My process in sharing my story has been slow. I told a boyfriend, then a roommate, then a friend, first of the childhood sexual abuse, then of the sexual assaults in adulthood. But by far the most difficult revelation was to my co-workers, of my assault at the hands of one of our peers.
Their reaction surprised me. It was overwhelmingly good. But mostly, it was just overwhelming.
Before we speak out as survivors, we (hopefully) prepare ourselves for varying reactions. I personally tend to imagine the very worst-case scenarios: slurs scrawled on my workstation, stony silence from my peers, possible character assassination and alienation.
When I named my attacker, I received not one negative reaction from our co-workers. (At least, not yet.) Instead, person after person told me of their anger on my behalf, and assured me that they wanted to be there for me in any way they could.
Suddenly, I had allies. And it knocked me off my feet.
In bracing ourselves for an onslaught of negativity, we often forget that a positive reception can be just as uncomfortable and bewildering. After having not been believed or being ignored and devalued for so long, it can be incredibly disconcerting to get something we thought we would always be denied us.
Each person’s journey of disclosure will be different and present unique challenges and joys. This is my experience, advice that helped me greatly. I hope it helps you as well.
Treat the words of support as gifts — because they are. They are some of the most precious gifts survivors can receive. And some of the most confusing. It feels so foreign in our hands. We often look at it and think, “What the hell do I do with this?”
The best advice that I got was to imagine I was a little kid at my birthday party. Imagine sitting in the lap of a safe adult, opening presents. Take their words of support and open them, examine them. Say thank you. Then set them down in a pile, to be used later.
Don’t try to take everything in all at once. You can’t. If, as that little kid, you tried to play with every toy you got at the party, you would miss out on the joy of getting to fully experience each one.
Instead, give yourself time to digest. Really spend some time thinking about what their words meant to you. Talk it over with your therapist. Share it with your support group. Really let your feelings about them sink in — all the feelings. Relief, wonder, sadness, joy, anger, confusion. I felt them all. Like as not, you will feel a lot of them, too. And maybe more.
It’s imperative that you let yourself feel all of these, as that little kid getting gifts. It’s just as important that you figure out how this impacts your healing and life. How do you — in a safe, healthy way — let these people be a part of your process, if at all?
Remember that safe adult whose lap you sat in to open your presents? That’s you. You’ve got to be your own guardian.
Just because someone gave your little girl (or boy) a fantastic gift doesn’t mean you would hand them your kid and say, “Here. You can take care of her now.”
It’s up to you, the guardian, to decide how your inner child will interact with these new allies.
For me, it was all about starting slowly. That co-worker who offered to go hiking with me? I’ll call her next week. That friend who expressed her anger so clearly? I’ll go to her when I’m upset, and we’ll rage together.
Bit by bit, I will let these people in, as much as they are willing. I will show them what they ask to see, if I want them to see it. And I will tell them the things I need to be heard, if they want to hear them.
One of those to take a step toward support was my mom.
The gifts she offered me — honesty, an apology, empathy, the willingness to be wrong — put her in my corner in a way she hadn’t been before. Her small step was sweetness beyond belief to me. It was what I’ve been waiting for. For years. I am more grateful than I can say.
It also wasn’t enough.
As kind and sweet and healing as it was, it doesn’t undo the past. It doesn’t erase years of hurt, silence and pain. It helped ease them, yes. But once I let those good things trickle in and melt away a bit of that iceberg of pain in my heart, the fact remained: There is a goddamn mountain of pain there. And I’m not obligated to let that go.
When support comes from someone that hurt you — either your abuser or loved ones who failed to protect you, family for friends who didn’t believe you or ignored your revelations of abuse — there is an enormous pressure to forgive everything. And it doesn’t all come from outside. We put that pressure on ourselves.
I want nothing more than for everything to be OK again between my mom and me. Because, until it is, I don’t have my mom. Not fully. We, the survivors, don’t have our moms. Our dads. Our friends. Our family. So the temptation is huge to toss out the cases we have built against them and jump back into their arms.
But it doesn’t work like that. I got a partial apology, not a partial lobotomy.
But we can choose to take their gift for what it is. We can use their spade of peace to shovel off a few scoops of shit from our lives, knowing fully that it would take a backhoe to finish the job.
If we choose. If we choose. If we choose.
And, if we so choose, we can let those others in. Those allies. With their spades and their shovels and their buckets. We can let them help us in our work. And, bit by bit, we’ll get the job done.