This blog is dedicated to Alan and David. – two dear friends lost to us in 2020.
Back in February, Zoe and Elicia were excited to introduce four new members of the REIGN Collective. Everyone had been trained up, presenter bios had been added to our website, dates were set for delivering our first workshops together, and then every single booking was cancelled.
We held our first emergency board meeting over Zoom and set to work figuring out how on earth we were going to survive as a business and deliver our notably energetic and interactive workshops through a computer screen – if our former clients would even want that.
With heavy hearts, we had to tell our new friends that it might be some time before they got to put all their hard work to use and join us in delivering CSE training from their lived experience.
Throughout the pandemic REIGN has been very lucky. Supporters came through, donating generously to our crowd funder, our online workshops received glowing appraisals, and the Paul Hamlyn foundation funded our work yet again.
Zoe kept up the cheesy motto “survivors ‘gonna survive” whilst Elicia made a new cash flow spreadsheet every week to reassure herself that we’d manage to break even. The pandemic is far from over, but the original panic has now subsided and we’re full of hope for the new year.
As for the new members of our collective, they have all handled 2020 with the type of strength and wisdom we’ve come to expect from a group of women calling themselves survivors.
By way of introduction, Natalie, Mia, Lily, and Eve, along with stalwarts Elica and Zoe, are here to share their reflections and advice on living through a global pandemic after surviving CSE.
What have we learned about ourselves as survivors during the pandemic?
“Being used to things not always going right/to plan, and ‘rolling with the punches’ is a survival skill I’ve had from a young age and is second nature. This year has given me the chance to fully appreciate that about myself and I think it has improved my sense of self and self-esteem.”
“Having spent the first 16 years of my life in an inescapable traumatic situation, I know how to endure. This interests me because some people seem to think surviving abuse makes us more fragile than others, but this is clearly not true.”
“I have learnt that my urge for quiet and solitude is not merely a trauma response but actually makes up a good chunk of who I am as a person and who I always was, and that’s OK!”
“When everything shut down I lost all the things I did for myself to give me joy and fulfilment outside of work. I had put them all in place in my life thinking they sustained me but I’ve actually been fine without them. I am very self-sufficient and perfectly happy as an introvert. The pandemic has been a good reminder of that.”
“Although I originally struggled, this year has been an opportunity to prove to myself how far I have come in my recovery. I could have easily slipped into past coping mechanisms but Instead, I tapped into my resilience, reignited the fire within me, and remembered that I am a survivor because I chose to be – because I chose me.”
“I learnt I have so many layers to my trauma that I had been pushing down. Feeling trapped and constantly worried about giving the virus to someone else along with that overwhelming guilt triggered something in me and made me realise that I still need help and that although I was telling myself I was “recovered” I wasn’t.”
“I have learnt that there are some aspects of my experiences that I have not entirely dealt with which, at the start of lockdown, were triggered and came to the fore-front of my daily experience.”
“I’ve figured out that I have really bad anticipatory anxiety from my trauma. Before the pandemic, I knew I was struggling with something but I never had the time to figure out what it was or where it was coming from. I took this as an opportunity to understand what my body had been telling me for years and to sit with the anxiety which was the hardest part because I was finally looking into the darkness I pretended wasn’t there. It’s been hard work but without the pandemic I wouldn’t have had the chance.”
“It is an emotional trigger for me when people show a lack of respect for mine and others’ health and boundaries. It reminds me of my abusers’ lack of respect for my health and boundaries as a child. It’s important to me that the people are able to follow consent around social distancing. If others don’t take my safety precautions seriously then they’re not respecting my boundaries or me as a person. This has caused me to re-evaluate some of my relationships and reconsider who deserves my trust.”
What have we taken away from this year to help us with our recovery from trauma?
“During lockdown, I spent my time doing a lot of reflecting and thinking about my childhood after I’d exhausted all other distractions. At one point, the abuse was all I could think about because I was feeling physically trapped and triggered. As a result, I did a lot of self care and got to understand why self care is so important. “
“In times of distress, I naturally gravitate to my parents home as being my ‘Safe Space’ but this year I was isolating so I couldn’t see them. I have learnt that if I can have emotional and physical flashbacks of abuse without being in the physical space that it occurred in, I am also able to call on emotional and physical feelings of safety on my own terms without that physical space. My traumas may lie within me but so does my Safe Space.”
“I can long for an easy life and smooth sailing after a tumultuous childhood but something out of my control will always come along and I’ll have to deal with that. Hoping for a stretch of peace will probably leave me forever unsatisfied so the best thing for me to do is to expect challenges to drop by like uninvited guests and see it as my job to greet them in my armour.”
What has been the most difficult aspect of 2020 for us?
“Losing my friend to suicide and attending his funeral in a pandemic. Hearing this news brought emotions that I had never experienced and left me with questions I won’t ever get answers to.”
“I have experienced a lot of loss this year – all of it producing disenfranchised grief. A really difficult part was not seeing my friend before he died because he lived in a care home.”
“I’ve not been able to go to my theatre group which is a huge form of escapism for me. The pandemic highlighted to me just how much I need all of the “small” things in life that keep me going. I remembered that focusing on dance and theatre is what helped me survive the abuse as a child and I realised that it still does as an adult. Since that has been taken away, I’ve felt really lost and alone.”
“As a survivor, I panic when I feel I do not have autonomy over my life and choices; it feels all too familiar to when my life was dictated for me.”
“At the start of lockdown I found the restrictions suffocating. It awoke old memories of the time I was unable to escape an abuser in my own home. Despite knowing that I was now in a safe place with safe people, the lack of choice and control was still triggering.”
“On web cam, knowing people are looking at me but not being able to see their eyes or read their body language triggers trauma from specific incidents of sexual violence. Some of my abuse was recorded and videos of it possibly still exist online. I had to ‘get over’ my aversion to the camera pretty quickly to keep my job but I still struggle with it sometimes.”
“The majority of my abuse occurred online, therefore, the reliance on technology to socially connect with one another during lockdown has been a huge obstacle for me.”
“This year I have really recognised how some people are willing to put other’s lives at risk. This has been very hard for me to witness.”
“I’ve felt enraged by the neglect of disabled people and those in care homes and the government’s lack of care for people on minimum wage or who are losing their jobs, especially in the North West. I feel angry, but can’t protest safely without risking spreading the virus, so there’s that feeling of impotence which I find reminiscent of other injustices in my life.”
What skills and strengths did surviving give you to manage lockdown and the pandemic?
“Trauma and abuse is messy, it’s chaotic, it’s unpredictable and it’s a definite Existential crisis – much like this pandemic. This isn’t our first rodeo.”
“When I was trapped in abuse there was no promise of a light at the end of the tunnel and since I escaped I’ve had to face the fact that I may be dealing with PTSD for the rest of my life. I’ve long ago learned how to tolerate indefinite strife by seeking out the small breaks of light in the tunnel walls and making the most of those. I live one day at a time. That way, I don’t become overwhelmed by the darkness in front of me.”
“Though hypervigilance is a trauma response, it is obviously a very useful one at the moment to avoid the very real risk of catching the virus.”
“I have a survival-developed attention to detail towards other people’s behaviours and actions which has enabled me to notice when people in my life might be struggling so I can help them as well as protect myself.”
“I learned how to quickly pull myself together and carry everyone else after my abuse. When the lockdown hit, I went into protection mode again and made sure I was looking after myself and the people in my household more than I normally would because that old fight or flight mode kicked in.”
Our advice for those supporting survivors during the pandemic. What to be aware of:
“This has been a time of great learning, freedom and even joy for me (with the ongoing awareness that for others it is not) and that has relied on a hell of a lot of luck. However, Everybody is going to respond differently. Some survivors struggle wearing masks, some struggle seeing others in masks, and some of us are not struggling at all – there is no universal survivor experience.”
“Survivors of abuse often experience professionals or well meaning friends project onto us what they think is best for us, but ultimately, we are the ones who have lived our stories and who will navigate our recovery.”
“If we have confided in you about our stories, please be thoughtful of triggers. For example, if you are a therapist with a client whose abuse occurred online; be mindful that during a pandemic you may need to offer an alternative to video calls, e.g. a telephone appointment instead.”
“Trauma never goes away and this year a lot of past memories may have come up in new ways. It’s important to never make a survivor feel like they shouldn’t feel the need to talk it all through again.”
“Sometimes we get overwhelmed and can snap or project our frustration onto other people or things. We don’t mean too, it’s just that we are struggling. Please don’t be angry or impatient with us. Sometimes just us getting out of bed is enough, don’t try and push us to do multiple tasks if we don’t feel up to it, don’t call us lazy.”
“The emotional damage from abuse can have us believing we should put others first and not bother people with our needs. We might be telling ourselves we’ve survived worse and then bottling up or ignoring the impact that the background stress of 2020 has had on us. Be the one to actively check in on us and don’t be so quick to take a dismissive ‘I’m fine, don’t worry about me’ as an answer. We’ve gone into hyper-survival mode and likely lost all our other support systems and routines this year.”
“It might not be customary for you to make first contact with the person you’re supporting, but with the days all rolling into one and the isolation many of us are in, it can be very easy for people dealing with trauma to turn in on ourselves and get a bit lost. Keep in touch and keep us grounded. Encourage us to keep up with our healthy routines.”
“Offer to listen and just have a chat about anything for some company or a distraction. Maybe try opening up conversations like this one with people – find out what they think their strengths have been during the pandemic and their opinion on the main issues for survivors at this time. Their answers will probably reflect the issues most pertinent to them.”