I was abused by my parents as a child. This is a fact I am much more open about online than I am in person, and it has a lot more to do with control than anonymity. If someone misuses that knowledge of me online, I can block them without skipping a beat, but it really doesn’t work that way in real life. As such, there is a limited group of people in my offline life to whom I will actually say the word “abuse.” I don’t lie about my relationship with my parents to that large group of “everyone else,” I just describe it as a bad one and leave it at that.
This is a guide for how, if I bring it up to you, you can talk to me without being a dick. I can’t claim that this guide applies to others because every victim and survivor has a unique and totally valid response to his or her experience. Some of these things are true for some other victims and survivors. All I can tell you is this: chances are that if someone trusts you enough to tell you they have been abused, you know them well enough to read their emotions and respond in a way that puts them at ease. Use your judgement and empathy to be the friend they need.
- Don’t pretend you’re ok talking about this if you’re not. Don’t deflect by changing the subject, trying to make light, or just glossing over the HUGE thing I just told you. If you’re not okay with me talking about my abuse around you, say so now. I’m not going to lie - that will hurt me and affect our friendship, but not as much as those deflection tactics. If you’re honest with me, we can at least try to repair that relationship. If you’re uncomfortable talking about it because of your own abuse experience, don’t tell me about it unless YOU are ready for it. When you’re ready, I’ll be here to support you, but I don’t want to push you or trigger you, just like I don’t want to be pushed or triggered.
- Don’t ask me for details. The actual stories of my abuse are very painful and very private. Ask me if I want to talk to you about it. Sometimes, the answer is no, I just wanted you to know this important but intimate thing about me. Sometimes, the answer is yes, and if that’s the case, you are still only getting the details I’m comfortable sharing with you. Skip ahead to #5 to see why else I’m not ok with being interrogated about my past.
- Ask me how open I am about this to our mutual friends. Like I said, I don’t tell just anyone about this. I have some groups of friends who all know. I have others where no one knows. I have a lot where maybe only one or two people know. Being a victim meant being without control over my own story. Being a survivor means reclaiming my control over that narrative, so please don’t make assumptions about who does, or who “should,” know my story. If someone doesn’t know, it’s not your place to tell them, period.
- Don’t make assumptions about how I “should” act. There is no single mode of response that all victims and survivors share. We are all unique individuals with unique responses. Something that triggers a panic attack for me might not bother another survivor you know, and vice versa. That doesn’t mean one of us is a fraud. In addition to our personal reactions, please keep in mind that “victim” and “survivor” are names for two points on the same spectrum, and where I am on that spectrum changes from day to day. Telling me how I “should” act is not a supportive behavior, and it is very closely related to this next item.
- Don’t brush off my experiences. There have been people I used to trust who, when I told them about my abuse, tried to minimize my experiences. Some of them told me about their sister’s roommate’s best friend who had it way worse, so what am I complaining about? Some have held up Dave Pelzer’s famous memoir, “A Child Called It,” as an example of what “real” abuse is “supposed” to look like - and while it’s an important book, it’s just one person’s experience, as is your sister’s roommate’s best friend’s, and it doesn’t and shouldn’t be used to invalidate my own. I’ve also been accused of being “over-dramatic,” or even making it all up for the attention - something that is usually coupled with numbers 2 and 4: I’m questioned about my abuse, and when my account is apparently not gruesome enough, my response not as visceral or tearful as they wanted, I am dismissed as a faker, a whiner, or even someone who is just complaining about “solid parenting.” That hurts, because someone I trusted came out and sided with my abuser. That is exactly what you do if you dismiss or belittle my story. You side with the abusers who spent my childhood and adolescence convincing me that their abuse was right and justified and if I wasn’t such a horrible child they wouldn’t have to - and I was too young to realize that no matter what a person does, abuse is never justified. So think long and hard about it before you take their side, because our friendship is NEVER coming back from that.
- Don’t tell me how sorry you are. I get that you are trying to be supportive and letting me know you think what happened is unequivocally terrible. But my abuse was not your fault, and hearing you apologize is just a bitter reminder that I will never get an apology from the people who actually own the blame for this.
- No backseat venting. If we are both bitching about our families, that’s one thing. But if I am sharing an intimate story about my abuse, now is not the time to kvetch about that time you weren’t allowed to use the car for a month. Right now I am very vulnerable and I’m looking for you, as a friend, to handle the situation with kindness and empathy.
- No backseat healing, either. Yes, I’m in therapy, but that’s something I talk about even less than my abuse. Even if I’ve talked to you about therapy in the past, it’s not always something I want to share. It’s messy, painful, difficult, and above all, private, so resist the temptation to ask how it’s going or to weigh in on my progress if I do choose to share with you.
- If you are thinking about saying anything that in any way resembles the phrase “God’s plan,” DON’T. I will admit, I found great solace in faith during the peak years of my abuse. But if you want to tell me that the great cosmic power running the universe thought there was something useful to be got out of the suffering of a child at the hands of her parents, stop right there. I advise you to tell me we can no longer be friends without saying what you’re about to say, because if you actually say it, I will punch you in the mouth. Because it’s God’s plan for me to punch douchebags in the mouth.
- Above all, please respect the trust I’ve placed in you. It takes a lot for me to trust someone in a meaningful way, and if I’m telling you about my abuse face to face, that is very meaningful. I’m letting you in on the darkest, most painful part of my life. Tread with care.
If you’re reading this many reblogs down the line, I want to remind you that these “rules” don’t neccessarily apply to anyone but me, although I think 4 and 5 are pretty universal. Your key to approaching anyone who has been abused and is choosing to share that with you is empathy. Respect their right to feel how they feel, and ask them how they want you to support them. Being abused takes away so much power from a victim that for a lot of us, just knowing we have power in our healthy relationships goes a long way towards healing.