What does it mean to be a friend, ally or loved one of an adult survivor of childhood sexual abuse?
It means that we see the person they might not be able to see. We respect them. Admire them. Love them because they are inherently lovable. And respectable. And admirable.
Sometimes it means that we are a safe place for them to unload their emotions. Sometimes being this person is good…sometimes it is not. If the survivor has begun the therapeutic healing process, they have a better chance at being aware of their triggers and subsequent behavior. If they have not, then they may not see any connection between bad behavior towards their allies and their long past abuse.
The affects of childhood sexual abuse are sneaky. The experiences of long ago influence today’s attitudes, behaviors and thoughts without the survivor or their allies knowing. Trust is broken long before it is understood, which makes relationships hard to sustain in adulthood. Self-esteem can be used as a weapon by the abuser and turned against the one being abused. This weapon is loaded for an unsuspecting lifetime. To be used in a self-inflicted game of one-person-emotional-russian-roulette for decades to come “I’m no good” “I’m not lovable” “I’m a piece of $^!@” “No one will ever believe me” “I don’t deserve anything good”.
These same loaded weapons can be used on allies, too “If you like me, you must be suspect” “You’re just going to hurt me” “I’m going to keep people away from me so I am safe” “I’m angry (but can’t say why).”
Being an educated ally means understanding the far reaching affects of abuse and coaxing, cajoling. supporting, them throughout the healing process and validating the emotions, thoughts and feelings that arise. Sometimes it means forgetting, too.
Sometimes as an ally we forget that our friend/sibling/lover was abused. We forget that they have survival skills that helped them live through the abuse and those now defunct behaviors sometimes appear unbidden in today’s world. We forget that when they lash out they might not be lashing out at us…rather they are lashing out at a behavior/gesture/ phrase/smell that reminds them of those unsafe times. We forget that their trust in us…in everyone…is fragile. And while we know our own intentions, they may be given an unflattering, shadowy interpretation based on the survivor’s history. A gentle reminder of earlier situations and the abuser’s intentions might give us context for the survivor’s behavior.
Ever had the experience of having a lovely day with a partner when all of a sudden you two are having a knock-down-drag-out fight and you are not sure why? Sometimes the emotional dam bursts and the survivor has to let the anger out. And you are the unlucky recipient. If they are not involved in a healing process, their self awareness in this respect is limited. They are acutely aware of the pain, but not necessarily aware of its source, much less the fact that they are lashing out at the nearest person, not the person responsible for causing the pain.To be an ally of a survivor means understanding with a caveat. As an ally, you will cope with outbursts, tantrums and irrational behavior because you care for this person. Yet you are not to let yourself be abused…neither physically, emotionally nor verbally. You must talk to your loved one/friend/sibling and explain how their actions are affecting you. If there is a dotted line to be drawn to the abuse, perhaps the survivor can see it and is willing to seek support. Once disclosed, the abuse and all its dotted lines appear in sharp relief to allies, though we do sometimes forget the reasons for errant behavior.
To be an ally may also mean to be frustrated, though hopeful. You SEE the good person. You care for them. You want them to succeed…in life…in healing…in everything. And yet, if psychological healing has not begun they may feel that the whole world is against them, including YOU. They may say that you think they are a liar, cheater, whore, or worse. Or they may call you, their ally, all these horrible names. And no matter how much you protest they hear the loop of negative thoughts that has run in their head for years. The message is deeply ingrained and it is deeply negative and troubling…nothing you say can change it. Only the survivor has the power to heal their wounds.
To be an ally of a survivor is to support them in healing. I am an advocate of WINGS Foundation support groups because, though it is frightening to say it out loud (much less in front of others), there is validation when a survivor learns they are not the only one.
I liken it to the Lamaze class reunion when we all had our newborn babies…no one questioned why you were gazing intently at the miracle in your arms instead of talking to them. My classmates GOT IT. They UNDERSTOOD my emotions…or at least the gist of them. And then we would all try to talk at once about our latest revelation or experience. We were having similar experiences. We were growing together.
When a survivor joins a support group, they have found people with wounds much the same as their own. They may have similar stories, feelings, frustrations. Group members may be able to put words to something that, until now, was just a nebulous feeling floating at the edge of consciousness. Being in a support group gives survivors the chance to breathe. Exhale a giant breath of relief. Bring in the fresh air of validation. Relief at being heard, seen and understood. Relief at not feeling so alone anymore. Relief when they realize they do not have to be in pain anymore. Relief at knowing healing is, indeed, possible.
To be an ally of an adult survivor means to be hopeful and committed. Being an ally means walking on eggshells sometimes, while at other times walking into the emotional china shop like a bull, unafraid to break a few precious misconceptions in order to salvage the gorgeous, fragile sparkling vessel that is our friend, lover, sibling.
I am profoundly grateful that WINGS Foundation. Grateful that 1 out of 3 of my friends has a place for healing. WINGS provides a safe environment for healing. WINGS provides resources for survivors, their allies and their loved ones. WINGS exists so that all may soar past the pain and into their clear, blue future.