At what point does a sexual abuse survivor (or any trauma survivor) go from victim to survivor, from survivor to thriver? It’s not as easy as you think.
In our society, victim has a negative connotation (don’t be a victim! a constant mantra) however, in a purely legal sense, those of us who have been victims of horrific sexual abuse or traumatic events are recognized by the law as victims, just as those who perpetrated those crimes are perpetrators. What happened to us is criminal, and those who committed these crimes are criminals.
For example, many people don’t believe #MeToo sexual harassment cases are criminal. Well. Under federal law, sexual harassment is not a crime — but it is illegal in every state. It is also a civil violation and a form of gender discrimination prohibited by the Civil Rights Act of 1964 (Source: Vox)
(Are you unsure if what happened to you is against the law? Read this.)
Telling us to ‘get over it,’ puts the onus on us, when we didn’t do anything wrong. Children don’t sexually abuse themselves. Rape victims didn’t rape themselves.
There’s such a huge amount of ignorance when it comes to people who treat victims of sexual abuse crimes and traumatic events. We’re told constantly to “move on, get over it, don’t be a victim,” as if we can simply put a little adhesive bandage on those feelings of shame, guilt, fear, anxiety, and whole host of other PTSD (post traumatic stress disorder) symptoms that become a victim’s unwanted best friend, post-trauma.
As a survivor of childhood sexual abuse at age eleven, I’ve never considered myself a victim in that negative sense, even though I unknowingly suffered from many of what I mentioned above (not realizing until later, in therapy). My parents didn’t know how to deal with it, so in their own shame and guilt, they swept it under the proverbial rug.
Finding my own way became my M.O., and it worked — or it seemed to — until I became a mother and my façade came crashing down.
Depression, anxiety, hyper-vigilance, constant worrying about how to keep my baby safe became my constant obsession — I had moved back from survivor to victim again, and I did not want to be there.
Thank goodness, I got help.
The Three Stages of Survival Defined
According to GoodTherapy.org
The Victim Stage:
An individual in the victim stage feels as though he or she is still in the trauma — no matter how long ago the actual traumatic incident(s) occurred. The sense of being in that moment of time permeates the person’s feelings, thoughts, and behaviors and even his or her sense of self. It is common for an individual in this stage to avoid many emotions while experiencing in abundance feelings of helplessness, vulnerability, fragility, self-pity, numbness, defeat, shame, self-hatred, and discouragement.
The Survivor Stage:
Is the time when one begins to feel strong and confident and to truly believe that there are resources and choices. A key realization of this stage is that an individual has gotten through the trauma intact, or mostly intact, and is indeed outside of it. This understanding allows the person to begin integrating the trauma into his or her life story, to take control of life, and to recognize potential for change and growth, with less suffering, less pain, less guilt, and definitely less depression.
The Thriver Stage:
The thriver stage crystallizes the growth of the survivor stage and takes one’s healing to the point where he or she has general satisfaction with life as well as a sense that ordinary life is both interesting and enjoyable. Commitment to moving forward, to taking care of one’s physical health, to investing in one’s career, relationships, and love and life allow these gains to occur. On an emotional level, feelings of strength, empowerment, compassion, resilience, and self-determination eclipse the emotions experienced within the victim stage. In addition a renewed sense of joy, peace, and happiness arises because one has grown, despite the traumatic experience, and is living well.
The Survival Dance
In my own experience, I’ve spent the majority of my adult life as a businessperson, mother, and writer cruising between survivor and thriver. I’m currently mostly in thriver mode, though I have my moments and occasional triggers which can trip me up, moving me momentarily back into the victim stage which I’ve learned to accept because I didn’t do anything wrong. I’ve learned to deal with these travels through therapy, meds, support, and most importantly for me, through writing.
Nightmares, daily flashbacks, and occasional triggers are a common part of my life, yet it (this massive IT, this beast of a thing that clings to everything) doesn’t define me. There are many more parts to me than survivor, the label I’ve chosen by default.
I’ve written six books, two about my experiences as what I’ve always referred to as being a survivor of the abuse (I never refer to those who have lived through any kind of traumatic experiences as victims because of the negative connotations, whether I agree with them or not).
Sharing my own stories (in poetry in prose in Broken Pieces and Broken Places — in the final stages of editing Broken People now with my amazing editor) was a huge part of my own recovery, led me to starting the weekly Twitter chat #SexAbuseChat (every Tuesday, 6pm pst/9pm est) in 2013 with CStreetlights and Judith Staff (both experienced in sexual abuse as survivors and teachers), a 200-strong private support group on Facebook, directing the now defunct Gravity Imprint with Booktrope Publishing (shuttered as of May 31st, 2015) which brought over 20 books of trauma and recovery to life by amazing authors, and sharing brutally honest poetry on the Feminine Collective site as well (which will be included in Broken People, so a sneak peek!)
Telling our stories, sharing our worth, showing our vulnerability and growth — it all matters because we matter. I always advise authors to ‘Write what scares you,” because if you don’t feel it as you write it, we won’t feel it as we read it. This is part of thriving.
I didn’t realize it myself as I wrote my own books; only later, as I read back through them and think, ‘Wow, I really went there, didn’t I?’ do I sit quietly with my thoughts and hope that someone, somewhere, hopefully, feels less alone through my words.
Give yourself a break as you move through these stages, as it’s a journey, a process to recover.
Part of you is lost, that’s true; but, part of you, a beautiful, amazing part, is also waiting to be found.
Connect with me on Twitter, Facebook, or my website here:RachelintheOC.com.