Uneasy, unspoken, understood — Appreciating the secret supportive sisterhood in times of crisis
From women’s health to sexual assault, genuine support sparks the essential warmth that diminishes the darkness, helping us all.
One of the most beneficial ways to help victims cope and recover is to offer the simple act of support. When one feels traumatized and powerless, a sincere act of positive support provides encouragement and empowerment to overcome what can at times feel like insurmountable obstacles. The reality that all women know we can always ask another woman for a tampon or pad when on the verge of a menstrual accident, proves that there’s a quiet community of individuals who will do whatever we can to help others in times of need, especially for those who are wearing shoes we have uncomfortably worn before.
Becoming a harassment, abuse or assault victim changes you. You see the world through an expanded lens. You learn to accept that good things happen to bad people and bad things happen to good. You discover how to find comfort within the deeply uncomfortable. You become keenly aware of the divide between those who innately understand and those who can offensively oversimplify, make presumptions or miss the mark completely. You struggle to rebuild trust. You recognize the systematic obstructions that can destroy lives, temporarily and long term. You become aware of how untreated mental illness, clinical narcissism, damaging personality disorders and severe apathy can wreak havoc on innocent lives.
What pulls us through is the simple act of genuine support. Sometimes the support comes from people you know and sometimes it comes from complete strangers. It’s not about charity nor giving in order to receive. It’s about listening, understanding and discreetly taking the smallest steps of action to help someone else overcome crisis.
I experienced my #MeToo sexual assault credentials when I was 20 and 21 years old and have endured a wide range of misogynistic obstructions throughout my career, not to mention surviving debilitating toxic environments. But my story isn’t about rehashing the darkness or gnawing on the negatives. It’s about celebrating the victories and appreciating the positives — which have repeatedly come from my secret supportive sisterhood (and brotherhood too, although I’ll save those stories for another day).
Back in 2016, I had a health insurance scare when enrolled on my state’s exchange. Because someone transcribed my official paperwork with a very wrong date of birth — as in decades older, seasons off and with none of the numbers matching — I couldn’t get the coverage I was paying for when time was of the essence.
I was initially told that it would take at least a month for the error to be fixed. However, I needed my prescription refill for my chronic condition within two to three weeks, and my gynecologist’s refill couldn’t go through as long as my DOB said that I was in my late 60s. In order to request an expedited correction, I had to prove that my medication qualified as an urgent health request.
That’s when I instinctively sensed that I was about to fight a battle I would most certainly lose, specifically because my condition fell under the women’s health umbrella. I suffer from premenstrual dysphoric disorder, aka excruciating PMS, which can obstruct my ability to function as a normal human when my hormones aren’t stabilized. This makes me one of the women who takes prescribed contraception for medical reasons, not for birth control. So I feared that ignorant individuals in power would misconstrue my treatment as being elective and okay to stop periodically (FYI, it’s not). I dreaded I’d be told to suck it up and deal with the guaranteed-to-be-agonizing consequences should I face a gap in my medication. I was especially furious that all I paid for my health insurance wasn’t covering my care.
Fortunately, the two people working on my case were both women. The moment they learned my condition, they both instantly kicked into ultra-high gear, fought extra hard on my behalf and prioritized my case immediately — with me not saying anything other than disclosing my condition. Over the course of an hour of emails, the wait time went from 21 business days to 7–10 business days to “we found a way to make the change immediately and it should correct everything else by the end of next week.” With their help, I got my refill in time and worst-case scenario never materialized.
I had the feeling that if I was requesting heart or digestive medication, they most likely would not have fought so hard on my behalf. But then again, they wouldn’t have had to.
This became a potent reminder of the importance of having an awareness of women’s health care and how the politics of our society can inherently influence each of us in unexpected ways. After bracing myself to fight the battle alone, I was reminded of how amazing women can be when we join forces to help each other behind the scenes.
And what goes around comes around, especially when paying it forward…
Last year, a week before the Harvey Weinstein story broke, a woman I have mentored reached out to me for help. She confided that she was concerned that a man we both knew might be a sexual predator. She had been a victim of a traumatic drunken night with him months earlier, and recently learned that he violently assaulted another women in our circle whose identity I wouldn’t learn until months later. Her deep concern was whether he had a pattern targeting close friends, and if other women would be next.
The woman I will call Danielle didn’t feel as though her experience was enough to report on its own because she had technically said yes. However, he only propositioned her after she became extremely drunk, and she only said yes after he continually refused to take no for an answer. He was also her ride home. Many months later, his abusive, cold-hearted, sexual manipulation against her continued to traumatize.
I viewed my role as Danielle’s mentor to be someone who provided her with support and guidance. As a fellow survivor, I could unfortunately relate to her residual trauma. The benefit of my distant scars from many years earlier is that I felt uniquely equipped to handle the situation. I encouraged her to share her concerns with a knowledgeable and connected woman we both looked up to. This woman responded as well as I had hoped and helped us all navigate the system to make sure Danielle had the help she needed that was beyond my purview. With each of us supporting one another confidentially behind closed doors, I felt we had formed our own women-helping-women secret society.
In tandem with the growing tides of the #MeToo movement, Danielle joined forces with the other victim to file a claim against their shared former friend and perpetrator, who I will call Anthony. Their goal for him was not prison nor termination, but rather they just wanted him to get help, take responsibility and stop his cycle of violence toward the women who befriended and trusted him.
Over the next few months, supporting Danielle was quite a roller-coaster ride. There would be times when she would be holding back tears trying to put on a brave face, and others when she would emotionally lash out at me because I was the one she could do so with. Her realization that she had been raped by someone she trusted crushed her. There were times when I would just sit with her as she sobbed. She repeatedly told me that speaking up and reporting the sexual assaults was the most difficult thing she had ever done. She felt responsible to warn and protect his possible next victims, and she was terrified of retribution, that the potential rumor mill would turn people against her for speaking out. The fact that what she was going through was the top national news story gave her hope and strength, but it also made it difficult for her to escape.
Days after the investigation ended, and weeks before the verdict, I learned the identity of the other victim. She was a woman I had worked with closely who I will call Emily. When she and I got together to catch up over brunch, I knew she was aware of the sexual assaults, but was led to believe she was just another key member of the secret supportive sisterhood. I was shocked when she said “the other victim was me.”
She thanked me for helping her via Danielle and called me the “safe space” she had been craving. She said she needed to articulate her story without pressure in order to unleash its power and lessen its heavy burden. She then went on to open up with me, sharing every explicit detail of her assault and her relationship with Anthony. She had considered him a brother. After a night when she felt pressured to get drunk with him, they ended up falling asleep next to each other. That night, he sexually attacked her in her sleep.
She confided to me that he “broke” her and she was sore for several days after the assault. I was horrified to learn she had experienced such violent trauma by someone we both knew. At the same time, I was honored to be chosen to be there for her and share such a significant experience as we were both brought to tears. In that moment, she became the little sister I never had.
It was interesting to hear different people’s responses to my situation during the #MeToo uprising, especially those who reacted in the abstract without faces or names. Some strongly believed that any man who sexually assaults a woman should be in prison. Others expressed gratitude that they weren’t involved in any way, as they didn’t feel equipped to handle the situation. There were those who felt overwhelmed by yet another example of toxic masculinity, inflicting hell on the women around him. And there were others struggling to absorb the overwhelming number of accessible #MeToo stories having their moment in the sun.
While Anthony may have done monstrous things, I knew him well enough not to consider him a villainous monster. I happened to see him when I knew he was awaiting the verdict. I almost felt sorry for him. His bravado had dissipated, and he projected a remorseful vulnerability. I was hopeful that he was facing his reckoning and may learn and grow from the experience. I agreed with his victims and former close friends. He had deep seeded issues and could transform his life in positive ways if he was willing (or forced) to go into therapy. Otherwise, he would continue the cycle of hurting those who grew to care for him.
Ultimately, the verdict went against the #MeToo tide. He got off with a warning — no therapy, just a warning — for two detailed accusations of sexual assault. The women appealed with additional documentation from witnesses, but it was ignored and put in a file somewhere. Case closed.
In some ways, the parallel #MeToo movement gave them false hope. There’s a reason why so many victims stay quiet and silently do what they can to move on.
However, throughout this experience, I felt something deeply positive. Danielle came forward in support of Emily, and Emily came forward in support of Danielle. They both independently shared with me “don’t fuck with my friends!” as their motivation to fight the good fight, in addition to trying to prevent other women from experiencing their pain. Once again, women supporting women.
Through it all, I was their anonymous supportive mentor who was needed and deeply valued. I mattered to these two women. I helped by quietly being there for them. I was able to rise to the occasion and provide the support they needed throughout the traumatic turbulence. All three of us continue to embrace our bond, fused together from the strength of vulnerability, compassion and genuine trust.
It’s the sacred, secret supportive sisterhood at its most profound.
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