Self-styled ‘abuse survivor’ … and proud?

I came across this statement on Twitter recently. It pulled me up short.

Abuse survivor opinion tweet

I hadn’t gone looking for it or anything like it. It appeared in my timeline, ‘retweeted’ by one of the people I follow.

As I read the words of the tweet, I remember thinking that I’m a ‘self-styled’ survivor. I also remember that I didn’t have the slightest urge to rage at this tweeter and that made me smile. There have been times when I would have felt very angry indeed, as were many of the people who replied to the tweet on Twitter, hurt on behalf of all ‘survivors’, and so got myself very worked up in spirited defence.

It’s perhaps a measure of how far I’ve come that I was able to quietly reflect and focus first on reaffirming for myself why I sometimes choose to declare that particular status and, with another smile, realise that I feel confident in it. I have gone on to wonder in the days since I read it what might have prompted such a statement from the author of that tweet. It could simply be the work of a ‘troll’, someone who gets a kick out of making inflammatory statements online seeking a reaction, particularly one of hurt, from others. I deliberately chose not to look up the author of the tweet, for the sake of self-preservation, at a vulnerable time. However, since writing the bulk of this post I have now taken a look. I saw that the author defines herself as someone who writes about false accusations and ‘pseudo victims’. Sometimes people make things up, some people do generally like to play the ‘victim’ in life. I’m not deriding the woman, I haven’t looked deeply enough to know what she’s really about. I’ll just say that I think the tweet that prompted this post was misguided.

However, this post isn’t really about that tweeter. This post is primarily about me. I know, I am such a narcissist …

I wanted to write this post because communication is hugely important to me. I believe that good communication is fundamental and can be a real force for good by facilitating greater understanding, Unfortunately, in the years since my status as a survivor of abuse became apparent I’ve learned that many people don’t care about much beyond themselves and their own. Empathy and understanding are too often in short supply, while intolerance and ignorance proliferate. What are prejudice and intolerance if not a lack of knowledge, more specifically a lack of understanding and the absence of empathy? Add fear to ignorance, and watch intolerance and prejudice spread like the proverbial wildfire.

I want to reach out to those people who do care enough to want understand more than their own immediate experience … those who can see past the end of their own noses. I know, now who’s making inflammatory remarks?! What the hell: I’m not perfect and I do despair of reluctance to take a broader view.

I don’t wear the label ‘abuse survivor’ like a badge. It’s not who I am or what I’m about but it is a large part of my experience. I was abused for many years, and beyond childhood. The effects of those abusive experiences have been devastating and have pretty much decimated my life – wrecking my health and costing me, among other things, a career, relationships and a family of my own. I don’t say that lightly. For me, to ‘whinge’ is to cringe; I’m relentlessly positive, driven and upbeat and find it difficult to be otherwise. I’d rather pull out my own fingernails that have anyone think me a negative or downbeat sort of person.

I don’t declare myself abused and decry the terrible impact of it for fun or attention. I say it because those are the facts and because the impact was so great that recovering myself and my life became a full time occupation. I use the term ‘abuse survivor’ when I need to begin to explain my circumstances and also to connect with other survivors.

My Twitter bio. includes the phrase ‘abuse survivor’. Despite the title of this post, I actually don’t see myself as being a ‘self-styled’ abuse survivor. I am a ‘self-styled’ Wordsmith. That word, a cheeky nod to my love and life of writing, also appears in my Twitter bio. Describing myself as an abuse survivor is nothing more or less than a statement of fact. I use it on Twitter because it’s there, and via WordPress blogs, where I’ve found it possible to connect with other survivors – for mutual support and learning. It’s not to say ‘oh poor me‘ or ‘oh look at me‘. Given the amount of shame that survivors feel – that one is pretty much universal – that’s hardly likely. It is to say here I am, this is a part of my experience and I’m here if you’d like to connect. 

Where does pride come into it? Well, I imagine that ‘survivor pride’ … no, as far as I’m aware that isn’t a thing nor am I trying to make it one. I use the term loosely for the purposes of this blog post only … is something akin to Gay Pride. Once again, it’s not about narcissism. We don’t have ‘Heterosexual Pride’. We don’t have it, because we don’t need it, anymore than we need ‘White Pride’. Homosexuality, however, has long been the subject of oppression, abuse, ignorance, intolerance and prejudice. It remains illegal in parts of the world, and persecution is not uncommon.

If I’d held on to my sense of self faced with that lot, I’d be damn proud too.

And that’s how I feel about being proud to be an abuse survivor. I can’t change what happened to me, it was vile and appalling and has come close to killing me more than once. I’m not proud that it happened but I’m proud that I am not bitter, that I am a kind, caring, empathetic, inclusive, creative, vital … and witty(!) … person in spite of it. I’m extremely proud that I’ve achieved that after such terrible experiences and in an ongoing fight to thrive in the face of a scarcity of empathy and appropriate support and resources.

Like so many things in life, a ‘one-size fits all’ approach does not apply to ‘abuse survivors’. We are not a homogeneous group. Each survivor’s experience of abuse is different – abusers too have abuse in common but are otherwise varied. Abuse is often a life-altering experience with recovery sometimes life-long, but there are some for whom the impact is smaller. There’s no right or wrong way to be an abuse survivor. It is what it is according to each individual’s experience.

I have encountered enormous strength of character, courage and kindness among survivors. But that’s not to say that these people are ‘saints’. They are real people – as complex and varied as anyone else – who happen to have also endured something truly terrible. Abusers don’t discriminate, they’ll abuse whomever or whatever they can get. Abuse happens in all areas, all walks of life.

I could describe in graphic detail some of the abuse that I have experienced and that of other survivors I have got to know, either through work or friendship. I have knowledge that bleach couldn’t sanitise, but bluntly disgorging it here to attest to the veracity of the ‘abuse survivor’ would be crass. That’s not to say that I don’t think greater awareness of what people have to endure, survive and how they can struggle to go forward in life, and why, wouldn’t be helpful.

I believe in freedom of speech. That author of that tweet exercised hers. I’m happy to say that I’d fight for any abuse survivors right to declare themselves as such, and for their freedom of speech.

Medication … miracle?!

TW: This post contains discussion of suicidal intent and a suicide attempt.

So, after stepping back from the brink, how are things now?

Well, by goodness, there is a LOT going on in my life, a great deal to manage and to process but I have some support and may yet have more to come. For the first time in my life that support is appropriate and reliable and it’s paying dividends. There remains a long and challenging road ahead, more of that in later posts, but the outlook is positive.

I have a long history of depression, I’ve lived with episodes of it for more than 25 years, since I was around 18 years old. Mine is always reactive and triggered by major stress. Alas, when you are survivor of abuse and trauma, life does rather tend to have more than its fair share of that!

I wrote about the attempt I made many years ago to end my life by suicide, here. It happened in the years immediately following my disclosure, to a GP and subsequently a counsellor, of my experiences of trauma, physical and psychological abuse within my family over many years. I was not well supported then and was lucky to survive the attempt. I was discharged from hospital with no follow up support. I tried to be proactive and so sought it out but soon realised there was nothing doing. I feel great dismay when I read accounts by others who are still having this experience in the 2010s.

Finding myself at risk of homelessness was at the root of the prolonged episode of depression in the year from December 2014, but there were other contributing factors. I had been pushing myself much too hard, for one. The prospect of losing the roof over one’s head would be stressful for anyone. As a result of my experiences of abuse, loss has loomed large in my life. I lost all my family, many friends and with those losses connections to my history. I’ve lost some memory. I’ve lost some hair (!) as a result of alopecia. I’ve lost my beloved career. I’ve lost my marriage and I’ve lost the chance to have a family of my own. I’ve lost health and fitness and I’ve lost a great amount of time to illness and recovery. A few things can be recovered, others are gone for ever, others can be replaced with a great deal of flexibility and endeavour. Throughout it all I have hung on to a home – there have been many of varying types scattered around the UK – this one is mine and mine alone and with that has come a fledging sense of safety. The threat of its loss became unbearable.

Depression threatened me again and as its impact intensified, I was disturbed to find that it was once again very difficult to access support, despite effort and honesty on my part. [I’d like to discuss this issue in more detail but will do so in a later post focusing on issues around suicide prevention.]

Medication was mentioned but I was very reluctant to go down that road. Having previously been prescribed various anti-depressant and anti-anxiety medications over a period of four years. I never felt they had any benefit or served to ease my psychiatric symptoms in any way. The doses were regularly increased to no effect, in my view, except to ensure that I had a veritable pharmacy on hand at home. It was while on the highest doses that I made the attempt on my life all those years ago, by swallowing a massive overdose of more than 100 tablets.

I came off all medication in the year following my suicide attempt but continued to pursue counselling and other forms of psychological support that I found in the voluntary sector  and which were hugely beneficial to me.

When my friend made the call to my GP that brought me back from the brink, a few short weeks ago. medication remained the only treatment option on the table. I was told I would not be allowed to access further psychological support – such as specialised trauma therapy – on the NHS, without having first tried medication. My GP, whom I have known for 18 months, remained convinced that it could help me. Knowing that something had to change if I was to continue to stay alive and after lengthy discussion with my GP during an hour long home visit, I made the decision to try medication again.

I didn’t want to be able to accumulate medication at home, knowing myself to be at risk of suicide, so we agreed that I would receive my medication weekly and that since I am having difficulty getting out and about it would be delivered to my home each week.

After just two weeks on a relatively lose dose of anti-depressant medication, I realised that my mood had been steadily improving during the preceding seven days. Side effects were unpleasant at first but manageable with the help of my GP and they have subsided. We increased the dose after those two weeks and I’m due a final increase next week. My mood has remained stable and this is despite receiving some devastating news four days prior to Christmas and, additionally, having an encounter that forced me to relive episodes of terrifying violence in my childhood.

When considering whether to try medication again it didn’t occur to me that something is different this time around. Although I’ve been experiencing the most severe depression again, I have come a very long way in the intervening years and I’m in a very different ‘place’. It certainly seems as though the medication is doing its job this time – ironically, I am taking Sertraline which is the very first of the medications I was prescribed all those years ago. (That news very nearly had me running for the hills, I can tell you!) Perhaps the fact that I have moved on so very much, has made the difference.

A Twitter pal has been expressly wishing me miracles in recent months and continues to do so. It looks like that wishing worked 🙂 …. I needed a miracle and I think I got one … thanks LongJohn 😉 !

‘Threatened’ suicide … is it OK to say that?

TW: repeated references to suicidal feelings and the act of suicide.

After seeing this article and its headline in my Twitter timeline, I tweeted to @HuffPostUK, I’m not sure about using the word ‘threatened’, I think it adds to stigma. How about ‘considered’ or ‘risked’?

If that sounds like a case for the ‘word police’, I’ll explain why I have concerns.

I think, as I subsequently tweeted, that ‘threatened’ is too close to ‘threatening’. Sadly, too many people still conflate mental illness with being a threat to others or generally dangerous, when actually people with mental health problems are more likely to be a risk to themselves, or, be a victim of violent crime (scroll down to the section titled ‘are people with mental health problems dangerous?’.)

You could threaten to punch someone – I wouldn’t personally but I hope you see my meaning! In that context the use of the word ‘threaten’ is accurate and appropriate. It is threatening behaviour. It is possible to threaten someone – the threat may not be carried out but the person on the receiving end of the threat can feel threatened regardless.

I’m also concerned that using the word ‘threaten’ in relation to suicide may inadvertently perpetuate a dangerous myth about it – by dangerous myth, I mean a misconception that can cost lives.

Suicide is a desperate act. People consider it for various reasons. Commonly, it isn’t because they want to die, but because they can see no other escape from desperate circumstances, they’re often experiencing unbearable pain. There are many myths surrounding suicide, including the idea that people who talk about it, aren’t serious about doing it. While it’s true that not everyone who experiences suicidal feelings will go on to die by suicide, suicidal feelings should always be taken seriously. It is vital to talk about suicide, talking can and does save lives.

I attempted suicide in my thirties. I survived by fighting with myself and managing at the last moment to call for help. I had already seen my then GP that morning and been sent home, after my suicidal feelings were dismissed, to be alone with lots of medication to hand. In a desperate and distressed state I believed I’d been sent home to die. I took a massive overdose that would have proved fatal, help arrived in the nick of time. I lost consciousness just as the first paramedic entered my home. I remember nothing more until I came around in intensive care. I was told I’d had to be resusciated soon after arriving at hospital. However, because I called for help. a now ex-friend of mine decided I was an attention-seeking fraud and liberally spread word to that effect, losing me other friends in the process. That person’s reaction to my suicide attempt was the responsibility of that person, but stigma in wider society does play a part.

Stigma contributes to discrimination. As someone once said mental illness does not discriminate and nor should you. It can affect anyone. Experiencing mental health problems is no picnic, people doing so are already disadvantaged by their illness and should not have to face further disadvantage as a result of stigma.

I think the use of the word ‘threatening’ in relation to a suicidal act could perpetuate the myth that many suicide attempts are ‘fake’ or that people who are ‘threatening suicide’ are simply attention seekers, because to threaten isn’t necessarily the same as carrying out.

You can learn more in this great article from the Samaritans on myths about suicide

The media has often added to and perpetuated stigma surrounding mental illness. The infamous ‘Bonkers Bruno‘ headline immediately springs to mind, but there have been many other examples. Researching an essay about risk in terms of mental health, earlier this year, I was able to find, in a matter of moments, numerous examples of news reports where mental illness was conflated with threatening, violent and dangerous behaviour, despite their being no evidence.

As someone with a background in journalism, it might seem hypocritical of me to criticise the media. I became a journalist because I love to write, communicate and campaign. I wanted to bring stories and issues that matter to people’s attention. I wanted to help to give a voice to the voiceless. With apologies for deploying a cliche, I wanted to make a difference. I have no time for sleazy, salacious or irresponsible journalism – actually, to me, that’s not journalism; it’s just tripe.

In my youth, I considered journalism a noble profession, much like being a teacher, a doctor, nurse or lawyer … ahem. I may have been a touch naive, I was surprised that many people were not impressed when I declared my profession.

To be clear, I don’t consider the @HuffPostUK article which prompted this post to be irresponsible but I would be delighted if they and others would consider my concerns.

@HuffPostUK haven’t yet replied to my tweet. If I do receive a reply I will edit this post to include any response.

Thanks for reading, I’d welcome your thoughts. You could comment on this post or tweet me @heartsetonlivin .

Further information about and help with suicidal feelings can be found here.