In 2006, a year after Hurricanes Katrina and Rita struck the Gulf Coast, I was awarded the title of National Advocate of the Year by my mentor for the work I had accomplished over the past year in response to the two storms. I beat out President Bill Clinton's former press secretary for the honor, so it was a banner moment for me.
When Hurricane Katrina hit New Orleans in 2005, I knew just what to do when the levee broke. With my background in social work, fundraising, and grant-making, it was almost as though I had been called to duty. I left my children and my husband behind and joined a team of grant-makers and leaders in the Baton Rouge community to start raising money and receive the evacuees from NOLA. I became the official tour guide for people from out of town, and they called me Disaster Barbie, though I think they meant it as an insult. I was known for wearing very expensive clothes in the midst of the relief efforts. What they did not understand was that I was subscribing to Rudyard Kipling's famous line, "If you can meet with triumph and disaster, and treat those two impostors just the same." No one would ever call me a pragmatist.
At the time, I was consulting with the two largest foundations in Southern Louisiana, and we acted as a team for years, combatting what was one of the most horrific disasters to hit the United States' soil. Nine months after Katrina, New Orleans was still a wasteland. Many people were evacuated to shelters and trailer communities in Baton Rouge, Houston and beyond, while those with the means fled to second homes in more luxurious communities such as Aspen and North Carolina. We now know that local governments have mastered the art of evacuating, but remain poor at returning people to their homes.
I would drive my Volvo and tour people from all over the country to show them what had happened to this treasured city. I had $300,000 worth of Discover debit cards in the back of my car to give to the people of New Orleans who were impatient to fix their own houses. We had launched City Year, an urban Peace Corps program, in Louisiana in just four months to serve kids out of school. With the flexible use of philanthropy, we were able to help almost every sector begin to recover. I never felt more proud to be part of a team making a real difference. I also never felt so small because of the enormity of the problem.
When I toured people, I used to stay in New Orleans overnight. There were usually very few people on the streets then: typically a news personality like Anderson Cooper, myself, and four or so men brought in to repair the city's demolished infrastructure. One night, I was walking down Bourbon Street alone, and I was followed by a man I did not know. He followed me back to the hotel where I was staying, and that night I was violently attacked and raped. I stayed in my hotel for two days afterwards, shivering and crying. I showered (and everyone knows not to shower), but I had no intention of coming forward. I never told anyone what happened for nine years. Remember, the hospitals were all closed in the devastation. Our foundation gave grants to all the rape crisis centers making it hard to get confidential treatment. The nonprofit sector was overwhelmed. The police were not as trustworthy as we would have wanted them to be at the time. Back in Baton Rouge, hospitals and crisis centers were packed. I convinced myself of a million reasons why I could not ask for help.
Even with all the knowledge that I have, that people who have been sexually assaulted are four times more likely to have suicidal thoughts, three times more likely to suffer major bouts of depression, and much more likely to experience many other mental health issues, I pretended like it didn't happen. I am a coach's daughter: I did not want to be benched. I wanted to be on the winning team. I wanted to fight the battle for the people in the shelters and trailer communities and take part in rebuilding of New Orleans. And despite all of those statistics that I already knew as a social worker, I kept going, and I suffered in silence. If you do not follow natural disasters (most regular people do not), we were in an extraordinary circumstance back then. Sometimes in crises it is necessary to choose the lesser of two evils to ignore so that one can achieve his or her goal. I do hope that if the circumstances had been different, I would have come forward. But I will never know.
My friends did not understand the isolation and anger with which I was coping, and it cost me many of my relationships. Nonetheless, I endeavored to just keep going. But it turned out that everyone else moved forward except for me, not professionally per se but personally. I lost in the end, because I did not seek the help that I needed in a timely fashion. I made a mistake by not insisting that it was my right to obtain the same treatment from the mental health team that worked with the employees at the agencies where I consulted.
Why do I come forward with this now? I have a responsibility not only to myself, but also as the chairman of the Center for Disaster Philanthropy and as a professional in the disaster and philanthropy space. And truth be told, the more people I tell, the better I feel. If I can understand the vulnerability and humanity of others, why is it so hard to hold myself to those same standards? Typically when I write, I try to draw comparisons. Originally I was looking at rape statistics and resources throughout the world, including places where women face far worse conditions, such as Syria and the Democratic Republic of the Congo. But I realized that in this article, I am writing for independent, strong, powerful women who may too find themselves in similar situations, which are perhaps challenging but they have choices (even in the worst of times) unlike the examples above.
Now, in 2014, I would return the Advocate of the Year award if I could, not because I have not helped hundreds of people but because I did not set a good example by failing to advocate for myself. I guess some of us need extraordinary experiences to learn and grow. It took me -- even as a strong and wise woman -- years to learn the importance of doing so. I suffered as a result, while others for whom I cared did okay. I should care more about myself. Advocacy is not about self-preservation, but rather self-appreciation, which allows you to value others, embrace their vulnerability, and provide a positive force toward our interdependence. And while I have accomplished incredible things in my life following the attack, who knows what I may have accomplished had I sought help nine years ago? The journey I chose challenged my family and a vibrant personal life. But being the resourceful and positive person I am, I am going to bet on myself to win it all back.