Have you ever had that dream where something bad is happening to you, but when you try to ask for help, you can’t speak? You try to scream for help but you just can’t get the words out?
This doesn’t only happen in dreams. It happens in real life as well.
Survivors of gendered violence experience this all the time, and those who care about them may not even know it. Survivors may open their mouth and find nothing comes out. They may speak around what they want to say, have other words or disjointed narrative come rushing out, but find they can’t form the verbal thoughts they need to talk about the harm itself.
Conventional definitions of gendered violence include chronic systemic gaslighting as part of the Power and Control Wheel. Gaslighting over an extended period is abuse in all of the conventional understandings of abuse. Current insights in domestic violence work have incorporated this research. But it can take time for wider cultural understandings to catch up to the most current research and knowledge. Our culture has not fully caught up yet with the knowledge of why psychological violence ‘counts’ fully as ‘real abuse,’ every bit as violent and dangerous as beatings and rape. So why do conventional gendered violence programs include ‘making her think she’s crazy’ as part of the standard definition of abuse?
The reason sustained gaslighting is considered a very serious full-fledged form of gendered violence is due in part to the severity of the impacts of these behaviours. The impacts are physiological as well as emotional and social. These forms of gendered violence can destroy people. Their impacts are not small or subtle. Here is why:
The reason survivors of gendered violence find it hard to speak are not, strictly speaking, ‘emotional.’ Abuse physically alters the brain and the nervous system in ways that impact cognition and speech. If this ‘can’t get the words’ experience has happened to you or someone you know, you’re not imagining it. It’s real, and it has a physiological cause.
Very real harm comes in many forms
Say, for instance, your partner is acting deceptive about something serious, and is employing kettle logic in ways that lead you feel disoriented and alarmed in an ongoing way, but they tell you you are imagining it. Say they appear to be seeking control in covert ways, using manipulation in ways that destabilizes you, whether they engage in this behaviour intentionally or not. The effects on the survivor are my focus here.
An emotionally responsible, ethical partner, when you bring up a concern, will want to hear your concern and address it openly and honestly, with integrity, accountability, and self-awareness.
In an abusive relationship, if you raise these concerns, instead of acting in an emotionally accountable way, your partner may gaslight you, making you believe you are imagining it, or may deny the alarming behaviour is happening at all.
In this kind of ongoing harm, as described below, our body’s alarm systems are going off, releasing stress chemicals into our system on a regular basis and putting our bodies on high alert, and we are trying to make sense of the signals. If the person harming us does not come clean, whether because they are not self-aware about their issues or because they feel the need for control, if we trust them, and particularly if the harm falls along other lines of power, we may doubt ourselves. Our ability to make sense of our body’s cues, and hence to end the physiological alarm and return the body to a state of balance, is impaired by our inability to get accurate information, or by a lack of integrity on the part of the person causing harm. In abusive relationships where chronic, serious gaslighting is a factor, this state of elevated distress can go on every day for months or years.
Over time, as the five examples below explain, this physiological experience can destroy your physical ability to think and speak, until you are able to get away from or interrupt the abuse and repair the physical injury it causes, which can in some cases be quite severe.
The physical impacts described below are a big part of why serious, chronic gaslighting abuse, especially when the survivor is open, trusting and vulnerable and does not realize they need to erect barriers to the abuse – is as dangerous to physical brain structures as battery is to the visible body.
If you care, and yet are not a survivor yourself, what you can do to help is to take it upon yourself to learn more about the signs and symptoms – and causes – of physiological silencing described below. Being able to recognize the signs of blocked speech allows you to care for survivors with compassion and understanding, so you can carefully, lovingly, help them come back into language about what is happening to them before you do anything else.
Here are five things that happen physiologically in response to gendered violence that make it hard for survivors to speak:
1. A key language centre in your brain temporarily shuts down
Broca’s Area is a furl of neural matter in the left half of your brain, behind your left temple, above your left ear. In this diagram it is the smaller orange patch on the left.
Broca’s area is involved in the production of words and sentences, both inside your mind and spoken out loud. During trauma “Broca’s area – the part of the left hemisphere responsible for translating personal experiences into communicable language – is turned off.” Replicable studies that examine brain scans of people with PTSD indicate that Broca’s area gets deactivated during recall of traumatic stress.
The British Journal of Psychiatry notes: “A replicated finding has been the deactivation of Broca’s area, the area of the brain thought to be responsible for applying semantic representations to personal experience to allow its communication or description. This would appear to be consistent with subjects with PTSD having difficulty in cognitively restructuring their traumatic experience.”
In other words, a core speech area of a survivor’s brain shuts down during traumatic events, and shuts down again any time the survivor attempts to even think about that traumatic experience. This may help to account for the “speechless terror” experienced by survivors.
Speechless terror can sometimes look – mistakenly – like anger. If someone you care about appears ‘angry’ but they tell you they are terrified, they may be experiencing this intense difficulty speaking about experiences of harm. They may try to tell you this, or they may not even be able to let you know it is happening.
You can help them by asking them ‘are you finding it hard to speak?’ And asking gentle questions such as “Was it like this? Was it like that?” and listening very deeply, willing to expand your understanding of how abuse works.
2. Another part of your brain, that connects information together, is injured by traumatic stress
Moving from Broca’s area, let’s slide inwards a little, to a structure called the hippocampus, which in traumatic stress is also significantly harmed.
The hippocampus is a fascinating part of the brain. It is involved in ordering emotions, memories and events, and in spatial and sequential memory. Called the “hippocampus” because it is vaguely seahorse-shaped, this important area is in the limbic brain, below the ‘thinking’ neocortex and above the ‘basic survival’ brainstem.
Say you have a dinner party. Your brain will store information in different networks all over the brain for the taste of the wine, who was there, how you felt, the way the flowers smelled or the candle’s heat. In a healthy brain, the hippocampus keeps track of and connects these different networks together to form one episodic memory.
In other words, this part of the brain helps us remember it all as one connected life event.
The area of the brain where the hippocampus is located is the most relational part of our brain, the part that developed when mammals began to grow inside a parent’s body rather than in an egg. Since our limbic brains keep us alive by keeping us connected to the people who matter, this part of our brain is exquisitely attuned to interdependence and the rhythms of human connection.
This cortisol-sensitive part of the brain gets damaged by chronic elevated stress. There is a relationship between chronic elevated cortisol levels and hippocampal atrophy, and some evidence to suggest that chronic elevated cortisol levels can cause lesions and shrinkage in the hippocampus.
PTSD research indicating shrinkage in hippocampal volume
The responsiveness of the hippocampus to cortisol means when someone is experiencing the chronic stress of ongoing psychological violence, they may have a harder time thinking of things together that are typically brought together in consciousness, even when they know what has happened to them.
Parts of the experience, sensory information, and emotional knowledge become disconnected, causing fragmentation and dissociation: the inability to bring together elements of consciousness that are typically thought of together.
The damage caused over time to the hippocampus from this chronic distress can cause a weakened capacity to hold the parts of experience together. Psychological violence is thus compounded, and the survivor rendered less able to defend themselves as time passes, because of physical, neurological harm caused by the abuse.
The hippocampus is deeply woven into the autonomic nervous system and all of the lower survival functions, and is connected with the Hypothalamus-Pituitary-Adrenal (HPA) axis, an important part of the stress system in your body that affects many other systems.
The disruption to the hypothalamus and pituitary that this kind of chronic distress causes can disrupt sleep patterns, causing insomnia that is not about ‘having worried thoughts’ but is actually a disruption in the brain’s operation.
So when a person causing harm creates chronic stress in their lover or partner, for instance by gaslighting them every day for months, even if they never lay a hand on them they are physically injuring that person’s brain in ways that take years to repair. And that’s not all:
3. The body’s fight-or-flight trigger gets more responsive over time
Moving along inside the limbic brain, we come to the amygdala. The amygdala is an almond-shaped structure in the brain involved in observing the outside world to scan the environment for signs relevant to our survival, such as the potential for sex and attachment, food, rivals, children in distress, risk and threat.
In situations of chronic stress (e.g. soldiers in combat zones, QTPOC experiencing daily oppression, survivors of gendered violence, etc.) since the stimulus is continual, the amygdala over time develops a greater and greater sensitivity to traumatic stress. It starts pumping out more distress signaling over time.
Because it is in communication with the rest of the nervous system, this signalling affects lots of other systems in the body. For instance, ongoing traumatic stress can impair the prefrontal cortex, shattering a survivor’s capacity for higher-order thought.
All of these systems are connected, which brings us to the fourth point:
4. The stress response system in your body creates a loop.
Moving from the brain down out through an opening in the bottom of your skull, imagine travelling along your vagus nerve, the largest nerve in your body.
The vagus nerve connects your brain to virtually every other organ and system, and it is an important part of the body’s ‘gearing up’ and ‘gearing down’ systems.
Here is our friend the vagus nerve, running up and down the body, in yellow:
The Vagus Nerve: an Illustration (credit Nicole Ranger Fuller)
When the amygdala determines that it is in danger, it initiates a hormone cascade that activates the HPA axis, so that the signal in turn shoots down to the adrenal glands, situated just above your kidneys:
…which pump out a rush of stress hormones including adrenaline and cortisol, that flood into the bloodstream and up the vagus nerve and overwhelm the cortisol-receptive hippocampus, which, as mentioned above, can create long-term (but thankfully repairable) damage to this structure in the exquisitely sensitive limbic brain. ‘Static’ signalling can build up in the vagus nerve, resulting in cumulative stress and trauma responses that require systemic repair.
Combine fragmentation, impaired prefrontal cortex activity, sleep disruption, and the shutting down of a key language centre, and you have a potent physiological silencing of survivors – before they ever get so far as to verbally ask for help.
Once survivors manage to speak up and break through this physiological silencing, then they also face the social silencing and backlash built into our culture.
These compound, piling silencing on top of silencing, and abuse on top of abuse.
So while victim-blaming and bystander dynamics are culturally conditioned in our society, our bodies simultaneously silence us physiologically long before we even ask those around us for help.
More than a metaphor
Survivors often use metaphors to describe this compounding of physiological silencing that happens in our bodies. The ‘well of silence’ is a common metaphor.
Many describe a feeling like drowning, like the abuse and gaslighting push your head underwater. Anytime you try to talk or think about what is happening, you can’t reach others for help because the words just won’t come.
However, this drowning metaphor rarely brings about the kind of support that is called for. Metaphor only helps if the listener already shares your experience and knows exactly what you’re talking about. If bystanders haven’t had a shared experience, trying to explain it through metaphor may not tell them much. They may just not get it.Survivors report the experience that they are speaking but it is as though they are making the sounds of the Charlie Brown teacher. ‘wawawamwamwamwawa,’ as though no one can hear even when they can manage to express what is going on.
Interestingly, ‘drowning’ may actually be a parallel physical experience rather than just a metaphor. The body has multiple physiological survival functions that are not in our control. My hope is that the more readers understand what is happening physiologically, the fewer survivors there will be who have to go through this alone.
True drowning doesn’t look like drowning
Unlike on TV when people shout and wave their arms, in real life drowning, the Instinctive Drowning Response overrides the neocortex. A drowning person becomes physiologically unable to control or direct their own limbs.
This survival response blocks voluntary control of the body and creates a life-threatening stillness and inability to call for help.
Perhaps the physical similarity between drowning and other losses of executive control (control by your conscious, willing self) are why ‘drowning’ is the closest description many survivors have when attempting to describe this experience.
Which brings me to our last item in the list:
5. A different loss of executive control, akin to the body’s drowning response, can lead a survivor to completely freeze during assault
A different, parallel response to the drowning response, tonic immobility, paralyzes the person experiencing harm and leads them to be physiologically unable to fight, speak, or call out for help. This system appears to arise when our bodies decide we are being eaten (as in, by lions), and there is neither time to flee nor ability to fight back. The body becomes immobilized.
Because most people have not heard that this can happen, survivors may blame themselves for this immobility, when it is utterly not their fault. This experience of involuntary immobility causes understandable stress to the system, and triggers the loop described above.
Psychological harm is physical harm
As the examples above suggest, the brain and nervous system damage caused by psychological violence is every bit as debilitating as more visible harm. While the brain does repair itself, it can take many years and medical support to heal, medical support that not everyone can access.
Because the physical harm caused by things like chronic gaslighting is only visible on an MRI, bystanders may need to really listen with a lot of extra care and empathy in order to take the harm seriously, because while it is every bit as physical as a cut or a bruise on the skin, the physical injury is inside the body, hidden from view.
If bystanders don’t know how to listen really deeply to hear the truth, and imagine what the harm has done to the survivor’s brain, the original harm can be compounded when those who are nearby create secondary abuse by gaslighting the survivor again until they take the time to see the severity, and the root cause, of the harm.
I cannot waltz into an MRI lab and say, ‘hey, he damaged my HPA axis, my hippocampus seems to not be working, I think my pituitary function has been damaged, and it seems Broca’s area keeps shutting down. Can you take a scan of my brain, please and thanks?”
‘Psychological’ harm is thus a misnomer. This kind of abuse causes physical harm to brain structures and is as physically violent as harm to one’s more readily visible body parts.
The harm in this kind of abuse is to the delicate brain and inner functioning of the nervous system. So when we talk about bravery, about the strength, dignity, and power of survivors who speak up, we are talking about a lot more than just the guts involved socially in ‘deciding to tell’ in a culture that still shames survivors just for experiencing harm, or penalizes women and queer folks for speaking up rather than drowning in silence. What is often overlooked and underestimated is just how much literal physiological silencing survivors struggle through before they become able to speak at all.
When you combine the physical silencing of the body with the social silencing of structural violence, in which survivors are blamed, shamed, or ostracized for speaking up, and those who harm – especially if they are cismen – are buffered socially from even hearing harm they have caused, it becomes clear why those around the survivor who can see cannot speak, and those who have the capacity to speak can feel entitled not to see.
If someone you know has been quiet quiet quiet in a relationship over months and then “abruptly” begins pleading or shouting for help, ask yourself what has been happening to them beforehand. What has been going on quietly for weeks and months? What did you miss over months or years of wordless terror that has at long last made this attempt to get heard their last desperate option? If someone is trying to get heard through physiological paralysis, sometimes the only options can be deathly silence, or shouting to get around the inner block. True drowning, whether in water or in abuse, can look very quiet.
How can you help?
Different survivors need different things. If a survivor has been gaslighted, they may have a powerful, and very normal, need to see the whole undistorted truth named clearly by those around them. A central part of healing from gaslighting entails the creation of a coherent narrative. Most crucially, someone who has been brutally silenced in this way may need to be heard. Needing to name the whole truth is a normal and very healthy part of healing when your trust in your perceptions have been badly undermined over a long stretch of time.
Unfortunately, those who cause harm often derail accountability and find ways to repeatedly recentre themselves: their intentions, their guilt, their feelings, their shame. They may feel entitled to refuse to hear. They may even continue to gaslight the survivor after they get called on it by many people around them, because whatever leads them to need control is still there. In a culture that conditions us to normalize and rationalize harm, our position as bystanders will include several significant culturally-conditioned distortions that lead us to be unable to perceive the situation accurately.
If you are a bystander, a good thing you can do is simply to keep this awareness in mind. Centring the survivor is crucial. If the survivor wishes it, bystanders can gently but firmly tell the person who caused harm that this story is not about them, that it’s time to centre the needs of the survivor now.
No one is expendible, no one needs to be shamed. But no matter how the person who caused harm may feel about it, accountability and shaming are not at all the same thing.
Do not go on with ‘business as usual,’ acting like nothing has happened. In a culture that normalizes harm, a culture that teaches us to ’empathize up’ and ‘punch down,’ there is no level playing field, and ‘neutral’ is not neutral. Going on with business as usual communicates to survivors that you do not care about their safety, and is extremely detrimental to their wellbeing. Do not allow this reality to get erased. Remember it is real and act accordingly.
Where the abuser is incapable of accountability, or feels entitled to evade, what you can do as a bystander is to communicate clearly and openly to the one who caused harm that accountability is expected. Where accountability is denied, close ranks around the survivor, to ensure they do not get doubly-punished for the harm done to them.
Be aware that ‘neutrality’ is not neutral when you are playing on a cavernously unequal playing field. We still live in a culture that reflexively attacks and shuns survivors simply for speaking up. Fighting survivor stigma by ensuring survivors are supported, protected, believed, and included is a big part of how bystanders can act in ethical ways.
Whatever you do, now that you know how hard it is for survivors to speak, when a survivor comes to you, I hope you will know to listen deeply and slowly, aware of the physiological and social silencing they are struggling with.
And if this is you, if you are a survivor and you’re seeing yourself in these words, know: it can heal. This can all heal. It takes nurturance, and care, and support, and is certainly helped by allies who stick up for you. In the long run it takes retraining your nervous system back to rhythms that gear down. All the evidence suggests over time it will repair itself. But don’t waste thoughts worrying if it is real. It is absolutely real, and it can heal under the right conditions.
Spread this knowledge. So the next time a survivor is trapped in worldless terror, more of us will know what is happening and how to help.
How can we create a more caring culture? Read more:
The Opposite of Rape Culture is Nurturance Culture
Hold Together: We Need Conflict Skills Now More Than Ever
On Nurturance and Vulnerability in Academic Life
Do you want to help? Please share widely! Give this to survivors you know and help those around them learn what gets hidden and erased.
With a little help and compassion, caring and understanding, survivors can get the help and solidarity they create conditions of safety in communities. Those conditions of safety are a core part of the recipe for healing. You can be part of it. Please pass this along. 🙂
BYP100 Community Accountability Process (I highly recommend this)
Incite! community accountability process
Philly Stands Up
The Revolution Starts at Home
Bay Area Transformative Justice Network
More by the same author:
The Opposite of Rape Culture is Nurturance Culture
Own, Apologize, Repair: Coming Back to Integrity
Turn This World Inside Out: the Emergence of Nurturance Culture
Order your copy:
from Bookshop (US only)
Support your local indie bookstores – many now deliver locally: US Canada
Hold me Tight, Sue Johnson
Wired for Love, Stan Tatkin
A General Theory of Love, Thomas Lewis, Fari Amini and Richard Lannon
Attached, Amir Levine and Rachel S.F. Heller
The Will to Change: Men, Masculinity, and Love, bell hooks
Other ways you can support this project?
Become a patron! Link to Nurturance Culture Patreon
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Tip Jar! help keep the writing going – leave a one-time donation with Paypal by clicking here
For further reading:
Special thank you to Melissa A Fabello, editor at Everyday Feminism, for in-depth revision suggestions that helped structure this piece.
Mo Daviau’s writing on this also rings true
This video from Everyday Feminism is also great, and I highly recommend you watch it and take in carefully what she is saying.Owning and apologizing doesn’t centre you. It is not about your intentions or your emotions. It centres the person you have harmed. Name your harmful acts, take the time to fully hear and fully internalize how they caused harm, express your remorse and empathy in a respectful way, and calibrate to attune your offer of repair so it addresses the harm you caused. Compassion for why what you did is understanable is good but it’s not the ‘owning’ part. http://everydayfeminism.com/2013/11/how-to-apologize/
Do you love speculative fiction and social justice? I’ve written a speculative fiction novella that explores the transformations our planet is undergoing and the undoing of cultures of domination. Cipher wants an agent and a publisher! Learn more about Cipher here.
58 thoughts on “Psychological Harm is Physical Harm 2: Why Survivors Lose Their Voice”
Reblogged this on musings from a musical mind and commented:
amazing post..yes, yes yes! thank you for speaking for so many..
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thank you – this was very very hard to write but i want it out there for all of us
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thank you for this article. it explains so much. i was with my ex narc 23 years & am really having trouble starting over now. im 58 have other health issues havent had a job in 20 years but am being forced back out in the work. force to make a livibg even though im not sure i can even hold down a job.
thank you for posting this, it explains so much of the terror so many feel and have felt, and the why of “forgetting”
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This past summer I realised that it was/is not my fault when I cannot speak so that others can hear or are willing to listen to me. This was huge for me! I felt like it was my fault, my shortcoming, that no one would/could sit and listen to and hear me! Not my fault! This writing reinforces my realisation. Thank you!
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I think this post has valuable information, but I don’t see how any of the 5 facts are specific to gendered violence or trauma. You do add good resources that are specific to that after the 5 facts though.
I recently saw this article / research finding, about the differences in responses to trauma for adolescent boys and girls based on (different) physical changes in the brain (not sure if there are similar differences for older people?):
” “It is important that people who work with traumatized youth consider the sex differences,” said Megan Klabunde, PhD, the study’s lead author and an instructor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences. “Our findings suggest it is possible that boys and girls could exhibit different trauma symptoms and that they might benefit from different approaches to treatment.” ”
Peter Levine and Bessel van der Kolk are both trauma-healing specialists whose work – including accessible books – deals with non-verbal levels of trauma.
(I note one of your links goes to a study co-authored by van der Kolk.)
thanks. just to note that I’d want to know what the research would say of intersex and genderqueer folks as well – i’m not really sure that brains can be so clearly sexed on a strict binary, though registering a range of responses and tailoring needs to individual brains does sound like a good idea – thanks 🙂
As a male survivor I can relate to all of this
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Thank you so much for this information. As a survivor several times over at this point, a mathematician by training, veteran software development professional involuntarily retired by spinal and now mental health problems and avid student of psychology and brain science AND having just recently experienced a full on replay of traumatic ending of emotionally and psychologically abusive relationship in which I was completely dependent on significant other – I have been having great difficulty comprehending others and making myself understood in face to face conversations with social agencies whose ‘help’ is delivered in a manner and with such restrictions on my autonomy that I felt equally abused by them and have removed myself from their jurisdiction out of self protection… my memory is so porous, my thought processes so difficult to manage and my reactions so different from those around me I had actually written a question to myself in my planner, wondering if I was having a nervous breakdown.
You have put the pieces together now for me, about not just my present circumstance but those of my past and explained (to me at least) a family pattern going back at least three generations as well as my inability to relate to my children the events leading up to my divorcing their father while they were babies and then bankrupting myself in favour of their emotional safety rather than ‘poking the tiger’ and forcing increased levels of financial support from him while they were young enough to be traumatized by his anticipated backlash and the threat that always caused me to back down – that he would take my babies during a visitation when he had control of them.
I will also be recommending the ‘helping’ agencies with which I have had contact read this article and repeat my initial recommendation that they have a mental health agency here in Canada review their processes to prevent damage to others. That the legal aid clinic offers services with respect to dealing with our welfare system is damning in my opinion.
Starting today, I shall endeavour to stop apologizing for my communication problems and instead suggest they read this article. You are a life saver. Thanks for doing this difficult bit of writing for victims everywhere. Bless you!
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thank you- so good to hear it. this is what I have written it for.
I am a survivor of sexual abuse as a child. i am on a journey of healing as I became aware of how deeply the trauma i had no control over as it was happening to me has effected my ability to enter non-fearing relationships—im usually attracted to people who are in alot of control of their lives but i end up resenting them for reaching out to me as Im fed up of feeling like a victim and that there is something so different and wrong with me.
Sexual abuse has effected my abilitys as you clearly pointed out in feeling heard and understood since i am unable to express myself in a way people can understand. This relates to the silence and drowning sensation. I had recurring patterens of screaming like i was being murdered as a child although it came from somewhere i was not able to connect with. So I would deny any reason for it when questioned by my parents. Living in such a confusing place as a child has damaged my chances i feel. I am also with a partner who seems to be suffering in similar ways but he is in denial. Therefore our relationship is not very healthy and has not much communication in it and i often feel like breaking down emotionally. i’m not sure where to find the help and nurturing i so badly need, I am grateful to you for voicing the results of abuse in a scientific way. how do you suggest i go about educating people around me in a way that they can realise my need for nurturing support and being focused upon. And will that really cure my heals? T
The last part of your blog about how it helps for the abuser to take accountabilty for their actions as a healing process….My abuse took place more then thirty years ago. I am on the other side of the world from the abuser but I can contact him since their family are friends of my family. i have no desire to be around them again…either my family or his so i thought of plan B -perhaps a practical way to deal with the forgiving process is to write a letter to him and send it to a picture of him as a boy…we have some of these in old family albums.
i have been to councilling for this which was great for a short time as she had been through same thing… she told me that it was best not to go back to where the pain is but to push forward by creating a safe place for my family now.
i feel mixed up now with which i should do…i live in the safest place ever- a temple! and i trust the people i live with and we love serving the community here. however sometimes triggers go when these moments when my inner childs grief boils over again and i relive the feelings of fear and being unprotected. i take this as signs that building a safe place is not enough and that perhaps i need to indeed go back to my past and try to see if the boy, now a man, can take accountability for his actionns. im fearful that he will say it takes two to tango….and avoid the shame…but as you said its not shame not about himbut about helping me to heal. Have you researched what are the chances of me receiving this gift? have u got any experience or knows what i can expect if i choose to go that way?? is it messy? is it expensive? is it worth it?
please only the writer respond not any of the other readers. thanks
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hi, thank you for the vulnerability involved in writing. i want to be clear before i share that i am not a counsellor or psychologist, so i am not equipped to handle serious trauma, that’s best done with professional support and I want to always recommend mainly making sure that support is in place. This is a peer support space, I am a cultural theorist and a survivor, and I feel we learn by sharing experiences together, though none of us here are or pretend to be experts in the emotional parts of the work. (my expertise and training are in the cultural analysis). Just so that is clear. As for thoughts about your question, I can only speak from my personal experience and what has been helpful for me, and can share patterns and observations generally of how things tend to happen that i have heard from other survivors who share their insights and knowledge and life experience, but any of this will only be a partial answer and every situation is so unique.
What i have heard and often seen is that the best healing comes from repairing the nervous system damage in the present, first and foremost, and only introducing material from the past in amounts that the person can hold and absorb in a healthy way while staying in the present. for me this meant a big, big whack of professional support not only with a trauma-informed abuse-informed psychologist (not all are! it makes a big difference) but actually with body workers who can work directly on the physiological injury and repair the nervous system damage directly. that is what has made the biggest and best clear improvement in my day to day life – it has repaired the physical harm without needing to delve into the past as much as I thought. From that place of deep stillness and safety I become able to face parts of the ‘past’ without becoming mired in it, only with the goal of being well in the present (not repressing, accessing and integrating).
from what I’m hearing and just going on instinct (and again, this could be wrong, just listening as a peer) my best guess is the nervous system harm you’re experiencing (which is NOT YOUR FAULT) will not be healed by hearing from or interacting with the abuser, because that person does not have the power to repair the physiological harm. And most most most often they do not take accountability or ownership, and if your healing is contingent on them doing so it may cause you more harm than good. if your psychologist suggested staying in the present and healing in the here and now while fully trusting your own memory and creating a coherent narrative of your experience, or something like that, that would align with what i’ve found to be helpful in my case as well. However, I also would encourage you to listen to and trust yourself, and if there were some way to safely and clearly name the truth of what occured in a way that helped you *regardless* of how the abuser responded, and that keeps you safe and far far out of their energetic or social reach, and if doing so were to feel strengthening for you and you are well surrounded with people who completely see and believe you and do not gaslight you and will protect you – then if you want to do it, i would say go for it. but don’t make your healing contingent on what an abuser does or does not do – you deserve to heal regardless of them. dunno if that is useful but it has been what has helped me a lot. i speak my truth wherever i want to, but i create security for myself unrelated to any hooks that any abuser could get into me. 🙂 it has helped. and the body work has helped tremendously!
it’ seems odd it actually in addition to the body work i have been using these – there happens to be a free one tonight http://healthbeyondbelief.com/live/?utm_source=February+2017%3A+Fr*e+Live+Ancestral+Clearing+Call&utm_campaign=Free+Gift+Clearing+Call&utm_medium=email
useful additional info https://rolandbal.com/trauma-and-ptsd-exhaustion-fatigue-and-tiredness/
Hmmmm. I notice I feel a bit triggered reading this…which I’m observing and self-facilitating….however I want to speak to this in an unfiltered way…from the gut of my truth. This article kind pisses me off….or at least irritates me significantly – because it gives a lot of nice, tidy, polite reasons for why we survivors of abuse “lost our voice”. Maybe what the writer said is all true, but some of this was not my experience and/or reasons.
#1……..I actually became a much more prolific and creative writer during the time I was with my abusive “ex”….something that has remained with me. My language centers got better…not worse.
#2 …….probably right. I have significant processing challenges since then. Then again, my mother was abusive as was one other partner before my ex-husband. Every report card from my elementary school days declares in the notes “daydreamer”…..and at certain points in math and science I just literally became tapped out and could not learn any more. That said, I recall not feeling “of this planet” ever since I arrived. I have always felt like an outsider or someone only on the fringe of every circle of people I’ve been part of. So maybe I was born this way, or maybe I was damaged to be this way. Still no matter where I was in life, I did not feel incapable of expressing what’s going on for me internally…..or externally.
#3 & 4……oh yeah. My adrenals are extremely precarious now. It’s been 12 years since they actually crashed so severely I ended up hospitalized and treated with cortisone. Since then I still have occasional symptoms. But again….this did not “silence” me.
I didn’t “lose my voice”…………..I lost my trust in a system that alleges it has mechanisms in place to help victims of abuse. Yet those mechanisms can simply be another form of abuse, subject a victim to more danger and/or literally shame them into silence. Domestic Violence shelters are HORRIBLE places, where you and your possessions remain in danger to some degree….just compounding the trauma of the experience. The staff tends to speak down to those seeking help, even scolding them like a parent to a child in some instances. It can feel very “shamey”. I always felt I’d do better just staying where I was, and hoping things would get better or he would do something so egregious (like try to kill me….which he did) and get themselves thrown into jail….at least long enough for the victim to get a court order to evict the abuser and ordered to stay away…..until the police come to your door and demand the abuser be let in to get their stuff…..which then deludes the abuser into thinking the police are really on their side, so they keep showing up anyway. After a while they have such a rapport with the police that they talk like buddies and they don’t even get arrested….they just get talked down and leave…until they come back again.
Going to court for a protection order is a nightmare. It can range from the abuser being severely dressed down, or – more often – there being chuckles from the courtroom staff (including the judge) while you listen to your abuser state his reasons and denials of the abuse, and give your own testimony. Then you get to see the perpetrator get a slap on the wrist and a protection order handed to him that is virtually worth no more than the paper it’s printed on…..so….every time it’s violated…..they just get another slap on the wrist. You might even be accused of hating the person and just acting out vindictiveness.
And then there is the broad spectrum shaming of the victim/survivor. If you talk to your family and others you might get, “What are you doing to upset him?” In court – upon presenting evidence of extended abuse over time – you might be considered not credible because you didn’t leave the first time abuse happened…thus asked, “Why didn’t you leave sooner?” In addition to that there’s the confusion everyone displays when they suggest you go to a shelter (again…..disgusting places) and you say you don’t want to upheave your entire life along with your kids and their lives and vacate your home and property. There’s also a very convincing an insidious internal dialogue around fears of being considered unintelligent or somehow “asking for it”, which contributes to shutting down even more…..especially since those fears are often rooted in experiences where some sort of message along those lines was expressed to you one or more times in the process of attempting to speak up and get help.
In my very clear recollection it was the shame and fear of being seen as weak and stupid that silenced me the most. All of that came from putting subtle and not so subtle feelers out to find out what kind of support might show up. I got a lot of “bootstrap” crap. I was broken and needed assistance in the way that would work ***for me***. That wasn’t available. Even after the PO was issued he continued to cause scenes at my home on occasion, and I can tell you from experience that landlords don’t like having tenants who have to have police showing up at their door often (even if it’s to enforce a protection order…yes I was threatened with eviction for this). So…again…that silenced me. So I gave up on getting subsequent POs, and just did what I had to do to survive…..all the while looking for the way to get away from him for good. So I stayed until I successfully orchestrated my escape through doing my own gaslighting and manipulation. Yes, that feels horrible and yucky, but when you have strong survival urges it leads you to do things you generally aren’t proud of….and that feels traumatic too.
Maybe what the writer says happens in the brain – and thus behavior – is all true, but as far as I’m concerned that is nothing compared to the truama and “abuse” of attempting to get free without outright becoming homeless. It was the system or lack of adequate supports (and shelters are shitty “supports”) that led to my silence….not my brain shutting off certain areas. I would have loved this article if it had maintained focus on the fact that – even though the physical effects are also true – it’s really an inadequate support mechanism that drives victims to remain silent.
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yes, this is all true as well. i agree with you. have you read the sections in Why Does He Do That on abusers and the courts, abusers and the police – many people find those affirming as they help clarify how abuse gets erased and the survivor made to feel crazy for having normal reactions.
this piece here was attempting to add info about the simultaneous physiological silencing many survivors experience on top of the social silencing. thanks for letting me know that wasn’t clear – I’ve edited it to clarify more. These happen concurrently, not one or the other, and it is the compounding that creates the worst harm I have ever seen. To help, those around or witnessing need to know how it works layer on top of layer. every survivor experiences different things though – it helps to hear from you. 🙂 thanks n
ps if this hasn’t come your way yet, there is more on the social silencing you’ve named here, in this list of tools and readings that yes all describe the same phenomena as what you’ve faced https://norasamaran.com/2017/01/05/resources-for-dealing-with-conflict-and-harm/
I have been able to write very eloquently on my abuse. But speak of it out loud, to people in the same room with me, in a way that wasn’t “ha ha, wasn’t I a dumbass back then!”, and while sober?
After close to twenty years, I’ve been able to talk about it, sometimes. And then I sleep all day for a few weeks.
The neurology presented here is solid, but like all physiological symptoms, it won’t hold true for everyone.
We all cope differently, because we’re all coping with different things, and we’re all different people, with exquisitely different systems.
But in general, this information is freaking invaluable. For those of us who were bewildered by our silence, who are the type of person who usually yells and screams when we’re hurt or pissed off but just can’t talk about these things . . .
Having even a glimmer of an explanation is priceless.
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yes! i kept falling asleep while writing parts of this lol. it was the slowest thing to write of this whole blog. written an inch at a time and originally it was completely incoherent (where normally pieces roll out more or less in one go). this one took weeks working through fragmentation and inability to get words or craft sentences of any coherence. and it hurt. it had to get out there though.
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The funny thing is, the first person I spoke openly and honestly (although I left out the explicit details) about the sexual abuse to, was my oldest daughter. The world she’s growing up in terrifies me, and I want her to first and foremost know that it is dangerous, but more than that, maybe, know that if anything ever happens to her, that she is SO not alone, that it has happened to more of us than we’ll ever really know. If I can’t talk about it, then how will she learn it’s OK to do so herself? If I don’t say, “I was hurt badly, and the silence I kept hurt a million times more, but I’m OK now, look, I’m happy and healthy and whole, and it didn’t break me,” where will she learn those lessons?
i think about this a lot with the kids in my life – i want to give them the info they need to be protected, and also enough sense of sturdiness to know they can survive no matter what and that i always will have their back and believe them. for a kid, to know their adults will ALWAYS believe them, that is hard to cultivate and powerful.
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When I was seven, a neighbor who was, himself, still a child, intimidated me into letting him touch me inappropriately. I told my parents, and my dad went up the road and busted in the door, threw him around, threatened to kill him if he ever did it again.
I’ve been told I should have felt safe and protected. But what I really took away from it was, “if you tell, your dad will go to jail and you’ll never see him again.”
His reaction was more traumatic than the incident itself.
So when it happened again, with someone else, I didn’t say a word.
I get it. If I found out that someone hurt my children, I would want to fucking kill them.
But more than that, I want them to live in a world where there are channels by which the people who hurt them can be punished, can be even be healed of whatever makes them do something so damn awful, and that speaking their pain will not cause more pain for the people they love.
It’s a conundrum. One I haven’t worked out, yet, as far as what the best response is.
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It took me several tries to make it all the way through this, because I kept running out of tissues.
To finally have an explanation . . .
Thank you. Thank you so much for this.
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Reblogged this on Freegoddess's Blog and commented:
This entire article resonated with me and explains so much about why recovering from a series of debilitating physical and emotional trauma has been so difficult.
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As a male heterosexual survivor of childhood sexual abuse, I must ask…Why do you use the word “gendered”? From my experience this has nothing to do with the overwhelming burden of resolution that the survivor carries. There is a clear prejudice or at least partial blindness within this as the abuser is not always male or even of the opposite gender.
the reason this particular article focuses on gendered violence is because this is a blog about gendered violence and gender norms, and because when you combine structural violence inherent in cishetwhitesupremacist patriarchy with the physiological impacts of bodily silencing you get a potent kind of compounded violence against women and trans ppl that cishet men do.not.face. You do not face the compounding of the physiological with the cultural. This culture already disblieves women and those gendered feminine of centre, and the silencing that women face when they attempt to speak about this kind of violence is massive and almost unnammable. Whereas the systemic elements are not present when men experience this kind of abuse – they can easily invoke the ‘crazy woman’ trope and get heard, or create punivite conditions. Men do experience abuse, yes, and if cishetmen get something helpful out of this article, then great! but don’t make it about you, this is just one place where things are about this.
I live with fairly severe ptsd. You have flashing graphics at the beginning of your article that have made me quite nauseated as I’ve begun to read it. WTF? Do you not think your words are powerful enough? Why do you need to overwhelm your reader in such a way? Stop it. Thank you!
I lived that way for fifteen years, always in a state of inflammation internally. I told a Dr., during a wellness check, that my dental problems, along with the lower back and digestive problems, at the time, felt like they were due to all I was too afraid to say, and here’s why I’m so afraid. She said “You’re being abused”. It was the beginning of this journey I’ve been on for five years. Working to rebuild self esteem and confidence enough, to even be able to work at saving my Child from that same silence, from never knowing where they stand or what they will be punished for, that they never knew was something they could get in trouble for in the first place. Always being dis-empowered, and never being told what’s going to happen in their life until ten minutes before it happens. At Fourteen, their anxiety and silence is heartbreaking to see.
Now, with a Parental Rights Evaluation report that says our Child should live with me full time, a physical incident with Mom (reported to CPS) two weeks ago and a constant, and strongly communicated desire by our Child to live with me full time aaannd…the attorneys and the court and CPS all say “well, your child isn’t in Imminent Physical danger so a few more months of keeping things the way they are (while we do mediation and trial) won’t hurt”. Yes our Child is in danger. Yes, more time in that environment will harm them.
Unfortunately, there isn’t an age of emancipation in this State, so Youth have no protection but (or, in some cases, from) these courts and agencies up until they turn nineteen. Yes, I have so often felt like Charlie Brown’s teacher for four years, every time I try to explain this abuse to Attorneys and Therapists.
I like the idea of nurturing and support, but I still don’t trust my ability to discern a Woman’s intentions well enough to develop healthy relationships. I don’t know if It’s even worth it to try anymore. This quote from the article resonated deeply for me: “Different survivors need different things. If a survivor has been gaslighted, they may have a powerful, and very normal, need to see the whole undistorted truth named clearly by those around them. A central part of healing from gaslighting entails the creation of a coherent narrative. Most crucially, someone who has been brutally silenced in this way may need to be heard. Needing to name the whole truth is a normal and very healthy part of healing when your trust in your perceptions have been badly undermined over a long stretch of time.”
It explains so much for me, in terms of what I need to work on within myself.
Great article with much knowledge that needs to be made implemented in today’s society for increased awareness. There is a common saying and belief in society, and every time I hear it, this makes me cringe “what doesn’t kill you, makes you stronger.” These people could be nothing more than so wrong, and this article demonstrates the harm ongoing, chronic distress can do. Not everything that a person lives through, he or she will come out a shining star completely unscathed. You can be functional, yes, but the body, immune system, and brain may be very altered as a result. What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger is just irrational, unrealistic thinking, and not to mention very inhumane/subhuman unto the person.
“a core speech area of a survivor’s brain shuts down during traumatic events” This is so meaningful for me. I still remember the fist time this happened to me (around grade 1 with a teacher). During my marriage it happened often and I was shamed and attacked by both my wife, and marriage books for “using the silent treatment”. I remember feeling powerless – like I don’t even know where to start looking for words. Very glad to hear that I wasn’t (entirely) crazy.
“Once survivors manage to speak up and break through this physiological silencing, then they also face the social silencing”
This is especially difficult for us guys. We’re supposed to be strong and not show emotions, and when we do express our anxiety/problems we are criticized and ridiculed for it.
“They may even continue to gaslight the survivor after they get called on it by many people around them, because whatever leads them to need control is still there.”
If the desire for control is due to insecurity/fear of vulnerability then pointing out flaws will lead to an increased desire for control. It’s a vicious circle IMO