I rarely speak about my experiences of abuse – I didn’t speak of them at all for years, until I found the safe, calm harbour of my husband and poured it out, insisting on the lights being out so he couldn’t see the shame on my face; forcing the words out like shards of glass in the darkness. It’s hard to talk about so you learn to be quiet about it and when you’ve been quiet since the age of 12, that’s not hard.
Every woman who experiences sexual assault copes in a different way, but there are common experiences. Feeling like you’re past it and then finding yourself drowning in a sudden, unexpected wave. Growing up, encountering more assaults and believing that you somehow attract it – like it’s your fault. Finding shame the most difficult emotion of all to deal with. Feeling that underneath any smile you wear, any accomplishment you achieve, there’s nothing but soot and that there are people in the world who are there to scratch you deep enough to reveal it. And believe me, there is no shortage of people with nails eager to scratch.
You learn to spot your sisters – the ones who stand beside you and know it’s never stable – that you can be erratic and unpredictable. That you can cry one minute and fight like an alleycat the next. The ones who don’t get bored of you, who are patient, calm and kind. Some of these sisters are men.
You learn to spot the voyeurs. The ones who seem keen to help, but who really just want the gossip. Who parade about on social media championing survivors but who in private dump them because they’re getting boring. One poor girl who had confided in such people found herself first muted and then blocked in this way because apparently her pedagogy was annoying and she had ‘online Munchausen’ whatever that is. To those people I say this. Go away. I don’t care if you have your own experiences; I don’t care if the person you’re dumping is behaving in erratic ways. Abuse will do that to a person.
You learn to spot those veering close to the edge. People who have similar experiences and you do your best to try to offer that safety net in case they tip over. But you can never be the counsellor they need or the help that will keep them from the edge. Not unless you’re trained, because victims, survivors, whatever they choose to call themselves need specialist help that go well beyond an ear and some sympathy. Or worse. Sometimes the best of intentions can yield the most harm.
You can stroll through months, even years, when you think all is well, then all of a sudden, you’re tripped up. I’ve been tripped up a lot this week. You never quite know when something will trigger you. I have pet hates and I’m sure they’re not the same as another person’s. But people using conversations around school exclusions to trumpet their championing of survivors by making wild accusations and generalisations don’t actually help. Using sexual abuse to score some twitter popularity points are crass. And they leave some women who stumble on those threads suddenly finding themselves back in the wave.
You learn to take a deep breath when men try to mansplain what abuse is to you. Sometimes it’s well intentioned. Sometimes people are just contemptible little cocks, scoring points. But the breath gets trapped. It finds you in the middle of the night and suddenly you can’t breathe, your heart is racing. You’re 12 again, on a bathroom floor, wiping your eyes and hoping your parents won’t notice you were crying.
Sometimes you want to say ‘I understand that being hounded on twitter by someone with a bit of an unhealthy obsession is not the same as being raped but when you’ve lived a life on high alert, wary of the scratchers, the feeling of being hounded is still very real.’ Instead you try to write ‘please leave me alone’ and hope there’s enough humanity in there to respect the request. Sadly there’s not.
It’s a tough time for everyone right now. Tensions are high, few are sleeping well or feeling positive. But for survivors of abuse those cortisol levels create a heightened sensitivity to triggers. Perhaps people could try to avoid setting them off just in order to win an argument on twitter or to look virtuous. Surely that’s not too much to ask?
And if you’re thinking of setting up an organisation to support victims of abuse, perhaps get a qualification first.