On the Things I Don’t Say

CW: sexual abuse, violence

I just moved to this city three weeks ago, never having been here before. New city, new university, new degree. I’ve known you a week and a half. We’re sitting in a café, typical IR students, discussing the dynamics of Machiavelli, current world events and concentration of power in the hands of the elite. Discussing abuse of power leads us to the numerous interactions you’ve had with politicians, begging the question of why you’ve had so many. The answer is the unfolding politics surrounding sexual abuse within group homes in the area you grew up in. You’re advocating for survivors’ voices to be heard and are confronting politicians to push legislation forward.

There is a moment between when you mention sexual abuse victims and when I speak my next words, where I decide my identity for this conversation. Today, I am tired. I crease my lips into a frown and mumble a low hum of shame over the existence of such tragic abuses. Your countenance hardens in recognition of the injustice survivors face, and the ineffectiveness of politicians who call them brave but don’t invest in legislation to support them. My lips waver upwards at the solidarity, at how well I know the injustice, how clad I am in my own resilience and history.

To be both a survivor of sexual abuse and outspoken is to be a paradox; survival sometimes demands self-censorship, despite a captive audience and years of preparation to attain it. Why? Because I’m tired. Because your response is unpredictable and today I don’t have the energy for a majority of the reactions I’ve received in the last ten years.

You get to have this conversation, and then go home. Maybe you achieve a new understanding of how survivors exist in our heads long after the physical acts are over. Maybe you reconsider your role in ending sexual violence and supporting survivors. Or maybe your determination to advocate for survivors is hardened.

But I live here. There is no end to the running commentary in my head. Of wondering: is my desire to physically harm myself connected to the worthlessness and lack of power I felt as a victim? Do my high aspirations only exist because I’ve had to push to survive in a constant state of fight or flight for my entire life? Then there’s the dread of having to try to explain my family situation to my next romantic interest. And ultimately, the inevitability of another extensive conversation on the topic of my personal experiences with family violence and sexual abuse, because I am the only survivor many people have ever conversed with so freely.

Drawing by Phillipa Beale

I maintain a personal responsibility to share my perspective with those who wish, or need, to understand. I fought to be able to do so. I spoke out in the face of my family, myself, the flashbacks, the breakdowns, and the petrifying fear of people I loved knowing the truth. I spoke out because I needed to for myself, then later because I knew it helped others come to terms with their own experiences. Now I do it for a third reason: educating those who have no clue what it feels like to be on fire in the burning building of your own body, with no place safe to go — physically or psychologically.

Three months ago, I realised for the first time in my life that most people don’t know what it feels like to be punched in the face. When I first wondered this idea aloud I actually said “some people” and had to be corrected. That is how deep my own lack of perspective runs. So, the importance and impact of sharing my story is twofold. Firstly, it educates the non-survivor on what it feels like to exist in this body, as opposed to one that has never suffered the trauma of physical and sexual violence. Second, it furthers my own understanding of that same divide. I recently remarked to a friend, in awe, that there might never be another time in my life where I’m made to feel unsafe in my own home. Then later, that I may never again have to leave my residence without knowing when it’ll be safe to return. I may never again have to leave my shoes behind in my haste to get away.

These revelations, along with the fact that most people don’t know what it feels like to be punched in the face, are still dawning on me. I can’t fully conceive of the distance between my reality and that of my non-survivor friend’s, let alone the fact that their reality is shared by so many others. The lack of this adversity in non-survivors’ lives is as foreign and strange to me as my normalised view of violence is to them.

I’m told it’s both exhausting and astounding to witness the continuous shattering of my foundational assumptions of how the world works. Trust me, I know. And trust me, I’m far more exhausted and astounded by it than you are. Yet, on I live. Every day. The scars and strength of my story gird me against the constant battering of the denormalisation process — while, simultaneously, I try to pass on the knowledge I’ve gained through it. But some days I’m simply tired. The familiarity of the wounds sit too deep, the reality of the sheer volume of denormalisation work still ahead is both disheartening and altogether too visceral.

So some days I’m the seeming paradox of the self-censored, outspoken survivor. Some days I sit across the table from your outrage — silent and exhausted, steeping in my body’s memory and the relentless struggle to understand my normalised reality.

For all the talking I’ve done and am yet to do, all the realities I live with, the perspectives I share, sometimes I’m just tired. And that’s okay.