The complexity of surviving

As some of my readers will know I am an Archers fan, and have often explored the themes and storylines on my blog. Recently there has been a journey into the impact of historic childhood sexual abuse, and how friends and families react, as I discussed here. In Alistair and Jazzer (son, and proxy adopted son of the victim/surviour, Jim) there has been an excellently researched and written how to/how not to react pairing. Jazzer has consistently centered on his own feelings and needs, rather than those of Jim. Unable to hold his own feelings Jazzer has projected what he is feeling onto Jim, as many do when someone discloses. This led to Jazzer reporting the abuser, against Jim’s wishes – an act which replicated the abuse in the removal of agency and autonomy.

I was prompted to write this article as I recognise that even whilst I work with the survivors of CSA their friends and family are also struggling. It can be very difficult to hear of someone we love having suffered sexual abuse. For most people the very acts described are sickening and overwhelming. However disclosing is a moment of intense courage, where a victim can be afraid of blame, judgement, disgust, and a whole host of other emotions. If the person being told is not able to regulate their own responses, and center on t =he victim rather than themselves, they can add to the victim/survivors pain. This has happened most recently on The Archers at the news that Jim’s abuser has died. Alistair sensed this might be emotionally charged, and complex news. Jazzer saw it as something to celebrate and assumed Jim would be happy to hear of the death.

The death of an abuser is very often incredibly complex. As Jim himself explained, in dying he felt his abuser had robbed him of any chance to confront him. Many victim/survivors carry the hope of an apology, others simply wish to speak their truth, some may wish to express their anger and pain, others may wish to inflict harm, revenge themselves on their abuser. Some seek justice, whether natural, or judicial. Part of the work in therapy is to explore how practical and safe their fantasies are and whether they will bring healing – what if their abuser denies or claims they were consenting – what if confronting would put the victim/survivor in a place of danger? What matters here is that the decision reached be the one that puts the victim/survivor in control, and feeling like they are, perhaps for the first time, the agent of change in their own life.

On the radio show Jim is expressing anger, lashing out at friends, family, and unsuspecting builders. In his death Harold Jason has, in Jim’s view, escaped justice, and Jim has lost any chance for closure and resolution. Now, more than ever perhaps, Jim needs the space to explore his feelings, and other possible resolutions that therapy with a trauma informed counsellor can provide. Far from the assumption of “good news” there is a flood of different, competing and very powerful emotions.

What can you as a loved one do to support someone who discloses childhood sexual abuse?

  • Listen without projection — there is no “must” about suriving childhood sexual abuse. When we say to a surviour you must hate them, want them dead, forgive them, or any other projection of what we feel, we take up space that we should instead be creating
  • Listen without blame — As a society victim blaming is almost endemic. We tell victims that their behaviour led to abuse, that they caused or invited it. We try to excuse abuse, or expect victims to have empathy with their abuser. Let me be very clear, there is no excise for sexual acts with a child, the child is always innocent, in the deepest meaning of the term, the adult always the one who must carry the responsibility for what happened.
  • Leave assumptions behind –you might think its obvious someone wants to go no contact, report to the police, or do any number of other things. Rather like listening without projection letting go of assumptions is about creating the space rather than taking it up
  • Seek support yourself –When someone tells us something painful it is natural and human to feel pain. The person disclosing however is not who we should be turning to for support. Counselling, a trusted friend (assuming you have permission to disclose) spiritual advisor, the Samaritans or other listening organisation, can provide the space you may need to explore how you feel about what you have been told. By taking the step to get support you are also more able to offer support yourself in a safe and boundaried way.
  • Go at the survivors pace — this last point is in many ways the most important. There are a lot of myths about how people heal from trauma, one of the most prevalent is that its best to get it over with. Instead of thinking of it like ripping off a band aid, instead perhaps compare it to healing from a broken leg, it takes time, and walking too early can undo all of the healing that has already occurred..

In one blog it would not be possible to explore all of the diferent impacts of and reactions too abuse. However I hope that this may be of help to those who find themselves in the postiion of Alistair and Jazzer, watching a loved one suffer, and wondering how best to help.

If you are a male survivor of childhood sexual abuse, Survivors UK can offer help and support. It is also worth pointing out they are a fully inclusive organisation and welcome all men, whether cis or trans.

A note on language – In sessions I try to reflect the language someone uses to describe themselves, be it victim, survivor or another term. Jim has not, as far as I know, used any particular word to describe himself so I have decided to use the umbrella terms victim/survivor

The bowl shown is an example of Kintsugi a Japanese art form where broken pots are repaired with gold. It is an image I often share with clients , the beauty comes from the scars.

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