The Problematic Imperative of the Victim/Survivor Dichotomy

I am a recovering victim.

I would rather be a survivor who was victimized. But I’m just not there yet. I’m not sure if I ever will be.

Really, I’d prefer to throw the whole survivor/victim dichotomy aside.

The common narrative goes something like this:

Stop playing the victim. Nobody likes a victim. Be strong. Be a survivor.

In other words, it is imperative that you identify as a survivor, not a victim. That I identify that way. Only survivors are welcome here, or anywhere.

Before my PTSD diagnosis, I had never considered myself a victim of anything—domestic violence, child abuse, relationship violence, sexual assault, battery, rape. Before, I didn’t have language for these difficult experiences I had lived through. The first time I heard the word “victim” was at the police station as I poured over hundreds of mugshots. I overheard one detective tell another that “the woman here was a victim of sexual assault.”

The words sank in. Was it really assault? Was I really victimized?

The experience of reporting in itself was retraumatizing; but I’m addressing the original trauma, the assault, here.

As I decompensated that week, that month, and over the coming years, it became clear why I’d been suffering from panic attacks since the age of 20, and nightmares for as long as I could remember. The panic began to be accompanied by flashbacks, so realistic that I swore I was reliving incident after incident, as if they were happening all over again. None of these were things I’d forgotten; but things I’d been stuffing down with anorexia and alcohol. Memories I hadn’t given much thought to suddenly hit me with their full weight and devastation. Suddenly I became acutely aware of my triggers. And there were so many triggers. There were the more obvious triggers, and then the benign ones like certain colors or words.

My psychiatrist used the words post-traumatic stress disorder to describe what I was experiencing.

PTSD. Me?

I found myself frantically reading articles and books about consent. What did “consent” mean, and, more importantly, what was it not? It took me a long time to be able to use the word “rape” to describe what had happened to me. Sometimes that word still feels unthinkable. It’s a bad word, to me. It’s often hard to say it.

Most days over most of the years that I’ve struggled with PTSD, I haven’t felt like a survivor. I felt like I was being victimized over and over again. There is a phrase, “PTSD isn’t that the person won’t let go of the past; it’s that the past won’t let go of the person.” This sums up my experiences so well; and all the trauma research shows what the people who want me to “just get over it” and “leave it in the past” and “let it go” don’t understand: that trauma changes our neurobiology, and the alarm systems in the brain become quick to set off, even when it’s safe. The memories are intrusive and unwanted—not something I choose to recall. And so, when I can’t control my brain or my fear response, or keep the memories from intruding, when my PTSD symptoms are debilitating, as they often have been—during these times, I don’t feel like much of a survivor. I don’t feel healed enough or resilient enough to call myself one.

I don’t understand why “victim” is a word we have to take away from people. Perhaps many are just so uncomfortable with the concept that there are people in this world who are victimized by criminals and predators.

I was a victim at the hands of multiple men. That is an accurate description.

And I have survived multiple traumas.

I understand the sentiment of calling oneself a “survivor.” I understand that it can be an empowering word for many to claim. But too often I feel that I am still reliving the painful experiences of my past. Too often I feel that my brain has been so hijacked that I’m a victim all over again, in this moment—and this is something outside of my control, not of my choosing. My biology won’t let me forget or move on.

I have been thinking about writing my thoughts about the language we use around sexual assault for a long time. Just now Googling “survivor vs victim” for the first time, the results come up with not only conservative explanations of “victim culture,” condemning the use of the term, with a strong smell of victim-blaming and rape apologists. But it also reveals that others are far ahead of my question, wanting to reclaim the word “victim” as nothing bad or wrong, but simply a reflection of reality. “Survivor” implies a perfect healing; even making something good out of a bad situation. Um, there was nothing good about what happened to me.

In her essay “I’m Not a Sexual Assault ‘Survivor’—I’m a Victim,” Danielle Campoamor expresses my feelings eloquently and thoroughly. “‘Survivor’ paints a misleading picture of victimhood and healing,” she writes, “promoting a super-human response that encourages victims to ‘get over’ an unspeakable violation.” She also discusses how the word “victim” has been warped into a derogatory term, while “survivor” does not allow for the too-often ongoing suffering and grappling and haunting that someone victimized can experience.

In another article, Kate Harding, author of “Asking for It: The Alarming Rise of Rape Culture and What We Can Do About It,” asks over and over, “What’s wrong with being a victim?”

I would answer, nothing. The person who is wrong is the rapist, not the person who has been raped. Let’s place blame where blame is due.

A friend of mine confided in me that she was “a recovering rape victim.” Somehow that phrase resonated with me, and I asked her about her choice in using the words “recovering victim” instead of “survivor.” I asked others on a sexual abuse forum as well. The responses were varied and thoughtful, with people having their own reasons for the words they chose, sometimes even choosing both. Both, either/or, or neither should all be valid ways for an individual to identify. Let’s not force language on an individual’s experiences, on my experiences.

For now, I choose to call myself a recovering victim. I don’t think anyone has the right to tell me otherwise. I don’t think anyone has the right to choose the language I use for having lived through horrific events and violations, often at the hands of other people. I’m not claiming a special status. I’m not relishing in anything. I am just accurately describing my pain. I’m not holding onto the past; the past is holding onto me; and recovery, for me, has been painfully slow.

The word “survivor” leaves a bad taste in my mouth, when imposed by others. It feels dismissive. It doesn’t acknowledge my reality that I am reliving bad things over and over, and that this is outside of my control. It implies that there is a mandate on, parameters around, the healing process. It implies that I am a better person than I feel like I am.

What if I don’t feel resilient? What if I don’t feel like I’m a good person? Can there be room for me? Can I struggle with my feelings and symptoms without having a time frame in which I should step up and “get over it”?

I’m much closer to the idea that I might consider myself a survivor today, after two months of PTSD inpatient and residential treatment. I’ve made so much progress. I feel renewed. I feel hopeful. Before I left home in June, I did not feel any hope. I still need more healing, but I’m finally getting there, or at least moving forward.

I am a lot of things day-to-day. Some days I feel broken, contaminated, dirty, ruined. Other days I feel strong, hopeful, competent, creative. Most days I am some combination of both. But one thing is certain: I am forever changed. And no one can change my reality.

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