My therapist recently referenced an article talking about a woman who had been the sole survivor of a plane crash that went down into a remote Vietnamese jungle. Without all the gory details, the article narrated how she survived and how she moved onwards from her experience and towards the ups and downs of daily life. When asked how she carries on and approaches life, she says, “it takes an effort to actually accept the loss. It’s much easier to pretend that it didn’t happen. That’s very human. It’s the same with mourning. You cannot accept it if you don’t feel it … Be aware of it. Not just step over it.”
Immediately, I was confused and, admittedly, close to being annoyed. Why is my therapist talking to me about plane crashes and one-off instances of disaster? Is she insinuating that I should just accept the loss of a childhood, the loss of a fundamental sense of safety and belonging in the world? Even worse, is she suggesting I should simply accept that I was sexually abused, exploited, and tortured for no other reason than it made someone else feel powerful, gratified, and amused by my suffering?
Before I could ask, or disconnect from the conversation entirely, my therapist peered at me with those quiet, knowing eyes.
“Sometimes,” she said, “it’s our notion that something should have, and could’ve, been different that prevents us from seeing, and really knowing, what did happen. It stops us from feeling what wasn’t safe enough to be felt then; it would’ve been life-threatening to acknowledge that you were on your own, that no one was going to stop the abuse, and that your abuser was a dangerous person.”
I looked at her blankly. I knew all this, of course, but isn’t that why I can’t just “get over it” and accept something that shouldn’t have happened? Why should I accept missing out on years of ‘normal’ kid-stuff, of making mistakes and learning without repercussion, of going to parties and sleepovers without a weird sense of shame and deep-down, gut-wrenching ‘otherness’ to my peers?
I stared down at my shoes. Maybe I would listen to what she has to say. Maybe, just this once, I can stay curious. I’ve known her for months now. I’ve already scrutinised every word, opinion, smile, and gesture of kindness. I’ve assessed that she’s safe enough. Surely, she’s not going to dismiss my inability to function like a normal human being as an issue with not ‘getting over it’ fast enough.
“I know you tried to tell people. I know there was obvious signs that people should’ve picked up on. And I know, logically, that if someone had done something then it might well be different for you now. But no one did.”
I thought back to my aunt walking around the garden with 5-year-old me, suddenly enquiring about whether my step-dad “hurts” me. I remember saying yes, but why didn’t she do anything? I pictured the teaching assistant who built such a kind and loving rapport with me that I was seconds, if not milliseconds, away from telling her before an awful, inextricable twist of fate saw another pupil throw a ball at her face and the moment shattered. She left the school two weeks later, I vowed never to try telling another living soul again for fear of them being hurt. I thought about all the people who I felt at least some sense of safety towards, and how repeatedly my abuser would undermine their reliability with a quick, bullying remark about their appearance, gender, sexual orientation, or their general “pansy-like” demeanour. If they were truly as undependable as he was, then they couldn’t do anything either, right?
She brings me back into the room with an inquisitive look. “We know that it happened, but what would ‘little you’ have needed to know that someone understood, and that you weren’t alone, at least?”
Something broke. A small voice from somewhere inside me said, “I just want to know who is bad and who isn’t. I don’t know who to go to, and I don’t understand why I feel so scared.”
“If someone were to help you understand what was going on in your world a little better, what would they say?”
I lifted my head and peeked over towards her.
“I’d want them to say, ‘he is a very horrible man that does horrible things’.”
When I first started processing the trauma from my experiences with CSA/E, I couldn’t budge away from the ‘what ifs’ and the ‘whys’ of what happened. As a child, I didn’t know what was happening to me; no one was validating my experience, and therefore I couldn’t understand what the abuse meant about me and the rest of the world. I couldn’t form a narrative of others in relation to my experiences; I couldn’t decipher who was the “bad” person, who ignored the abuse, who were also victims, and who were simply naive towards the prospect of abuse. I got lost in detailing all the people in my childhood who could have known, or already knew, about the abuse. I wanted to evidence every moment, every opportunity, where someone could’ve done something or raised the alarm, and didn’t.
I realised, with much prompting on my therapist’s part, that my investigative efforts meant that I wasn’t acknowledging what had really happened and, of course, what hadn’t happened. In other words, I wasn’t feeling it. If I could just imagine all the rescue efforts that might’ve occurred, I wouldn’t have to cry. I wouldn’t have to grieve the loss of my formative years. I could be angry instead. I could keep pushing all of that “stuff” away, where I can’t feel it and I can’t see the abuse for what it is, abuse.
It took a good few weeks of mulling it over, questioning my therapist’s viewpoint and trying any possible counter argument on for size. What I realised in those weeks was, for all my intellectualising, “little me” had a very good point; wondering what could’ve happened instead doesn’t help me to heal now, but stating what my reality actually was certainly does. In its simplest form, the reality was that my abuser was “a very horrible man that did very horrible things”. No histrionics, no inferences as to what I should do with the information; if “little me” had known this, she could make sense of her world and her experiences. More than anything, she could understand that the horribleness around her was not really anything to do with her at all. She could’ve put that horribleness back where it belonged, back to the abuser. Importantly, it also helps me distinguish between then and now; no-one did anything then, but I’m doing something now. If I cannot change what happened, I can certainly give myself the understanding that I needed as a child in order to heal and build a sense of safety and belonging now. I can certainly give myself permission to ‘accept the losses’. And that’s far from powerless.
Article referenced: https://www.theguardian.com/lifeandstyle/2023/apr/25/how-we-survive-i-was-the-sole-survivor-of-a-plane-crash?CMP=Share_iOSApp_Other
September 2023- Seph