Image by Michael Lehet. No changes were made. CC BY-ND 2.0
Winter, and its litany of holidays, and summer, with its endless cookouts and family reunions, can be tough for everyone. If you have to deal with a history of trauma and face offenders, abusers, or people who have unknowingly afflicted trauma, it can be even tougher. I, myself, had a brief respite during the spring where I could breathe a sigh of relief; the cycle, however, has started again. My social anxiety makes it difficult for me to be around large groups of people, even if they are people I care about. In addition to this, there are certain people I spend time with during family gatherings that I have a less-than-pleasant history with. I have spoken at length about having a history of childhood sexual trauma, and about experiencing symptoms of a repressed memory of childhood sexual abuse. And although I have sometimes used these terms interchangeably, they are not necessarily synonymous. Let me explain.
Readers of this blog know that there are two issues when it comes to my history of trauma: there is a traumatic event in my past that I remember, and that most people do not see as sexual abuse but I do; there is also evidence of a repressed memory of more traditional childhood sexual abuse. The difference between trauma and abuse is that trauma is more centered on a psychological response to something, whereas abuse is a concrete event that can cause trauma. Wikipedia defines psychological trauma as “the result of an overwhelming amount of stress that exceeds one’s ability to cope or integrate the emotions involved with that experience.” While abuse can certainly cause stress, it is not the sole reason for it. Someone can absolutely experience trauma without having been traditionally abused. This grey area, something I live with daily, can make it difficult to heal and maintain relationships with people when I don’t know how to process their actions. While there are things that I do remember that were traumatic, and that my body processed as sexual, I very seriously doubt that the offender intended them to be sexual. They may have intended them to be physically abusive, or hurtful, but I don’t know because our discussions on the topic have been limited and centered on “you’re just sensitive and over-reacting.” If I am correct about the repressed memory (and if my body memories, nightmares, and limited experiences with flashbacks are correct), then I did experience a trauma that was intended as sexually abusive. But at this stage, I just don’t know for sure.
One aspect of my mental health concerns is splitting thinking patterns. I often struggle with black and white thoughts, and there are times when I either very much love or very much hate the people in my life. I can usually recognize these thought patterns and talk myself through them so that I don’t say or do something I’ll regret. Because of this, there are times when I look at people whose actions have been the source of trauma and view them as purely evil when they are not. There are also times where I consider the reality of my repressed memory and think that if it were true, I would feel pity and empathy for the abuser because of what they went through that drove them to those actions. While forgiveness can sometimes be an important part of healing from trauma, there have been times where I have been too forgiving toward the idea of being a survivor of childhood sexual abuse. Certainly this can be normal – most people assume that survivors of abuse or trauma immediately cut the offenders out of their life. But due to our rape culture demonizing survivors and not believing them, and the complexity of being related to or having an important relationship with an abuser or offender, many survivors and victims keep these people in their lives and sometimes act as if nothing has happened. I recently read an article on A Practical Wedding (which triggered a panic attack that I’ll get to in a moment) that details this phenomenon eloquently:
“I’m not saying that all survivors of sexual abuse are damaged forever. Just that so much is invisible, and that which is invisible is easily ignored. In each of these situations, I’m privy enough to see that my friends are not okay. And they’re trying to figure out how to make it okay.
It doesn’t feel as though the survivors have a lot of options. They can cut out the family, or refuse to attend functions where the abuser is present, which makes them seem rude and ungrateful. They can continue to push for people to believe them, but then they’re just “raining on the parade.” It’s lose-lose, and every time, the burden of action rests on the person who is suffering the most.”
I related to this piece so much. But it sent my negative thought process spiraling out of control and I wondered if there are people in my life, people who have caused me stress and trauma, that I should cut out permanently. But like the survivors in the APW article, things are not that simple.
I have good memories with the people who did traumatic things to me, and I have good memories with the people who abused me. Now that we’re all adults, they tend to behave pretty rationally at these gatherings, and they don’t treat me in the inappropriate way they did when I was a child. It’s mostly my own baggage surrounding my trauma and abuse history that makes me uncomfortable around them. They do something that takes me back. I’m in the place where it happened. A song plays that I find triggering. The PTSD kicks in. Someone reaches over and touches me on the shoulder, or just arrives to the gathering and asks for a hug. The physical touch becomes more than I can handle, and I have to excuse myself so that I can collect my emotions. I realize I can’t tell anyone what’s going on, because they’ll side with the abuser and telling me I’m over-reacting and being sensitive. And that’s the norm for survivors – nobody believes them, because we’re taught that trauma and abuse are synonymous. Nobody believes them, because they assume anyone who inflicts trauma or abuse is automatically evil, and it is not a nuanced situation where this person is probably also a survivor and is not completely shitty. Because they think in black and white, they don’t want to believe that someone they love and trust could do something that terrible to someone else they love and trust – so the only other option is to brush it aside and assume the survivor bringing up the incident is lying, or over-reacting, or sensitive, or misremembering. There’s no way for people outside of the situation to reconcile the nuance of the perpetrator/survivor dynamic. They look at situations like the one in the Duggar family, and they assume the parents fucked up – big time. They think the daughters didn’t go through the healing process properly because they forgave their offender/brother and still maintain a relationship with him. I’m not saying that situation has to be the norm. But it is, for so many people. For many, it’s problematic. For some, it’s what they want. For some, forgiveness and acknowledging that their perpetrator is not 100% evil (and certainly not 100% good), but rather, somewhere in-between, allows for admission of the act to others and an apology. They don’t want to go to the police. They don’t want to press charges. They just want the offender to admit they fucked up and move on with their lives.
I definitely experienced a childhood sexual trauma. I may have experienced childhood sexual abuse. I don’t think that the people involved were completely evil or need to serve a prison sentence. I just want them to own up and not deny how I reacted to the situation.