As I was ending a session with a patient last Wednesday, June 30, I noticed my cell phone was exploding. Text messages from my colleagues, patients and Cosby accusers with images of the “breaking news.” Shock and horror filled my body and mind when I read, that Bill Cosby’s sex assault conviction was overturned by the Pennsylvania Supreme Court. Initially, I could not open the articles sitting on my phone. As I looked at images of Cosby being escorted back to his home in Elkins Park, I thought to myself, ‘This cannot be happening.’ I had a surge of flashbacks of times when people told me “You are crazy,” or “How could you do this to your family,” once I broke my silence about my abuse. To say the news would be triggering for sexual assault survivors is an understatement.
Once I had a chance to digest the news I began talking with journalists, colleagues and friends. Most of then were expressing concern and deep sadness about the news. One colleague asked me, “How will this affect all of our patients who are new in recovery or are considering reporting crimes against them to the police?”

I attended both Cosby trials and his sentencing as an advocate and writer on behalf of abuse and assault survivors. Days after Cosby’s arrest in 2018 I published a feature op-ed in The Philadelphia Inquirer, commending the dozens of women who went public with the story. I decided to attend both of the Cosby trials and his sentencing because I wanted to learn more about how the justice system works when someone comes forward with abuse and assault allegations. I wanted to be in the courtroom to support the dozens of women who broke their silence years or decades after the alleged the assault took place. For over twenty-four years I have been counseling survivors in recovery from all types of trauma. I have listened to countless stories of injustice by men and women. Most of my patients could not report a crime even if they wanted to because their abuse or assault took place after the statue of limitations to report had expired. Other patients had tried to seek justice, but could not finish with the process because of the toll it took on them mentally and physically. I worked with one patient who’s lawyer
that represented her said ,”Why did you stay with your boyfriend after he abused you? No jury is going to believe you.” She dropped all charges against her boyfriend she alleged assaulted her hours after her lawyer made this comment.

Cosby’s early release from prison is a reminder that most predators and their enablers will not be held accountable for crimes they have committed. When someone decides to go public with his or her story, they are putting their reputation, safety and mental health on the line. The legal system is deeply flawed and lacks understanding of what it is like for survivors to break their silence.

We could take the news of the last week and call it a setback for the #metoo movement. Or, we can take our anger and outrage to push for change in the legal system so that this never happens again. People’s lives are forever changed after sexual assault. The process of recovery is not just about telling someone what happened or filing a criminal report. Thriving after these kinds of trauma means finding ways to digest and process memories. Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder is not a condition that can be cured. Through the years I have learned that recovery means finding ways to live with circumstances that make no sense. For example, when I attended the Cosby trials many people asked me, “How can one man hurt so many women and show no remorse?” While it is hard to understand, there are some people in this world who are deeply wounded and impaired individuals who lack remorse for others.

In an interview with NBC Correspondent/Anchor, Kate Snow, eight of Cosby’s alleged accusers gathered together to share their fury, grief and disappointment. They did not sit on the interview and say “Woe is me.” They sat in their zoom boxes and expressed understanding, empathy and love as each of them talked about their reaction to Cosby being set free. They did not say they were going to give up or that there is no room for change. On the contrary, they talked about the fire lit in their hearts and minds. Janice Baker-Kinney, one of the women that testified in Cosby’s second trial told Kate Snow in an interview,”I am ready and rearing to go and I will do anything and speak my truth to anyone that needs it.”
The question now is what next? How do we help the thousands of victims around the world not let a procedural issue that let a predator out of prison stop the movement towards change? How do we sit with the injustice and not let that hold us back from living the life we want? How do we tolerate all the disbelievers and victim blamers, even when some of those people happen to be our mothers, fathers, partners, bosses and friends?
Here are some of the suggestions that my colleagues and I have talked about through the week…..

  1. Stay strong
  2. Keep speaking.
  3. Focus on what you CAN control.
  4. Connect with other survivors.
  5. Do a lot of self-care.
  6. Form groups to advocate for change in the legal system.
  7. Remind yourself, a hundred times a day if necessary, “It is not what happened to me that is the problem, it is that it happened, THAT is the problem.”
  8. Set boundaries with friends and family.
  9. Limit your time on social media.
  10. Journal, hike, sing, workout, meditate, hug your pets and children if you feel like you cannot keep your feet planted on the ground.
  11. Tell yourself over and over, “I know the truth, and nothing can change that.”
  12. Take opportunities when you are triggered to face another aspect of your trauma that needs more attention.
  13. Ask for help if the news of the week is making you feel like you cannot function in your relationships or at work.
  14. Seek attention immediately if you are having suicidal thoughts.

CP24 Tonight with Shari Botwin, LCSW