartment, lit a candle, and spoke to that younger version of himself: “You’re no longer afraid,” he said he told his younger self.

Those experiences will always be a part of him, he added. But he uses annual reminders to reclaim his power and fuel the work he wants to do to uplift others: “The more Brown queer people that come out and claim spaces, the safer we’re making it for other queer people.”

Sexual assault: How to support survivors

For some survivors, finally being able to pass these anniversaries with some sense of normalcy can feel like a milestone.

Explicitly striving to ignore trauma anniversaries is the coping strategy St.Cyr recommends to clients the least, especially if it’s out of denial or avoidance.

“When we’re not doing anything, even small things, we’re sort of prolonging our healing on that trauma,” St.Cyr said. “Then the next year it shows up again with the same intensity, and nothing has changed.”

But, she emphasized, since no healing journey is the same, ignoring the anniversary may work for some survivors. For others, it can feel like an important marker of their healing.

Ever since Kay Neufeld experienced an assault in the summer of 2018, they’ve often felt solemn and introspective when August arrives, they said. It brings an unsettled feeling, prompting ruminations about where they were on certain days alongside feelings of shame and guilt. They think about how they were so carefree, a recent graduate just about to finish an internship in Washington, D.C., and how the assault and its aftermath threw everything into a state of chaos, they said. They’re reminded of all the little things, like how they can no longer watch “Law & Order: Special Victims Unit,” which used to be one of their favorite shows.

In short, the remembering “feels like a curse,” they said.

But for the first time last year, August passed largely unnoticed to them. When mid-September arrived, they realized with surprise that they’d made it through.

“I was excited by the prospect that this won’t always feel like such a fresh wound,” said Neufeld, a 25-year-old writer living in western Maine.

The not remembering, too, comes with its own complicated emotions — the conflicted feeling of letting go of something that informs so much of who they are — but they prefer it that way, they said. Ideally, next August, they’ll spend the anniversary deep in nature with people they love. And maybe they’ll be able to watch “SVU” again.

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