Thursday, May 8, 2014

Support Survivors And Salute The Troops: Inability For Empathy Does Not Excuse Lack of Sympathy (Inspired By Hannibal)

So I was just watching an episode of season 1 of the show Hannibal (great off shoot of Silence of the Lambs for those who like Criminal Minds and that genre of crime show), and I hear the line "there is nothing more isolating that mental illness" and I simply could not put off this topic/post any longer.  

Being raped or assaulted does not "give" a person a mental illness, but a survivor's internal struggle and the need for support and understanding from the people in his or her life can truly be isolating.  And one of the greatest reasons is that people around you, even those with the best intentions, get impatient with being patient.  They don't understand why you can't move on as fast as they think you should because more often than not they don't have any real grasp of what you are going through, there's no other experience that is similar.  Then there are survivors out there who are either in denial or have healed in their own way (be it through time, therapy, both, etc) who forget what its like when the wounds are fresh.  This feeling of being misunderstood and hurried is something that I've only heard one other "group" of people truly relate to, and that's combat veterans.  I've found that in many aspects the emotional struggles of sexual assault survivors and combat veterans are very similar (there are also some stark differences, granted), both groups go through experiences that can only be understood by going through them yourself.  I know survivors and veterans, and I have heard their stories and shared mine in turn.  Most everyone has people close to them who tried to be supportive, patient, and understanding, but at some point those people one by one eventually get frustrated or forget to be patient- they can't understand why it is taking so long for you to get over it, "man up", "toughen up", "the world keeps spinning", "life goes on": these are all direct quotes of things said to BOTH rape survivors and our combat veterans.  

What so many blessed people don't understand is that in many ways a survivors life was paused in that horrific moment.  The images, the smells, the sounds, every tiny detail your senses registered in that real life nightmare come back to haunt you at different, and often inopportune, moments throughout your happy day to day life.  Maybe you're out to dinner with friends and you smell a cologne that sends you reeling into a fog of fear and panic, or on a wonderful date and your significant other says a word or makes an expression that shoots ice through your veins.  For me, those have both happened, and lots of other similar situations too.  Over the years I have learned to ground myself by focusing on the moment, asking for help from those close to me, breathing exercises, a million little techniques that have become almost second nature by now; but there are still moments that I am caught of guard and I spiral out of control into a muddled cloud of nightmarish images and am full of fear and pain.  I make it a point to know as much about a movie as I can before I watch it (I can watch Law and Order: SVU and that kind of show, but something showing a rape or domestic violence will at best make me sick), but I was caught off guard when I watched Safe Haven; I loved the movie, but when the full scene of domestic violence plays out it was as though someone had filmed the most terrifying minutes of my life and put them on a Blu-ray.  I sat in a corner of my room with a bat next to me and called a friend to help me calm down because I kept being sent back to the moments that I thought were going to be my last moments ever.  

People who have been lucky enough to go through their life without experiencing rape, sexual assault, or thinking they have had their last breath, simply cannot relate to what survivors and veterans go through.  They cannot truly understand the feeling like you are constantly running from your own memories, that sometimes when you are looking at something in the present you might actually be seeing something in the past, that it's not a matter of "manning up" or "not being dramatic", but that doesn't mean they shouldn't try.  The lack of experience required for empathy doesn't mean a lack of sympathy should be excused.  Both survivors and veterans have gone through experiences that leave deep wounds that, even if treated, will still leave deep, life-long scars.  

So I challenge those of you who are the lucky and blessed to take a look at those around you who are struggling and double check your interactions with them; make sure you aren't pushing their healing to fit your schedule.  I don't know or know of any survivors or veterans who are wanting pity, so when I say be sympathetic I don't mean throw them a pity party- I mean try to understand, even if all that means is acknowledging that you can't understand.  I also challenge the survivors and veterans out there to not let yourself dictate your healing by what others around you say.  Yes, the world does keep spinning and life does go on, but by simply making it through your traumatic experience(s) you have proven that you are "tough enough" and "man enough": YOU ARE A DAMN SURVIVOR.  So ignore the voices putting you down and hurrying you on, do what you need to do at your own pace, and speak up for yourself when you need to- don't be afraid of telling people to stop preaching about what they don't know.  (I feel obligated to say that you catch more flies with honey, but I'll admit that isn't always my approach)

NOTE: There are very distinct differences in what a rape survivor goes through and what a combat veteran deals with, and in some close personal relationships throughout the last decade I have learned so much about both the similarities and differences.  I would not ever dare to say I know what it is like to have been in our deployed soldiers' combat boots, but I do know a lot about their experiences and struggles once they come home.  I have tremendous respect, admiration, and appreciation for the men and women who serve our country, and as much as I hope sexual assault awareness will help bring about a change in our "rape culture" and greater support for survivors, I also hope that our troops coming home can be better supported.