When Self-Care Fails: The Case for Community Care for Survivors of Sexual Violence

Ayodele
7 min readAug 20, 2019
A group of friends is gathered together with their arms wrapped around each other. Photo curtosy of @istock/wundervisuals
Photo courtesy of #istock/wundervisuals

CW: sexual assault, suicidality

The case for self-care is consistently over-simplified and reduced to activities rooted in capitalism as a way to make yourself feel better when things are kind of shitty. Had a bad day at work? Take a bubble bath when you get home — it’s self care! Get a massage — treat yourself — get your nails done — don’t feel guilty about your isolation — it’s all self care!

Audre Lorde is continually invoked in the name of self-care, teaching us that “Caring for myself is not self-indulgence. It is self-preservation, and that is an act of political warfare.” In a world that wants me and my Black, queer, disabled woman body dead on the daily, any act of self preservation is an act of resistance and political warfare. But what happens when self-care becomes impossible? When even the basics of self care — showering, eating, sleeping — become untenable, what then? How do we expect someone to indulge in a bubble bath when they can’t get out of bed to brush their teeth? How do we expect someone to act out of self-preservation when nothing in their world is telling them that they are worth preserving, worth saving, worth caring about?

When self-care fails, what is the safety net?

What if self-care morphed into community care and shifted into a transformative justice model of caring for survivors of sexual violence?

Back at the end of March 2019 I was raped. Again. I know people in my life who have been raped and have experienced sexual violence at multiple points in their lives. It is never their fault. It is never the survivors fault. As a survivor of child sexual violence and adult rape, the thought crossed my mind more than once, what would happen if I was raped again? But I always thought I would know what to do now, that I would be able to handle it, that it wouldn’t have that big of an effect because of healing work I have engaged in for 10 years.

But nothing prepares you to be raped. Not being an advocate, not working in the anti-violence movement. Not even being raped previously.

I was shattered.

Sexual violence is a deeply disabling event. It’s a deeply isolating event. I experienced it as being ripped apart from my body. Being extremely disassociated from myself made self-care impossible. Being naked triggered me, making taking a shower impossible without having a panic attack. Exhaustion made getting out of bed to brush my teeth, even to feed my cat, feel insurmountable. I took many a sick day from work because the thought of leaving my apartment, walking to the subway and going to work seemed impossible.

In Care Work: Dreaming Disability Justice by Leah Lakshmi Piepzna-Samarasinha (side note: if you haven’t read it, GO OUT AND READ IT. RIGHT. NOW. — I don’t want to sound hyperbolic, but it was life-changing and life-affirming), Leah talks about “crip science” as the skills, technology, culture and brilliance that disabled folks use to navigate both an ableist world and to help other crips survive. What I experienced after I was raped was the magic of what I like to call survivor science, of the coalescence and mobilization of a community of care that, I believe, should be the standard for responding to survivors of sexual violence. Because how my community responded to me, held me, cared (and continues to care) for me is instrumental to my healing, to my still being here, alive, breathing and writing this 5 months after my assault.

My inspiration to write this is due to the need to document ways that people respond to survivors, that models survivor-centered care, community care, and how community care can be a form of transformative justice. How you show up when someone discloses to you can save a survivor’s life. I want my community of care to know how immensely grateful I am for the ways they have showed up in the past, and continue to show up for me as my care needs evolve and shift, ebb and flow.

My community of care did not just pop up out of the blue. Before I knew it consciously, I was, with the guidance of the universe and my ancestors, carefully crafting a life that had people in it who I could be vulnerable with, people who I have built deep trust with. Some of the people I consider to be in my circle I have known since childhood, and some I have known for just over a year. Time is, in a way, immaterial. All are people who I have shared prolonged moments of radical honesty, almost crushing vulnerability and perhaps most importantly, immense joy with. These are the people I think of as my chosen family. The siblings I never had as an only child.

My community of care mostly, if not exclusively, is comprised of survivors of sexual violence, POC and queer folks, which I think highlights the brilliance and ancestral knowledge that QTBIPOC (queer, trans, Black, Indigenous, people of color) folks have guiding us in how to show up for each other and care for each other in life sustaining ways.

I have organized with, taught with, laughed with, traveled with, danced with my community of care. I have been deeply disappointed by, hurt by and had to repair disconnections within my community of care. I deeply believe that the radical honesty that we have built, as well as the willingness to experiment with intimacy and give each other grace, built the foundation upon which people could show up for me as a survivor, and how I could show up for others and accept help from others.

Community care went with me to the hospital and waited with me while I got a rape kit done. Community care brought me weed and yogurt knowing that the PEP meds the nurse gave me to lessen my chances of contracting HIV, paired with all of the other meds to prevent the contraction of STIs would make me violently ill. Community care dropped everything and drove from the Bronx to Brooklyn and stayed at my apartment for three days, tucking me in at night, sage-ing my apartment, feeding my cat, and holding me while I cried. Community care picked up my phone call after I got triggered going to the bathroom, and made space for me to chill at their office with a self proclaimed cheer squad and watch Beyonce’s Homecoming on Netflix for the 4th time while they did work. Community care took over facilitating a conference call when I had to leave work early.

My community of care has sat on the phone with me for hours while I was drunk and suicidal and not making any sense. Has driven me to a mental hospital and stayed with me for almost 8 hours waiting to be admitted, constantly reminding me that at any point I could leave. Community care has visited me and sent me cards of affirmation while being hospitalized for suicidality and deep depression and has reminded me over and over and over again that I will find my joy, that I will get through this. My community of care has cared for me when I didn’t give a damn whether I lived or died and provided an impetus for me to live, reminding me when I tell them that, that I have to live for myself and no one else.

After I was raped, I didn’t need self-care. I couldn’t practice self-care. I needed community care. I needed community support. I needed more than I could give myself. Community care saved my life and continues to save my life, especially when my brain finds my own life too hard to bare and not worth preserving.

Every survivor of sexual violence deserves some form of community care. Because violence doesn’t happen in a vacuum and because our lives are intensely connected to each other. Because sometimes justice means speaking your truth, and sometimes justice means not letting your rapist steal your voice, your identity, your connectedness to yourself and others.

When self-preservation fails, when self care is out of reach, community care is a lifeline. My unwillingness and often inability, to be silent about my own assaults is an act of political warfare. The ability and willingness of my community to not turn away from me, to instead validate and hold my truth, my pain, my grief, in a country and society intent on my destruction, is an act of political warfare. Whenever we stand up for each other, whenever we support each other within our own capacities and whenever we make space for each other to be who we are, just as we are, in whatever stage of growth and transformation that we are in, we are committing radical, powerful acts of political warfare. Sometimes what survivors need is not more self-care, but community care. And in a society that turns away from survivors consistently, community care can sometimes feel a little bit like justice.

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