Tag Archives: survivors

Victims, survivors and new stories

(No triggers, I think)

People who have been the victims of traumatic experiences tend to self-identify as ‘survivors’. It’s a pretty simple thing – ‘victim’ is a word that reinforces the feeling of being powerless and defenceless. ‘Survivor’ is a word with some strength in it, and a reminder that however awful it was, you got through. Not everyone survives of course, those of us who do, know that we were lucky.

Whether you see yourself as a victim or a survivor, those words can come to be the focal point of who you are. The story of what happened can become the biggest, most important story you have. I think in the short term this is necessary – it’s part of the processing of events, and reassembling your life and identity in the aftermath of whatever changed you. We can never go back. We can never be the person we were before *that* happened. What a survivor has to do, is figure out how to assimilate *that* into a sense of self that can move forward, and isn’t defined solely by the experience.

Traumatic experiences take over your thoughts. It’s part of what it means to be traumatised, that something you didn’t want is able to set up camp inside your own head and keep torturing you from in there. People who don’t manage to sort this out are more vulnerable to future trauma. What’s dangerous here is the way in which traumas can normalise themselves, inside a person’s head. It’s when we start to believe that the thing which happened is part of how the world works, that we have  reduced hope of getting free from it. If you can see it as a one off, an accident, bad luck, something that won’t happen again, the inside of your head is better protected.

Of course, with one off trauma experiences, it’s a good deal easier to recognise that it was a unique event, and you won’t have to face it again. What’s really hard is when you live with an ongoing trauma situation – people in war zones being the most obvious example. Trauma really does become normal in that kind of situation, and changing how you view the world is really hard when that happens.

It takes time to overcome things. It can take years to be something other than the person to whom a thing happened. For many survivors, that sense of self as survivor is always going to be there. With support, and opportunities, we may all have the scope to be more than the sum of our scars, but these are hard things to do quickly, or to do alone.

So if there’s a wounded person in your life, and you don’t understand why they’re still so caught up in the past, be gentle with them. It takes time. We all heal at our own rates, depending on experience, and subsequent support, and on who we are. That’s ok. How fast we may think a person should get over it is no measure of how long it will take.

If you want to help a person heal, one thing that you can do is spend time helping them affirm other parts of themselves. Help them remember other aspects of who they are, allow them space to try and be those aspects of who they used to be, and if that’s hesitant, just hold the space and let it be ok. Over time, small things can make really big differences.


No hierarchy of distress

Some years ago, I spent two terms on a course for abuse survivors, run by the Freedom Program. It really helped me get over what had happened and move on, and it taught me a great deal. One of the things I learned was this: Everyone there felt that other people present were far worse off than them.

Everyone had stories, and those stories were ghastly, heartbreaking and all too real. They were all far worse than anything I’d been through. But then an odd thing started happening, because other women, on hearing my stories, would say they thought it was far worse than what had happened to them. This shocked me. We all thought we’d probably deserved what had happened to us, but refused to accept that anyone else could possibly have deserved what happened to them. Through this we all began to question our feelings about our own experiences. It was a challenging process.

The idea that someone else has it worse, and we therefore shouldn’t make too much fuss may be relevant if you’ve merely broken a nail, or been slowed down by bad traffic. Perspective is useful in face of middle class, first world problems. However, that same line of thought absolutely does function to keep people in dangerous and damaging places. After all, it’s not like he cut you, other women get cut. Compared to being raped by a stranger, forced sex from someone you know really isn’t so bad. It was just a slap, not the same as being beaten up. It was only being beaten up, it’s not like you died…

Women who were imprisoned will say how much worse it must have been for women who were beaten, who think the victims of sexual assault were much worse off, but they in turn look to the women who lost their children in court battles, and feel that was much worse and the women who lost their children are so thankful that at least no one destroyed their mental health and the women whose minds were broken are busy feeling fortunate compared to the ones who were made prisoners in their own homes.

There is no hierarchy here. This is no reason for telling 90% of the victims to shut up and recognise that only one of these was really bad. The idea of a hierarchy of suffering is used to make us shut up and stop complaining. I was hit by one only this week – I should be grateful because I’m not picking plastic off rubbish dumps in a third world country. But here’s a thing: The shitty situation in my country is not a separate issue, and tackling problems here would also tackle our habit of creating this kind of waste and sending it abroad. The idea of a hierarchy of suffering breaks down the connections between problems and obscures the truth that these things are all connected. None of the things that are wrong in this world exist in a vacuum.

Think properly about the misery of the traffic jam, and you might indeed come to question commuter culture, city planning, economic pressures, modern economic models, international trade agreements and the whole structure of modern society. You can do that starting from anywhere. Don’t look for the hierarchy, look for the connections. Look for how your problem is related to someone else’s, and is part of it, feeding the same mess and creating misery. That way we can start to see what small things we might solve, that lead to actually fixing even the biggest things that are wrong. Most of those big things are gatherings of small problems, too, and it is the act of not taking the small problems seriously that prevents us from getting anywhere near the big stuff.