Do we re-victimize abuse victims by expecting them to hurry up and heal?
It took 15 years after I crushed my legs in an accident before an orthopedist finally explained the prognosis using words I could understand.
He said something along the lines of, “I think you have been misled about what is a reasonable outcome. You will never regain full function, and there will be few days that it won’t cause you some degree of discomfort. We can do things to make it better, but we can never restore what you lost. Unless I am mistaken, you have assumed that this was like all of the other injuries you suffered. You had a few surgeries, the bones healed and the only time it gives you problems is in bad weather. This is not the same thing. Let me be perfectly clear: You will be dealing with this for the rest of your life.”
The words created in me a profound sense of grief, but also of relief. I could stop trying to act like nothing was wrong. I could admit when I was in pain, and I could make for myself and ask from others reasonable accommodations.
We assume that everyone can heal from child abuse, rape, or other forms of abuse much the same way as a simple broken bone. The healing process may be full of pain and hard work, but eventually a person is left with little more than an occasional twinge. The problem is that we demand that victims heal and either return to normalcy or even transform the experience into something that makes them stronger.
If you had asked me a year ago if I believed that every victim could heal completely, I would have told you glibly that I not only believed it, I was living proof. I was severely abused as a child and survived a sexual assault in my early 20s. But I had a life that looked pretty good. Sure, I felt profoundly fucked up a lot of the time, but I attributed that to my own weakness. I so thoroughly believed what our society told me—that good people heal completely and with relative ease—that it never occurred to me that the problems I experienced were related to abuse.
Things changed when I started writing. It was like rubbing a note pad with the side of a pencil. The imprint created by abuse surfaced rapidly and jarringly.
What I discovered was that a core of molten self-condemnation lurks in the marrow of my bones. Under the pressure of conflict, criticism, or feelings of incompetence, it ejects shame into my veins like black ink.
One day as I struggled to write through another bout of paralyzing anxiety and self-loathing, it occurred to me that a theory I had dismissed as a bit of psychobabble might be true and applicable to me. According to some psychologists, children who are chronically abused from a young age face an agonizing dilemma. They can either believe that their parent is bad and therefore the world is fundamentally unsafe, or they can believe that they are bad. Like many children, I had decided that I was the bad person.
The injury that I sustained damaged one of the most important parts of my identity: whether or not I am a good person. And the damage done is irreversible. Yes, additional personal work and growth will likely lessen the severity of the symptoms. I will probably be able to shorten the time between the reflexive self-castigation and remembering that I am not always at fault. But like my crushed legs, I will live with the impact of that injury for the rest of my life.
Yet, admitting that I have been permanently impacted is socially unacceptable. I will be derided as having a victim mentality. Some will tell me that I am not taking my power as a woman, that we are stronger and can overcome anything.
Our culture tells victims of domestic, childhood, and sexual violence that they can and must make a full recovery. A popular piece of advice given to victims is that while they couldn’t control what happened to them during abuse or rape, they can control what happens next. What we are telling them is that we realize they have not made the mess, but are responsible for cleaning it up—even if they can’t hold a broom and dustpan.
What we fail to recognize is that we are engaging in yet another form of victim blaming. We are saying that while we may not hold a victim at fault for what caused the injury, we will hold them at fault if it leaves a permanent scar or disability.
We cannot allow victims to be blamed for either being victimized or for failing to make a quick and thorough recovery. For starters, it is as fundamentally unjust to shift responsibility for righting the wrongs and healing the wounds of abuse from the abusers onto the abused as it is to shift blame for the original crime.
More importantly, a society is unlikely to recognize the scope and cost of the emotional harm done to victims if it is not required to care for them. Our culture tolerates and even encourages abuse and rape. And it gets to trivialize our injuries and dismiss our pain. This is because the only direct cost our society pays for our victimization is that of trying and incarcerating perpetrators.
Our society wants victims of abuse to recover quickly, quietly, and fully because their suffering makes people uncomfortable. And that is one reason why we as victims should not feel any obligation to make a full recovery or to do it speedily: We don’t want to make it easy to ignore abuse.
But the most important reason we should shun society’s expectations is that we have the right to heal at our own pace. We owe it to ourselves to treat ourselves with the gentleness our abusers denied us.
Acknowledging that my legs will never be the same was painful, but it was also liberating. In the same way, acknowledging that I will always bear the scars of childhood abuse is freeing. It allows me to admit pain and limitations. And, perversely, giving myself permission to not be completely healed is exactly what is helping me find a truer deeper healing.