We all know and many of us are close to people who have survived child sexual abuse or rape. Chances are, many of you reading this are survivors yourself. We often encourage survivors to speak about their experiences, to get it out. It’s cathartic, it helps us to move through the pain, it helps us see that we’re not alone and that it wasn’t our fault.
We might not think as much about how to be on the receiving end of the story. What should we say? How do we talk with a survivor in a way that helps him or her heal a little bit more and feel okay about having told someone?
Here are some of the most important things that my friends and family have done that really helped me. I’m hoping you will think about these ideas, share them with the person in your life who has survived violence and ask him or her what might you do to help. Consider this a starting point to your discussion-–not an ending point.
Listening sounds like a pretty easy thing to do. We do it every day, right? I used to think I was a good listener but I know now I was an okay listener. When friends talked to me I couldn’t escape my thoughts. Rather than focusing on what they were saying, what I was sensing from them or what they might need from me, I focused on what I was going to say. Oftentimes, I interrupted them to say it.
The things I said often weren’t even for their benefit. For example, if I heard something that made me uncomfortable or even triggered me, I wanted to reassure them and end the conversation. So I would say, “Well, I wouldn’t worry about that” or, “That’s no big deal.” But they were worrying about it and it was a big deal to them. In my effort to reassure, I didn’t listen at all. I dismissed their concerns.
I still do this, but a lot less often. I know the difference between really listening to someone and just kind of listening but mostly focusing on my feelings. Now, I try-–admittedly not always successfully–-but I try to really listen. I started learning how to do this in therapy when I noticed that the psychiatrist with whom I worked listened so well. On the rare occasions when his listening skills weren’t their sharpest I noticed how different my time with him felt.
I learned about listening in a more profound way from my partner. I experienced through her what it felt like to have someone you care about really hear you. It’s an amazing feeling to not be brushed away. I know she works at being a good listener, but she is also a keen observer. She can sit and listen and doesn’t seem to be anywhere else than with the person to whom she’s talking. She doesn’t typically go to her fear to respond or need to end the conversation. She can tolerate the pain the person is in to be in it with them, without being pulled into it.
By watching and talking with her I have become a better listener. Not as good as I want to be, but I keep trying. As I get better, people seem to feel more comfortable sharing their thoughts with me. People talk about their anxiety, fear, and despair and I am better able to wash away my fears, my anxiety, and my uncertainty to focus on them. I have found that when we listen intently without a need to do something about what we’re hearing, people will share more with us.
When we ask survivors to speak out against their abuse, we have to know how to listen, really listen.
When memories of abuse first started returning to me, I decided to tell a friend who I had known since I was 13. I was terrified that she wouldn’t believe me. As a young teenager, I had found refuge in her home and family, and she had known my family well. She was shocked to hear what had happened, but believed me. She said, “Now things make more sense to me. I thought there was something weird with your family.” I was so relieved. Her response helped me to continue to talk to her about my memories and gave me the confidence to tell other friends.
I was lucky enough that everyone else I told then believed me: my psychiatrist, my husband, my other friends and coworkers. This seemingly simple response of believing a survivor is powerful. My father told me for years that no one would ever believe me, if I told anyone, they would understand only that it was my fault. My father had so much power over me I believed him. My family acted as though nothing was happening to me, and I saw no reason to think that anyone else would act differently. Being believed over and over by those close to me as an adult helped me to eventually accept what had happened to me and start to heal.
To be continued next week…
Also see this blog and others www.psychologytoday.com/blog/the-sum-my-parts/201107/when-loved-one-is-survivor-child-abuse-part-one
The Sum of My Parts Now Available
This memoir follows Olga as she splits herself into “parts” and develops dissociative identity disorder with the abuse, and then struggles to merge these parts and overcome the disorder in adulthood.
A Survivor’s Story Now Available
Olga’s critically acclaimed first-hand account of the impact of violence in her life is available in both English and Spanish.