We all know someone who gets stuck in a traumatic loop and shares the story again and again to anyone who listens.
They repeat old behaviours and find themselves caught in similar relationships and struggles. We also know people who were once a victim but have overcome the odds, have risen like a Phoenix from the figurative ashes of despair, and became beacons of hope for everyone around them.
So what closes the gap between a victim and a survivor? As a former detective, I’ve worked with countless individuals who have suffered a considerable amount of trauma: sex assault victims, violent assaults survivors, and people who have lost loved-ones and children.
All of these individuals have taught me that it takes courage to own and accept the tragedies that happen to us and stand in the metaphorical face of shame. They have stepped aside so they can move forward with their lives and help others overcome their own shame.
I am no Brené Brown, but I have seen how shame can control an individual. It can silence them and make them hold their trauma closely in fear that it might separate them from others or that people might think differently of them.
It’s frightening to talk about our traumas. It’s like exposing an open wound to someone and hoping they won’t hurt us further.
Individuals who have been sexually assaulted as children usually carry the secret into their adulthood in an effort to not rock the boat. Especially men who have survived sexual abuse in their childhood have difficulty disclosing it because of social norms—men are supposed to be “tough,” not victims.
However, the beautiful thing that happens when a victim shares their story is the reaction they get from other victims and similar abuse survivors. In that moment, they acknowledge they’re not alone and there’s a way out of whatever trauma they have experienced.
For many years, I attended a bocce ball fundraiser at the Child Advocacy Center in Larimer County, an organization that conducts interviews with children who have either suffered from abuse or witnessed a traumatic event. As part of their program, they host a speaker who’s either a parent of a child who was sexually abused or a survivor of child sexual abuse. It’s an absolutely humbling and amazing experience to see individuals talk about the abuse they suffered and the ways they overcame it.
These survivors take the stage and share some of the most intimate and embarrassing events of their lives. They share their stories to help raise money for other children who have endured a similar abuse. Also, they are a beacon to the audience who may have experienced something similar and might not be aware of the light at the end of the tunnel.
The people who have risen from their traumatic experiences all share the willingness to help someone else by sharing their story. Sex assault victims have told their stories in order to keep other women safe from experiencing similar abuse.
Victims of child molestation have told their stories so that others would feel comfortable sharing theirs and release the stigma, guilt, and embarrassment of their victimization. Those who have lost their children band together as grieving parents to go to hospitals and help other parents who lost a child. No one understands someone’s journey more than a person who has experienced something similar.
Making the jump from victim to survivor is twofold:
- Having the courage to tell your story.
- The trickier step is what you intend to do with your story once it’s told—it’s all about motive.
As discussed previously, there are also some people who don’t mind telling their stories again and again, but the motivation is not outwardly driven. The story is told to serve some underlying issue of insecurity or attention-seeking behaviours.
What differentiates a survivor from another is the direction of their focus. A survivor with an outward attention hopes to inspire listeners on their healing journey, instead of keeping “the profit” to themselves.
That said, the benefit becomes mutual: the listener knows they aren’t alone in their suffering, and the survivor feels empowered in owning their story. They both transform something that was ugly into a powerful healing tool.
In doing this work, it has become crystal clear to me that we have much more in common than we would like to believe. We all have hidden stories related to shame. Oftentimes, we may get caught in victim-like thinking and believe that the world has dealt us a bad hand.
However, we’re also capable of rising from the ashes of our stories and becoming stronger human beings. The result of this birth gifts others the opportunity to feel unashamed about the terrible things that have happened to them. It’s such a beautiful thing to feel seen, heard, to know you are not alone, and to know that there’s still hope for a better day.