By Liz Howard
In coming to terms with the abuse I’ve suffered, one of the things I’ve struggled with most is my inability to see how I can fit myself into social situations in which an explicit discussion of the trauma I have experienced feels unwanted. It was and continues to be painful and difficult to emotionally cope with the psychological repercussions of both my prolonged molestation as a child and the domestic violence I experienced as an adult, but my own experience as a survivor of these abuses has been marred much more seriously by the feeling that the best response from me, for the benefit of other people, is either silence or some hodge-podge blend of vagueness and euphemisms.
I do recognize that progress is being made in how survivors of abuse are treated and viewed societally. I appreciate immensely that trigger warnings are becoming much more prevalent and that people are being held responsible for the type of ‘victim blaming’ that permeates discussions of abuse; however, my personal struggle in coping with the abuse I’ve suffered is not so much centered on a fear that someone will think I’m to blame for being touched as a child or assaulted in a romantic relationship (though I have heard my fair share of “What did you do to provoke him?” from the ever-pleasant ‘anti-PC,’ “Why is everyone so easily offended” crowd). With support from some very beautiful people, and admittedly with some occasional faltering, I have come to accept that those acts were disgusting and, no matter what my behavior, never should have happened. What has remained an issue for me, instead, is a fear of the reception of the history of my abuse. Typically, I leave conversations about my abuse feeling incurably tainted.
Any time I reveal to someone that I have been abused, even though I often do so unprompted and because I feel safe with them, I dread the conversation. When I begin to prepare myself to tell someone, I feel an overwhelming rush of anxiety, I begin to shake, my stomach tightens, and I feel like I’m not getting enough air. Again, it’s not that I’m bracing myself to be blamed or even that thinking about what has happened to me makes me feel this way (although sometimes it does). Rather, I’m bracing myself for the immediate sense that I have done something wrong by telling someone else about the history of my abuse. There is almost always some level of pity reflected on the person’s face, but accompanying it is, again almost always, this horrible sense of discomfort. No one has ever actually told me “I didn’t want to know that” or “I wish you hadn’t said that,” but I feel it in our interactions long after the conversation has ended.
Of course, it’s possible that my anxiety and my perception of a person’s response to learning of my abuse is at least partially me projecting some type of internalized ‘victim blaming’ onto the situation, but it feels so much deeper than that. It feels like, because of my past abuse (particularly my molestation as a child, which is often taken as the more sensitive topic of the two), I am a burden to those who find out about my past. It’s a tragedy, it’s sad that it happened, I have their pity, but why ‘drop it’ on somebody else? I get the sense, nearly every time, that I’ve now gone and upset someone with the reality of my past and mucked up their contented existence of ignorance about the source of my many odd quirks. It’s cute, funny, and charming that I giggle excessively when I’m upset or scared, until it’s revealed that I’ve done this my whole life, to protect myself. It’s sweet and good-natured that I cry when I accidentally squish a bug, unless that behavior is linked to my history of being assaulted. And so on. Subsequently, I feel gross and guilty after discussing it, like I’ve just thrown up and in so doing made everyone else around me throw up too. After these conversations, I think about how much easier it would be for me to simply say nothing, to not trouble someone else with the stories of my traumas, to keep it to myself. But that’s not fair to me, as the survivor of that abuse.
In my experience as a victim of abuse, I often felt isolated, ashamed, and ostracized. My abusers attempted (for a long time, successfully) to make me feel alone, dirty, guilty, and cut off from any help. In enduring abuse, I already felt like no one was listening to me and that I should remain silent. As a survivor of abuse, I find that the social reactions to the details of the abuse I have suffered serve only to prolong that sense of isolation. As previously articulated to some extent, it is incredibly difficult for me to discuss my past traumas with someone, especially when I’m making them aware of it for the first time. In finally working through the anxiety that comes with revealing this very private and personal aspect of my life to someone, the last thing I want to be met with is the feeling that they will now forever see me differently. When I tell someone what happened to me, I want to be met with comfort, compassion, and encouragement. I want validation that my abuser(s) did the taboo, disturbing, vile thing, but that my talking about that experience is not itself taboo, disturbing, or vile. I want to be able to leave conversations about my abuse feeling heard, rather than feeling like I have done something wrong or harmful in sharing my story.
Truthfully, it is more complicated than that. The most important complication, I think, is that sometimes my story will be harmful to someone, because something I offer up about my past in a moment of bravery, unthinkingly, could legitimately trigger someone else (I’m constantly working on being conscious of this). Additionally, I honestly don’t always know what I need when it comes to discussing my abuse. It’s easy to put in writing that I need comfort and affirmation, but there will be times when that won’t be enough because my own capacity to cope with my past traumas fluctuates daily. This is all to say, I understand that abuse is complex and traumatic and genuinely difficult to discuss. What is crucial to me, at least, is that when I speak about my abuse, I’m not put in a position in which I am once again made to feel like something that happened to me is gross and inappropriate of me.
Liz Howard is the ghost of a person past currently trying to locate a sense of identity. She recently graduated from Temple University with a master's degree in English and is now employed as an adjunct instructor of English and a reading and writing tutor. She is the prince & parent of all plagues & the mommiest of moms.
More of this year's essay series:
Sonya Vatomsky, Mothertonguetied: The Fantasy of Belonging
Ka Bradley, Naming and Its Discontents
Jayy Dodd, The Impossible Outside (or, A Zumbi's Autopsy)
Victorio Reyes, Discovering Existence - A Cross-Textual Essay
Sophfronia Scott, Of Flesh and Spirit
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