Hannah Storm was an instructor for Poynter’s Leadership Academy for Women in Digital Media last year. Since then, Poynter published Storm’s personal #MeToo story and worked with her to design sexual harassment training for newsrooms. When Storm returned as an instructor for our women’s leadership seminar a few weeks ago, we were inspired by how she processed this tumultuous year — and the fact that she’s now a CEO.
This column was originally published in The Cohort, Poynter’s newsletter for women kicking ass in digital media. Join the conversation by subscribing here.
It has been six months since I first wrote about my experiences of sexual assault as a journalist. Poynter published my story in October, coinciding with the anniversary of the #MeToo movement. In the article, I painfully detailed two attacks, explaining how I was exposed to behavior that made me feel unsafe and ashamed, and how I was conditioned not to speak out.
Since the flurry of publication and feedback, I have assessed how past traumas affected my decision to go public, considered criticism about why I didn’t identify the one attacker I knew, and appreciated the importance of therapy and self-care in helping me stay afloat.
For individuals with their own stories to tell, or for people reporting on gender-based violence, I want to share what it was like for me to tell my #MeToo story.
When I realized how much my experience of sexual assault had motivated my choices, I wanted to be transparent about it.
It took me years to feel brave enough to speak out, and it was one of the toughest things I have done. In the several months it took to write, edit and publish my piece, I often doubted what I was doing as I watched the #MeToo movement grow, in awe of the bravery of those who shared their stories. I continued to speak out against gender-based violence, but never my own.
The lightbulb moment came in April 2018 when I was moderating a panel on sexual violence. I realized I had a responsibility to share my story with others, because so much of my work in journalism safety and gender — and the personal and professional decisions I made — were motivated by my experiences. I spoke with several colleagues in confidence about this and they encouraged me to share my story. In so doing, I wanted to also give some hope to other women who might be experiencing the weight of shame or silence and show them they were neither to blame nor alone.
My #MeToo story is about the woman, not the man.
I chose to not identify one of my attackers (the other is still unknown to me) in my piece for Poynter. When I was originally drafting it, I worked through the painful process of whether or not to name him. But ultimately I decided not to, in part because of the machismo culture in his country, the trauma I had experienced through his abuse of me (which engendered strange feelings of loyalty toward him), and the possible legal implications of speaking out.
The real power came from reframing the narrative and, although I have been approached by those who want me to identify him, I won’t.
This is my story, not his.
With this choice, I am reclaiming some of the power he stole from me. And yet, part of me is still scared of this man — a reminder that sexual assault really is an abuse of power.
I started seeing a therapist — and took time off work.
By the time the #MeToo movement began in late 2017, I was suppressing a raft of trauma. I started seeing a therapist in 2018 who helped me unravel my past before it unraveled me.
Still, there were days when I suffered such acute anxiety, stress and sadness that all I could do was focus on putting one foot in front of the other and choosing to breathe.
At the worst point, I took time off work, realizing my job was adding to my stress. And yet, the irony was that even after nine years working in journalism safety, I still didn’t feel able to talk about the shame of my sexual assault or my struggles with mental health. Ours is such a tough industry in which to admit vulnerability. A handful of colleagues were extremely supportive after I confided in them, but even then it felt like I was carrying the weight of shame.
On the recommendation of my therapist, I have started identifying “islands” – activities I can look forward to that will help keep me positive and feel less overwhelmed. You could think about islands as something you swim toward if you feel as though you are drowning, a place where you can feel the solid ground beneath your feet. Or perhaps it’s like one of the stepping stones you aim for as a child when you have a river to cross, where you know you’ll be able to place your foot, regain your balance or hold on to someone else’s hand while you gauge where you are.
My recent islands have included:
- The Valencia marathon I ran in December with my dear friend Liz.
- Signing up to writing events like the festival of flash fiction I’m attending in June with a new group of writing friends.
- Planning road trips with my 12-year-old or visits to the beach with my little boy.
- Going on dates with my husband or arranging catch-ups with friends.
- Carving out time in my week to switch off and go for a walk.
I’m also better at recognizing what exacerbates my negative feelings: certain movies and books, specific news stories and too much alcohol, caffeine and social media.
I’m now doing freelance work with Poynter and Press Forward to develop a training curriculum for newsrooms to ensure we all work together to shape the culture of our industry and stand up to the scourge that is sexual harassment and assault. And I am starting a new job as CEO and director of the Ethical Journalism Network, a charity based in the United Kingdom that works in 30 countries around the world. There, I hope to develop guidelines to help journalists cover sexual violence and the #MeToo movement more ethically and sensitively.
Six months is a relatively short amount of time. I know it’s going to take longer to recover from the trauma I first experienced 14 years ago. I’ve also realized that as a mother, wife, daughter and wearer of many hats, I need to get better at self-care. If I don’t look after myself, I can’t be my best for others.
I can’t pretend I have found all the answers. But in choosing to admit my vulnerability, I have found some strength.
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