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I'm Still the Hero in My Abuse Story — Even Through I Didn't Fight Back

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From a young age, we’re fed stories of great heroes. These are stories of brave people who aren’t afraid to stand up against the bad guys — who will do anything in the pursuit of truth and justice. Our identities are formed around the idea that as good people we’ll always be the heroes of our own stories too. But I’m learning there might be times in our lives when as much as we’d like to stand tall and fight, sometimes the only way we can survive is to become small, to hang in there, remaining as still as possible, even if every part of us wishes we could jump to our feet and save the day.

When I was a child, I was abused and instead of the more commonly discussed fight or flight response, I froze. I didn’t push off my abuser, I didn’t kick and scream. I just froze every muscle in my body and tried my best to click off my mind so that I didn’t have to take in what was happening. For years I’ve thought that my inaction (no matter how futile it would have been at the time) meant that some small part of me wanted to be hurt, that my inability to get myself out of a dangerous situation meant that I wasn’t strong or “good.” A “good” girl surely would have prevented the abuse from taking place — would have fought with all of her strength to defend herself from a predator. That’s what a true hero would do, right?

There were times when I wish I had been able to stand up and stop other abuse from taking place around me. So many times, I imagined being physically strong enough to karate chop every bad person out of the room. When I thought about how I was simply too small to do these things, I thought that I should have then relied on my intelligence to prevent harm. Surely, if only I was clever enough, I would have been able to outsmart the perpetrator. That’s what the hero in a movie would have done. And therein lies the problem — I was comparing my own abilities to fictional characters who always triumphed (even if it took until the very last few minutes of the movie).

I was left constantly thinking that I wasn’t a good person — I wanted to be the hero that could leave my story with a happy ending. I’m only beginning to understand with time (and therapy!) that being a victim (although I hate to use that word) didn’t mean I wasn’t heroic or brave enough. It meant I was in a horrifying situation where there were no options. I had no control, no choices, no superpowers to get me out of a bind. In fact, it was my bravery and resilience that allowed me to freeze, to conserve my energy to simply come out of the situation without completely unraveling. It was heroic for me to survive when all I wanted to do was disappear.

We’re not always able to save the day — even if we truly wish we could. Our only option is to stick up for others (and ourselves) when it’s possible. If we can step in to save the day when we’re able to, that’s heroic. But it’s perhaps even more important that we don’t beat ourselves up for those times when we just can’t make the bold moves to step up. Being a hero means recognizing that the goodness inside yourself doesn’t get erased just because your heroism was a little more subtle. And maybe the fact that I’m still here to tell my story means I was the hero all along.

Photo by Brooke Cagle on Unsplash

Originally published: May 21, 2020
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