Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s powerful, personal, 90-minute video monologue — in which she not only shares details about being barricaded inside the U.S. Capitol during the recent Jan. 6 riot, but speaks publicly for the first time about being a survivor of sexual assault — was a touchstone moment. That’s not only due to the congresswoman’s sustained level of intimacy and honesty, but because of her salient comments about trauma and abuse.
“A lot went on, and a lot led up to what went on, and I think that it’s important to talk about it,” the New York representative says at the start of the video, posted to Instagram on Tuesday and already viewed over five million times. “So many of the people who helped perpetrate and who take responsibility for what happened in the capitol are trying to tell us all to move on. And they’re trying to tell us to forget about what happened. They’re trying to tell us that it wasn’t a big deal. They’re trying to tell us to move on, without any accountability, without any truth-telling, or without actually confronting the extreme damage, physical harm, loss of life and trauma that was inflicted…”
At one point when she gets emotional, she says it’s “because these folks who tell us to move on, that it’s not a big deal… these are the same tactics of abusers, and I’m a survivor of sexual assault… I haven’t told many people that in my life, but when we go through trauma, trauma compounds on each other…”
AOC’s instinct — to not be pushed to “move on” from traumatic experiences just because it’s what others think you should do — is astute, say experts in the field. As is her determination to keep discussing and processing what she and others went through.
“A lot of people are ashamed of being impacted by trauma, because they think they should be stronger. But we have to allow people to have feelings,” explains Dr. Karol Darsa, a Los Angeles-based psychologist specializing in the treatment of trauma. “We do that with physical things — we don’t say, ‘Hey, move your arm’ when it’s broken, and we don’t do that with cancer. But we do that with trauma, and it’s very unfair.” She agrees with Ocasio-Cortez that it’s important to not only acknowledge what happened, but to “not be embarrassed” about feeling the symptoms of trauma.
That’s not always easy, acknowledges Raymond Rodriguez, a New York-based family therapist and trauma specialist who focuses on marginalized communities. “Mental health is still highly stigmatizing, particularly in Black and brown communities, and that stigma means we don’t fully understand mental health,” he tells Yahoo Life. Therefore, someone feeling the impacts of trauma “is often misunderstood as some sort of deficit or weakness… people don’t understand the depth of it. If you break your leg, you can see it… Symptoms with mental health can be much more subtle.”
Those symptoms can flare for many reasons. And one includes being told to “move on” from a trauma — whether by perpetrators or loved ones — before you are ready, or when it is actually beyond your control, making it a minimizing, triggering thing to hear.
How trauma works
“People think it’s like mind over matter, and you can just decide to move on from something traumatic,” says Darsa. “But trauma doesn’t really work like that. It’s not about deciding. It affects you on such a level that regardless of what you think you should do, you can’t do it until you process… Otherwise you are bypassing trauma, when it has to be processed and digested. A lot people don’t understand that.”
For some people who have experienced trauma, she says, the treatment “may be quick, while for other people it could be years… I work with people who were abused 20, 30, 40 years ago, and they are still impacted.”
Traumatic events — which can include abuse, assault, serious accidents, war zone exposure, serious medical events, the sudden death of a loved one, terrorism and more — have been experienced by more than 70 percent of adults in the U.S., according to various sources. And the effects are wide-ranging.
“It affects us physically, emotionally and sometimes spiritually, and actually creates a sense of disconnect from yourself,” Darsa says, and cannot be controlled by logic. Nor can the idea of moving on. “Trauma gets imprinted on the emotional brain,” she says. “It gets stuck on the emotional brain and the physical body…”
Adding to these layers in many instances, says Rodriguez, are ideas of intersectionality, as with Ocasio-Cortez’s experience. “For her, being a woman and being a woman of color who has experienced a tremendous amount of aggressive behavior, both micro and macro, adds layers in that moment [at the Capitol] that we cannot extricate,” he explains. “How trauma lands for people who have traditionally been oppressed lands very differently. And that trauma is ongoing — it’s not over.”
When perpetrators say “move on”
“These folks who tell us to move on, that it’s not a big deal, that we should forget what’s happened or are even telling us to apologize — these are the same tactics of abusers,” Ocasio-Cortez says in her video.
And there’s a code to that, Darsa tells Yahoo Life. “To say ‘move on’ means ‘don’t be so upset, it’s not a big deal,’ and there are a lot of reasons perpetrators do that,” she says. “One is they do not want to be caught, and if you speak about it, they will get in trouble. A lot of perpetrators will tell children, especially, ‘don’t tell anyone, no one will believe you anyway, stop making a big deal.’ But anytime you minimize something like that, it’s for your own benefit, because you do not want to deal with the consequences.”
Adds Rodriguez, “When it’s coming from the person that perpetrated it, very often it’s deliberate, as a way of keeping that person in that state of inertia or shutdown… and that serves the purpose, because it protects the perpetrator,” keeping them from having to face the consequences of their actions. “It’s to keep that person silent. It has a big utility.” And it makes sense when AOC compares her earlier silence, about being assaulted, to the one being asked of her now regarding the Capitol riot, when she says she’s being asked to apologize “for speaking truth and telling what happened.” She says, “How I feel and how I felt was, ‘Not again. I’m not going to let this happen again.’”
Rodriguez explains that even though the Capitol violence was a completely different circumstance than that of her past assault, “the flavor of it is the same — something happening that you could not anticipate or control. It’s a complete lack of control, which is a hallmark of sexual violence. So although it was very different setting, with different players, the felt sense of the traumatized person is very similar: not having a sense of agency and feeling that something horrible is impending, that my basic sense of safety is at risk.”
When loved ones say “move on”
Family members and friends who say this, Rodriguez explains, don’t understand the scope of trauma’s impact. “They mean well — it’s a well-intentioned comment — but the results can be devastating,” he says, adding that a person’s reaction to trauma “also makes people uncomfortable, because they don’t understand it, and [moving on] is a way for us not to have to hold it together. It’s like saying, ‘I’m unconsciously uncomfortable with what you’re telling me, so if I tell you to minimize it and move on, that’s protecting my own stuff.’”
He adds that such a request “usually represents powerlessness, because they don’t know how to help you.” Particularly with someone like AOC, he explains, who is so competent, it’s like a “cognitive dissonance” to see that person struggling. “Many people with PTSD [post-traumatic stress disorder] are highly competent people who can be going about their business until [having] an episode or a flashback, and family members cannot put that together or make sense of it.”
But for the person who has experienced and is struggling to deal with trauma, feeling this misunderstanding and unwillingness to understand, Rodriguez explains, “is almost like a double whammy,” he says. “I’m wounded from the original incident and I’m carrying this open wound and then you cannot see it, you cannot hold it with me. It doesn’t help me heal and it doesn’t help me take care of the wound.”
Darsa recommends anyone struggling with trauma seek out professional help. “Your brain gets hijacked and stuck in the past — or it hijacks to the future, and you find yourself constantly worrying,” she says. “But the therapist has ways to help a person come out of that state of being stuck in the past — and to tolerate being in the here and now.”
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