The mindset we hold about the crimes committed against us is deep-seated and individually complex. Those who have suffered Child Sexual Abuse are referred to as ‘victims’ or survivors’. How we feel about any one of these terms is most likely governed by where we are on our healing journey.
‘Survivorship’ felt way out of reach in the early days. Initially I rejected the word survivor because I didn’t want to identify as that. It felt too… risky: too permanent somehow. Not many knew about my experiences and that was the way I wanted it to stay. I hid from anything relating to abuse. If there was anything in the news or on TV I’d avoid it. I wasn’t ready to face it and so I didn’t. This was a time in my life when I felt very much the victim. My mental health was extremely poor and it didn’t feel like I’d survived. It felt like I’d drowned in trauma and that I wasn’t complete – almost as if a part of me had died due to the abuse and the walking, talking part of me was just a shell. This damage felt irreversible. The thought of saying aloud I’m a survivor was unthinkable. It demanded too much of me during this dark time when I was unable to see past my own pain.
When I disclosed I outed myself and reluctantly crossed into the camp of ‘survivor’ although I still struggled to accept it. When others reacted badly to disclosure it would validate the feelings of shame, always there, lying dormant and ready to fire at the slightest thing: a thoughtless comment, folded arms, a certain look of distaste and these would usually propel me back to the state of victim. Like a kicked dog I would retreat and lick my wounds until ready to face the world again.
Occasionally I’d feel a fleeting sense of anger – that would propel me forward, just for a moment. I remember watching the MeToo movement unfold. It was hard not to feel drawn to and inspired by the strong and formidable force of those women; to feel a sense of kinship. Of belonging. Me Too I would say to myself. I was a silent onlooker of an angry and wronged tribe. They were my tribe. They were survivors, who were surviving. And so was I.
There are innate flaws and limitations to both words. Survivor suggests someone strong, heroic and lucky and victim brings to mind someone in a sad and sorry state; broken; unlucky. In reality, most people probably sit somewhere in between and fluctuate between the two. I know I do. In any given day I can feel strong in one moment and fed-up or self-pitying the next. It doesn’t mean I’m failing at being a survivor or that I’ll live in perpetual victimhood, it makes me human, with fluctuating emotions. People who have lived through abuse may fluctuate more than most. Many are living with triggers, simple events that can take the person back to the abuse. These triggers manifest themselves in different ways to different people. I’m in a really good place in my life but I still have moments where triggers get the better of me and times when a sense of injustice gets me down – moments when I feel very much the victim, which of course is normal. I am a victim of a crime after all.
Initially, I viewed Survivor as a feel-good term which I struggled with as it seemed like I was taking one step forwards and two steps back in my recovery. My trauma therapist helped me to understand this was normal when processing life-changing trauma.
I didn’t trust feel-good terms or cheerleading approaches as they hadn’t worked for me in the past. The 12 step mantra used to conclude AA meetings I used to attend was: ‘It works if you work it so work it you’re worth it.’ I would join in enthusiastically when I had a few weeks sobriety and a collection of chips under my belt, but it wasn’t so easy to say after the shameful relapse when I was back to square one. No one ever said this was my fault, for not ‘working the programme’ or not trying hard enough but I do remember feeling that that I wasn’t as good or as strong as the others. I thought I wasn’t worth it after all, preferring to listen to the deeply-ingrained belief that I already held about myself rather than consider the alternative.
When you’re feeling ok, survivor is a great term, it’s empowering. It gives you permission to be a warrior, a fighter, a survivor, a thriver. Victim is relevant too, for the days you can’t face; the days where you want to hunker down under the duvet wearing your fluffy socks scrolling mindlessly on your phone. Victim gives you permission to not be ok on these days. You can feel sorry for yourself, allow yourself to feel your pain and acknowledge it’s there – wallow in it and dwell on what caused it. We are only human after all so isn’t it normal to feel like this on occasion? It only becomes a problem when it becomes our default setting. This happened to me and it delayed the healing process.
Now, I use the term survivor as it’s immediately understood, but I prefer ‘with Lived Experience.’ It is direct and honest and it doesn’t shout my success (survivor) or failure (victim) to the rest of the world.
Lived Experience is an honest and solid description of an individual who has gone through childhood sexual abuse. It doesn’t label the person as strong or weak, powerful or passive. Perhaps it doesn’t really matter what terms we use or how we identify ourselves as long as we give ourselves a break if necessary, to acknowledge the bad days when we have them, and allow ourselves to embrace the positive when the glimmer of light appears.
I’m reminded of my therapist, calmly listening to me and responding gently with, when are you going to start living? She wasn’t being judgemental, she just knew me well enough to recognise that the familiarity of hopelessness, and the fear of who I would be if I left it behind, was understandable – but not helpful if I wanted to enter the next phase of healing. I was able to enter this phase with her support and continue my journey today, on a path that’s not linear, that’s bumpy at times, but I’m in good company: with millions of others like me, encouraging, inspiring, wonderful survivors. We’re doing alright.