By Katherine B. Wiens M.Ed, LP, Chair of Into Account Board of Directors
Wherever you are on the journey is exactly where you need to be.
This is my new mantra about sexual violence and survivors.
I believe this statement honors each survivor and where they are on their journey. If we truly wish to help someone who has experienced sexual violence, then we need to come into their circle, not expect them to come into ours. Listening, believing, caring, and honoring is a big part of coming into that circle. It is important to resist our own human nature in wanting to fix things for another person. Our own ego wants to have all the answers to help people. But to enter into a survivor’s space is to sit with them where they are and to listen to their experiences. Telling them what we think they need or where we believe they need to be on the journey is asking the survivor to come into our space. This is not helpful.
When a safe space is created for survivors, then perhaps they can open up and let you in. This is a risk for them and too often those they thought were trustworthy have betrayed them. So, answers are not yours to give. Your listening, caring, honoring and valuing presence is what is needed.
If a survivor is ready and able to let go of the pain, trauma and betrayal they have experienced, then honor that decision. If they are angry as hell about what happened to them, then listen, care and honor that space. If they are overwhelmed and numb and cannot talk about sexual violence, honor that decision. This is what it means to be in their space. To honor that space as holy ground and sit with them just as God sits with them.
Each survivor’s journey is different, but many of the losses are similar. The loss of trust, loss of confidence in who they are, loss of feeling safe anywhere, and many other losses. When a person experiences sexual violence, they may also feel guilt and shame. These are two small words, but they have a massive impact on the life of a survivor. When we try to push the survivor to be okay, because we are uncomfortable with their anger and pain, we pile on more guilt and shame. Telling survivors to let go, forgive, forget, and move on is saying to them where they are at is not okay. That often gets interpreted as they are not okay. And rather than helping we may be increasing the massive impact of the guilt and shame they are already experiencing. This is definitely not what God is calling us to do for those who have experienced sexual violence.
So, honor the space on the survivor’s journey as exactly where they need to be. Listen with care and compassion. Let them know you believe them. If you are honored enough to be let into a survivor’s life and trusted enough for them to open up to you, the best thing to do is listen and to say, not only with your words, but also with your actions, “I see you, I believe you, I care about and you are important to me.”
I write this as a survivor of childhood sexual abuse (CSA) and as a victim of betrayal trauma in a Mennonite church. I use survivor of CSA because I have had many years of therapy, trusting relationships and education to work through that part of my life. I say victim of betrayal trauma because that wound is very fresh and I’m in the grief process where I’m experiencing anger, sadness, depression and the tremendous loss of my faith community. I know in time this grief process will pass, but for now this is where I’m at, and it is exactly where I need to be.