Advocate or Ally pt 3.
Updated: Sep 6, 2019
Understanding and Working with Survivors: A Basic Primer
In part 2 we discussed the difficulties of communication due to differing perspectives. Now we are going to look at difficulties in communication due to internal processes of the survivor.
First we must understand that many survivors have been masking and numbing their pain for years. This is no different from someone who has a chronic pain whether due to illness or injury. They endure pain that would cripple most of us and often do so with a smile. They aren’t superheroes, they just get up day after day.
They live with the pain, they learn to ignore it, they use medications to numb it, they hide it away from the world because they don’t want to be seen as different, as needy. The pain doesn’t lessen they just become better at coping with it.
Survivors do the same. Except for them the pain isn’t physical it is mental. This is true in most PTSD situations but for CSA survivors there is an added complication. Because the trauma occurs when they should be learning how to process, deal with, and utilize emotions all of their emotions become tangled up in the trauma. They cannot isolate the pain and numb it while allowing the joy and happiness and anger of the world to still flow through them. Indeed, that is a tall order for a well-adjusted adult.
So often the survivor’s response is to shut down all emotion. This results in a stunted emotional awareness growth. I want to make it clear that survivors are not emotionally stunted, they have complex and deep emotions. Rather their ability to process, display, and communicate those emotions is what has been affected. They missed the training the rest of the world had in talking and interacting with our emotions.
Often times they have a lack of emotional vocabulary. They know the words bad, mad, good but have no more complex word to attach to the shades of emotions that human beings feel and express. Frustration, tiredness, hunger, irritation, and exhaustion are all expressed as mad. Loneliness, heartbreak, sickness, boredom, or ennui are all expressed as bad. Often people with a lack of emotional vocabulary will express that they have a stomachache. This ache replaces the need to try and quantify feelings they have very little reference for.
All of this leads to the survivor experiencing difficulty in identifying their moods, wants, and needs. As an advocate, friend, or family member of a survivor we often want to help them, do what is best for them, but find our self at a loss of what to do. When we ask what we can do many survivor’s response is “I don’t know.” This leads to frustration and feelings of inadequacy on both sides.
We need to remember that the answer “I don’t know.” Is both accurate and inaccurate. The survivor is often at a loss to process the information coming in as we talked about before but also the information that already exists inside. Because they have no clear channel everything is jumbled up together. So the survivor looking at that information is like trying to write a term paper while in the ball pit of a Chuckie Cheese with fifty kids in there with you. It seems impossible to sift through all of it and put it in order. But the information is in there, they just take much longer to find it and organize it.
The job of those working with survivors is to help them start. Pick up the nearest, easiest to access piece of information and process it. Take time to walk them through, to connect with them, to comfort them, to accept that they are lost and vow to be their helper. They have enough confusion, anxiety, frustration, and self-loathing going on in their head, don’t add to it.