Imperfectly Supporting a Survivor

My mom handled things almost perfectly when I told her in December of 2014 that I was sexually assaulted. She clearly cares about me and wants to support me. I really want to make it clear that overall she is a fabulous person to have in my support system. However, I want to share a few stories of her being a less than perfect ally.

Exhibit A: My experiences are “normal,” April 2015
I was about to schedule my first PAP test and annual checkup. I heard that they do a breast exam during the appointment, and confessed that I was nervous about it. That could potentially be a very strong trigger for me. We talked about it and at one point she said “Not to belittle your experience, but most girls have been touched that way [meaning that most girls have had their breasts touched without consent],” or something like that. She essentially said that my experience was common. In the blink of an eye I responded that everyone experiences it differently, and the fact that the same thing happened to me so many times has caused me to have a negative association with being touched there. She totally understood and was impressed by my answer. That was the first time anyone came close to belittling my experience and it didn’t even bother me. Phew!
For a long time I’ve known that people could easily belittle my experiences, so I was ready with a response when this happened. You know what? Yes, what happened to me is very common. That doesn’t make it okay. No one should ever be touched without their consent. Plus, just because it’s common, that doesn’t mean it’s not a big deal.
I also wrote a poem about her remark.

Exhibit B: “Fear of a word only increases fear of the thing itself,” May 2015
One time, I felt triggered for an entire day. Needless to say it was awful. I didn’t tell my mom until the day after. Things went downhill pretty quickly. She started talking about how what happened to me is very common, how she’s concerned that this is still affecting me and that she doesn’t like me labeling my experiences as sexual assault, and more.
What she said was pretty upsetting, so I went on a walk to calm down and collect my thoughts. By the time I came back, I had a plan about how to tell her that she wasn’t being helpful.
First, telling me that my experiences are common isn’t even remotely helpful. Analogy: cancer. Telling someone who has cancer that one in three people will have it sometime in their life isn’t terribly helpful. No matter what, cancer is a terrifying experience and the fact that it’s common doesn’t make it any less scary. The only “good” thing about it being common is that there are a lot of places they can go for support.
Second, it’s completely normal to be affected by sexual assault years after the fact. Triggers are a conditioned response. I’m surprised that she didn’t understand this at first since she is a survivor of domestic abuse.
Third, sexual assault is a scary word. I get that. However, it describes what happened to me and gives me a context with which to understand it. Plus, the way she talked about that made it sound like she was trying to explain that what happened to me wasn’t really sexual assault. I know that’s not what she meant, but that’s what it sounded like.

Exhibit C: PTSD, November 2015
Mom and I were at a concert and started chatting with a woman at the table next to us. We found out that her service dog helps her cope with PTSD caused by volunteering in a combat zone. That led to mom and me talking about PTSD once it was the two of us again. I remarked that I can hardly imagine how tough it would be to have PTSD. It’s hard enough for me even though I only have a few of the symptoms. And I also mentioned that my therapist confirmed that I don’t have it. I guess mom forgot that I have some of the symptoms so we ended up talking about that for a little while. It was very clear that she holds no stigmas against people with mental illnesses, so it was a great conversation. It’s interesting that now that I’ve talked about my triggers in the context of them being PTSD-like symptoms, she’s a lot more understanding.

Exhibit D: When she triggers me
She’s triggered me a few times accidentally in the last few months. Each time, she’s noticed on her own (then again, my face is easy to read). She immediately apologizes (even though it’s an accident and it’s not her fault) and makes sure I’m okay. If your loved one is a survivor, take note. This is the perfect go-to response when they get triggered.

Exhibit E: A guide to my triggers, April 2016
I sent her a guide to my triggers (what causes them, how I react and how she can help). She thanked me and said that she wants it in writing so she can read it once in a while. What she said was simple, but it spoke volumes. She’s clearly very committed to helping me and I love her for that.
“Thank you for your support :)” I said.
“You never have to ask. I’m here 150% for you.”

Exhibit F: “I don’t care”, July 2016

She is imperfectly perfect, but is always open to learning. I couldn’t ask for a better mom. ❤

Thanks for reading this post! You can find my full backstory here.

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3 thoughts on “Imperfectly Supporting a Survivor

  1. Thank you for sharing. I was sexually abused by my step-father for 13 years and my mother knew about it. She did nothing b/c she was severely beaten anytime she tried. I do understand why she didn’t make it stop, somewhat understand that is. But when I was about 27 years old I was at her house (he had long been put away) and there was a show on television about a girl being raped. The rapist walked away from the charges, the girl’s mother hunted him down and killed him. My mother said “I would do the same thing!”. I was just in shock! I asked her what she said and she repeated it. I could only respond with “really?”. She didn’t understand why I would ask that. I was so hurt I couldn’t tell her. Actually I was so angry I was afraid of what I would say so I said nothing. I’m happy you and your mom are able to talk through things that hurt you.

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    1. I’m so sorry that happened 😦 However, it’s wonderful that he’s been “put away” where he hopefully can’t hurt anyone else. I agree that it’s strange that she didn’t see the connection. I’m sorry that it seems you’re not getting the support you need from her, and I hope you’ve found people elsewhere who have your back. I’m always available if you need someone to talk to.

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      1. Thanks Kira. My mom has since passed. I have come to terms with her problems. And have since learned she was sexually abused as a child too. 😦

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