I Contemplated Self Harm After The Election & One Response Made Me Realize Why I'm Terrified Of A Trump Presidency
I was standing in the press area at the Javits Center in New York City, where Hillary Clinton was supposed to have her election night celebration, watching the election results come in. At around midnight, press started leaving. Clinton's staff sat on the floor in groups, some of them crying. And my mind went somewhere it has unfortunately gone a few times before in my life. I started looking at the height of the stairs in the Javits Center, wondering if a jump from the next floor would be enough to kill me.
For a moment, I contemplated suicide on election night. Not necessarily because I really wanted to die (though as a queer woman and a sexual assault survivor, I understood why Trump's win had caused a jump in calls to suicide prevention crisis lines); instead, it was because I've been trying to get a message about my pain — and the pain of others in marginalized groups — across to those in power for so long. And the night's results made it clear that that message still isn't being heard, and likely won't be anytime soon. I lie in bed and cry about my sexual assault because it happened, but also because I'm ashamed and frustrated that I felt I had to speak out about it in an effort to get change. I'm angry that I exploit my own pain because I want people to see why grabbing someone "by the pussy" isn't just a joke. But, on election night, that shame and pain consumed me when it was clear that all that I've lived through and felt has been dismissed. I was tired of being that person on Facebook who posted rants people called inspirational and "Liked" before they shared another funny Joe Biden meme. For the first time in a long time, my frustration and my hopelessness drove me to want to go silent, indefinitely.
But it wasn't the fear of contemplating death that really scared me on election night; I attempted suicide in high school due to bullying, and I've talked myself down from panic attacks that were triggered by boyfriends who didn't know I was a sexual assault survivor. Rather, it was the response of an ex-boyfriend and current friend, Jack*. His words — which were hurtful, judgmental, denied my emotions and downplayed my experiences — made me realize just how terrifying the next four years might be for women like me.
Jack knows that I'm a sexual assault survivor. He held me when I cried and trembled because a man I dated in college drunkenly tried to force himself inside of me for "just for a minute."
Jack also knows that I'm a bisexual woman. He knows that I have feared dating women for years because my mother once said to me, "Would you want a woman looking at you in a locker room?" when the military's "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" ban on LGBTQ service members was being repealed.
But, most importantly, Jack knows that I have struggled with mental illness since high school, when I cut myself and tried to commit suicide. Jack sat across from me and pushed my hair out of my face when I had a panic attack in his driveway one summer after my mother's death.
Jack knows that, as a journalist, this election has been emotionally taxing for me. I told him that work is stressful and that I was counting the days until the election was over. When I spoke out publicly about my sexual assault, I told him that a number of our mutual female friends reached out to tell me that similar things had happened to them. He knows I do the work I do and make myself publicly vulnerable because I want change that badly. He knows how public of a person I am — that I peel back the smiling outer layer of myself regularly on Facebook, as well as in the subjects I write about, to reveal the ugly things that have happened to me or others — because I hope that it will get someone to understand sexual assault or the queer community or just something that's different than what they have been taught to believe.
I told him that the election felt like a betrayal of all the work I've been doing. It felt as though I pulled back my skin to show everyone the ugly, wounded parts of myself in hopes that they would understand — and instead they turned away in disgust, telling me and others in marginalized communities to "cover up!" and "get over it!" I told Jack that I contemplated suicide on election night, revealing yet another part of myself that I feel shame about.
Who can I actually turn to? How many times over the next four years will I have to justify my pain — to people I love?
And his response encapsulated all the disgust and refusal to understand that drove me to contemplate suicide in the first place:
Wow I didn't realize this was having that type of affect on you. I'm sorry you're feeling down, there are plenty more productive ways to get your message across than self harm.
His response was hurtful. There was no "I understand why you would think that," or "What can I do?" He didn't say, "I'm so sorry this has happened" — a message many of the wonderful men in my life have sent to me in the days after the election. Instead of support and love, I got judgment. "I didn't realize this was having that type of affect on you" implied that my reaction wasn't a reaction that millions of other women or marginalized people were feeling. "I'm sorry you're feeling down" sounded, to me, as if he felt that my thoughts of suicide were comparable to the sadness someone feels when they realize their favorite movie is no longer on Netflix.
But, then, there was this zinger: "There are plenty more productive ways to get your message across." That sounded to me as if he felt my death, rather than an occasion for sadness, would be an embarrassment, and as if I, a journalist who has been reporting on the election and campaigning on behalf of women for years, have no fucking idea what constitutes good activism and discourse about these issues.
It wasn't what he said that really hurt me, though — I've had men who are less educated in politics and mental health condescend to me for years about how I should handle my mental health or how I should've prevented my assault. It was who said it. A man I trusted — someone who knows me and everything that's happened to me, someone I was once in love with — was apparently so unaware of how bad things have been for many women, sexual assault survivors, LGBTQ people, and many others (and how bad we fear things will get under a Trump presidency) that he dismissed suicidal ideation not as a mental health crisis, but as "feeling down." It was his blindness and refusal to acknowledge this blindness or privilege that opened my eyes. It was the kind of blindness I expect of trolls on Twitter — not from someone I've known and love.
And Jack was only the first person I had this kind of interaction with. A few days after our conversation, another friend — someone I've known since I was in diapers, someone who attended my mother's funeral — posted a status about how people who supported Hillary Clinton were being "butthurt" about the election results. I sent her a private message asking her if she thought I was being "butthurt" by saying Trump's election was forcing me to relive my assault. Her response was "Stop being ridiculous, Jo. You sound crazy right now." Again, it felt as though I had shown these gaping wounds to people I loved, and instead of asking "what happened?" or "can I help you?," they threw alcohol on the wound and prayed that I didn't get blood on them or their coat.
Each time Jack said something else to me in the days that followed — "I'm looking forward to the midterms" or "Why do I owe you an apology?" — I held my breath and I thought of that staircase at the Javits Center. I remembered how I'd come home from work after writing about the now-president-elect — who has allegedly groped 13 women without their consent — and curled up in my bed and cried as I remembered what my assailant's breath felt like on the back of my neck. How will I make it to the midterms?
Yes, to me, many people who have loudly vocalized their prejudice during this election — the people who actually believe Islam is inherently violent, the people who think being LGBTQ is a choice — are terrifying. But even more threatening, to me, are the people who hide amongst my friends. A man who held me after accidentally triggering me one night, and a woman who sobbed next to me as we buried my mom, both now feel like strangers to me, rather than the loving people I thought they were. Who can I actually turn to? How many times over the next four years will I have to justify my pain — to people I love?
After my conversation with Jack, I realized that the suffering may have only just begun for people who have been triggered by Trump's campaign — and many of us will have no idea who we can turn to. When it looked like Clinton was going to win, my supportive "progressive" male friends like Jack were all about allowing women to take the reins. But now that she's lost, many of the privileged men in my life and around the world who claimed to be advocates have stepped back up into their positions of power, while many of us who will be hurt by Trump are still mourning. "The women are sad, so let us direct them!"
In the days after the election, many straight, cisgender, white men started calling for unity or action. Tim Cook, CEO of Apple and a man worth $785 million, called for "unity" among Apple employees. Men in my own life have posted Facebook statuses saying they "understand the concerns" of women, LGBTQ people, Muslims, and people of color, but that "we" must be prepared to fight harder than "we" ever have.
They use the term "we" as if they have suddenly become part of one or all of these communities, simply because they post articles condemning Trump's language and wear Bernie Sanders t-shirts. And I did think many of them were part of the same movement that I was. I bought their use of "we."
But when I pressed Jack, asking him, "What have you done to stand up for or speak out for women in the last two years?," he attacked. "Well maybe I don't vocally support women," Jack told me, "but do you actually think I don't share the same progressive ideals as you?" I know that Jack is not unique in holding this view.
The more Jack and people like him insist that they aren't the problem, while still shaming me about the depth of my pain, the more I'm reminded of that staircase in the Javits Center. The more he said "Give it a chance," the more clear it was that he was unwilling to imagine what it's like to be me — that he, and people like him, are only willing to take on being a part of that change-oriented "we" when it doesn't require putting himself in a position of vulnerability.
Privileged people (as a white woman, I am also guilty) generally don't want to believe they are at fault. They don't want to think about the pain and death that could very well occur in marginalized communities over the next four years. Maintaining that blindness is what allows people to maintain their privilege.
Though suicidal thinking is never a reasonable response to pain or suffering, it is a response that I believe many people will unfortunately feel over the next four years. These people need our love. But I fear that, for men like Jack, it will take something more tragic than hearing about the feelings of marginalized people before they gain the kind of empathy they'll need to combat the destruction the next four years may bring.
Many prominent male political figures — and Clinton supporters among my own friend groups — are saying we should "give Trump a chance" and evaluate him based on his actions after he takes office. I believe this call to unity requires ignoring the fact that between Nov. 9 and Nov. 14, the Southern Poverty Law Center received reports of 437 incidents of hateful intimidation and harassment, and "many incidents involved direct references to the Trump campaign and its slogans." It requires ignoring the damage Trump's language and his administration's proposed policies have already done to many marginalized groups. It makes me believe that to those people, all this pain is still somehow not enough to count as "real."
I kept waiting for unwavering support from Jack. I kept waiting for him to prove me wrong and to say that he would stand beside me and actually act — not just share articles on Facebook — over the next four years to help me. I kept pulling back the layers of myself, like I always have, revealing the things I'm ashamed of and hoping that he would reach out with only love.
But he didn't. Instead, he said "there are more productive ways to get your message across" — not his message, too, because he really was never a part of the groups that needed change. I and people who will be affected by a Trump presidency are really standing at the top of our own Javits Center staircases alone.
If you or someone you know are experiencing suicidal thoughts, call 911, or call the National Suicide Prevention Hotline at 1-800-273-8255.
*not his real name
Images: Josephine Yurcaba (2)