I think it was fifteen years ago when my wife first told me she had been abused as a child. I was 21 and I had no idea what to do. Who do you talk to? Where do you go for help? This was a long way pre-Savile so the issue wasn't as much at the front of public consciousness as it is today. But even now I don't know that it would be obvious to me how to react. I have no training in mental health or social care, and no professional experience working with abuse survivors. All I have to offer is my first hand experience trying to support one individual, meeting other survivors and doing a little reading. Maybe I can offer some of the input I could have used myself a decade and a half ago.
Trigger warning: I have tried to avoid making this blog upsetting to read but if you are a survivor please think carefully before reading on.
The person you are trying to support may well have been disbelieved in the past when they tried to cone forward about their abuse. They might have been told by their abuser that they would not be believed. You may find some of what you are being told hard to believe, or even hear, because it can be pretty awful. People inventing these stories are rare, and anyway I would far rather be the person who was taken in by a liar than the one who dismissed a life of tragic suffering as a work of fiction. Believe, and tell them so. It may we give them the confidence to talk to you further and perhaps begin to get a little better.
This may seem obvious but it can be as challenging as it is valuable. As I have already mentioned you may well hear some pretty distressing things. For this reason it can be harder to listen than you might imagine. You might also find the times you have to listen a challenge. Memories can surface (and sink) at will and the point at which a survivor feels able to talk can seem quite random. I have found myself struggling to stay awake at four in the morning while my wife recalls a childhood event she will genuinely have forgotten by morning. It's important that you try to make time.
This one is hard. I have never been able to get my head round what it feels like to be an abuse survivor and I doubt I ever will. There are somethings I can grasp though. For survivors, flashbacks can feel very real and very present. They are not merely remembering the event, they are reliving it. Seemingly innocuous things can trigger these memories too. The wrong sound, or smell, or word can remind them of an abuse and be deeply distressing as a result. Try to learn these triggers and avoid them if possible.
This is probably going to take some time. What you want to be able to do is identify the ways the abuse impacts the person you are trying to support and see if you can develop ways to engage with that. After years I finally realised that the thing that makes my wife most angry is if she is able to blame herself for something. At the same time I have had to accept that while a lot of her anger is directed at me, it is not about me. Survivors learn to contain and suppress their emotions. It helps me to realise that in letting me in, for better or worse, my wife is showing that she trusts me.
I mean this in two ways. In the first place, don't let it get on top of you. Surviving abuse is a long and constant journey and you may feel overwhelmed by everything you want to make right. You can't solve everything. Just by being a person the survivor trusts and feels able to talk to you have achieved a great deal. In the second place be sure to take care of yourself. It is tempting you see your own complaints as minor and trivial compared to everything you have heard. I promise you they are not trivial. You are dealing with your own issues and taking on someone else's. You may even find the survivor appreciates the opportunity to support you in return, and engage with someone else's problems for a change. Rest. Unwind. Eat well and exercise Consider whether you may need counselling yourself.
It may not always feel this way but you are battling not the survivor but the demon they carry with them. This will be tough for you but is tougher for them, and constant. They will need you in their corner.