Active Minds Blog » sexual assault Changing the conversation about mental health Wed, 25 May 2016 12:46:22 +0000 en-US hourly 1 Eating Disorders Awareness Week: The Connection with Trauma Wed, 24 Feb 2016 14:50:42 +0000 Trigger warning: This post discusses sexual violence. If you need assistance, please visit Crisis Text Line, the National Eating Disorder Association or the Rape, Abuse and Incest National Network.


What does trauma have to do with an eating disorder?

This is the question I asked myself over and over again, but it’s a question we don’t seem to talk about.

What did my sexual assault have to do with my eating disorder? I struggled to put the pieces together. I poured over scholarly literature, using my school’s online library to find any research I could that examined the connection between rape and eating disorders.

But the literature was scarce, and even more scarce was the information online that examined the intersection between trauma and eating disorders. The discussions about these issues existed in separate spheres. Sexual assault advocacy seemed to center around helping survivors report the assault, seeking some sort of justice for the atrocity we’ve experienced.

But, to me, the onus is still on the survivor to report–and the shame I felt, the powerlessness, was exacerbated by the feeling that I was supposed to be fighting a battle against my assailant–not a war against myself.

Eating disorder recovery seemed to be in a different realm as well. When I entered into treatment again in the summer of 2015, it was so hard for people to understand why I was holding onto the eating disorder. I didn’t want to be sick, I knew what it was like and I knew what I was losing–my desire to be an advocate, my voice and my life.

My eating disorder wasn’t about fitting into a thin “ideal,” it wasn’t about looking “pretty” or being accepted. In fact, it was pretty much the opposite–I wanted to disappear, to feel safe and to shrink my body so that no man could possibly find me attractive–so that, I thought, I couldn’t get hurt again. This was hard for people to understand because it doesn’t fit within the stereotypes we associate with eating disorders, and it didn’t seem to fit with any of the common factors that can contribute to eating disorders.

The shame and subsequent isolation I felt drove me to search for a sense of community–to search tirelessly for anyone who had a similar experience, who could relate and understand the connection between my assault and eating disorder.

In December of 2015, I began reading Controlled, a book by Neesha Arter, an inspiring woman who has come to be one of my closest friends. I couldn’t put the book down. I kept highlighting passages, writing sentences down in my journal, thinking the whole time, “Oh my God, she gets it.”

Neesha recounts her experience with sexual assault, and her subsequent battle with anorexia. There are so many passages in this book I could present here that describe what I felt and I find so much of myself in her writing. But this particular quote I will share and it is very important to me.

“My body felt divided and broken from my mind, like a shattered piece of glass on the floor. Those two boys had damaged it beyond repair. It had no beauty left in it, and I didn’t my respect anymore. The memory of their hands on my body and inside of me took away any ownership I had for myself.” (p. 54.)

I found my story reflected in Neesha’s. Finally, someone had put into words what I had felt and someone spoke up about the intersection of trauma and eating disorders, putting together the pieces that I had struggled to connect.

In Neesha, I found the “other me,” someone who shared my story and my truth.

So often we hear, “You’re not alone.” It’s a true and very valid statement, but it wasn’t until I was able to really connect with another person, to talk with her and to share our stories, that I truly felt I wasn’t alone.  

I realize that this piece may not be as uplifting as many eating disorder posts are. I haven’t include some kind of “happy ending” or wrapped the post up with some larger realization I’ve discovered through this process. That’s not what this post is about.

My hope is that we can start a dialogue about the ways sexual assault and eating disorders intersect, that we speak up and break the shame, and potentially find your “other me.”

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Why I Promised to Take Care of My Mental Health in My Wedding Vows Mon, 12 Oct 2015 08:44:16 +0000 WeddingOne month ago today, my partner Rich and I stood under a big tent during the loveliest late-summer rain storm and did a really wonderful thing:  We got married.

Our wedding was beautiful and special and fun and silly — all the things we had hoped it would be during the months of planning. We stood under the alter in front of our friends and family, and I promised all the typical things you promise in your wedding vows — to love him and support him and take care of him when he’s sick, etc.

But there was one thing I added that wasn’t so typical: that I would take care of myself and my mental health, too.

It wasn’t surprising to Rich that I included this in my vows. Mental health — both mine and his — has played an important role in our four-year-long relationship.

Rich and I started dating my junior year of college, about seven months after I was sexually assaulted. At this time, I hadn’t told anyone about my rape and was struggling greatly (and quietly) with PTSD and depression. I remember thinking I never would be able to say out loud what had happened to me.

And then, one night when we were hanging out shortly before we became “official,” I said it. I couldn’t believe it and certainly hadn’t planned it. It was like this part of me had been waiting for the right person to come along — someone who I absolutely knew wouldn’t judge or doubt me — and then there he was.

My recovery has been a big part of our relationship. It’s taken a lot of work over the last few years for me to get to a place where I could walk down the aisle without this big traumatic cloud hovering over me. And Rich has been there for every step of it — finding new therapists, upping my medicine dosage, learning new coping mechanisms to deal with my intense anxiety, dealing with terrible nightmares every single night.

We talk about my mental health as casually as we talk about what we’re having for dinner. I tell him when I’m having bad days (happy to say they’re pretty few-and-far between now) or when something triggers me or when I need a little more support than usual.

We talk about his mental health, too. It’s not easy to be the spouse of a sexual assault survivor and he’s had to learn his own coping mechanisms. But we talk about it and we work through it. There’s absolutely no stigma in our relationship; that’s one of the things I love most about it

So it made perfect sense for me to talk about my mental health in my vows. Here’s how it went:

“I vow to always make you coffee when I’m the first one up on Sunday. When you’re telling me a joke or about a bad day, I vow to listen to you — and actually listen, not just kind of listen but really I’m watching Netflix. I vow to take care of you when you’re sick. I vow to bug you to go to the dentist regularly, no matter how annoying it is. I vow to do my very best to cheer you up when you’re feeling down. And just like I promise to take care of you, I promise to take care of myself, too. I promise to go to my therapy appointments and take my medicine and write in my journal and practice self-care and love myself as much as you love me. I promise this because I know that the health of our relationship is only as strong as our individual health, so I vow to hold up my end of the bargain as best as I can.”

I’ve been doing really well for the last two years. I found a therapist I adore and my medicine is working like it should. But our marriage will (hopefully!) be long and I know there will be days when I’m not doing so great. There will be days when it’s easier to stay in bed then get up and write what I’m feeling in my journal. There will days when recovery seems out of reach and I want to throw in the towel.

But I’ll do my best to keep fighting. I’ll do it because I love my husband. And I’ll do it because I love myself, too.

Later, on our way to our Alaskan honeymoon, I asked Rich what his favorite part of the wedding was. He said it was the part about mental health in my vows.

I’m so lucky he’s my husband.

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Suicide Prevention Month: The Happiest I’ve Been Wed, 30 Sep 2015 12:02:40 +0000 This post is part of a Suicide Prevention Month blog series. Read the other blogs here

Please Note: The following post mentions childhood sexual abuse.


From a very young age, I had to fend for myself and protect those who were around me, whether it was my little brother from my mother’s beatings or my cousin from my step-grandfather’s sexual abuse.

I was never looking out for me.

I never had anyone to turn to. In school I was bullied by so many people including people I called my friends. Even my teachers bullied me because in their minds I wasn’t “smart” enough.

I would go home and be abused whether it was sexually, physically or mentally. I would go through everything, and afterward I would pretend I was okay.

My depression kicked in properly when I was about 12, and that was also when I first self-injured.

Between the ages of 14 and 20 I struggled with depression, obsessive-compulsive disorder, eating disorders, self-injury, and attempted suicide several times.

A few months before my 16th birthday I met a boy who is now my best friend. He showed me that not everyone is the same, not everyone will hurt me. But it didn’t stop the darkness coming through.

The first genuine happiness I got was when I came out about what my step-grandfather had done to me. He had sexually abused me from the age of 11 to 16. My mother and my boyfriend at the time’s mum came to the police station with me, and I told them everything.

At the age of 17 I was finally free. He no longer had control over me.

The day I stood up in court showed me how strong I was, I only broke down once, and I was proud of myself.

The day he was found guilty was the most freeing day of my life.

My depression and anxiety will forever follow me; they will always be here, but I am okay now. I am happy and being me.

A couple of months ago I came out to my mum about being bisexual, I am happy with my boyfriend, and I have my best friend by my side.

I’m the happiest I have ever been in my whole life.

So don’t give up, no matter what you’re going through, everything gets better. I know it’s easier said than done. But you’ll get there.

If you or someone you know is in crisis, please call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-TALK (8255) or text “Brave” to 741-741 to reach Crisis Text Line.

If you or someone you know is experiencing sexual abuse, please call the National Sexual Assault Telephone Hotline at 1-800-656-HOPE (4673).

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Mental Health News Round-Up: Dec 12 Fri, 12 Dec 2014 08:36:20 +0000 graduation_500x279Should Suicidal Students Be Forced to Leave Campus?

Two years ago, a Princeton student was not allowed to return to school after a suicide attempt. Today, students are afraid to go to the campus counseling center for fear of being forced to leave. Princeton does not yet have a chapter of Active Minds.

VA Expanding Services to Victims of Sexual Assault

The US Department of Veterans Affairs is now offering mental health benefits to veterans regardless of whether they were on active duty or inactive duty when sexually assaulted or sexually harassed.  Ruth Moore has been advocating for this change that allows National Guard members and reservist to receive the necessary treatment.

 Dating with a Mental Illness

When should a person disclose a mental health disorder to a date? Look here for some advice and other considerations.

A Road to Mental Health Through the Kitchen

Cooking can provide relief from depression, anxiety, and other mental health disorders.  Acting as behavioral activation, cooking or baking can create a sense of community, decrease procrastination, and give a sense accomplishment.

Military Suicide Survivors Help Each Other Heal at Seminar

In 2012 and 2013,suicide as the military’s leading cause of death, even higher than war, cancer, heart disease, homicides, transportation accidents, and other causes. A non-profit called the Tragedy Assistance Program for Survivors (TAPS) works to provide help, support, and community for the survivors of military suicide.

A Depression-Fighting Strategy That Could Go Viral

Drawing comparisons to treating the Ebola outbreak as cost effectively as possible, this New York Times article examines the possibility using lay people and peers as therapists to treat depression in regions where there may only be one psychiatrist in the entire country.
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Stress Less Week: Prioritizing Self-Care as a Mental Health Advocate Thu, 04 Dec 2014 08:57:18 +0000 Welcome to the Winter 2014 Stress Less Week blog series! Learn more about how to host a Stress Less event on your campus.

I have come to believe that caringfor (1)You’re a mental health advocate. That’s a tough job with a lot of responsibilities. When you “come out,” so-to-speak, as someone who struggles with mental illness or advocates on behalf of those who do, you open yourself up to the very likely possibility that other people will want to talk to you about their own struggles.

On one hand, that’s a really beautiful thing. It speaks volumes to the importance of story-telling and bearing our truths so that others may also come forward.

But there’s a downside to being so open and accessible about these very tough issues. You have to know and accept your limits as a person. And I struggled for a long time before I finally realized that.

How do I know all this? Here’s my backstory: When I was a sophomore at the University of Maryland, I was raped. I was silent about it for a long time, until I finally got into treatment for PTSD and depression and started to open up about what had happened to me.

It was like I had been carrying this huge boulder all by myself for months and months. But when I finally started speaking out, I felt so much lighter. I felt alive again. I felt like myself. And all I wanted to do was speak even more and hopefully allow other people to do the same.

So that’s what I did. I became an outspoken sexual violence prevention activist. I wrote a policy change on my campus to mandate sexual assault education for every incoming student (it passed!). I became a peer educator for the campus sexual assault response center. I spoke at Take Back the Nights and SlutWalks and survivor vigils. I was on the local nightly news and in the student newspaper. I testified before the University Senate and the state General Assembly. I was even featured in a blog post from The White House.

Naturally, with all this speaking out, people started to associate me with sexual assault. And slowly, people in my various social circles started disclosing to me that they too had experienced sexual assault.

Then the messages started coming more and more. Facebook, texts, emails, phone calls — I received dozens of disclosures of sexual violence. Some just wanted to thank me for speaking out. Others were in crisis and needed help, to varying degrees of severity.

I answered each message, helping as best I could. But as the messages continued to pour in, I got overwhelmed. I got scared.

Yes, sexual violence had directly affected me when I was raped. But what I didn’t realize until more people started disclosing to me was that sexual violence had been present in my life the whole time — I just didn’t know it.

That overwhelming realization manifested itself into severe anxiety. And that anxiety turned to a deep depression. Suddenly, I didn’t feel like a strong, capable survivor any more. I felt weak and scared, unable to help people who were going through the same struggles I had seemingly overcome.

And that’s how I realized, dear ones, that even though I am a survivor and an advocate and an activist, I have my limits. I am not a clinician. I am not a trauma specialist. I cannot help every person who discloses their experiences to me.

And that’s OK.

It’s OK for me to tell a person, “Thank you so much for reaching out to me and telling me your story. I really encourage you to call this hotline or find a counselor in your area.”

It’s OK if some days that’s all I can do.

It’s OK for me to say to myself, “Today, I need to take care of myself and only myself.”

Because the fact is, I’m still in recovery. Yes, there are times when my rape seems like a distant memory that I’ve dealt with and tucked away. But healing is cyclical and there are always bouts of depression and anxiety, even though over time they’ve gotten shorter and less severe as my coping skills have grown.

So here’s what I want you to understand: Yes, you are a mental health advocate and leader on your campus. Yes, people look up to you and come to you for advice and support on mental health issues.

But your job at the end of the day is to take care of yourself. Managing self-care as an advocate is a hard task, but it’s one that we must prioritize if we are ever going to last in this field.

It’s hard to hear people’s sad stories. It just is. And at some point, if you don’t stop to take care of yourself, you’re not going to be able to help in any capacity whatsoever.

Obviously, if the person is speaking about suicidal ideation or there’s an emergency of some sort, you need to call the police or an RA. But it’s okay for your work to end there. You’ve done enough and your next step is to help yourself cope with the very tough reality of hearing about someone else’s traumas.

As you move through the end of the semester and into the spring, please keep in mind your own limitations. Know that it doesn’t make you a bad mental health advocate or friend or ally. It makes you a person who is taking care of themselves. And that’s a beautiful thing.

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