Survivors can lead the way

The case for survivor-led leadership in a society replete with physical and sexual violence.

The following is a speech delivered at the 32nd Annual Take Back the Night event in St. John’s on Sept. 16, 2016. It has been lightly edited for brevity.

Over 20 years ago I was standing on the steps of the Supreme Court House building on Duckworth Street during the Take Back the Night event. Myself and another young woman read out a poem we had written, called “I Believe”.  More than likely we also spoke of all the injustice that had already existed in our then short lives as young women. At that age I didn’t think much about how anything I would say on those steps could negatively affect myself or anyone that I loved and cared for. I didn’t worry about the people who would judge me and maybe say mean things because I don’t fit into the image of what they think a survivor leader should look like. 

I had no fear people would think I didn’t belong up here because my life may still not be perfect and I still have struggles like everyone else. This time, I was thinking of all these things and more. I wondered if I should change my mind. What if the people who love and support me were embarrassed, ashamed or even harassed about anything I would speak about? Could I really stand up here in front of you all and tell my story? It was a very real struggle to try and make the best decision for myself and those in my life. 

Take Back the Night 2016 St. John'sSo, I decided not to. 

I decided I was not going to stand up here and tell my story. 

I was not going to delve into the painful details to supply anyone with a good sound bite or a front page headline to lure people into reading about someone else’s tragedy, instead of reading about their strength and resilience. 

Although my experiences have helped shape me into who I am today, I am simply not just those experiences alone. 

I am so much more. I am a survivor. I am a leader. 

I am a strong woman with a huge heart and I have the ability to be a good person, and I am deserving of respect and dignity.   

The theme of this year’s Sexual Violence Awareness Week is “Listen. Believe. Support” — and this is very close to my heart. These three words and their meaning are paramount to any survivor in their healing journey. Without them it is truly impossible to build any useful personal or professional relationship. 

It’s important to remember that these things can look very different for survivors and allies alike. There is no cookie cutter approach. As much as it is the responsibility of our allies to learn what that looks like, it is the responsibility of the survivor to discover what that looks like for them and to be able to ask for it, even require it, when it comes to asking people to help us heal. If we are not empowered to be in charge of our process of healing I am not sure how actually healing the process can be. Sometimes we are left behind in the midst of our recovery because it’s being timed and planned by someone else.

Back when I was a young teenage girl trying to find my way in a world I knew absolutely nothing about, I was having some real struggles. I felt trapped in a situation that I thought for sure would kill me. Some days I am sure I wished it would, simply so I could get some relief from my pain. 

Some of us were taught from early on that nobody will ever believe us, that we should stay quiet and be ashamed of our experiences. We believe that what is happening to us is either our fault because we are worthless or that we are so very special to our abusers and should in some sick way be grateful for all this extra attention and treatment. That we should feel happy they only hurt us out of love. 

It’s no surprise then that as a young woman I was thinking somehow that there had to be something fundamentally wrong with me for all these horrible things to be happening to me. In some ways I had probably accepted that this was just my lot in life. Any attempt I made to change that would just result in more painful disappointment and I knew I could not possibly handle any more of that. 

 She then looked at me with soft kind eyes and spoke the three most important words I had ever heard in my life: “I Believe You.”

There was a young social worker student that I had met at a local shelter. I was finding it very easy to speak with her as she was close to my age and didn’t yet seem jaded by the system, but I hadn’t opened up about anything I considered important yet. I wasn’t totally convinced she could handle my truth. I had envisioned telling her several times about some of the things I had been going through. Each situation ended in her running from the room screaming or her mouth gaping wide open with shock and disgust in her eyes. I had a hard time coming to terms with most of it myself; how could I expect her to? I had believed I had gotten myself involved with all of it and I was afraid I would never be able to get out alive.

Over time I started to feel like I was going to burst. I was explaining away bruises and other injuries as just accidents and disappearing, sometimes days at a time with no explanation. It felt like the world and everybody in it hated me. I was trapped in a vicious cycle of torture and abuse and there was no way out. One evening I showed up at the shelter to probably eat for the first time in days and get a shower — checking in to make sure they knew I was still alive.

The young social work student was there that night and I started to wonder if I could possibly trust her enough to maybe let some of my pain out. If nothing else, it may just prove that my worst fears about her reactions were real and at least then I would know and could truly give up. I remember sitting, thinking long and hard about how I would do this, and decided to ease her into some of the details and not bombard her because, after all, she may not be able to handle my truth.  But let me tell you, once I started I could not stop. Sometimes I spoke so quickly and with so much pain and tears that I still wonder if she understood everything I said. When I started to slow down and catch my breath, a bit of that sinking feeling set in and that any minute she was just going to stand up and tell me to get out and never come back again. 

I sat there quietly waiting for this — but it didn’t happen. She didn’t look disgusted, repulsed, or even that shocked. She then looked at me with soft kind eyes and spoke the three most important words I had ever heard in my life: “I Believe You.”

I know today it was not the first time somebody had told me this. I had been listened to and believed in the past. But this is the first time I actually really heard it in my heart and believed it myself. It was a very overwhelming feeling, but one of the deepest feelings that was not negative I had ever had. That time and space that was given was the basis of building strength to keep telling my truth. Somebody had listened without judgement. She never interrupted me to get answers to questions to fulfill her own curiosity or increase her understanding. There would be plenty of time for that later. Right there in that moment she just needed to listen. To believe. 

 If someone is not what you need it is not your responsibility to educate them. You are allowed to find others to support you and not settle for less than you deserve.

Just as every traumatic event has helped shape me into the person I am today, so did the positive experiences. Unfortunately, from my own life, I realize that it takes a lot of hard work to keep this perspective. The brains of survivors have been trained to respond differently to any kind of emotional event. It’s a long and very involved process to retrain our fight, flight, or freeze response. It is still something that I work on every day. 

While survivors are in this process of retraining our responses it is vital that we have an honest, open, and realistic support system. This also looks very different for everyone. I can tell you from experience that not all professionals, friends or even family members are up to this challenge. You have to find the right fit for you. If someone is not what you need it is not your responsibility to educate them. You are allowed to find others to support you and not settle for less than you deserve. For the most part my support system consisted of professionals — either people I had met during my own healing or through my work with the Coalition Against the Sexual Exploitation of Youth (CASEY). 

There was, and is, a very real lack of peer support here in our province. There is a general feel of unease about survivors being given the opportunity to support each other without the professional mediator. I really started to wonder why. It’s fairly common knowledge that peer support has been very successful in other areas like addictions.

I believe that most of the fears professionals have can be thought to be legitimate. To ask a survivor to share their story, facilitate training, or even spearhead a peer support group can come with some pretty big perceived responsibility. My feelings and thoughts on that have always been that you should always remember we have been through some of the most horrendous things known to mankind. Some of us have been bought and sold, beaten, tortured, and been through several near death situations. But we are still standing and intact. We have come out the other side. We have learned some pretty amazing skills that helped us do that. 

 Perpetrators believe that keeping us separate, isolated, and not allowing us to talk about our experiences openly means that we will never find the ability to gather strength and free ourselves.

The fact that we may not have sat in a classroom or a lecture hall to then receive a certificate does not make our abilities to deal with difficult and messy situations in a healthy manner any less valid than formally taught skills. 

We are no less trustworthy and have no less of an ability to be professional. In not letting us support each other in professional settings you can actually perpetuate the feelings that have been driven into us by our abusers. Perpetrators believe that keeping us separate, isolated, and not allowing us to talk about our experiences openly means that we will never find the ability to gather strength and free ourselves. Although the motivations are obviously for much different reasons the outcomes can be exactly the same: fostering feelings of shame, guilt and that we should stay quiet because others cannot handle us. In thinking about this you can see how we are actually being limited in our growth and healing. We have the same ability to meet the same standards as professionals with formal training. In fact, from my experience survivors often hold themselves to a higher level of standards. All too often we are underestimated while at the same time we are being praised for our progress. 

Survivors need to be encouraged to embrace other survivors and honour each other’s experiences. Survivors need not to think there is a competition and that the person with the worst experience gets the most help or attention. We need to always remember we have the abilities to lead, and each of us have value and strengths. 

This is not really a new way of looking at things. There are places that do this and they do it very well. We have a great opportunity to learn from these places. Instead of holding back or limiting what survivors can do out of fear of what might happen if things go wrong, teach us how to deal with the outcomes that you are afraid of. Let us know it is OK to say ‘no’ if you ask us to help deliver your message with our story. Support us if we do share our story because we feel obligated to do so, because we feel we need to because you helped us. Support us to say after we share a story and we regret it that we can still come to you and talk about it. Know and understand we are capable of being responsible for our own well-being.

 Survivors need to be encouraged to embrace other survivors and honour each other’s experiences.

Do not limit survivors because you think they lack skills. Support us. Be honest with your support. Don’t promise things you cannot follow through on. Know where to refer us when you are unable to help. We are trusting you to guide us and foster us in becoming leaders in our communities. It’s important for survivors to know it’s not our job to educate the world, but we sure can help. We don’t need to expose all of our experiences to benefit others. We don’t need to answer all of your questions. It is not an all or nothing type deal. We don’t need to have our trauma to be the sad story that motivates others to help.

Survivors need to be more than the entertainment or segues during conferences by singing songs or reading poetry during lunch breaks or breaks from the “real learning”. These are effective ways for us to express ourselves but please do not limit us to just these activities. We have more to contribute. We have some amazing abilities that if encouraged can help at every level. We need to sit at the tables and be on the boards. We need to be consultants from the very beginning right to the very end. There can be absolutely nothing about us that does not include us at every possible moment.

So, I stand here tonight not telling you my story. I am telling you I am more than my experiences. 

I also need you to know I have not done this alone. I have had some of the most amazing allies and supports that have ever been known. Whether it be the person who came to my house and did my dishes because I could not get out of bed, the person that took me for a long drive in silence so I could think and just be present and grounded, or the person that sat at the end of my hospital bed wondering if I would make it through the night and how they could possibly make me believe I was worth it.

I would never have done this without you.

To my fellow survivors: You are not alone. You are not your trauma. There are great things to come. Reach out. Connect. Be there for each other.

Melendy Muise is the co-chair of the Coalition Against the Sexual Explotation of Youth (CASEY) and currently works at Thrive. She has been a member of CASEY for the past 10 years and is passionate about ending the exploitation of youth and fostering an environment of survivor-led leadership roles in our province. 

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