Tuesday, 15 December 2015

Secondary wounding

I’ve previously written about the effects of child abuse and the years it can take to heal from traumatic experiences. It takes a lot of courage for a survivor to disclose abuse and seek help. In fact, I was recently surprised to read that the average duration between the start of abuse and accessing support is 20 years. When I worked out the maths in my head I realised that in my case it was 21 years.
  
Unfortunately for many abuse survivors who choose to disclose their past with family or friends, they may be disbelieved, blamed or experience ignorant responses. These reactions to a survivors’ accounts or feelings are often more damaging than the initial abuse and can result in a survivor feeling worse. This is also referred to as secondary wounding
  
Upon reflection I realise that I have been repeatedly traumatised throughout my life as a result of peoples’ insensitivity and lack of understanding about abuse. As a result of my disclosure, I experienced a multitude of comments. Here are some examples of secondary wounding and things that were said to me.
   
Denial/ disbelief
    
Some family members denied what I told them, one person said “I don’t have proof” another said “I don’t believe it”. Those people were in denial and already knew what had happened to me but chose to ignore it. The sad thing was, I had just shared a very traumatic memory with them only to be traumatised again by their responses.
  
Minimising
    
One member of my family knew what happened to me before I came out and deep down she knew that I was telling the truth. However, she tried to minimise the effect of the abuse on me by saying: “At least you didn’t get beaten up” or “You’re overreacting”.
   
Blame
    
Criticism, accusation, punishment and humiliation are all blaming behaviours. If someone blames us for what we did/did not do, it remains with us and we start believing it. I felt as though it was my fault when someone merely responded, “Why didn’t you call the police?”
   
Stigmatisation
    
There is a problem with stigma in our society, I feel this is because people find it easier to avoid subjects such as mental health or sexual abuse. I have often been judged negatively because of my reactions to abuse. No one has the right to try to make us suppress emotions that have already been bottled up for many years. Some negative reactions: “You need to stop dwelling on the past” or “Aren’t you over that yet?”
   
Siding with the abuser
   
It can feel very isolating if members of the family side with the abuser as it can make us feel worthless. If people side with an abuser, we may feel invalidated and question what happened to us, and whether it was wrong. We end up feeling alone and as though we are to blame but we’re really not. One person’s reaction to my disclosure made me feel very alone, “I’ve known him for 30 years and doubt he would ever do anything like that.”
  
Silence
   
Silence is supposed to be golden but there are times when gentle words are necessary. When people don’t know what to say it can be very hurtful as we feel that no one understands us. Words can sometimes hurt our feelings but so can silence. Unfortunately, I have experienced people changing the subject or just walking away. As a result I have felt very alone and not supported.
     
Cruelty
   
Some people can be very insensitive and cruel and it saddens me that they’re unable to be empathic. I think that aside from direct, abusive comments like, “you deserved it”, nasty jokes about rape or abuse can be equally painful. Unfortunately, one of my ‘friends’ thought it would be funny to make jokes about child abuse in my presence.
     
All of these examples of what people said are not okay and survivors do not deserve to be on the receiving end of insensitive remarks. Generally, I find that some people are ignorant and do not know enough about abuse and the long lasting effects it has on survivors throughout their lives. What people should remember is that blame, guilt and responsibility lie in the hands of the perpetrator and are certainly not the fault of the survivor.
    
Healing from secondary wounding
   
I experienced a lot of the comments above during my healing process when the initial abuse was still quite raw. Personally I found it helpful to write down the experiences, I also shared them with my counsellor and discussed how they made me feel. I decided to walk away from all those people who hurt me as I believed they did not deserve any more of my time. I knew that their attitudes would not change and refused to let them hurt me any further. Now that I think back on those experiences they don’t sting like they once did. Instead I realise that facing my feelings enabled me to distance myself from them and heal.