I spent a lot of days crying in my bed. During the healing process, I cried a lot. It felt like I was constantly dying. Or maybe had already died. I think in some ways that sounds more true. Some people in my life had died as well, gone forever from their previous positions in my heart and mind.
And I was gone forever.
I was grieving, but the things and people I was grieving were still living and present. How did that make sense?...
Maybe you would never correlate grief with abuse, but grief is a process by which we come to accept any kind of loss, not just the loss of tangible life. In my case, and the case of many abuse survivors, the loss would be intangible.
Survivors often experience several or all of the stages of grief because they have lost chunks of their previous reality. Their dignity, their sense of boundaries, their trust in others, their security. If it was a family member or close friend who violated him/her, an abuse survivor will also experience the loss of that person as they previously knew them or trusted them. This can be traumatizing in it's own right, adding to the already broken soul.
I, myself, grieved the lost of my innocence, family members I needed to separate from, and the world in which I thought I grew up - in addition to all the foundation losses of my innermost being. As I look at the Kubler-Ross Model stages of grief, I can identify how I journeyed through these periods in all of my personal losses.
(**Please note, the Kubler-Ross model isn't accepted by everyone and can imply in parts, that grief will never end, which isn't accurate. I use it for this post to show parallels only and not as scientifically proven facts. )
For an abuse survivor, the realization that we were the subject of physical or sexual abuse can leave us speechless. It can almost appear like a numbness to the situation. There's a sense of "what just happened?" and initially not be able to recognize the severity of the situation.
People may say things like "It couldn't have been that bad," because our immediate response might almost appear dismissive. I actually laughed the first time I tried to verbalize that I'd been repeatedly raped by my cousin.
When we tell someone we trust about our abuse, they may also respond in shock. Not having the right words, floundering to continue the conversation, and struggling to put the pieces together so they make sense can all show an initial response of shock.
No one likes to think about or look at abuse. It's ugly and uncomfortable. Denial is a tool to keep the reality of this evil action from penetrating our minds.
While other people may be saying the words, "It wasn't that bad," as survivors, we also tell ourselves that as a way of protecting ourselves from the truth. We change definitions of words like 'rape,' 'assault,' molestation,' and 'abuse' to fit the trauma into our spectrum. There may be a feral sense of "that couldn't happen to me" rearranging our memories and reality so that we don't have to call ourselves victims and may even consider ourselves the initiators.
In some cases, we may initially admit to the severity of the abuse but then as our soul tries to reconcile what happened, we recant our story and deny abuse ever took place. It's a defense against the shame we feel and the accusations of others that it was our fault, as well as our soul's protection of the world we knew.
Others will also deny our abuse continually and aggressively.
"I know that guy; he's not like that."
"I've caught her in lies before; she's just trying to get attention."
"There's no way that happened. I don't believe it."
"I would never treat a woman disrespectfully. I'm a Christian!"
When other's deny our abuse, we feel unseen, unheard, and unwanted. Their denial can be worse than our own. It adds to our shame and fear after the abuse.
If we don't experience anger at some point during our healing, I personally don't believe we can ever fully "move on," as people like to expect. There must be a sense of anger towards our abuser and those who ignored the signs and possibly our cries for help. When this kind of violation happens against our body, we must be allowed to feel that violation and the injustice done against us.
When others want to rush us through this step and not allow us the time to fully come to terms with our abuse, if we are to forgive our abuser (which isn't the case for every survivor, nor should forgiveness be assumed), it won't be authentic. The forced forgiveness may come with resentment and bitterness instead.
Sometimes our support system may respond in anger as well. This can be a balancing act for them that they probably won't get right. As survivors, we want others to be mad at our abuser. We need them to verbalize their anger towards the offense against us, however if our people become too aggressive in their anger or too loud, it can actually cause additional fear and mistrust. We want to know we're not alone or invalid in our anger, but also don't want to be triggered by the big emotions of others.
In the first picture above, it defines the bargaining step as "seeking in vain for a way out." This is the step when survivors try to take accountability that isn't ours, heaping additional guilt and shame on ourselves.
"I'll be a better spouse; then he won't hit me."
"If I don't walk to my car at night, maybe next time I won't be raped."
"If I pray harder, God, will you keep my dad from coming into my room tonight?"
"If I don't think about it, the pain will stop."
It is trying to find a rational way to make the current situation change, whether that situation is the continuation of abuse or the pain from previous abuse. We focus on what we could've done differently to prevent the abuse from occurring.
This can get exacerbated when others say similar things to us or around us.
"Why didn't you fight back?"
"Maybe if she'd dressed more appropriately..."
"He needs to let go of the past. That happened when he was a kid."
Making excuses for the abuser, ignoring the reality of the pain, or constantly trying to meet up to an unrealistic expectation are all ways we attempt to bargain with the circumstances.
When we finally recognize our abuse as truth and how we have been violated, a deep sadness can overwhelm us. The extent of that sadness will vary from person to person, but much like anger, we need to experience the sadness in order to reach full acceptance of our abuse.
We are allowed to be sad by what was done to us. No one deserves to be abused. No one. We get to feel sad by what was taken from us. There is no "get over it" fix to this step.
Depression in any form makes others uncomfortable. They don't like extended sadness. They want joy and laughter from us. But if you've ever dealt with any level of depression, you know you don't just "feel better." We can't simply choose joy. It's hard to feel this sad, to want to feel better but be unable to. This sadness, though, is important. It's the mourning of our great loss.
The final step of grief is acceptance and, unfortunately, this may not be reached by many survivors. It's incredibly hard to come to terms with what happened, understand it wasn't your fault, and can recognize your own value.
Many abuse survivors run away so fiercely from seeing the truth in their story that they actually prevent themselves from being free from it. Their survival mode protects the memories from being exposed. Instead they spend their time in one of the other stages without realizing they need to move through their grieve. The very thing they are afraid of looking directly at will be the thing that allows them to breathe again once they see the truth.
It can also be difficult for those in our lives to accept the truth of our abuse. Our parents, our spouse, our friends... they may be so close to the situation that their anger or sorrow prevents them from acceptance, which can in turn hinder ours. While we don't need our support system to accept our abuse for us to heal, if they are unable to move through the grief process and recognize the new version of us as survivors, that can bring additional wedges and difficulties in our relationship with them.
Post-Traumatic Stress Symptoms
There is no on-size-fits-all when it comes to PTS symptoms. These survival techniques can appear in hundreds of difference forms with many more combinations of those forms. There's no choosing one symptom over another when you're a survivor. Our souls are drawn to one (or many) forms of safety and reasoning is thrown out the window. At any point during the stages of grief, PTS symptoms can show up and stay for a while. They might be severe such as self-mutilation, drug/alcohol addictions, or promiscuity but they may also be more subtle and "acceptable" like becoming a perfectionist or a workaholic.
The point is, an abuse survivor is going to fight to feel normal however we can. We want to fight by going through the healing process in a healthy way, but sometimes our survival means we begin compulsive behaviors that are out of our control.
In The End
All the emotions we feel as we grieve our personal loss are vital for the healing we so desperately want. These should not be rushed or ignored or prevented. These emotions were placed within us because they are important and necessary. We were created with the need to feel all of these big feelings in order to continually seek after wholeness in our souls. We should expect an abuse survivor to walk through all these steps in the same way we expect a grieving parent or spouse to walk through these steps. There needs to be a mindset change when looking at the healing process of survivors - less "it's time to get over it" and more "it's ok that you feel that way."
I assure you, we also want to "get over it" but that will only come when we are permitted to mourn our losses and accept our new reality, no matter what that looks like.
Liria Forsythe is the founder and president of Speak Truth Ministries. Liria's blogs are her reflections of her experiences in the aftermath of her past abuse as well as how she chooses to thrive now.
Speak Truth Ministries is a 501(c)3 organization. We rely on the generosity of others to continue being a bridge of hope for sexual abuse survivors. To donate, visit our home page.