• A Better Way

Honoring a Victim's Voice

Updated: Jun 16

A Better Way Presents: Honoring a Victim's Voice Shared With the Author’s Permission As a former victim of physical, emotional, spiritual and sexual abuse, I well remember the first time I realized that my counselor was allowing me to have a voice, and honoring my voice. He asked me a question, and I responded to his question by telling him to do whatever he wanted to do. What point was there saying how I felt? He was going to do exactly what he wanted to do anyway. After all, that was how men with authority had behaved in my life in the past. Besides that, so had my mother and others, far too often! "No," he assured me. "I will respect whatever you want." He had to tell me that several times and gently insist I answer his question, before I began to believe him and would tell him anything specific. And I was stunned. I had a choice? He would listen to my choice? He would honor what I said? This was indeed novel! Years later, I'm not quite as taken by surprise when I realize I have a voice, but it still often moves me deeply to find that my thoughts are listened to, respected and honored, especially by people in any position of authority. I don't take it for granted, because for far too many years, I was voiceless, my boundaries were not honored, nor was I respected. I wasn't listened to when I protested being sexually assaulted over and over for six years. My 'no' wasn't honored, and I was manipulated in cruel ways--such as being told that if I wouldn't allow my molester to molest me, he was going to molest my little sister who I dearly loved. My bodily privacy wasn't honored the time my Mom, worried about a few issues I had expressed concern to her about in early puberty, forced me to allow the neighbor lady who was her best friend, to look at my newly developing body. I understand that my mother was concerned, but still, I was voiceless. I was reproved and almost mocked for not wanting that to happen. Another time--a time that trauma has so obscured I don't even have clear memories any more of what went down--my Mom complained to my father and he forced me, with threats, to let her look at whatever she wanted to look at . . . Physical boundaries were invaded by a father who practiced his version of "Biblical Discipline"-- including whipping on bottoms stripped completely bare. In a home that was scrupulously "modest" at all other times, his interest in hitting us with his huge leather belt or a switch on our bare flesh, with tights and underwear in a wad around the knees, was jarring and humiliating, and hurt on a level that was even deeper than the physical torment from being whipped black and blue. This practice continued well into my pre-teens--after that he just whipped me through my clothing. Painfully private eventually due to the abuse and lack of respect that had happened in my life, my mother found my insistence on privacy a time-waster and was free to express frustration. I was fussed at into my teens for wishing to go into the single stalls in public restrooms alone, rather than a communal toileting with my Mom and little sister. Having kept a diary since about 3rd grade, and finding it my one safe outlet in a home rocked with trauma, abuse and stress, I was horrified to no end one day to have my Mom announce to me that she had received input from a pastor's wife about how she handled her daughter's diary keeping. And now, my Mom was going to follow this lady's pattern of sitting down with her daughter, reading the diary out loud and discussing it. I protested--I was smart enough to sense on a very deep level that my boundaries and personal privacy were about to be violated in a terrible way. My mother ignored all my concerns and protests, forced me to get my beloved diary and sit down with her for a painful hour or so while she started at the beginning and read every single thing, critiquing my attitudes, my spelling, my sentence structure and my re-telling of events. She forced me to make corrections, wrote "editorial comments" in the margins and so on till she finally stopped, initialing and dating the margin so she would know where to start again next time. And this horror was visited upon me periodically for the next number of years over and over until I was well into my teens. NOTHING I ever said ever put a stop to it. She only abandoned the practice after she thought I had 'reformed' enough. In reality, I had become incredibly good at self censoring everything I wrote. I left out chunks of my life, only re-told events in a way she would approve of, or simply was incredibly vague. In a move she viewed as being a good mother, my strongest and best expression of myself was cruelly stripped away. Those initialed dates in my journals, those editorial comments in the margins have left me, even years later, uninterested in revisiting my childhood journals. Why didn't I cease writing, you ask? Stopping journaling would have been to let her win completely. Stopping journaling would have probably brought new wrath and ire down on me for "bad attitudes". I am a survivor, and I survived--bringing my love of writing, and my ability to express myself in writing, along with me, out of the fire. Reaching out as a pre-teen, I wasn't taken seriously by the very church leaders who were supposed to be my spiritual leaders and protectors. My halting statements about the abuse was met with indulgent chuckles. "Oh now, it's not *that* bad. You just need to apply the Grace of God in your life. And oh--by the way? Don't come talk to us again about your parents or your home unless you have your parents' permission!" As a young adult, again, the laughter. "Well now, but your father managed to turn you into a good little girl, didn't he?!" Need I go on? No. These examples (and there were many, many more) should surely help you understand that I had no voice, no ability to say 'no' and have it honored, and was rarely given respect as a person. One of the greatest gifts a person can give me today is to show respect to me and what I say. My 'no' needs to mean 'no' and my 'yes' needs to mean 'yes'. I love being allowed choices, and having my choice respected. It is a powerful thing for me, and it allows me to build trust and respect relatively quickly with a person in a way that few other things do. You might wonder how a victim could handle marriage, with such a history. Respect, communication and choices will go a long way in building a healthy relationship with a person. I found this very true with my husband, and I consider myself blessed that even though I did not get any counseling until some years into our marriage, I was able to form a loving relationship with him. Things were not always easy--for either of us--but we both persisted, and it has paid off. I have a friend who has allowed me to build a deep level of trust with him because he has shown respect, even when he doesn't agree with me or doesn't understand what I am trying to explain. He has a way of stating things in such a manner that I am encouraged to continue dialoguing with him--"Tell me more." "Help me understand that better" etc. are some of the things he will say to me. Even when he disagrees, he is respectful in how he expresses his disagreement with me. As a result, we have a comfortable, respectful friendship. After the sexual abuse started, I used to hate to be touched and as a kid, would reject even hugs from my mother and others. While part of me longed to be touched in healthy, appropriate ways, I couldn't risk it. Having my bodily space respected is still important to me. Especially with people I do not know and trust, I can still struggle somewhat with things as simple as shaking hands. For me to actually offer to shake hands means I am trying hard to be socially appropriate--or that I trust whoever I have offered my hand to! I have made much progress in allowing others to touch me in appropriate ways, but I'm sometimes still "touchy" about it until I have established a significant level of trust. Thankfully, if I need a hug, I now can ask for one, if I feel safe with the person. I find that the more years that pass, the more comfortable it is to hug sooner, longer, and more often. I'm even able to accept and be glad for hugs that I haven't directly given permission for, as long as I trust the person. My experiences have made me passionate about allowing victims to have their voices heard and honored, and their boundaries respected. Sometimes it's hard for victims to understand that they have a voice, or how to use their voice. It can be hard, or impossible at times for them to know how to have appropriate and healthy boundaries. These struggles need to be observed with understanding and compassion. It is extremely important if we observe a victim or former victim does not have the understanding or ability to create safe and appropriate boundaries themselves, that we still respect the unspoken and invisible boundaries that SHOULD be there. Honor their bodily integrity by not encroaching carelessly or needlessly on personal space. Try to ask before you touch them, even in typical socially appropriate ways until you know or sense that they are comfortable with touch from you. A simple, "Is it OK if I hug you?" goes a long way if you aren't sure. Or simply hold out your arms a little and see if they move in for a hug. Respect it if they don't. Don't take it personally. I am aware there are times in life that I have little to no control over who is touching me, or where or how. An example of this would be the times I fly and the TSA decides to pat me down. I will just be blunt--that isn't easy for me. I do a lot of mental self-talk to get through it. Being told things such as, "Relax! Just relax!" is not helpful for me. It is easier if the person explains every thing as they go along, and issues an apology--"I'm sorry, but I need to do this" is simple but helpful. An appropriate joke can help too. It's also fairly easy for me to tell if the person is being respectful and just doing their job, or if they have an attitude and are being a jerk. Realize that things that seem so normal and common to many, could be very triggering and upsetting to a victim. Certain colors, styles of clothing, smells, locations or many other things could be a trigger. There is no way to know ahead of time most of the time, so simply be alert and mindful that something as simple the scent of your laundry soap wafting off your clothing could be stressful because of memories or emotions that it brings back. If you sense that a victim is seeming to shut down, or on the flip side, becoming more emotional and agitated, it could be helpful to ask if they need to take a break, offer them a choice of drink, or anything else appropriate that can help diffuse the stress. There could be little "quirks" that are the victim or former victim's attempt to create a feeling of safety. The "quirk" may or may not be readily apparent. For example, I typically check out where exits in rooms and buildings are located. It is such second nature to me I don't typically consciously process it unless I am feeling anxious about a situation--then I am keenly aware of it and will subtly (or not so subtly) make sure I'm positioned to access the exit quickly if I need to. Making sure I have a clear path to exit from a room is super important to me, especially if the current situation is creating stress. Many victims or former victims struggle with such shame or fear that it can be hard for them to make appropriate eye contact. Don't assume that they are being shifty, or trying to hide anything other than their own history of shame and pain. Additionally, they could try to obscure their face behind their hands when talking, hide their body by wearing loose, baggy clothing, or wear a coat when not appropriate for the temperatures. Being intent on controlling situations can often be a clue that there has been a history of abuse and dysfunction in someone's life. Try to give them as much control as you logically can. One way this can be done is by giving appropriate choices--for example, "Would you prefer to talk to me, or write down what you need to tell me?" Then be patient till they can choose. Don't ever give a choice unless you are fully prepared to follow through with whatever option they choose! Again, always remember, that the victim has a history that you may or may not know anything about, and even if you know something, you might not know everything. So what can seem odd or off-putting to you, probably isn't about you. It's about their own history and pain. Resolve to stay calm and not make it about you, because it almost certainly isn't about you. For some victims, they may do better relating to a female perhaps, rather than a male. Or vice a versa. If you suspect this could be the case, try to provide a choice in gender for who is relating to the victim. Be kind, patient and gentle, and if you realize you have inadvertently offended, try to apologize and find out how to relate better in the future by asking respectful questions. This builds trust. And trust is key for healthy progress in the life of a victim or former victim. I no longer view myself as a victim. I am a former victim. Now I have a voice and the ability to make sure my voice is heard. I understand how to use caution and wisdom but still allow a person to demonstrate to me over time whether they are trustworthy or not. I have the ability to make and enforce good choices that can help keep me in safe and healthy relationships and situations. Because people were willing to teach me that I had the option to speak up and my words would be respected, I regained my voice, and with it, my personhood. I am no longer a victim. I am an empowered woman who has a place in this world. And that is my heart for all other victims--to see them treated with such respectful care they can move forward in life to the point they realize they too, are valued and respected, with a voice that is heard and honored. Permission is given to share this article in entirety, with the full information below: For more information, help, support, access to resources or victim advocacy, contact: A Better Way www.abetterway.org hope@abetterway.org


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