When I first wrote this, I used the word ‘they’ to represent survivors of trauma.
Because it’s absolutely not my story as a counsellor, it’s the collective stories of those I have supported and walked alongside, couched in ideas from counsellors (and activists) Michael White, Vikki Reynolds, and Judith Herman.
I am not the survivor, they are. But when I read it back the word ‘they’…. It sounded so ‘othering’. Like speaking about aliens from another planet, not my fellow human beings whom I could so easily be at any given time if circumstances were different.
So I changed it to a collective ‘we’. A WE that is to encompass:
- Survivors of violations unfathomable, of emotional abuse, of mental manipulation, of being controlled by others or another.
- Survivors of extraordinary circumstances even within the seemingly most normal of lives.
- Survivors of rape, family violence, being held in captivity, oppression and childhood sexual abuse. Particularly I speak of women who have survived all manner of hells and are here now, still surviving, and whom we need to hear and support from the very depths of our humanity.
In writing as ‘we’, the intention is to add another little voice to the voices of Survivors who speak bravely for themselves every day, whose stories I have been privileged to hear. I sincerely apologise if that is offensive to anyone. Please do write to me or leave a comment if you wish.
Dear Family and Friends,
Firstly, we want you to know that we know it’s not easy for you sometimes. Our ways of being in the world can be challenging, and we love that you are here with us and trying to understand. We can’t express to you enough how precious that is.
It’s so precious because we can’t quite be there in the same way for ourselves yet.
There are times when you find the ways we express things difficult, helpless and contradictory. That we’re either chaos or numbness; needing you desperately or a shadow self who just can’t be present with you.
And we are sorry. We want so much more.
But here’s the thing:
We know how unbearable it can be to witness our story. We know because we have to witness it every single day.
Every day we fight to make sense of what our life holds. We might awaken with hope, that today- this day- will be the day we no longer feel overwhelmed by anxiety, guilt and shame or trapped by fear or burdened by physical ailments (that often arise from the impacts of trauma). We’ll be honest: it can be an enormous struggle to live here, inside.
As harshly as we judge ourselves, ‘the victim’, we are often judged in society too.
People thinking there must have been something we could have done differently, something we could have done to save ourselves… or perhaps you feel we could have protected you in a way that was different, or that we should not have been in the situation in the first place.
We are plagued every single day by the same thoughts.
You may believe that if the violence wasn’t physical then it wasn’t ‘real’ or it wasn’t traumatic enough, or if it only ‘happened once’ then why does it haunt us so much?
So here’s a bit of secret: the threat of violence is almost always the part that keeps us on high alert and reliving the pain. And it’s the common thread in all situations of abuse or terror, far more than physical violence alone.
This threat and then the absence of hope becomes our norm, becomes another part of our existence… for some of us it doesn’t matter if an ‘event’ takes place over years or hours. We can’t predict how that fear, confusion, worry and hyper-vigilance is going to impact on the ways we then try to live our lives After, we just need you to believe it’s true.
We were unsafe, we were violated, and we had something taken from us. It’s just really hard to name what that thing was, or what to do about it.
If you haven’t been through something traumatic, you nearly always believe you would have acted differently. You wouldn’t have let them hurt you, you wouldn’t have let anyone hurt your children, you would have prevented it from happening by looking or acting or being different somehow.
What we are trying to come to terms with ourselves is how untrue that is. Under extreme duress anyone can be broken– look at how many people around the world are carrying these burdens, who act in the same ways in the same moments to stay alive or to keep someone else alive.
Some of us loved the person who chose to enact violence, and they told us they loved us. Sometimes that person was in a position of authority, here to protect us. That is a hell of a thing to come to terms with, can you just imagine?
You perhaps, dear loved one, cannot imagine what it is like to relinquish your inner identity, the very things you hold most dear, the things you value with all your heart, in order to survive. We hope to god you never find out what that’s like, because there is no worse feeling.
Psychiatrists and all the ‘diagnosis’ experts might call that feeling ‘dysphoria’, but we don’t have a real word for it. Abject terror melded with confusion, pain, sorrow and so much emptiness… a giant horrible abyss. We all experience and feel it differently, but it amounts to the same thing: our identities have been violated. Who we ARE has been violated.
That has a ripple effect throughout a lifetime which can be hard to comprehend.
Can you imagine what it’s like to be ‘two people at once’ or ‘torn in two’? Because that’s what it can be like for us: the person who was assaulted, tortured, raped… that person can never really ‘return’ to who they were before, they can’t ‘get over it’. Our very image of self must contain a body that can be harmed by others. Can you imagine how intolerable that is, to wake up to this fractured self every day?
We live on the brink of fear almost 24/7 even now, we can’t really relax, can’t believe it won’t happen again.
We had to be vigilant, we had to watch out, we believed at some stage of our lives that we were safe… until the moment we weren’t.
That has an impact on our brains, I’m not sure if you knew that. The way the brain sends messages around gets all messed up. The memories and narratives about our lives don’t work in the same way as maybe yours do: it’s really hard to make sense of the world, to put new experiences into context when the brain is sending us into high alert all the time, and our thoughts as well as society give way too much weight to the victimhood and not enough to our survival skills.
That’s right: we actually may not remember things, even things that are very important to you… to us. Some of us don’t remember why we even feel these ways.
What we hope for, most of all, is to know who we are again… to know, just like you do (most of the time), what it is to be ‘whole’.
And so, our precious loved ones who are trying to support us, here’s something you can do that we may not even think of or know to ask for ourselves :
Instead of asking us questions about what we went through, ask us questions about how we survived.
How is it, despite what we went through, that we came to be here in this very room with you? What things did we do to make it out of that situation, and into this one- with you- here, now?
That story, when we can find it, might just be the key to rebuilding a sense of self. When you think about it, it’s actually kind of amazing.
See, no matter how small it was or how invisible it was to others, we did at least one thing- or an ongoing something, or a bunch of things- that said as clear as a bell NO to what was happening. The movies and the TV shows and the books- and often the Police and the Courtrooms and the Reporters- get it all wrong. They’re so focused on asking us what we could have done differently that they forget to tell the person who chose to harm us what They Should Not Have Done. They think if we didn’t scream and fight and draw blood with our nails that we ‘allowed’ it somehow, even though to actually fight in those ways might have been death or worse punishment, a price we should not have to pay for someone else’s choice to hurt us.
And they, always, forget to ask us what we DID do… with what was available to us.
- We screamed in our heads (we may have even opened our mouths).
- We stood up after they left the room.
- We transported ourselves out of our bodies (which is called ‘dissociation’ by some ‘professionals’, but we’d like to think of it as time travel… because didn’t we?! What a clever thing to do!).
- We let ourselves be hurt so someone else would not be.
- We dressed wildly and provocatively to prove it wasn’t about the clothes.
- We hid his favourite thing.
- We re-arranged the ‘just-so’ ornaments.
- We learned to be silent in pain so they couldn’t see.
- We went wild on the abuser in our thoughts.
- We got our driving licence when we were told we were too stupid.
- We, simply, tried to make sense of what was happening that we did not ask for.
- We dug our nails into our skin to remind ourselves we were real, but that we weren’t doing THIS to ourselves.
- We spent our spare pennies on things we were told not to.
- We smashed the favourite mug and then said it broke when the cat knocked it over.
- We played our music as loud as possible alone in the car and sang at the top of our lungs.
- We washed the muck off.
- We flew away in our heads with the bird out of the window and soared.
- We forced ourselves to smile.
- We imagined (no one can see in there).
- We wouldn’t come in the house when called.
- We changed the settings on the toaster.
- We hid, we breathed, we lived, we loved.
We did a lot of these things without the abuser or the torturer knowing. We did them because we RESISTED what was happening in the only ways that still kept our bodies and minds safe, and the bodies of others sometimes.
One of the ways that might help reach a place of understanding is to know that no matter what was happening- (even if, for some of us, in some way, there were some good feelings):
We did not consent to this violence.
We did not invite this violence.
We did not ask for this violence.
We were not ok with this violence.
…..especially from someone who was supposed to make us feel safe.
But sometimes we need a lot of reminding. Because this does not just ‘go away’. Our selves, our identities, our very cores were impacted by the force of something so great .
We need to be safe, to feel love, and to be told we are survivors.
We need to be reminded that our bodies did not betray us: someone else did.
We need to see ourselves as people worthy of love, respect and pleasure.
We need to believe that we can be, just as we are, and that’s ok.
We need to grip onto our chairs, fix our eyes on something and remind ourselves that we are here now, safe, in this room… there are times when you grip us by the hands or hold us tight and remind us of that too.
We need some help to see that we weren’t helpless victims, that we Resisted, that we did what we could with what was available to us.
Many of us try, but really, we can’t do that on our own.
That is not to say, either, that you must stand beside us if we are hurting other people, if we have no insight at all, or have taken no responsibility for ourselves. You can’t be responsible for us, for our choices, for our behaviour… there may be a time when you can’t be there, when you need us to find help outside of you. When you have led someone there and they turn back around. There comes a time of ‘no more’, if we can’t find a way to say ‘no’ to violence all over again, then that is not your job.
But if we are, simply, someone who you love and see suffering… If you are in our lives, then this letter might have helped you understand us a little more.
It might help all of us- and you- to think of Love as an Action rather than a feeling. That way, no one has to believe that someone who ‘loved’ them also chose to try and take away their very being. And if it’s an action, then the ‘doing’ of love might look a little bit different when it comes to loving us. They might be harder and stranger and more purposeful actions, and we certainly might not be great at loving ourselves, but we know you know that we are capable of feeling love and that we are worth it. We are so very lucky that you are here.
Your dearest Survivor.
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