Friday, August 21, 2015

Abuse Does Not Make Us

Approximately one in three women and one in six men have been sexually abused. Put a dozen people in a room and 25% of them are abuse survivors. The statistics go way up if you include physical, verbal, and domestic abuse.

Despite how many of us there are, lots gets said about us by people who never survived the things we did. We continue to be told that we're victims damaged beyond repair of a normal life, we're at fault for what happened to us, or XYZ will be so hard for us and we should probably avoid ABC all together.

(Let me say unequivocally that we are survivors not victims, whatever kind of life we want can still be possible, and we're not in any way responsible for the horrible choices of our abusers.)

Another lie is the one that says we ourselves are dangerous abusers waiting to happen. If we don't get on it and start working hard on the state of our souls, we're fated to hurt children, scream at our spouses, and perpetuate our experiences of evil.

We hear this lie any time another Horrible Event breaks in the news and the person who did it happened to be an abuse survivor. "Well, he was abused," people say, nodding their heads as if this explains everything. As if what happened to me and a large percentage of my guy and gal friends is It: the cause of evil. We can all go home now and forget this tragedy, because we have an Answer to the Why.

Is it any wonder that so few abuse survivors come forward?

Abuse doesn't make us abusers. Abuse does leave you with a deficit: certain area where unhealthy behavior was modeled to us and lies were spoken to those deep questions we all have: Am I lovable? Am I worthy? Am I strong? Self-esteem and any sense of safety are dashed. Things that we're supposed to learn, like dealing with our fear, relating to power figures, forging relationships with the same or opposite sex, handling our anger, or understanding ourselves as sensual beings, can be a lot harder for us.

It's what we use to fill in that hole, the tools we use for coping, the lessons we learn after, because of, or in order to fight the abuse--that decides what kind of survivors we'll be. There are hundreds of ways to deal with abuse and overwrite those wrong messages we received. They can give us forgetfulness or mindfulness or peace or a fighting spirit or awareness of who we are. There are lots of paths toward better places.

Credit: Andy Roberts.

Very occasionally as a response to abuse, a survivor becomes an abuser. But many other times, we become average, flawed adults. Some of us become advocates. Some of us become spouses or parents. Some of us become leaders.

Abuse survivors don't, by and large, become abusers.

We go on to live our lives as normal human beings. However, abuse can sometimes contribute to part of an abuser's journey to becoming an abuser. Someone who becomes an abuser may or may not make some of those choices because they chose not to deal with their pain in a healthy way.

Bad and good circumstances certainly contribute to our becoming who we are. But we also make conscious choices along the way. The process of becoming is a dance of both experiencing and deciding. 

At some point, someone decides to hurt another human being. There isn't always a reason: they could've chosen otherwise. But usually you'll find a lot of justifications. Abusers don't believe they're doing something wrong, because they've already built up countless beliefs about what they're doing, what they deserve, what's right or fair, whether the person in front of them is really being hurt, and whether they see the person at all.

I think what really freaks us out about evil isn't just the way it wrecks people and takes the victims' humanity away. The person who commits evil has lost some of their humanity in the act, and it terrifies us to see a human become less human by their own choice.

Because that is what abuse is: a choice. My abuser made a choice. Life is all about choices: A or B, A or B, over and over again like a choose-your-own-adventure. Each choice turns us into someone slightly different and affects what choices we'll be offered next.

And yes, we make those choices not knowing fully what they will make us into. Uncertainty is life. Much of life's hardship comes from having to take decisive action on incomplete information, and paying for the outcome whether it's bad or good.

But I think we know enough to make reasonably good guesses. Enough to be held responsible for what we do to others.

(I struggle writing these paragraphs, by the way. I believe we absolutely need to take responsibility for our own becoming. But I also think the world is a much kinder and better place when we extend grace to others and don't act as their judge unless absolutely necessary, like when someone is endangering someone else.)

The "abused become abusers" lie has stuck around because it makes us feel better about evil stuff. It's another way for humanity to try to conquer the age-old question of why bad things happen to good people. "It happened because bad things happened to another good person once upon a time, making them into a bad person..."

Using an abuser's past as an excuse takes responsibility away from them for their wrongful actions. It makes their heinous actions seem like fate, instead of what they were: something awful that a person chose to do to someone else.

Abuse doesn't make us abusers, but it often does send us into hiding. It shouldn't have to.

Word count: 976.