I was assaulted again by people I knew six weeks ago. Though I have been immersed in antiviolence and survivorship work for the past decade, my mind immediately spun back to familiar myths of self-blame and caustic shame. I open this blog post with these difficult truths of imperfect healing because I feel committed to shattering every false image of the “good survivor” many of us carry around in our bodies, communities, and social media accounts. I did not preserve evidence of the assault to pursue whatever “justice” the criminal industrial complex might afford me. Instead, I went home and cleaned my apartment from top to bottom, took a scalding hot shower that I couldn’t feel, and got in bed and remained there for hours. The next day, I was so ensconced in denial and avoidance that I went out with friends who remained oblivious to my fresh trauma, functioned “normally” at home and work, and stayed absolutely numb for twenty-four hours. My brain needed this time to reorient itself to safety; this is a normal and unintentional part of healing, a biological defense mechanism that helps people and animals survive what otherwise feels unsurvivable. Trans and nonbinary survivors of polyvictimization owe ourselves gratitude rather than self-beratement for how we may react to trauma with an initial period of deep numbness and avoidant “normal” functioning; once our agitated nervous systems can haltingly recognize the immediate physical threat has passed, our bodyminds will let what can feel like crushing waves of feeling in the forms of flashbacks or body memories so that we can move past numbness and begin processing.
If you’ve been here, if you are here, know that you aren’t alone and you aren’t losing your mind or healing wrong. Brains are absolutely magnificent, brilliant wisdom holders. After trauma, they know exactly how to keep us alive and as healthy and connected to our communities of support (we are, after all, innately pack creatures) as possible. Often times, this means enduring a period of profound numbness, dissociation, or even complete dissociative amnesia during and after the traumatic event as the brains’ ways of protecting the survivor from unimaginable horror, emotional and mental suffering, and physical pain. While the people survivors trust with their stories may react immediately with grief or outrage (survivors’ partners, family, and friends may benefit from FORGE’s guide to helping partners and friends cope themselves as well as support their trans or nonbinary loved one after experiencing trauma and this blog written for loved ones), it’s not unusual for the survivors themselves to only scratch the surface of those emotions for weeks or even months following a traumatic event while their nervous systems reorient to the beautiful and challenging fact that they did, indeed, survive. As renowned therapist Bessel van der Kolk explains in-depth in his bestselling book on the bodymind and trauma, The Body Keeps The Score, this numbness is a protective mechanism that lasts until the survivors’ amygdalae and hippocampi confirm that their immediate environments are again safe enough to experience the luxury of feeling, often through creativity and relationship.
Until feelings can be experienced fully following another trauma, it’s not uncommon for these emotions to erupt in worsening nightmares, flashbacks, intrusions, and old ideas and behaviors. While it’s tempting for trans and nonbinary survivors to feel like they’re losing both their minds and their progress when this happens, it’s imperative that survivors remind themselves (and, often, their support systems) that these symptoms are the brain’s natural way of processing what is temporarily too painful to hold thoughtfully in the conscious present. With patience, compassion, perseverance, healing work, and time, they will ease. It does get better when survivors hold on through the resurgent storms of polyvictimization, knowing that hope is not lost and they are not alone on this journey even now.
No matter how much healing work a survivor has done already, no matter how trauma savvy they are or how much energy they may dedicate to working with other survivors, it’s impossible to rationalize the way to faster healing with a white-knuckle grip following another victimization. It is natural for everything survivors know to temporarily go out the window: They may resume scrutinizing themselves with the same shame and blame they thought had resolved years ago, picking themselves apart with a vitriol they would never direct towards others. That’s why, as excruciating as it may be, telling whatever is accessible of the story to a compassionate and trauma-educated witness is crucial for healing it. Therapists, spiritual mentors, and wise friends can all be witnesses to the survivor’s new and reopened pain. Storytelling in community helps survivors transform the inner narrative of what happened from one of shame to that of empowerment, healing, and connection. (FORGE has an excellent guide on finding and working with trans and nonbinary affirming trauma therapists that I’d highly recommend for all survivors who are interested in working with a therapist after revictimization).
For example, in my work with my therapist, every time I return to a self-blaming narrative of the event in which I cast going outside as evidence of it being my fault, she redirects me to confront how I am grasping for control and power over a situation in which I had none in order to avoid my feelings of utter vulnerability, terror, and pain. It initiates immensely difficult work, but it’s work that subverts the “good survivor” myth in which there was anything I could have or “should” have done before, during, or after the trauma to gain power over a situation in which I was completely powerless. I know that a lot of other trans and nonbinary survivors struggle with this same narrative, sometimes in connection to our gender identities and presentations. For some of us, clinging to the myth that if we had only presented or identified differently we wouldn’t have been hurt acts as a shield against confronting the tumult of emotions of sitting with the unalterable fact that we were hurt. Period. Though these desperate, self-blaming shields may work for a short time, holding on to them instead of trusting our communities of support to challenge and help heal them brings healing and life to a dark standstill.
I believe, instead, in the innate courage and capacity for all survivors to be held and to heal from polyvictimization and the myths they resurrect in our psyches. Freedom is possible. Taking down self-defeating armor so that self-blame can be challenged and all the emotions that come with the reality of having been helpless and hurt, again, is worth it.
Another component of the “good survivor” myth that revictimization forces many trans and nonbinary survivors to contend with is that of disclosure, accountability, and “justice.” There is no single or correct response to sexual assault and sexual violence. Some survivors choose to report to the police and/or receive forensic care, others do not. Some survivors initiate Community Accountability processes as a way of practicing Transformative Justice (for more information on Transformative Justice and survivorship, I highly recommend Beyond Survival), others do not. Some survivors immediately disclose to their partners, friends, family, and bosses/professors, others need time or only disclose on a need to know basis. Each of these responses and countless others are valid and worthy of support for how the survivor is acting out of their own agency and autonomy towards greater healing.
It’s not uncommon for survivors to immediately be asked if they went to the police following sexual violence; this can trigger deep self-doubt or shame if the survivor chose not to, no matter the reason why. That’s why it feels important for me to disclose that I, a trauma worker who has been in the field in various capacities for ten years, did not choose to go to the police, never asked for the surveillance footage I’m sure exists, and immediately took a long, hot shower even though I know that it gets rid of whatever forensic evidence was left behind. I, personally, don’t need to engage the criminal system in order to heal and pursue my own sense of “justice.” Justice, to me, is better experienced through resistant joy and helping other survivors and people who cause harm to create communities where there is less violence and more hope. Justice, to me, is doing the therapeutic and internal work so trauma does not result in self-destruction like it used to because I have self-worth, dignity, integrity, and fierce self-love today. Justice is deconstructing the myths of the “good survivor” that keep trans and nonbinary survivors stymied in spirals of shame, fear, blame, and doubt to instead create capacious and empowered spaces for creative storytelling and healing our nervous systems in community (if you’re interested in engaging in public storytelling like this, keep an eye out for FORGE’s call for pitches for our collaborative SPEAK OUT initiative with MenHealing later this Summer!).
While there’s much safety planning that trans and nonbinary survivors can do to protect themselves against further victimization, it’s never their fault if it happens again. It’s crucial that survivors give themselves the respect of allowing each new trauma to be exactly that- traumatizing. Survivors do their healing processes a huge disservice if they act like additional traumas are “no big deal” because they’ve experienced sexual violence before. Each additional encounter with trauma is worthy of grief, outrage, and the support of the survivor’s network. Each deserves to be heard by compassionate witnesses who will hold onto hope even when the survivor can’t.
Every single time.
I urge you, if you’re in that liminal space of post-polyvictimization where doing the dishes or reading a book is confounding but embodied grieving also feels impossible, to reach out. Let people hear and help hold all the messy feelings, the self-blame and shame, the dissociated ache that will germinate to healing grief with time and work as you come back to your bodymind. Trust that your nightmares will resolve as your brain reorients to safety enough to let you process consciously. Honor your flashbacks with journaling, art, and movement to share with your therapist or other healers. Listen for internal messages that bring you in deeper contact with who you are or what you really want and need from life- sometimes trauma is the door to making brave decisions towards the life we always wanted instead of the one we thought we were supposed to have. Lovingly reject old “good survivor” myths that don’t reflect the truth of everything you are. And know, deeply, that you’re not alone and hope is still very much alive, the dandelion pushing its way through grief’s concrete.
I believe in you. I believe in us.