Survivor and activist and supporter/former user of LSLCS services, Sally-Ann believes in non-medicalising trauma. She has written about her experiences on dealing with the Covid-19 pandemic as a survivor of abuse.
CW: Discussion of abuse, abusers, sexual abuse, trauma, Covid-19 pandemic.
Living under rules, conditions and restrictions again is hard for survivors.
What is going on?
The world has felt very odd for a long time now. It’s been tough for so many.
I’m a survivor of child sexual abuse and unexpectedly the pandemic has affected me more than I ever thought. I’ve written this piece to help any other survivors who relate to these feelings.
This post feels quite negative. I guess I wanted to put a little bit of a spin on it… I mean there’s been some things during this time that have been okay! Not having to go out… No pressure to be social… Not having to touch people (I appreciate the fear of that for survivors)… Not feeling like you have to be “doing”. This is all there alongside the struggles of the past few months.
The whole world is experiencing a trauma, not just a group of people, The Whole World. As a survivor you do all you can to avoid further trauma in your life, but this is one that no one has been able to escape. Simple things that keep survivors feeling safe have been pulled away – routines, changes in care, travel, shops, even the TV schedule – which can help with feeling a routine is all different. I rely on controlling as much as I can in my life to feel safe, even the small day-to-day things and now I can’t as much as I used to. My heart literally skips a beat with fear.
The world has felt under attack, we are being told to be fearful and to be cautious. As a survivor, my abuse meant I lived in a state of fear and second-guessing everything I did to try and keep safe as best I could. We are now living in this situation again 24/7. We are being told to fear strangers, that touch can potentially be harmful, to avoid people to keep ourselves safe. It may be a completely different context, but fear as a survivor is deep-set. Being told to be cautious of danger sets all our alarm bells ringing and creates the feeling of panic. Our subconscious is telling us we may get hurt, it means we are now living in high alert even more than usual – and that is just exhausting.
Control is such a major part of abuse. Survivors often were forced by powerful people to keep to certain rules, lived under threat and scared to do anything “wrong” through fear or what might happen. Recently we have seen some of the most powerful people in the country dictating a lot more of our lives, with consequences for non-compliance. We logically know this was to keep everyone safe – but living under rules, conditions and restrictions again is hard for survivors. Personally it’s brought many conflicting feelings and fears. What if I get the “rules” wrong? What if I forget what I have to do? What if someone shouts at me for accidentally doing something wrong? These fears have meant basic tasks have become terrifying. For example, going into a shop, scared of touching something you’re not supposed to, getting too close to someone, someone commenting on how you’re forgetting to “stick to the rules”. Not following “rules” in the past led my abuse to be worse, so now I live my life trying as much as I can to be “good”. We’ve then got the other side of it where we are seeing people (and senior people!) flouting the rules. The little child in me is just screaming, “No, we’ve got to stay good!”, “We’ve got to obey the rules.” And becoming very panicked when people are not following rules.
We are being told that people are contaminated, we are being told we are potentially contaminated. People literally cross the road to avoid coming near you. For me this taps into my feelings of being “dirty” and “unwanted” from the abuse. My abuse has left me feeling dirty and contaminated, it may not be true but those feelings are powerful. We are now having those feelings tapped into by being told that we could be contaminated. We could be a threat to others. We could be riddled with something horrible. We have to sanitise after touching people or things. People don’t want to come near you because of that – now this makes my inner child scream. She already feels “disgusting” and “contaminated” – and now she’s being told she potentially is and people must avoid her. I know logically this is far from the case – but when feeling vulnerable, survival mode kicks in and it’s hard to focus on anything logical. Someone crossing the road to avoid me or having to stand further away from me inside automatically taps into the everyday feeling I have of feeling horrible, disgusting, unwanted.
One of the most horrible shocks during this time for me is having to face a “trigger” I never thought would come into my day-to-day life.
This whole situation has really highlighted vulnerability. How society sees the vulnerable, how vulnerable humans are treated by systems. There has been so much good to come from this, so many people coming together to help one another. It’s also highlighted how badly people are treated. So many in society had to experience a lockdown, for the first time. Being trapped in your own four walls, unable to go out, unable to be with loved ones, unable to socialise. So many people have commented how they have never had to do this in their lives and could not cope. But lockdown was about eight weeks… There are many survivors and vulnerable people in our country where living in “lockdown” is their entire world. Feeling lonely, missing interaction with others, missing out on things they’d love to do. What an opportunity would that have been for our society to wake up and understand what so many people are going through behind closed doors and to make a real change. As life slowly returns “back to normal”, for the vulnerable, their lockdown continues, and the rest of the world just carries on. The grief that can bring is painful, not to mention many support services still aren’t able to return back to work to help as much as they want to. We’ve heard comments in the media of people who are “well” saying they don’t care about the virus as they’re okay, but then not acknowledging the vulnerable in our society.
One of the most horrible shocks during this time for me is having to face a “trigger” I never thought would come into my day-to-day life: PPE, specifically masks. Some of my abusers wore masks. Now, so many are wearing masks. My mind automatically is telling me anyone who is covering their face is coming to “hurt you”. They are a threat, they are dangerous. I see someone wearing a mask and my mind automatically remembers my abusers above me, just their eyes staring at me. It’s awful. And now it’s everywhere. As much as I tell myself people are safe, my body freezes, my memories tell me otherwise. It means living in a constant state of fear. It breaks my heart. My friends, work colleagues and even parents wear them, and even that scares me. That’s the worst. The other side is wearing a mask myself. I tried so hard. I was even sent a gorgeous floral one and tried it. My abuse included being suffocated, having my mouth covered and struggling to breathe. Wearing a mask makes the feelings of sheer terror flood back. I physically feel sick and panic. My body tells me it’s happening again. But this now means I can’t follow a rule… As I said above, that brings its own fears! It makes me feel guilty for not helping others. It makes me feel frustrated how much the abuse affects me. Everything about masks makes me feel under attack again, it makes me feel I can never escape my abuse and that it’s always coming back to test me as a survivor.
Then there’s the ultimate thing we haven’t mentioned. Zoom, Skype, phones… AHH! I struggle immensely with these things. Especially when it comes to accessing support. It’s meant support hasn’t been accessible for me as much as I’ve needed it. That’s been hard. I literally live my life analysing body language, atmospheres, spaces – anything to help me feel safe and in some sort of control. You just don’t get that on Zoom. Yes, you can see someone, but it’s not the same. We as humans are social animals, it’s not natural speaking to each other on screens. It’s also meant that means of support have had to take place in your own homes, also in the therapist/workers’ home too. That messes with my head quite a lot… I feel like I’m entering their home, which would never even be a thing in the “normal world”, nor they entering mine. I prefer having support away from my safe space. When I’ve had counselling before, as hard as it’s been sometimes afterwards, the bus journey home with blaring headphones and scenery has been what’s helped ground me or even going for a drink afterwards before going home. The way we communicate at the moment feels very strange.
On top of all my own stuff there’s the human aspect of all this. The world has lost many lives, many lives have been torn apart, many livelihoods have been damaged and so many are struggling. Humans without any significant trauma have been deeply affected. We have been forced to live in different ways and forced to change our lives very quickly. It is absolutely complex and scary for all.
So where has this left me as a survivor?
I genuinely never thought a pandemic like this would bring such close-linked feelings to past abuse, but it has, it’s real and it’s a bit of a shock!
I’ve been a horror to live with. I’ve lashed out at so many around me. I’ve struggled to understand my feelings, I’ve been horrible to myself. I’ve gained friendships, I’ve lost friendships. Argued with family, made up. I’ve felt completely and utterly mixed up. I’ve connected with some amazing people. Had more open conversations. My job role changed completely. Spent days in bed. Struggled to access support through COVID restrictions – it’s all been a bit weird!
I’ve felt immense guilt for struggling during this time. I’ve been fortunate COVID hasn’t directly affected myself or those around me in terms of illness. I know so many people have been worried about so much practically, and my issues as a survivor are my emotional issues. But as I’ve spoken to other survivors, it’s not just me who has felt all this and it’s incredibly unfair of me to be hard on myself for struggling. It’s also incredibly unfair to compare trauma at this time. What I’m feeling as a survivor is real. I genuinely never thought a pandemic like this would bring such close-linked feelings to past abuse, but it has, it’s real and it’s a bit of a shock! It is ridiculously cliché to say be kind to yourself – but actually it’s true. The amount of time I’ve sat here, telling myself how stupid I am for linking a virus to my past abuse, when I’m not stupid at all.
It’s absolutely horribly unfair that we have to experience what we experience. It’s also incredibly unfair that it’s so difficult to process and pick apart. When I was abused I had to learn to do anything to survive and feel safe. I had to learn things no child should learn, I had to live in a state of absolute fear for so long. This pandemic has brought all that back, and now it’s time for me as an adult to look after little me. Stop telling her it’s inconvenient to struggle during this time, but to tell her that, actually, the world’s really traumatic right now and it’s okay to feel everything you do.
Do what you need to do to look after the scared survivor living inside. Have days were you wrap yourself in a blanket to feel safe from the world. Take it slowly to explore how the world is now different, and don’t beat yourself up for struggling with it.
We live in a word that’s constantly telling us to be positive, don’t get down, blah blah… but we are in a pandemic. It’s called that for a reason. The world is in survival mode and high alert – a lot of familiar feelings for an abuse survivor. Give yourself a break. X