The Presentation of Self After Everyday Strife – How you can help your abuse survivor friends avoid self-censorship

CSA survivors spend an awful lot of our adulthoods trying to recover from our childhoods. 

When persistent, traumatic experiences have dominated your life from your earliest years it can feel like a full-time job coping with the after effects. If we’re functioning in society, holding down a couple of decent friendships, and regularly resisting the urge to engage in unhealthy coping mechanisms like addictive behaviours or self harm, we’ve probably already worked extra hard on our trauma to reach that point.

It means we’ve likely done lots of processing (in formal therapy settings or otherwise) and made some degree of peace with our childhoods. We’ve self-regulated through countless flashbacks and nightmares, grounded ourselves in the presence of multiple triggers, and handle the intrusive thoughts and feelings that regularly enter our heads. Trauma is a relentless presence and accepting our childhoods for what they were is an important step in our healing process. From speaking to other survivors, I’ve found that we’re generally much better at dealing with the facts of our pasts than our friends and allies seem to be. 

It’s common knowledge that many victims don’t speak out through fear of not being believed. Additionally, society attaches a lot of shame on sexual abuse in particular, but even when we feel safe from disbelief or judgement in the presence of our close friends who already know the basic outlines of our stories, we find ourselves keeping schtum for the simple reason that sharing any facts or details from our lived experiences is, well… awkward. 

What we’re sharing is usually something very normal to us. Remember, we’ve spent years focused on going over it and processing our lives. Everyone else gets to talk about their parents, school days, wacky adventures, and first sexual encounters with groups of friends and enjoy it as a fun, bonding, ‘getting to know you’ exercise, but when you play ‘never have I ever’ as a sex trafficking survivor the party vibes become panic vibes as fellow players wonder how the hell to respond to the tidbit that just rolled off your tongue.

This has the effect of making survivors feel isolated and different, even amongst trusted friends. When half of the relevant anecdotes or references you wish to drop into a conversation come within the context of a depressing situation, you have to choose whether to take the risk and expose others to what you wish to contribute, or bottle it up and exclude yourself. It’s a filter we have to put to use constantly. 

If you’ve ever had to deal with the sound of crickets after a trauma survivor friend nonchalantly disclosed something that shocked everyone else, there is a way to respond that could really help not just keep the conversation flowing, but save the survivor from regretting sharing themselves, uncensored, with their friends. When we mention something offhand that others find uncomfortable due to the fact that they expect us to be sensitive about it, remember that we chose to bring it up. This is an indication that we’re happy and feel safe to talk about whatever it is. It’s never our intention to provoke sympathy or upset people, we’re just relaxing and being ourselves. We also sometimes enjoy a little dark humour at our own expense. This actually helps to maintain the acceptance over our experiences that we’ve worked hard to achieve.

Sometimes, friends choose to ignore the taboo comments, changing the topic and acting as if no one said anything. This can be better than getting a ‘I’m so sorry to hear that 🙁 ’ when you were pitching for a laugh, but no one likes being ignored. We just want to be a part of a normal conversation and for us, normal means sharing about our lives and childhoods just as much as everyone else gets to. It’s also worth considering that because we grew up in extremely unusual circumstances and knew no different, it can be hard for us to assess what will receive the reaction of ‘My god, that’s terrible!’ and what won’t cause anyone to bat an eye.

We want people to respond naturally to us and not feel like they need to walk on eggshells. The natural response to someone offering a contribution to a conversation is to take it and run with it. Don’t be afraid of what we tell you. If it doesn’t trigger a trauma of your own then lean into the topic as you would with any other comment made in everyday chatter. Accept our offering and respond to it with openness and curiosity. Let us know we haven’t scared you away and that we are welcome to bring our full selves to the friendship. We just want to be as free and as open with our lives as everyone else gets to be.

Most people will have something they avoid discussing because of the awkward reaction it receives from others and there will be plenty of things we will never, ever talk about. The difference for survivors of long term, chronic child abuse is that often, dark and difficult contexts to our experiences are all we had. Within those experiences, though, are memories that made us; funny stories, sweet moments, crazy situations, and entertaining bits of trivia that we want to tell you about.