May 22, 2015
10 Things Not to Say to a Childhood Sexual Abuse Survivor
Childhood sexual abuse is vile and not something most of us can begin to comprehend. It’s certainly not something people want to talk or hear about. I get that. Really I do. Who wants to talk about something so taboo, so horrific?
According to the National Association of Adult Survivors of Child Abuse I am only one of 42 million survivors of childhood sexual abuse in America. Okay, well I’m not in America – I can’t tell you the numbers here in South Africa, where there is a belief that raping a virgin will cure AIDS.
Millions and millions of survivors worldwide.
Chances are that you know at least one survivor. These are the people who shop beside you at the grocery store, the people you work with, a neighbor, your friend, a family member.
Some of us are functioning adults; people who look like you…the struggle is invisible, inside, a secret.
Perpetrators count on the survivor keeping quiet during the abusing years. Later in life, as adults, shame keeps us quiet.
‘Telling the secret’ is one of the first keys to healing for a survivor. But telling has its problems. If a survivor’s first brave disclosure is to someone who has a negative response, they are not likely to risk it again.
I don’t go around telling everybody that I’m a survivor, but when I do, I’ve had varied responses.
Some have been loving.
Others have been hurtful. I want to add here that I think a lot of people mean well – they simply don’t know what it’s like for a survivor.
Since chances are good that you know a survivor, I decided to make a list, in case someone discloses to you, of 10 things not to say to childhood sexual abuse survivor.
Although there are women abusers, I have written the perpetrator as a man throughout this blog.
10 Things Not to Say to a Childhood Sexual Abuse Survivor
Thank you to my fellow survivors in the “Adult Survivors of Childhood Sexual Abuse” Facebook page for your help and input in the writing of this list. Each one of you is brave and strong. I have grown so much by being part of the group.
1. Silence, aka Nothing.
When someone is silent after I’ve disclosed that I’m a survivor it makes me wish I could suck the air and vibration of my voice back inside.
I’ve had people change the subject (a type of silence about it), which makes me feel like the invisible child I once was.
Don’t talk about it.
Don’t get me wrong…silence accompanied by tears, a certain look, a touch, a loving hug are all good. Sometimes there’s really nothing one can say.
It’s the silence of being unable to face the fact that these horrific crimes happen, of wanting to stick one’s head in the sand that’s painful to the survivor.
Silence begets silence.
Silent is what I was about this for over 30 years.
Silence enables childhood sexual abuse.
We need to talk.
We need to be heard.
2. But it was a Long Time Ago, aka You Should be Over it by Now, aka Why do you Have to Live in the Past?
So are wars a long time ago and in the past – would you ever consider saying any of these things to a veteran?
Unfortunately, some things can never be forgotten. That’s not to say we can’t heal, but it’s always there. Believe me, we survivors wish with everything we are that because it happened a long time ago we never have to think about it.
The truth is that the residual effects of childhood sexual abuse are varied and many (that alone deserves a post of its own), most of which last a lifetime.
3. Anything Minimizing.
“It wasn’t that bad.” “It was only once.” “It was only a few times.” “At least he didn’t rape you.” “It could have been a lot worse.” “I got over it…why can’t you?”
Minimizing the abuse invalidates the survivor and what we’ve been through.
4. But He Didn’t Really Hurt You, Did He?
Anyone who was sexually abused as a child was hurt. They have gone through a severe trauma.
They live with the pain of it with every nightmare, every trigger, every flashback, every memory of the abuse.
Did you know that sexual abuse causes changes in a child’s brain? “Childhood Abuse Hurts the Brain” by William J. Cromie and “Changes in Brain Structure Found After Childhood Abuse” are a couple of interesting articles about it.
In my case, I had two perpetrators, and the abuse went on for years. I don’t remember all of the details. The mind is amazing that way – it can ‘remove’ you from a terrible event. I don’t remember physical pain. However I do vividly remember a couple of times feeling paralyzed with fear and confusion, and not being able to move.
They shredded my self-esteem and ripped apart my personal boundaries. They set the stage for a future of re-victimization. They changed my life.
Yes, they hurt me.
There is no other answer to that question.
If a person was sexually abused, they were hurt.
5. Get Over it, aka Just Let it go, aka Can’t You Just Forget About it?
If only we could, we would. How simple and wonderful life would be if we could wish it away, blow a dandelion flower, wish upon a star, toss a coin into the well, or just plain will it gone.
As if it never happened.
No more living with the after-effects – eating disorders, numbing with drugs, sex, food, all the triggers, nightmares, depression, anxiety, mental disorders and illnesses, shame, dissociative patterns, body memories, PTSD, self-mutilation, flashbacks, amnesia for parts of childhood, poor self-esteem, relationship problems, boundary issues…I could probably fill the page.
The italicized effects are those I have due to my abuse, and some that I used to have, but through healing, have eliminated.
We wish we could forget about it.
6. Why do You Always Have to Bring it up?
Because some days we can think of nothing else. Because it hammers on the inside of our brains and whispers its silent relentless scream from our belly out. Because most of us were silent about it for years, decades even.
And we can be silent about it no more.
As my friend and fellow survivor Adele Vorster says,
“I refuse to shut up so that you can stop feeling uncomfortable.”
“I refuse to keep quiet so that you do not have to face the truth.”
“I will not stop talking so that you can go on being numb and ignorant.”
“I am sorry if my words might remind you of your own hidden pain.”
“Maybe you have some painful memories of your own and maybe my story triggers your own pain. And maybe you will do anything to avoid facing that pain. But I can no longer keep quiet. For my own sanity and to take back my power I need to shout it from the rooftops.”
Because we need to speak our truth.
7. Are You Sure it Happened?
Umm…really? Please don’t ever ask this.
8. Just Think, Someone Else Went through Far Worse.
I used to minimize my abuse in this way. Sometimes I still do. I need to see another person who has survived “more” than I did. I cheer their achievements. I wonder at their ability to manage and go through life. I think if they can do it, then perhaps I can too.
It’s not really okay for me to compare my abuse with that of someone else…for the same reason it’s not okay for anyone else to.
It invalidates what happened to me.
Saying it does not help the survivor.
9. Life Does go on You Know.
See number 5.
10. You Should Forgive the Perpetrator.
“Forgiving is good for you.” “Forgiving is Godly.” “Forgiving will help you move on.”
I wonder often about the concept of forgiveness. People tell me that it’s not about pardoning the person, that in fact, it’s not about the perpetrator at all. I have a difficult time leaving my abusers out of a story when they are central to it; when, without them, none of it would have happened!
I don’t know. I don’t really get the whole forgiveness thing.
When people mention that I need to forgive, it leaves me feeling angry and frustrated.
My feeling today is if and when we do choose to forgive, then we will, but we shouldn’t be forced into it, talked into it or guilted into it. And I believe we can heal without it.
On a personal note, I wish that people who say they love me would educate themselves about the effects of childhood sexual abuse. I think if they did, they’d realize how inappropriate and hurtful some of the things they say to me are.
It feels as if I’m being re-victimized.
Do I sound angry?
Yes, well…I am.
Without the fear or anticipation of negative reactions, more survivors will ‘come out’. When survivors shatter the silence and dare to speak, if the response is good, healing occurs.
I said it in the beginning of this post. There are millions and millions of childhood sexual abuse survivors.
If survivors are not faced with the probability of negative, ignorant, or just plain hurtful responses, imagine the web of healing that would spread throughout the world.