What NOT to say to a Survivor (part one)

Disclosing non-recent child sexual abuse was one of the hardest things I’ve ever done. I will never forget it. It was in 2009 during my first inpatient stay in hospital where I’d found myself after a breakdown. My family had reacted with frustration and, at times, anger at this unfortunate turn of events; after all they hadn’t seen it coming. I had presented a version of myself to the world that wasn’t real – a competent mum of two. A wife. A functioning member of society. But it was all a facade. Totally fake. As it turned out, I had been the most excellent actor and master of disguise. No one had noticed how desperate I was on the inside – and why should they? That had been my intention, but I had spiralled deeper and deeper into the fire of addiction and ill health. I was dying. I had wanted to die. I had tried to die and found myself in a psychiatric hospital.

I was surprised by the frustration. I certainly hadn’t expected anger.

I quickly got used to “but why didn’t you tell us you were feeling depressed?” and the constant pressure to “get better for the sake of the children.” This fed into the guilt I already felt and I tried to be stronger but failed, over and over again, each time more dramatically than the last. As the weeks went by I was given more labels and different combinations of medications to make me better, but my state of mind remained the same. In a desperate attempt to give context to my ‘illness’ I disclosed to the consultant who, in turn, put pressure on me to disclose to my family.

And so I did.

I picture myself that day, terrified, holding an invisible bomb and throwing it into the centre of my family unit. I’d like to say that it felt like an instant relief to disclose but it didn’t. I wished for many years I could take it all back. With hindsight, it was the right thing to do because I wouldn’t be where I am today if I had held onto those secrets. I probably wouldn’t be alive, but I do wish that my family and I had been supported adequately. I wish they had been given specialist advice at the time. I wish I had. I wish we had all been able to read a blog post like this.

We were unsupported. They reacted in the way people tend to do, then left the hospital and I was left behind, feeling so much worse about very thing that had put me in hospital in the first place.

As a survivor of child sexual abuse, it’s hard to put into words quite how painful the act of disclosure can be. This is especially true for the first one, when the survivor may have been silent for a long time. There are many different reasons why a survivor may stay silent, but breaking that silence can result in feeling they are losing control of the ‘secret’ and handing it over to someone else. That is terrifying. What’s going to happen next? Why do they look at me like that? When will they stop looking at me like that? What are they thinking when they look at me? Are they going to look at me like that forever? How will things ever be the same again?

If the abuse took place within the family, disclosure can be particularly traumatic, for both the survivor and the family members, who then have to manage their own feelings of distress, anger, guilt and perhaps even disbelief. A bombshell like this leaves people reeling and the very people that the survivor need to support them may feel unable to do so.

Everyone is left in a state of shock. The survivor can feel overwhelmed by terror. Physically, their body may be in turmoil; heart racing, head pounding, they may need to throw up. Body memories may be firing. They can feel triggered and may experience flashbacks to the abuse. They will be frightened about what is going to happen next.

And then come the questions and the statements. Some of these were said to me, some have been said to others in my position. In my case they weren’t said with malice and I can understand why people may feel the need to ask them, but some of them made me want to curl up and die. All of them made me wish I’d never said anything at all.

Why didn’t you say anything before?

Tell me exactly what happened.

We need to know exactly what happened.

Were you raped?

I always had my suspicions.

But he was such a (nice/ charming/pillar of the society / church-going) man.

He was probably abused himself.

You’re so brave.

At least you have your family/ friends/ dog/ good life/ career/health.

It must have made you stronger.

Stay strong, otherwise he will have won.

It could have been worse.

I’m going to kill him.

Are you sure?

Have you heard of false memory syndrome?

You were fine until you spoke to your therapist.

But I would have known.

Please don’t say anything to anyone else.

You must go to the police.

You can’t go to the police.

Maybe you should just move on.

It was a long time ago.

Are you going to let this define you for the rest of your life?

Disclosure is tough for everyone involved but the survivor is never at fault. They weren’t then, they’re not at fault for keeping silent and they’re not at fault now for disclosing and dropping this ‘bomb’. However, the chances are they feel at fault. The chances are that they have intense feelings of guilt and shame. The chances are they wish they could turn back time and take back their disclosure, preferring to keep the poisonous and destructive secrets locked inside their own heads rather than seeing them infect and destroy people they love.

A survivor may consider disclosing for many years before actually doing so. They then may shut down again in an attempt to take back control.

We can all learn how to react appropriately to disclosures of abuse. We are all able to fine tune our responses just like we have done when people tell us other things that make us feel uncomfortable. We wouldn’t say to a person recently diagnosed with cancer, ‘why didn’t you go to the doctor earlier?’ Or ‘I think you need to stop grieving now’ to a person who’s recently lost a family member. Most people would react with kindness and sympathy.

Disclosures of sexual violence deserve equally empathic and understanding responses. If you feel uncomfortable/distressed/guilty/appalled/revolted, try to bear in mind how much worse it is for the survivor who never asked for any of this in the first place.

…(Part Two) How TO respond to a survivor

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