By Sara Forcella, See the Triumph Contributor
Over the course of this summer See the Triumph is focusing on ways that survivors can be supported. We focus a lot on how survivors deal with all of the hurt, anger, fear, etc. from these relationship--topics that are extremely important. Nonetheless, in this post, I’d like to discuss something a bit different; something I’ve personally been struggling with for the past few months. I want to talk about how friends, family, and allies of survivors help themselves.
Being an advocate is hard work, not only because of the long hours, or typically the less-than-amazing pay, but because it’s hard on the mind and heart. It takes a special kind of person to work day in and day out dealing with others' problems. I say this with nothing but respect; I choose to deal with others' problems. I want to advocate for them, to help them, to care for them. It’s what I love to do and I would never, trade my career choice for one that was less meaningful, but came with a larger paycheck. However, advocates usually know what they are signing up for; friends and family members of survivors usually don’t.
See the Triumph has spoken about how friends and family members can help survivors of abuse or sexual assault, which can be found here. My question though is, how do these folks help themselves? Knowing a survivor, listening to their stories, trying to support them, again can be difficult. It takes courage, empathy and strength. As an ally, sometimes it feels as if you are living in that abusive relationship, just without all of the mental and physical scars. And I can tell you from first hand experience that it’s scary! Not knowing whether you’re going to get that call that your friend has just been brutally beaten, or worse, is enough to make you sick. It’s also scary because it’s hard to know when to speak up, when to step in, and when to say something, because you don’t want to push that survivor away, and you don’t want to lose them.
Advocates and allies of survivors can deal with what’s called vicarious trauma. Simply put, this is trauma that results from consistent meaningful, empathetic, engagement with survivors. Vicarious trauma is real, and it happens more than you think. That’s why it is so important for those who listen to survivors’ stories, who feel their pain--who worry, care, and cry for them--to take good care of themselves. It is a must that we practice good self-care--that we are able to step away from the situation and give our minds and hearts the approval to step away from that space.
Practicing good self-care is something that I spend lots of time talking about and practicing with the group of peer educators that I work with. In fact, I used an entire meeting just to teach them some basic meditation skills. It struck me the other day when one of my typically upbeat and engaged students seemed spacy and withdrawn. Later, I found out that she was dealing with some pretty heavy stuff, as she was dealing with (what seemed to me) some vicarious trauma. She was so concerned about the well being of a friend that she didn’t even realize that it was affecting her. The advice that I gave her and the advice that I am working on accepting for myself is that it is okay to take a step away.
Yes, I said it! It is okay to tell a survivor who’s a friend or family member that you need to take a step back, that you need to take care of yourself. As an ally, the abuse and pain is not yours, and you cannot own it. You can empathize, support and help, but please do not own it! I look at it this way: you’ve got a figurative backpack of gunk--pain, hurt, anger, fear--of your own. It’s not healthy to take on the gunk of others’ backpacks. I acknowledge that this is way easier said than done. It’s really hard for me to allow myself to take a step away. Why? Because it feels like I’m abandoning my friend; it feels like I’m being a crappy person! What I want you to know though, is that you are not abandoning them or trying to hurt them. You are only trying to better yourself, so that when they really need you, you can be there for them.
Practicing good self-care means that it is okay to respectfully, tactfully let your friend, brother, partner, whomever, know that you need to take a step back. Or, that you just can’t handle a story on that particular day. It means you can give yourself a green light to let them know that you are going to be really busy in the next few days and may not be as readily available as you have in the past. I can assure you that running your own emotional and physical well-being into the ground is not going to help you, or a survivor. So, speak up and be honest; it is okay to put your own needs before others, in fact, sometimes it’s necessary.