I am Not a Survivor
*If you haven’t read my first entry in this series, I Left My Heart in Vegas, I recommend you do so to give you context for this post.*
I have found throughout both my personal life and my professional life that the importance of naming your “survival side” is crucial and can be very healing. Most people automatically assume that if you’ve lived through a traumatic experience you should be deemed a “survivor”. You survived- therefore, I shall call you “survivor”. This is understable, and usually the first term people think of calling someone who has been through a very difficult experience. The problem is that for many this term does not resonate.
I know, because I was not comfortable with this word being used to describe me. In the moment with the facts I knew at the time, I did feel that I was being physically threatened. However, after processing the facts afterwards, I realized I was not.
For me, it was important that the word “survivor” pay homage to those who were on the front line, who were watching those being injured around them or were physically threatened themselves. Bottom line, the word did not feel like it authentically defined me. I’ve felt like a fraud if people used it to describe me.
Once I found my term there was a piece of me that became organized again- like I could use this phrase when talking with people and feel like me. Like I had more purpose within the experience and the ability to have ownership amongst the chaos.
I am not against ANYONE calling themselves a survivor. If that’s what fits and feels right for you then that’s totally fine. The main thing is that you feel validated, supported and authentically you when someone refers to you using your term.
A few things to consider as a caregiver (friend, family or professional):
Consider using the description of the word you have in mind instead of the actual word. For example, if a person said to me, “I know this isn’t easy for you, but I see you as so strong.” That would feel different to me than saying, “You are a survivor.” The first also adds more depth and opens up the dialogue without placing a specific label.
Ask the person if they have a term in mind they would like to refer to themselves. It took me a few days to figure out mine. I went with “emotional witness”. Some people may know right away.
For professionals, discussing the theme of “naming” would be a very meaningful session with your clients. A free write with the directive of describing how the client feels about their identity after the event could prove to be a very useful exercise.
The easiest way for me to start to gather my own thoughts on this matter was to create a list of things I felt I experienced in that moment and think of the overarching theme. For example, I had a lot of feeling words on my list, I talked about the physical distance from the incident, etc. Then I landed on “emotional witness”.
This process incorporates the use of Narrative Therapy and Therapeutic Writing both of which I have extensive training in using with clients. Narrative Therapy helps clients “rewrite” their story. Therapeutic writing allows one to express themselves in a different format that can help build insight.
For guidance and support, there is absolutely no shame in reaching out to a mental health professional in your area. We cannot go through this alone.