The Role of “Survivor Stories” in Recovery

We must develop our belief in the strength and capacity of the human spirit, as we try to overcome traumatic experiences — to endure whatever we must face, even transcend it and move on to victory. Faith in our inner strength is a crucial factor for success in conquering our fears. I am deeply grateful to people in my life who have shared their insights about happiness and about the whole issue of triumph in adversity. Indeed one must neither continually focus on negative things, nor wallow in misery and self-pity. I think it is important to emphasise all of these concepts, particularly in the later phases of recovery. 

Nevertheless, too often people fail to comprehend that we can compassionately allow our grief and pain, our horror and deep distress over being victimised. We can recognise them as valuable, legitimate emotions, while also trying to look beyond them and regain hope for the weeks, months, and years ahead. When I used to read ‘survivor’ accounts in the midst of my most difficult times, it often seemed impossible that my story could turn out as happily as theirs.

I still think there is a danger of over-emphasizing heroic stories of people who not only came through a disaster, but also managed to do remarkable and amazing things with their lives afterward. I honestly do not believe a spectacular recovery is possible for everyone. I think we need to admit that many will never make a great and wonderful transition out of trauma and build a much better life for themselves, even if they have the determination and positive attitudes of saints. What about the paralysed or severely disfigured victim of a knife attack, a near fatal shooting, or a brutal beating? What about the person who has sustained a severe mental disability from years of deprivation and brainwashing?

These people will struggle on afterward, but find their capacity so diminished that every day may be a painful trial. What about those whose resistance and immunity have been so worn down and their energy so depleted, that normal functions and responsibilities are simply too much to handle? What about the thousands plagued by resultant emotional and mental illness that go untreated because they are terrified, reclusive, and friendless, or because they simply don’t have access to proper medical care? 

In the case of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, for example, even many war veterans who require therapy for this condition are not being treated, due to shortages in government funding and a shortage of therapists trained in the specialized treatment modalities that have proven successful with this complex condition. Countless survivors of abuse struggle with this illness alone, and a large proportion of them are never diagnosed.

Let’s Be Honest about What it Takes

Many tales of triumph we read are about people who had the full backing of friends and relatives, and maybe a wider community behind them, as well. Thousands of others fail to thrive and overcome because they have not been so blessed. How many abuse victims have lost the few friends and relatives who once would have supported them, because the abuser managed to so interfere and restrict their contact with others that friendships died away; or because he convinced others that the victim was, herself, at fault? How many survivors are cut off from the support of family and friends because they must flee to a distant place and assume a new identity in a community of strangers? 

Do we consider the difficulties a woman must face when she flees far from home and takes a new name? How will she determine which of her former friends and relatives she can trust to keep her confidence when her former partner may be actively searching for her and pumping everyone for information? How will she present herself for employment without work history and references, which would be in a different name, and which, when contact is made could compromise her security? How will she handle the awkward introductions and encounters she will have with workmates and other people in her new community?

The simplest friendly encounter with a stranger begins with something like this: “You’re new here, aren’t you? Where are you from? What brought you to move here? — and normally continues with questions about her home, marital status, family, and her background. She will wonder whom she can trust, how many lies she should tell to her new neighbours, and how she can possibly keep it all straight with them. She may appear unfriendly or secretive, which will not make a positive impression. 

If she is staying in a refuge, she will not be able to reveal its location, and she will be reluctant to say what kind of accommodation she has, knowing the stigma that others attach to women in this situation. She won’t be able to give out her address or her ‘home phone number’ to others. She can’t invite a new friend and workmate round for coffee or reciprocate their invitations. She can’t accept any offers to pick her up or drive her home, without inventing some excuse for them to meet at a different location.

It is difficult to handle all of these issues and the emotional highs and lows of her recovery process, at the same time. She will be alone and isolated. How will she integrate into her new community when her trust, self-confidence, and self-respect have been shattered? As difficult as it is for an adult trying to adapt, it is more painful and unfair for her children to have to cope with these problems and social handicaps in addition to being displaced and traumatized. They will not be allowed to invite their new friends over to play, and will face the same social pressures their mother faces, but without the option to retreat from others, because they must attend school. It will be extraordinarily difficult for them to remember which details they must not mention, and to maintain their new identities at all times. If they have court-ordered visits with the perpetrator, he will often attempt to take advantage of this, manipulating them to gain information.

A network of supportive, understanding people — with considerable resources to share and a generous spirit—is absolutely necessary for anyone in times of loss and trouble. I have never heard of any woman who overcame abuse and built a happy new life all by herself. What do we do with (and to) the woman who fails to achieve a ‘happy ending’? Do we shame her for that failure, if not also for being in an abusive relationship to begin with?

Now, going back to the effect of hearing survivor stories: Sometimes, instead of being inspired by them, I felt more discouraged that my prospects and opportunities seemed so limited, and my progress so slow. Often, reading them only increased the pressure I felt to ‘just get over it’, to somehow physically pick myself up and stagger onward, ignoring the pain. This is not a healthy way forward.

We know that a broken bone must heal; a wound must be bandaged and protected from further strain and abrasion. Likewise, wounded psyches and spirits must be nursed patiently and gently. When they are validated and handled with care, they will then move through the phases of trauma, grief, and inertia in the recovery process. Eventually, they will rekindle normal desires for happiness and activity that precede a return to health.

Too often, when we encounter misery in people around us, we want to quickly bypass the harrowing and mournful periods they experience. Stoicism and denial just prolong our ill health. They attempt to minimize the seriousness of the abuse an individual has suffered, and its significance to us all as fellow human beings. Instead of accepting these necessary stages in their process, we try to talk them into a ‘survivor’ mentality. Doing that deprives them of their right to be where they are and to feel what they feel. 

‘Victim or Survivor?’ – More than an Insult

That is very much the way an abuser treats his victim. He makes life a living hell, then berates and punishes her all the more for experiencing and expressing absolutely normal reactions of shock, fear, anger, depression, defeat, hopelessness, and intimidation. At a time when she is most compromised by the exhaustion, confusion and illness that accompany those emotions, he preys upon her by telling her she is crazy and has imagined or misunderstood what is happening.

More outrageously and despicably still, he may say he is trying to help her; he may insist that he does these things because he loves her so much! The victim’s panicked responses and trauma will certainly increase and worsen if she is repressed, forbidden, threatened and punished for expressing normal emotions. The abuser knows this; he tastes blood and moves in to inflict more damage. He will tell her she is just a simpering wimp, a big baby. He will threaten her: “I’ll give you something to cry about!”

Often he will accuse her of merely exaggerating or pretending to be ill and upset in order to get attention. He will tell her it is her own fault she has problems; saying she is hypersensitive and has a persecution complex! Is that not just another term for ‘victim mentality’? This is what happened to me, and what appears repeatedly in stories of other women. The abuser gleefully blames his victim and rubs salt in her wounds, justifying his behaviour all the while. He seeks the thrill of conquest, thrives on upheaval and chaos, and relishes each ‘victory,’ deriving pleasure from witnessing her pain and distress. As he gains momentum and confidence, he will exert still more power and control, becoming more violent. The stakes become higher and the risks greater for his victim as cycles of abuse escalate.

Then, and forever afterward, friends and people in ‘caring professions’ will add to her misery and her feelings of shame, by asking, “Why didn’t you just leave?”, “How could you allow him to treat you like that?”

‘Calling It As It Is’ Helps Us Heal With Dignity

So, there is a time when a woman wants — even desperately NEEDS most of all — to hear that she has been victimized. And that time may last for quite awhile, until she believes those words are true, not just in her own experience but also in the minds of those who will bear witness to her story and her reality. Telling her she was a victim of cruelty conveys to her that someone believes exactly what she says about what has been done to her. It assures her that someone understands the horror of it, and does not hold her responsible in any way for the abuse she has suffered! She needs to be assured (because so many people will deny her this dignity) that she was not simply an equal partner in mutual domestic combat, but that she was actually preyed upon, harassed, bullied and tormented, through no fault of her own. And that those acts are criminal offences. She longs for a world in which such things are not tolerated! How often she has wished someone would stand up for her, step between her and the abuser and stop him in his tracks! The more beaten down she becomes, the more she desperately hopes someone will offer her a way out of the situation she cannot escape by herself! Of course, such a safe world does not exist. Of course, in adulthood we must face the ugliness and injustice of life. We cannot remain naive children. But surely, it is normal for all of us to nurture and express a desire for help in our distress. Don’t most of us generally expect to be treated fairly by legal and moral authorities, as well as by our family, friends, and larger community? When a woman is told to grow up and face the facts that life is not fair, she naturally feels belittled and discounted! We understand the need to tell victims of child abuse and rape that they did nothing to deserve those assaults. We provide them with victim support groups to help them express their feelings and begin to heal as they share their stories with each other. We don’t even bat an eye when someone talks about a victim of armed robbery, or mugging, or a terrorist attack. We honour and decorate fire fighters, police officers, emergency medical teams, war heroes who have liberated people from political tyranny, and brave individuals who step into danger to save others during a robbery or hijacking incident. We don’t waste time and energy debating about whether the victims of those incidents are in some way to blame for failing to avoid the situation. We don’t subject them to interrogation about whether they could have run away, fought back, or armed themselves in advance! We don’t respond to their anguish with “C’est la vie! Life is rough, get used to it!” We don’t question them in detail about whether there were signs of trouble they failed to recognise or warnings they did not heed. We don’t tell them they need to exercise better judgment, or question their characters. And we certainly don’t blame them for being in harm’s way!

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I would deeply appreciate your written comments on this article Please do not hesitate to leave them for me at http://edgeofraisin.livejournal.comhttp://edgeofraisin.livejournal.com  

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