Tips for Secondary Survivors
Many people experience trauma in their lives: car accident, death of a loved one, 911, hurricane Sandy. These things leave us overwhelmed, scared, confused, in pain. We might struggle trying to understand why did this have to happen. We might constantly relive traumatic memory, or avoid reminders of it. We might be denying the impact it had on us, or be angry and look for someone to blame for our pain. We might start questioning people in general, world, or God. Or we might blame ourselves.
Abuse is a type of trauma that is inflicted on one person by another. Maybe I was raped, or beaten up, or yelled at daily and played mind games with, or maybe my parents did things that a parent isn't supposed to do to a child. The effect it had on me might be compared to a natural disaster, except abuse is perpetrated by a specific person (which I might have had a strong emotional bond with), often as a repeating pattern rather than a single occurrence, and usually isn't something I could talk of freely. I'll never be the same after such an experience, but I can repair the damage, re-adjust, grow, and have a happy, healthy, productive life. Takes time though. Often - years. Each survivor faces their own unique issues, but there are some common traits that many survivors share, and many supporters find confusing, frustrating, disturbing, or otherwise difficult to handle. Here's an attempt to explain a few of them.
Abuse royally messed up my relationship skills. Part of the abuse dynamics is that it's a special relationship between perp and myself - abuse is usually kept secret, so we end up in a situation where he's the only person in the universe who understands me. The relationship with him is full of pain, fear, and confusion - but it's very intense emotionally, it's a strong bond. Everyone else is seen as 'outsiders' who have no clue, so all of my feelings/needs that normally are distributed between a few people, get transferred to just one, him. He's a friend, lover, mom, dad, child, therapist - all in one. So this is the relationship pattern I'm prone to recreating over and over: I connect to one person, talk to them day and night, abandon all other interests - essentially placing all of my eggs in one basket. This isn't healthy, and it never ends well, so keep an eye out for this pattern, and avoid it. Do not become my only source of support. Set boundaries, and be especially firm on what your role in the relationship is and what it isn't. On one hand, protect yourself from burnout. And on another hand, I need to learn how to get my needs met appropriately, by more than just one person.
Abuse greatly influenced my beliefs about the world, people, and myself. Messages I received during abuse were enforced very strongly by pain and fear - so to me they seem natural and unquestionable, I cannot differentiate between what's a healthy correct belief and what's a dysfunctional message that isn't true. Therefore, I'm busy sorting through ALL of my beliefs, discovering discrepancies, resolving confusions, experimenting, finding new truths. This is a hard and time-consuming process, and it might look freaky when I talk complete nonsense. What I need you to do is listen. Don't judge, don't brainstorm solutions, and don't push me to talk if I don't feel like it. Often what I say might be an obvious mistake, unhealthy and counterproductive, you're eager to make me see the truth. Be careful with it though, because when I was abused, I was also told what to think and feel, and am easily intimidated back into that pattern. I was told lies, you're wanting to tell me truths - but essentially it's the same thing, because I need to learn to think with my own head, feel with my own heart, draw my own conclusions, develop my own beliefs, make my own decisions - this is the true freedom from abuse. I need supportive environment to discover things for myself rather than being told what to do, think, or feel.
During abuse, it is common for victims to sort of shut off their emotions and thoughts, out of self-preservation, - I just clench my teeth, suck up, and wait it out. However, those thoughts and feelings will catch up with me sooner or later, once I'm safe and able to attend to them. So I spend great amounts of time thinking back on what I went through and having very intense emotions on it. It might look disturbing to you, that I talk non-stop and cry so much over something that took place decades ago, but just keep in mind that this might be the very first time I'm doing it. I did not cry when it happened, I didn't get scared or angry, I wasn't confused. I simply couldn't do it back then. That's why I'm doing it now. Don't freak when I'm in crisis - it doesn't mean things are out of the ordinary and you need to take action. I'm often in crisis, it's a natural course of life for now. I have a therapist/counselor/doctor/sponsor/someone who was trained to work with abuse survivors - they are aware of the crisis I'm in, and will take action if necessary. I understand it must be quite upsetting to observe me falling apart, but last thing I need in such a time is to have to comfort you and reassure you that things are still under control, despite the alarming appearances. When I seem to pose danger to self or others - by all means reach out. When I'm not eating, sleeping, showering, etc - definitely bring up your concern. But when I'm simply in an emotional turmoil: crying, venting, hitting pillows - this is normal. You don't have to babysit me through this if you're not up for it - it's very OK to give me time and space to regroup. Just please don't call ambulance every time I say I hate my life, - that just teaches me that expressing emotions around you isn't a good idea. Bad for me, bad for our relationship.
Abuse caused me some specific mental health quirks: Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, Anxiety Disorders, Phobias, Personality Disorders, Mood Disorders, Dissociative Disorders, Eating Disorders, Self-Injury, Suicide, Addictions - I could have any combination of these, or something different. Some of these things will pass for the most part, as I make progress with my recovery. Others will stay for good. This is just something you need to accept and live with. You can google up what my specific condition is like, talk to me about it, ask me questions on what sort of support do I need from you. One important boundary to draw though is that - these are my conditions, not yours. You cannot treat me for them, or save me from them, or talk me into giving them up. If resolving depression were as simple as 'just cheer up', agoraphobia - 'just go outside', self-injury - 'just stop cutting', or alcoholism - 'just stop drinking' - there would be no mental health professionals. Such suggestions frustrate me, because they basically deny the complexity of the problem and suggest that I'm either unwilling to get better or so stupid I didn't think of such an obvious solution. I already have a therapist working with me on resolving issues. If I don't have one - I need to get one. From you all I need is acceptance, support, and good boundaries.
Above all - abuse was a constant chaos. Things were unpredictable, unstable, unreliable. I never knew what's going to happen next, cause and effect were inconsistent from day to day, I couldn't plan anything because all plans kept changing or getting cancelled due to abuse - life was chaotic, and I learned to function this way. So be stable, reliable, predictable. I'm a survivor, dealing with piles of issues, I'm not going to be stable for quite a while, this one will be your responsibility in the relationship. Everyone needs stability, and I of all people - because it's what helps me heal the most, it truly is the best thing you can offer. Routines, traditions, plans (both long- and short-term) - establish them, and keep them up. Things need be predictable and reliable, no surprises. Lack of structure and predictability is what allows my symptoms to get worse - depression, SI, addictions, anxiety - all of it is greatly affected by how structured and predictable my environment and life is. I need to know what to expect, I need to have something to look forward to, I need to make plans and stick to them - this is what helps me the most, because it gives me a sense of a meaningful productive life: abuse is over, now life is good. It doesn't have to be something big, small routine things help just as well as big ones. For example, if we have a tradition of watching a Netflix movie every Wednesday night - it's already structure, it helps greatly. Help me establish it.
It might sound ironic after all of the above, but don't start treating me like a different species. There are things specific to survivors only, but it's a small fraction of who I am. Just like your gaming preference, your employment, or your race doesn't define who you are - neither past abuse defines me. So don't regard me as an alien, even if I act like one at times :)
Fort Refuge membership is only open to survivors themselves, for privacy reasons. We have Guests' Forum that is open to everyone, including you - where you can communicate with our members and other visitors. Thank you very much for reading this page - it makes a big difference that you simply care enough to google up tips on how to support an abuse survivor better. This is what matters the most - that you care. We all need support, and are glad there are people like you!
PS: great article on the same topic - 10 Things I've Learned About Trauma.
~ Mahatma Gandhi
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