I wrote in my last post that survivors often are treated as though any decision we make (especially related to our bodies and our sexuality) is suspect until we wash off the Trauma Crud, revealing the true, pure real desires of our heart.
I’ve written in other places and in my book about how the concept of “Before and After” for survivors is misguided. (And I’m not the only one.) The idea that there is a “before” we could get back to, should get back to, makes no sense when talking about a lot of trauma, especially child sexual abuse. What’s the “before” when that would be when I was a child?
But I think the difficultly here is that it’s not just a “before” people expect us to get back to. They also assume an “underneath.” Underneath the trauma is you, underneath the trauma is what you actually think, want, hope, desire, and dream.
What this does to us survivors is put an impossibly high burden of potential regret upon us. Whatever we do, we have to be careful, whatever choice we make, we have to question if there isn’t some future real us that would regret that decision. We aren’t allowed to make any life-altering, no-take backs choices, because what if, down the line, we wished we hadn’t?
In this view, regret is the worst thing that could ever happen to us, regret is the thing we could never recover from, regret is the real thing that would break us. So we can’t, not until we’re healed, not until we’re sure, really sure, not until we can guarantee that the trauma doesn’t affect our decisions in the least.
The reason this works is because honestly, a survivor’s life could be defined by nothing but regret. Regret that the abuse happened, regret for all the choices we could have had, but different, regret for the things we weren’t capable of.
But the regret of “I didn’t do the things I wanted to do when I wanted to” isn’t as narratively interesting to people who are far more focused on narratives of regret in relation to the choices they think are morally wrong; i.e., choices about sexuality, about gender, about body. Like I wrote in my previous post, regret narratives aren’t specifically about us as survivors, they’re tools, weapons to put the fear in you, the gay person, you the trans person, you the woman who wants to control her body and sexuality that you’re making a grievous mistake.
As much as people fixate on survivors who talk about, say, transitioning, and regretting it because it was “just because they were abused” I’m betting it’s far more common that trans survivors are like me, wishing they can been capable, emotionally, and mentally, of going on hormones years ago. But our regret only matters when we make active decisions about our life, when we assert our will over our bodies, not the passive regret that at least makes us fall in line within socially acceptable parameters of existence.
The survivor who transitions and regrets it is held up as the worst possible thing that could ever happen to us because these choices are already seen as either the worst thing that could happen to us, or the thing you should only do if you really can’t make the “normal” one.
This means that rather than helping survivors confront, grieve, and move past our regret, we’re instead taught to value it, to see it as something live by, more than any other emotional experience, more than any other aspect of our trauma.
And in doing so, we make it difficult for survivors to grasp at the normalcy of regret.
What I mean is: when you get to the end of your life, you’re always going to have choices you wish you’d taken and choices you wish you hadn’t. That’s what it means to be capable of choices. But survivors are encouraged to see their every regret as an aspersion on their capacity for reason, their decision-making as fully autonomous human beings.
I remember, when I first moved out of my mother’s, everything felt like a sign that I was a traumatized failure. Buying the wrong thing at the store, struggling with knowing how to do food shopping, feeling lonely and afraid and lost, were all because I was broken. There was no one around to tell me what the difference was between what I was struggling with because I was traumatized and overwhelmed and had no one to help me, and what was just part of the normal growing pains of becoming an adult and fending for yourself.
And I think this is a really hard thing for a lot of us survivors, and not something people will let us talk about, or talk about with us: it’s so easy for us to tie everything, every bit of unhappiness, every decision we make, everything that feels wrong or bad, as a part of our trauma, rather than being able to see that we are still people, and sometimes, being a person is hard.
Part of coping with abuse is understanding that there isn’t an “underneath” self who would make perfectly correct choices, who knows with pure clarity exactly who they are, who is so self-assured that they will never guess wrong about their own needs or desires, if only there wasn’t the trauma mucking things up. It’s understanding that messiness is a part of being human. And so is regret.
Because yes, we will make decisions because of the trauma. We will be things “because we were abused.” But the thing is, the traumatized person, the abused person, in this very moment in time, is alive. You’re alive. I’m alive. There has never been an artificial moment of your existence. This is the point I want to convey most clearly in my survivor book, this is in a sense, my entire thesis. You are allowed to simply be.
Coping with trauma throws into stark clarity how one person can grow and change, can expand their horizons, can become stronger, and happier, and freer. But that’s not because you brought out the “underneath” person, that’s because all of us, at any moment in time, are making decisions and changing in relation to those decisions.
We are allowed to take the same risks and chances. And honor the person who takes those risks and chances. Regret is useful for telling you when you’re doing something you wish you hadn’t done, it’s good for helping you make better decisions. But it doesn’t have to be anything more than that. Making yourself sick with regret isn’t a consequence of making the wrong choices, it’s an unhealthy relationship to regret. And rather than holding up survivors who regret choices they’ve made as some kind of scare-mongering tool to frighten other survivors, we should instead being helping those survivors understand that they don’t have to hate themselves, to destroy themselves, just because they wished they’d done something else.
To be a survivor is to have to put down regret every time. But it’s important. It’s important to take chances, not knowing if they’ll pay off. It’s important to honor the person you are in the moment. And it’s important to understand that every decision anyone makes for their happiness is a gamble. Survivor or not, it’s a gamble. That’s what it means to be alive, that’s what it means to live.
And you, fellow survivor, and I, we are allowed to live. We are allowed the excitement of not knowing our future. We are allowed to believe ourselves when we say what we want, what we desire, when we think about what kind of life we want to build for ourselves. And if it’s wrong, we start over. We try again. If anything is a mark of being healed, I think it’s that. I think it’s being able to put down the constant battle of “but what if I’m only making this decision because I was abused?” and pick up the beautiful risk of autonomy, of living.
Knowing that you are just as alive right now as you will be in the future. Knowing that what you want right now is just as real as what you’ll want in the future. Knowing that changing your mind doesn’t retroactively apply to every previous moment.
Jump into the world with both feet. You may not make every decision you want, you may regret a great deal of things, but I promise you, this is a better survival than that one. I promise you, this is what it means to live.