Forty-five and still standing. I have made it this far.
So by definition I have survived. Yet, it is only recently that I have come to consider myself a survivor. This is probably common to many of us: reaching that understanding of what happened to us later rather than sooner.
My own story is nowhere near unique, probably not even rare: abused on a regular basis by my maternal grandfather between the ages of five and 11. Repeated trauma, occasionally disclosed, but never responded to.
It can be hard, particularly on a bad day, to say to yourself “I am a survivor”, or even, to use the words of pop goddess Gloria Gaynor, to know “I will survive”. After all I don’t feel like much of a survivor when I am reliving a trauma, in the midst of an anxiety attack, overdosing on attachment despair, feeling deep shame, or hating every label applied to me (including survivor). On those days I feel like a victim.
I feel that being a survivor defies definition. It is complicated – “survivordom” doesn’t start where victimhood stops. They run in parallel and they coexist inside me. Some days my fickle mind privileges the victim and I really struggle, other days it privileges the survivor and I soar.
Why do I soar? I think it is because I love the community of support that I have. Like everything good and solid it started small but is definitely now growing: the pyramid sales model of reaching out and making connections, both public and private.
First there is my therapist – nearly four years of patience, belief, presence, acknowledgement, and encouragement (particularly to write). Feeling my way to disclosing as fully as I could, sitting with the full spectrum of emotions – it has been (and still is) a long journey, but she is the bedrock of my support. Knowing that I am able to trust someone who has reliability and understanding written into their DNA has terrified me and transformed me.
Second are my two amazing friends who are simply steadfast in their support. They are my day to day. Not survivors, but supporters and part of my private survivor community. There for me at the end of the phone, with a glass of wine, a text, an email, a day out. Kindness and love personified.
Third is the survivor community I have met through social media and through writing. When I published my first blog and put it out through my new twitter account the response was overwhelming. People I didn’t know told me I was writing their experience, people shared their experiences with me and I realized they were my own. I was ‘meeting’ total strangers, but I knew instantly a very important part of them. We could connect.
When I can manage it, I take part in a weekly survivor chat session on Twitter. It is amazing to connect with a huge community of survivors who understand. When I am in ‘victim’ mode it lifts my mood, makes me smile a little, often makes me cry, but I know there are people there who really do understand. When I am a ‘soaring survivor’, I love to connect, to contribute and to hear from others. However I am feeling I always benefit.
Through this virtual community I now also have a real face to face community – the fourth step of my pyramid. Initially I became part of a start up charity to provide support to young people who have been sexually abused in childhood. And now I am part of a group of survivor activists – the Survivors’ Collective. We are there for each other and we are pursuing projects to give voice to the issues that matter to us and to raise awareness of how abuse impacts on our lives.
My first meeting with them was plainly and simply empowering. I was talking using abuse survivor shorthand that I didn’t need to expand; wanting to say “me too” every time someone said something; reveling in being completely understood by people who just ‘knew’; and loving the kindness of strangers who weren’t really strangers.
I love the diversity of the survivor community. Some of us want to be out and proud, some of us want to share our anger, some of us want to be very private yet acknowledged, others (like me) need to be anonymous, although this is slowly changing. My experience is that everything is accepted and everyone is respected.
My journey to becoming a survivor has been long. I wrote this poem nearly 25 years ago, and it marks the start of something. I think it’s the first I ever wrote about my abuse and how much I needed my mother. I have never shared it before – but I share it now, with the huge survivor community that I know is out there, and who, along with my therapist, my friends and the Survivors’ Collective, make life much sweeter.
Call my name
Use my name
Part of your disgusting act
At the door
You’re there, naked
I know what’s coming
Stop? I tell you
My body and my mind
The next day
I cry at school
I cry all day
Dying – supper
Dying – bed time
Dying – all night
Need her, call her
(1990 – aged 20)