The Worst Thing to Tell a Survivor

If I were going to die today and I just had one piece of advice I could give to the world, I would say the worst thing you could ever tell a survivor is to move on already or to get over it or something in that vein. Whether it is child abuse, shellshock or someone just lost a loved one, there are seven reasons why I don’t recommend this kind of language.

1) That person may have moved through the trauma a long time ago and is only sharing their story to let others know they aren’t alone and to inspire them that if they do the work of healing that they too can get their lives back. Those who have traumatic pasts often think they are alone so it is radically important, in my opinion, that people tell their stories. People need to know that it was not their fault and that the collective shares the same pain. This allows others to heal. So, be careful about making assumptions that people are stuck because they might not be stuck. They may be talking as a form of service to others.

2) As much as you might think saying “get over it” or “you need to move on” or like language in the name of spirituality will work, I can promise you with every fiber of my being IT DOES NOT WORK. As a matter of fact, insensitive words like that cause re-traumatization as the worst part of the abuse isn’t the abuse, it’s the fact that abuse survivors never felt safe to talk about it, express their feelings about it, and even if they did, they are often not believed and/or punished as both children and adults for speaking out. So, those words reinforce the fact that they have to HOLD ON to that pain. So most ironically telling them to move on actually keeps them from doing just that: moving on.

To move on, one must go through the gruelling nose-to-the-grindstone healing process which can take years all depending on whether or not one has any kind of support system. Abuse survivors need to give full expression to their emotions and release all the terror, sadness, rage, shame, hopelessness, helplessness and powerlessness and this includes all the somatic reliving as well. I am not making this up. This is a scientifically proven fact and if one needs more information, just let me know and I’d be happy to recommend a few books.

Having said that, there is no quick fix button. There is no “move on” or “get over it” button one can press and presto they have moved on. Let me be super duper clear so there is no misunderstanding. YOU CAN NOT MAKE SOMEONE MOVE ON and you cannot make their healing process move faster than what is natural for THEM. I know that sucks; I know people don’t want to hear this, but it’s the inconvenient truth. You are only responsible for YOUR life path — not others.

3) Do we tell veterans who fought in the front lines of war coming back home with PTSD to get over it already? The only difference between their PTSD and the PTSD of childhood trauma survivors is one thing: For war veterans, it just happened to them. For childhood trauma survivors, however, it happened decades ago. That’s the only difference.

And time does not heal.

“PTSD is a real illness, which too few people understand. Flashbacks, rage, denial, intrusive thoughts, numbing, nightmares, acute anxiety and depression are all symptoms of PTSD that a survivor of childhood sexual abuse is likely to experience at some point in his or her life.” –Marilyn Van Derbur

Here’s what many overlook: The traumatized child could not get help for what happened to them since they had nobody to tell and no means to get support or help, even worse if they spoke up and were dismissed or not believed. So, to survive, they have had to keep it repressed and buried. They have had to split off and lose a part of themselves. It’s not until people’s lives begin falling apart that they hit a wall and are forced to face it. Veterans of war, at least when they come back home, their stories of terror are acknowledged without them having to say a word. Not all the time, but this is usually the case. It is common knowledge that front-liners, when they come back home, have some form of physical and/or emotional distress and there are more people who sympathize with them then child abuse survivors. That is a fact.

Just as it would take an heartless person to tell a veteran to just “move on already”, it is just as insensitive and rude to tell that to a childhood abuse survivor.

My husband just said this out loud as I was reading this to him: “The pain is just as real regardless of the cause.”

“It wasn’t what happened to you; it’s how you feel.” ~Marilyn Van Derbur

4) Most of us are likely to not tell anyone about child abuse. Most have theirs repressed — as in — they don’t even remember it. You may not consciously remember your own abuse, but your body sure does. If the abuse is not fully repressed, we feel too much shame to talk about it. We might feel it was our fault. We don’t feel safe. We keep it a secret and go to our graves with that secret. And if we do talk about it at all, more often than not, we will minimize what happened because it is just too painful to acknowledge the scope and the impact that abuse had on us and we are so afraid to be belittled as well. So we keep our mouths shut. If someone is doing the work of healing or starting to talk about it, it is rare compared to the average person. I think the whole problem with the world is that we don’t talk about our story enough. Cut people slack here. The world needs to talk about childhood abuse. We need to be strong enough to handle the stories. We are the ones that need to toughen up. We need to learn how to deal with it without feeling the need to silence others.

5) Those who have repressed trauma in their past and are not ready to remember it or face it might feel some jealousy towards someone else getting attention for their pain being acknowledged. People might know deeply inside, they have lots of pain and might secretly want to talk as well, but they cannot and when someone else does, it can cause a lot of grief and so we try to silence other survivors by telling them to get over it so we don’t have to face the fact that someone else is being acknowledged while our story has yet to be heard.

“There is no agony like bearing an untold story inside you.”–Zora Neale Hurston

6) The fact that we are annoyed with those who are in the healing process and/or who are sharing their story to multiple people reveals something. Somebody else’s past trauma should not trigger but it does probably because it is reminding you of your own repressed pain you’re not ready to face or reminding you of your own perpetration on another.

There is no reason why someone else’s being stuck in their pain should trigger unless you are harboring the same pain in yourself.

7) Trust me when I say this. Survivors really want to move on.

“I was becoming unable to function even minimally. I knew even people who loved me (never Larry) were saying, “Get over it!” Why couldn’t I “get over it?” A dear friend stopped by one day. She couldn’t have been more loving but her words cut me to the bone. “Lynn, it’s a beautiful day. You have Larry, Jennifer, this wonderful home, an incredible career, you need to let this go now and move on with your life.” Not one word had been said with malice. She had always been supportive of me but her words were so hurtful. If only she knew how desperately I want to move on. The feelings and emotions had become more than I could suppress or control anymore. The recovery process has nothing to do with willpower or choice.

I wish I had known that many–if not most–adults, sexually violated as children, are in their 40’s before they begin to deal with their childhoods. Just knowing that this is “normal” for many survivors would have helped me cope with friends and family members who were saying, “This happened a long time ago. Just move on with your life.” –Marilyn Van Derbur

 

We really do want to move past this. Nobody is ever happy with being unhappy.

Move on and get over it and equally reductive language are often masqueraded as tough love and an act of service, but as you read up above, it is not of any service. It is the worst thing you can tell a survivor. It just keeps people more stuck, more numb, more crippled, more controlled by their emotions, more insane, more unsafe, more bitter, more untrusting, more isolated, more addicted, more susceptible to physical and mental illness, and might even lead to self-harm or re-victimizing someone else.

If you want to do your part in helping others and are unable to at the very least listen to your loved ones, it’s better not to say anything at all. What survivors want is validation and understanding and that’s not easy to give out if you haven’t gotten it yourself. We all have inner wisdom and our own personal path. We come here for experiences and sometimes that means falling down and in extreme cases, not being able to get back up again. Actually a lot of us are in our own “falling down” state to varying degrees; it is just expressed differently. We might all be stuck and just expressing that stuck-ness uniquely if I can offer some food for thought.

In any event, we are all suffering and in pain — this should be a unifying factor — not a dividing one.

Thank you all for reading this.

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