Imagine sharing a personal story that is riddled with grief and trauma. Imagine wondering how the listener will react – will they judge, ridicule, embarrass, humiliate, and shame you?
Now imagine that one or more of those things does happen. Perhaps not deliberately, but it does happen. How would you feel? This is the reality of domestic violence and family abuse survivors sharing their stories.
When I share my story, I hope and expect that the person listening will focus on the fact that I survived. That what happened to me was wrong and should never have happened. That I did not deserve it. No one deserves it.
However, the reality is that people don’t always know the right thing to say. They don’t expect someone they know to have experienced something so significantly life-changing.
They are also unable to reconcile their image of a victim of domestic violence with the person who is standing in front of them.
Sometimes people tend to become caught up in the “story” with a need to satisfy their curiosity about the “nitty-gritty”. It can come across as judgemental and gossipy rather than a true act of listening.
Rightfully, what the survivor saught or presumed as “safety” suddenly feels intrusive and judgemental, which in turn, can affect the survivor’s sense of trust.
There are a few facts that are universal regarding domestic violence and family abuse:
- It is wrong
- The survivor did not do anything to deserve it
- There is nothing the survivor could have done differently
- The survivor was made to feel shame and guilt
- The survivor carries grief, loss and trauma because of domestic violence and family abuse
The nature of grief and loss is that it comes and goes like waves. It never truly goes away. It is like a wound waiting to be scratched.
Then there’s trauma. Trauma changes the survivor as a person and affects their sense of being, belonging, safety, and identity. It sends their body into shock and denial, and hence, the body activates coping mechanisms such as fight, flight, and freeze.
Trauma does not always appear straight away because its job is to start to change the survivor, and change takes time. It eats away until a trigger appears and that is when it becomes visible. For me, it was at a time I felt threatened and scared and my whole body went numb. I was screaming on the inside but I could not speak. I was frozen. That was my trauma trigger.
The survivor may also have experienced societal and cultural factors along their journey to survival:
- The survivor may not have been believed
- The survivor may have had to defend themselves
- The survivor may have been told to keep the event a “secret”
- The survivor may have been urged to feel sorry for the perpetrator
- The survivor may have been forced to remain with the perpetrator
- The survivor may have been exiled by family members for choosing their safety over the family system
The family system is a complex web of individuals and events. It works by all members behaving in a certain way according to their set tasks and roles.
The system’s job is to protect itself at all costs. In a system where domestic violence and family abuse are normalised, minimized, and silenced, the person who stands up against it creates tension.
When a victim of domestic violence and family abuse speaks out against the norm, the system takes the form of the perpetrator by attempting to silence, normalize, and minimize.
The system, in its view, can do no wrong. When the victim begins to take the form of a survivor, the system exiles them to preserve other members of the system.
“[The perpetrator] appeals to the universal desire to see, hear, and speak no evil. The victim, on the contrary, asks the bystander to share the burden of pain. The victim demands action, engagement and remembering.”
When sharing their story, it is the survivors prerogative to share or withhold as much as they are comfortable with. It is right and normal for survivors to be cautious and watchful of how the listener will react. It is a safety mechanism, one that they have strongly learned.
The best thing listeners can do is be part of the survivor’s survival journey and commend their courage and resilience.
Survival is a lifelong process and each time survivors share their story, they practice a greater sense of trust, safety, identity, and belonging.
“You can recognize survivors of abuse by their courage. When silence is so very inviting, they step forward and share their truth…”