A Facebook friend of mine, another survivor of sexual abuse, has been dealing with a digital attack that quickly escalated to alarming proportions. As she reached out to her community of FB friends for support as she determined what action(s) to take, some people otherwise respected in the online survivor community not only did not offer support, but criticized her for her feelings and actions. She expressed shock and confusion at this betrayal of trust in the face of her expectation of unconditional support.
I was not shocked. Indeed, some of the worst betrayals I’ve experienced came at the hands of other incest survivors.
Here’s the problem: as we work on our issues in community with others, we develop a false sense of intimacy. After all, we’re sharing information that stems from our deepest pain and wounding, and exploring how we’re working to get out of that pit and into the Light. Others do the same and we have the illusion that we’re all on the same page, working our process and healing. Of course that feels like the most intimate kind of friendship, and in many instances that’s exactly what it is.
However: we’re all still healing. That means we aren’t “healed.” When something intrudes upon the sharing of “here’s what happened way back then / here’s what I’m doing to heal from it now” and a new trauma/abuse/challenge takes place, we cannot rely on everyone in our community to take this new information in benign or loving stride.
We all have buttons. We all have places that haven’t been healed. I know I can go for months, even years thinking “I’m Healed!” And then something comes up that makes me realize there is yet another, deeper, unresolved part of my behavior and/or belief that stems directly from the incest. And I have to get back to work again to clean the emotional toxins out if I’m to reclaim yet another piece of my birthright.
The problem with expecting other survivors to support us unconditionally is that if you’ve triggered their issues, they’ll fight back. This counter-attack is not necessarily conscious; it’s just an auto-response, part of how they survived. Something deep in their psyche now interprets you as a threat to whatever’s in their Recovery blind spot. They respond by instinct, often with cunning and viciousness, to take you down and out so you’re no longer a threat to what they’ve not yet healed.
What makes this betrayal so awful is that these people know you, know your issues, weak spots, challenges, history. That means they know exactly how to hurt you to make you back off. The results can be devastating.
I shared many years of Recovery with one such woman, who became my closest friend. At some point, she decided to lose weight to appear more attractive to a man and went off her meds. I didn’t understand what that meant in terms of her stability, as I’d only known her while she was taking these meds. At some point, I had a conversation with a mutual friend and mentioned something about her. Nothing bad or inappropriate, just conversation. But my friend interpreted it as a threat and lashed out viciously at me, ultimately damning me as someone who didn’t understand love, had none to offer, and anything I offered was damaged and unacceptable.
Wham. A bullwhip across my most vulnerable places, my deepest fears. I sobbed over this for months and it took the better part of two years for me to erase the damage done. During this time, she got back on her meds and apologized to me. I cautiously took her back as a friend… only to experience the same behavior from her within a few months, this time without the meds as an excuse. It didn’t hurt as much this second time because I was still dealing with the deeper pain, but at that point, I accepted that I could no longer trust her and banished her from my life.
(I’ve since learned that she makes jokes about this incident in a college course she teaches in psychology.)
So what’s a survivor-in-Recovery to do when support is wanted and needed? Definitely reach out to your community. Ask for the help you need. And realize: Some will be able to give you parts of what you want; some will not be able to respond; and a very few might be triggered into their olde defense mechanisms and launch an attack upon you. At that point, hit “unfriend,” block them, and avoid them in the future.
Simultaneously, talk with your therapist and any other healing professionals with whom you work. Release the new emotional toxins as quickly as you can and keep the focus on your own healing. Do what you need to do to handle whatever caused you to reach out for help in the first place.
Know that we’re all capable of being triggered, given circumstances that echo unresolved aspects of the abuse. We can only dismantle our known psychological mechanisms; the difficulty lies with the parts for which we don’t have conscious awareness.
The good news in all this is that if and as we find ourselves triggered by unexpected negative response from other survivors, we discover and identify another piece of the abuse upon which to work.
Excuse me, did I say “good” news? Well, at least we’re no longer struggling with a hidden emotional splinter festering in our hearts. We know it’s there, we know it’s a splinter, we know it’s toxic and that we need to get out. Then it’s just a matter of doing the work to clear it in order to claim another piece of our lives for ourselves…
and while we do so, staying away from those who have proved unsupportive, if not dangerously reactive to our issues.