I wrote this essay last fall. You can find it in my zine Fuck the Police Means We Don’t Act like Cops to Each Other. I’m posting it here because I want it to have a permanent home online where people can find it for free.
Content note: sexual abuse, child abuse, domestic violence, trauma.
Surviving sexual violence has been the defining experience of my life. I grew up in an emotionally abusive and neglectful home in which I was subjected to sexual abuse from my grandfather and not protected by my parents. I developed complex ptsd and this completely shaped the trajectory of my life. My life reads like that of many incest survivors: I dropped out of school and moved out young, I engaged in self injury and tried to kill myself a number of times, I became an alcoholic, I had lots of sex with strangers that I was way too drunk to really consent to, and I ended up in an abusive relationship. In my abusive relationship I was raped, physically abused, and feared for my life. That relationship ended in the court system and I was stalked on and off by him for eight years. I share this because I want you to understand that I take sexual violence and interpersonal abuse extremely seriously. I know what it does. I know how unspeakable these types of violations are. And, after getting sober and getting recovery, I have dedicated my life to helping other survivors. My solidarity with survivors is a bond that is deeper than anything else. I love survivors with all my heart. This is part of why I have written so much about trauma, and why I am constantly working on my own growth and healing and sharing that journey with all of you.
When I was two years sober and in therapy, I got into a new relationship that lasted three years. The relationship began with wonder as I fell in love with my best friend and ended in devastation as I left a relationship that had made me incredibly unhappy for years. I was a wreck when I left that relationship, and I had been noticeably unhappy for the years that I was in it. People tell me that you can see the sadness in my eyes when you look at pictures of me from those years. Why did I stay in a relationship where I was so unhappy? Because I have complex ptsd, because I have lived through so much worse and because I didn't believe it was possible to find better. Because my attachment injuries screamed for me to stay and make it work and because I felt like if I lost my partner I would die. But this partner, unlike my previous partner, did not make it physically dangerous for me to leave. They didn't threaten me or physically hurt me. They also didn't sexually abuse me, yell at me, degrade me, or call me names. They emotionally neglected me and weren't an emotionally available partner. They were sometimes dishonest and often dismissed my concerns. They weren't doing their part of the work it takes to make a relationship work. But I was an adult in this relationship and unlike my experience of childhood neglect in which I was forced to endure it, I could have chosen to leave and pursue relationships with people who met me half way. The reason I didn't is because of my trauma, and my inability to recognise my agency as an adult who was free to leave.
When I left that relationship, I started developing a close friendship, and me and this new friend talked a lot about the relationship I was leaving. She was a supportive friend and she listened and let me rant and talk about my pain and anger and despair. She told me that this relationship had been emotionally abusive, and this was obvious from the level of pain I was in. I thought about what she said. This relationship was strikingly different from my pervious abusive relationship. I hadn't been physically abused, raped, called names, or degraded in any way. But my needs weren't met. Did that qualify as emotional abuse? What about my partner's dishonesty or their dismissal of my concerns? Was that abusive? I didn't know, but I did notice when I thought of it as abusive I felt more anger and less despair. I was able to fit it into a narrative of repeated victimisation which had been the story of my life. I was able to let go of the trauma based narrative that I was inherently unlovable and replace it with the (also trauma based) narrative that I had been a victim, helpless to refuse the emotional neglect I had experienced those three years.
Adding to the legitimacy of the narrative that I had been abused was my reaction whenever I saw my ex-partner around the city. I had the familiar trauma response. My body was flooded with adrenaline and panic, I dissociated, and I later fell into a deep depression. I texted my friend after running into my ex-partner and she texted me back: "Your feelings are valid and evidence of abuse." This was reassuring. I was having a normal reaction to seeing my abuser on the street. My body wouldn't lie. If it had simply been an unhappy relationship why would I react with such intensity? (The answer to this is: I have pre-existing complex ptsd.)
So I took on the belief that I had survived another abusive relationship, one that was quite different from the other abusive relationship I had been in, but it was a different kind of abuse. I was in a community that recited "believe survivors" and I had seen abuse accusations play out on social media with huge consequences for the accused, where none of the behaviour described (if any behaviour was specifically described) even remotely resembled the abuse I'd experienced in my "first" abusive relationship. I saw language like "gaslighting" and "emotional abuse" used widely without any clear definition of these terms. I saw suddenly that I had the power to hurt my ex-partner, to create consequences for them. And I wanted them to experience consequences. After the break up, they started dating and partying and having a fulfilling social life (or that's what social media told me) while I was going to therapy twice a week and crying all the time. I was in so much pain and I didn't want them to "get away with it."
Fortunately, I had enough of a critique of cancel culture to hesitate about going that route. I wanted to. But I had principles and ethics about smearing people's reputations, especially because I'd been on the receiving end of it. I know that the framing was that these public call outs were about "warning people" and part of me did want to warn people. But warn them of what? That if you date this person they might be emotionally unavailable and not meet your needs? They might scroll their phone while on dates with you? They might keep deferring the conversation whenever you try to bring up how unhappy you are? Or - I could use the more vague but more effective language of "emotional abuse." I could post online: "this person is an abuser." I'm grateful that I didn't do that. I did however write about it in my zine, using the language of emotional abuse, and although I didn't name them, anyone who knew me would know who I was writing about. I'm sure this had repercussions for my ex.
I want to make it clear that I wasn't being intentionally punitive or vengeful. I was in so much pain. The pain was so profoundly overwhelming. The narrative of emotional abuse that was handed to me eased that pain, and it made sense of the intensity of that pain. I genuinely didn't understand how I could be in that much pain if it had just been a not great relationship that didn't meet my needs. The idea that my feelings were evidence of abuse made so much sense, and nothing else made sense, so I held onto that.
The reality is, my feelings were evidence of abuse: they were evidence that I am a survivor of child abuse and domestic violence in a prior relationship. They were evidence that I have complex ptsd and extreme attachment trauma. A non-traumatised person would have left that relationship much sooner. A non-traumatised person would have noticed that this person was emotionally unavailable and unwilling to work on it, and would have chosen to leave and pursue something else. For a non-traumatised person, that decision would have probably been painful and emotional, but it wouldn't have felt impossible.
A couple years after the end of that relationship, awhile into working with a new trauma therapist, I used the language of abuse when describing that relationship. This therapist knew my history, knew that I have complex ptsd, and knew the general content of that unhappy relationship. She didn't know that I understood it as abuse. When I told her this she challenged me directly. She said "That was an unhappy relationship where your needs weren't being met, but it wasn't abuse. It's really important for you to be able to discern the difference."
I was defensive, hurt, and offended. What she said flew in the face of the accepted "pro-survivor" discourse. Believe survivors! If I say I was abused, I was abused. It was kind of fucked up for her to question that. If anyone publicly said something like that in the social scenes I moved through they would be destroyed. They would be called an "abuse apologist." But the thing is, I trusted this therapist. I had worked with her long enough to know that she took abuse and trauma very seriously. I knew that she fully believed my parents had abused me even though my parents deny to this day that what they did was abuse, even though they never hit me, even though I had invalidated myself for years thinking it "wasn't that bad." What my parents did to me was "that bad", it was abuse, and I had been a child, powerless to leave or escape their mistreatment of me. Their emotional neglect constituted abuse on its own because children require emotional attunement from care givers, and because children can't choose to leave and get that love somewhere else. But emotional neglect in an adult relationship, on its own, is not abuse. Because an adult who is not being threatened or subjected to violence or other forms of coercive control is free to leave and seek the love they need somewhere else. Adults are not powerless.
I had a hard time accepting this feedback from my therapist, but I thought it over. If I wasn't being abused in that relationship how could I make sense of how unhappy I'd been, how much pain I'd been in, and the extreme stress response I experienced when I was reminded of my ex? How could I make sense of the years I'd stayed and how helpless and powerless I'd felt to leave? Leaving had felt in impossible, not because I was afraid I would be physically hurt or stalked, but because I was terrified of the level of pain I'd be in, and because I believed that I would never find anyone else to love me.
This is a common experience for people with developmental trauma. Because childhood is a time of extreme helplessness and powerlessness, and because trauma essentially means flashing back to the time of original abuse, many survivors of developmental trauma feel helpless and powerless in adulthood, in a way that does not accurately reflect the level of choice and power they have. Attachment trauma in particular can make threats to our ability to access love extremely terrifying and overwhelming. We can flash back to a time when not being able to access parental love and protection set off the biological stress response that indicates we are in mortal danger. Children require parental love and protection to survive, so a stress response at the level of mortal danger is appropriate in that context. Adults don't require the love and protection of any particular adult to survive, because we have way more power and agency. We have the power to choose our relationships, and we also have the capacity to care for ourselves and meet our own needs in ways that children don't.
If I wasn't being abused in that relationship, if I wasn't helpless and powerless, if I was, instead, a traumatised adult flashing back to previous experiences of abuse where I had been powerless and helpless, that meant that I had to take responsibility for my choice to stay in a relationship that made me unhappy. I had to claim and recognise my agency as an adult. And even though this is painful (and likely would be described as "victim blaming" by many people) it is ultimately the most empowering work that I could undertake as a survivor. My therapist gave me a huge gift by helping me to differentiate between experiences of abuse, and experiences in which I felt helpless and powerless not because I was being abused but because I am extremely traumatised. Doing this work, learning this discernment, allows me to move out of the triggered child-like state in which the abuse of my childhood feels like it is ongoing, into my capable, agential adult self who has the capacity to meet my needs, and leave situations which don't serve me. I am not helpless or powerless. A broken heart won't kill me. And I have the capacity to learn the regulation skills which will move me through the intense nervous system reactions of my trauma.
Telling traumatised people that their emotional reactions are "evidence of abuse" is deeply counterproductive and disempowering. Trauma is a condition in which we experience emotional and nervous system reactions that are inappropriate to the present moment and are, instead, reflective of the past. That's what trauma is. It is true that traumatised people may find themselves in relationships in which they are actually being abused again. That happened to me, and it is very common. But the emotional reaction of the survivor cannot be the only indicator that abuse is taking place. Traumatised people have emotional reactions appropriate to abusive situations in non-abusive situations. That is exactly what trauma is.
Many people will react extremely defensively to this assertion and claim that it's better to err on the side of validating experiences as abusive that aren't abusive rather than risk invalidating an actual experience of abuse. This claim acts as if validating the narrative abuse in non-abusive situations is a fair price to pay for a culture that generally validates abuse. But the consequences of validating narratives of abuse in non-abusive situations are incredibly high, both for the accused who can have their lives destroyed, and for the traumatised person who is playing out a narrative of victimisation that disempowers them and does not allow them to discover the agency and power they have as an adult. Believing my unhappy relationship was abusive felt empowering but it was actually very disempowering. It prevented me from seeing the power I had to leave and learning that, in the future, I have the power to leave relationships that don't serve me. It also prevented me from finding out that I was having a trauma response and that there's a whole host of skills I can learn to cope with these trauma responses and to eventually heal them.
Loving and supporting survivors does not mean uncritically believing whatever they say without question or conversation. It actually means engaging in the work of trusting relationship, and helping survivors do the work of differentiation. I'm not saying that we should immediately respond by saying "You were abused as a child so obviously you're just triggered." Absolutely not. It is very possible for a person with past trauma to be abused again as an adult, and it's actually quite common. But when our friends use vague language like abuse and gaslighting without saying what they mean, we should talk to them about it. We can validate the intensity of emotional and nervous system responses while, if necessary, challenging the meaning people make of those responses. We can ask our friends to talk about what happened in the relationship and help them make sense of it.
My therapist challenging the abuse narrative of that relationship was one of the most empowering and healing things anyone has ever done for me. I love survivors and I want survivors to heal and to have rich fulfilling lives where they get to feel their power and agency, where they know they are capable of leaving relationships that don't make them happy. I think the current "pro-survivor" discourse is actually immensely anti-survivor. It is based on a complete denial of what trauma is and how it works. Defining what we mean when we use the word "abuse" is extremely important. That word means something in particular: it means behaviour that is violent, controlling, threatening, degrading, and/or humiliating. It does not mean anything that prompts an extremely intense emotional / nervous system response.
Survivors deserve communities that empower us and help us honestly make sense of our experiences. Teaching trauma survivors that we should uncritically accept the responses of our traumatised nervous systems as reflective of present reality is the exact opposite of what trauma therapy works to achieve. It is absolutely possible and necessary to build communities in which we take abuse very seriously and in which we also use the word abuse accurately. It is absolutely possible and necessary to empower survivors to discern between present day abuse and trauma reactions based in past abuse. In order to do this work we need a culture in which these conversations are not immediately shut down as "abuse apologism." Survivors deserve better than that. We deserve trauma informed communities that understand the impact of developmental trauma and help us claim the power and agency we have as adults.
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