Health

Why Talking About Trauma Is a Key Part of AOC’s Healing Process

Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez told the story of her experience during the Capitol riots on Instagram Live for a reason.
Hannah Smothers
Brooklyn, US
February 2, 2021, 7:24pm
Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, a Democrat from New York, wears a protective mask while arriving to the U.S. Capitol in Washington D.C., U.S. on Monday, Jan. 4, 2021
Bloomberg/Contributor via Getty

In an Instagram Live posted Monday night and since viewed by more than 150,000 people, Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez detailed her experience during the January 6 Capitol insurrection, giving a harrowing account of the traumatic stretch of hours during which she thought she might die, an experience she had alluded to before. 

After her security personnel rushed into her office and told her to hide when someone began pounding on the door, Ocasio-Cortez said she went into the bathroom, where she was “barely hidden.” From there, she heard and watched an unaccompanied man in a black beanie storm into her personal office, shouting, “Where is she? Where is she?” 

“And this was the moment where I thought everything was over; I mean, I thought I was going to die,” Ocasio-Cortez said, breaking into tears. “I really just felt that, if this is the plan for me, then people will be able to take it from here. I had a lot of thoughts, but that was the thought I had about you all.”

Ocasio-Cortez also added in the Instagram Live that this wasn’t her first brush with trauma; she mentioned that she’s a survivor of sexual assault, calling attention to the fact that “trauma compounds on each other.” She also stated that telling the story of trauma is an important part of the healing process, and both of these facts are backed up by research. 

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Psychological studies have also shown that trauma does compound; survivors of multiple traumas tend to have different reactions and more complicated responses to subsequent traumatic events. Trauma theory explains that trauma effectively scrambles memory and leaves huge gaps; it’s common for survivors of traumatic events to have a difficult time sorting out the timeline, making the experience feel hazy and nightmare-like. (This is why testimones in sexual assault cases are so contentious.) But detailing the story, like Ocasio-Cortez did in her Instagram Live, helps survivors recall the timeline, process the trauma, and make sense of what happened—an important part of healing. 

Trauma is often described as an isolating experience, and that feelings of isolation and betrayal can prolong the timeline for healing. Studies have also shown that avoidance and numbness are distinct PTSD symptoms. Psychological studies have found that simply telling the story of a traumatic event can be a helpful exercise for survivors, especially when they’re met with a sympathetic audience who can validate their experience and make them feel less alone. In retelling the story of her experience on January 6, an experience she rightfully describes as traumatic, Ocasio-Cortez is doing the work of healing. 

"Trauma isolates; the group re-creates a sense of belonging,” Judith Herman writes in her book, Trauma and Recovery. “Trauma shames and stigmatizes; the group bears witness and affirms. Trauma degrades the victim; the group restores her humanity.”

Later in her story, Ocasio-Cortez learned the unidentified man was a Capitol police officer. Ocasio-Cortez mentioned she couldn’t be sure still if she had been “projecting” on the officer, but due to the way he approached her and her office, felt she could not trust his instructions, and ended up sheltering in Congresswoman Katie Porter’s office for about five hours. As Porter told MSNBC, Ocasio-Cortez continued to fear for her life, telling Porter, “I just hope I get to be a mom; I hope I don’t die today.” 

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