Tuesday, 6 June 2017

Surviving life - as a survivor

Navigating life as a survivor of abuse is one of the hardest things any individual will have to live with. This TED talk for instance highlights how childhood trauma has knock on effects on the rest of one's life, with specific focus on the medical consequences thereof.  It also highlights how we box off abuse as a social or mental health issue where it is something that is truly all encompassing. I write from the perspective of someone who has lived through intense childhood trauma, but the same logic applies to survivors of any type of abuse - emotional, physical, sexual. 

Basically, with abuse, what happens is that a survivor is primed to exist in fight or flight mode. They are as a result of their experience, untrusting of the world and of people's motives, and this is compounded by a profound sense of internalised blame and a strong imposter syndrome. This means that they see their circumstances as if it is something they had a conscious choice in creating, and see their successes as flukes that are not attributable to their hard work.

With these as the backdrop of what it's like to live as survivor,  rising above the challenges of daily life requires so much more. For instance, daily tasks become fraught, since the base level of trust in other people that survivors have is much lower. There is an anxiety that surrounds interacting with people they do not know intimately,  in fact just meeting people on their level requires an extra degree of trust that takes a substantial amount of emotional energy to fork out. Emotional energy that survivors do not have, since positive emotional space is in short supply because of trauma.

The crux of the matter is that being a survivor never ends. In other words, no matter how you cut it, your conditioning in childhood and learnt behaviour that the world works through the absence of trust follows you throughout your life. This is not to say that you will never trust people. Instead, what it means is that to learn to trust takes longer, or can manifest by lapses in judgment. There are behavioural patterns learnt that basically keep manifesting themselves in  the life of a survivor over and over again.

The most common way that these patterns manifests can be illustrated by the trope of a woman who subconsciously chooses an abusive partner. I am not sure this is because of an inherent belief that she is unworthy of love and respect as much as it is because this is what she has been conditioned to understand love and respect to be.

Ponder on that for a second.

Can you imagine how hard it is to break the cycle of abuse when your internal reality is one in which being treated in a way that undermines your humanity is what you have been ingrained to understand as normal. This results in a threshold for triggers that is both lower and higher than that of the ordinary person. Lower in the sense that because an ordinary person would not have been exposed to abusive behaviour (especially emotional abuse) when they are confronted with it, it goes over their head and they are somewhat immune to it to a certain extent. The trigger threshold is also higher because of uncertainty surrounding when trauma is going to strike - there is a constant anxiety over being attacked and this makes interacting with ordinary people all the more harder. 

This complex existence is reality for survivors. Here are a list of spaces where they come out most strongly. In these spaces the abused person is at a disadvantage because the power structures of society do not recognise or even legitmise their internal struggle. 

  1. The workplace. See this post
  2. The most intuitive - romantic relationships, this can be long term relationships or short term flings. In the former it can be the case that the abused person settles for a narcissist or a person that either explicitly or subtly undermines them, and in the latter it is a series of associations with partners who undervalue the person and lack respect for them. 
  3. Friendships - learning who to trust, and how much to open up to friends can be challenging for a survivor. You never know whether they will truly accept you once they come to learn of your history, and while you should not care, it is almost inevitable that you do. 
  4. Social situations with acquaintances - social anxiety is a common response of survivors. 
  5. Authority - Survivors, of abuse, and especially emotional abuse and neglect, struggle with authority since it was an abuse of power in the first place that led to them being victimised.

With almost every part of interacting in daily life jaded by the shadow that is being a survivor, the hardest part about all of this is that it is a lonely process. South Africa is a nation of serially abused people, in particular black people, women, and children. It is almost debilitating realising that after a life time of letting people treat you a certain way, that there is something not right about it, and that the power lies with you to make them stop or to walk away. How can you walk away when at the base of what you rationally know is the right way to be treated, you have a belief that abuse in its complex forms is almost normal? It's not like you are choosing it in the first place, you didn't ask for the trauma, you didn't ask to be inflicted with the harm that caused you these patterns. It then becomes even more debilitating realising that there are patterns in your life perpetuating the cycle of abuse - and at this point it turns into self-loathing. You hate yourself for allowing this but again, you don't know any different. 

All the while the rest of the world is oblivious to this. The person inflicting you with the pain is probably unaware of it too, and there is almost a guarantee that their behaviour is not going to change. Your friends and family can probably see the pattern perpetuation, and are only too quick to tell you that you need to leave or change but don't care to acknowledge that no matter if you do leave, the propensity for you to keep manifesting it in different ways will carry on throughout your life. 

This is where therapists and cognitive behavioural therapy come in. But not everyone can afford this, so what are those who are without resources supposed to do to cope? And for those who do manage to afford it, it is often the case that therapists can be harsh and "hold up the mirror" without any true understanding of how all encompassing this existence is. 

In the end the only true remedy for it is self-love and self-care, but as a survivor living with a heart that is perpetually tightened in your chest, it is impossible to know how, when or where to start with this. And the cycle turns inward. You become both the perpetrator and the victim. And this is the hardest part to live with. I wonder, how do I survive knowing that this is what I am creating for myself? Even if I see a pattern, it makes me feel helpless, resigned to a fate that will keep me in emotional turmoil? For me, as a survivor I will say that there has been no catharsis - there's been denialism and judgment by friends, spending of large amounts of money on therapy and only a slow improvement over time, but always a coming back to the same repetition over the course of a life, mired by periodic slips into depression and a hope - blind faith (ironic as an atheist) - that things will get better eventually.

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