We can find the courage and the resources to rebuild ourselves, to heal, and to thrive.
But if we are in danger today, the absolute priority is getting to safety first. And it is up to us to determine if we are in danger, and what safety means.
Others, even well meaning, can not decide if we are safe and what we should do. They do not understand the dynamics of violence, what we went through, and what we need. Sometimes they do, but they are in denial for a variety of reasons.
When the violence took place years ago, there may be a temptation to believe that the danger has disappeared. The offender behaved for a long time now, so everything is safely tucked in the past. It’s over now. We should relax.
The thing is, I don’t think we should relax. I don’t see why we should stop trying to protect ourselves from someone who was violent, even if the abuse has stopped. Unless:
- The abuser is dead. This is the ultimate protection. It can take a long time though.
- The abuse was reported, the offender is in prison or under a restraining orders. This situation is unfortunately rare. In France, last year, the estimation was that only 1% of rapes were followed by a conviction. It does not mean that we should not try if we can. But if we can’t, or if it fails, we have to find something else.
- The offender recognized the abuse, turned himself or herself in, went for treatment and asked for forgiveness.
I must say this last sentence is, for me, a form of entertaining science fiction. I have never heard of this happening in real life.
So, chances are, if you are a survivor, the aggressor is still living his or her life somewhere, sometimes in your community, or even your family. You may see this person often. Or you may not, but nothing guarantees that it will not change.
How to get a sense of safety then ?
Telling our story
An important tool is telling your story to supportive people: family, friends, and partners. Once you break the silence, two things happen: first, you can turn to your allies if a violent person comes near you, and since they know about the danger, they will help.
The second consequence is more psychological: I’m not sure why, but telling my story to my partner and my close friends was incredibly helpful. I did not share the details, just said that I had been sexually abused by my father. The world did not crumble, nobody gasped or had a heart attack, and nobody looked at me strangely after that. People were mostly compassionate, and some came to see me and share their own painful past. Like a smaller version of Me Too, 90’s style.
Honestly, I don’t think I would have made it without telling my story. It’s not complicated, not expensive, and far less risky than we believe. The positive impact is immense.
Of course, it takes a lot of courage but we all do have a lot of it. We had to.
One very important caveat: it is not a good idea to tell persons who were, one way or another, part of the story. Enablers, people in denial, or people who love the abuser, are a no no. If you do share with them, you are risking is a violent attack. You can decide to confront further down the recovery journey, but not when you are trying to establish safety.
We should also not share our story with our children: it is inappropriate and too much to carry for them.
Setting an extreme boundary
The second tool I used for protection is what Robert Jackman, in his book Healing Your lost Inner Child, calls an extreme boundary.
It is a very good book for all of us wounded in our childhood, by the way: intelligent, wise, insightful. I probably will write about what he says in future posts.
Anyway, an extreme boundary is when you make sure no contact is possible, for example when you:
- Move very far away from someone
- Ghost someone
- Refuse contacts completely.
In short, it is when you prevent someone to have any type of relationship with you.
For me, geographical distance did the trick. I moved thousands of kilometers away from my family of origin and stayed there for several years.
This is where I started to feel safe, to have some psychological space, where I started therapy, told people around me. I needed the distance, and also, a different cultural background. It did wonders. I started to breathe.
Note that I did not consciously go away because of my abusive family. I justified it by saying that I wanted to see the world, to my loved ones, and to myself. With hindsight, I am convinced a part of me pushed hard to go as far as I could to protect myself.
Robert Jackman warns us to think carefully about the consequences if we establish an extreme boundary: it may be better to go through the discomfort of working on the relationship. We may regret burning our bridges later.
Well, I don’t think he is talking to us survivors. Extreme boundaries is something you can allow yourself to use extensively for your own protection and peace of mind. You should be completely confortable with setting them, with no explanation or justification.
It never really stopped
Let me share the rest of my story to illustrate what I mean.
For a long time, I saw my father maybe once a year. It was easy: I was living far away, and he was never initiating contact. In never saw him alone, and felt really uneasy the days before.
I could see my partner did not really understand the extent of my fear: my father was not looking for my company, too busy with his life. My therapist was also surprised when he understood I was still afraid. This was all decades ago, you know. It was over.
Times went by. Sometimes my father would be with a girlfriend, always far younger than him, but always an adult. Usually, they were ex students of him, or employees. It made me uncomfortable, but I let it go; it was none of my business.
One day, my mother welcomed a lady in her early twenties from an African country. She needed a surgery that was not available were she lived, and before and after the procedure, she settled in the family home where my mother was living since my parents divorced.
Even though my father was not living in this house anymore, and even tough he was well into his sixties, he came into motion like a pre-programmed washing machine. He was coming often to see her, tried to charm her, and after a while, seeing that it was not working, he raped her.
My mother explained the whole story, that finished first in a hospital because there was so much violence that there were physical damage, and then with this unfortunate young girl going back home in a hurry.
This very, very sad story validated my fear, and my extreme boundary setting. I saw reality finally dawn on my partner and my therapist…we don’t know what would have happened if I had stayed near.
I had not realized it before, but my father never really stopped being violent. He just switched targets. He abused his daughter, then his students, his employees, and finally a young vulnerable lady living in the family home. I think most of what he did in life was motivated by this compulsion.
I believe most perpetrators create a trail of destruction that can span decades.
Interestingly, most of them do not have a lot of imagination: the choice of their victims is based on sheer accessibility: family, neighbours, employees. Unfortunate beings who are vulnerable, and near.
So if you think you need to, make sure you are not accessible. Don’t let anyone talk you out of it because « it was a long time ago, it’s over now ».