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Am I a Victim or a Survivor of Childhood Sexual Abuse?

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Editor's Note

If you’ve experienced domestic violence or emotional abuse, sexual abuse or assault, the following post could be potentially triggering.

You can contact The National Sexual Assault Telephone Hotline at 1-800-656-4673.

You can contact The National Domestic Violence Hotline online by selecting “chat now” or calling 1-800-799-7233.

You can also contact the Crisis Text Line by texting “START” to 741741.

There are so many labels that get affixed to us throughout our lives. As someone who experienced childhood sexual abuse, I got stuck with labels that I didn’t consent to. I’m somewhere in the middle of my healing journey, and I get caught up in what word to attach to myself. Am I a victim or a survivor? Or both?

Although this might change, right now, I gravitate towards the word “victim.” For so long, I wasn’t able to speak openly about what happened to me. I kept everything inside and constantly wished I could tell someone my truth. Using the word “victim” makes it feel like I finally get to say, “I was hurt very badly. I need extra care and support.” I no longer have to pretend that I’m fine — victims can get empathy from others. But then I think about the negative connotation the word “victim” sometimes holds. In my mind, one of the worst insults is for someone to say you’re “playing the victim,” that you’re using your story to get some kind of manufactured sympathy. I would never want anyone to think I’m using my trauma as a way to get attention. But at the same time, maybe I deserve to play the “victim card” if that means I’ll be getting some compassion for what I went through.

And then there’s the word “survivor.” I totally get why some people find strength in this word. It definitely brings to mind someone reaching the top of a mountain or standing in a boxing ring with their fist held triumphantly in the air. Sadly, I don’t feel like I’ve completely earned this word yet. I’m still deep in the middle of my pain, trying to slowly crawl up and out of a very dark tunnel. Of course, it’s true that I survived the trauma — I’m sitting here writing about it even though I have constant suicidal thoughts. But the word “survivor” has a certain power to it that I just don’t feel (and possibly never will).

Everyone has to choose their own label for themselves. I don’t pass any kind of judgment over which label feels right for anyone else. But I do love the freedom that comes with me getting to select the label I want to use. I get to choose how I want the world to see me. If I feel more like a victim than a survivor, so be it. The only thing I won’t do is to deny that the abuse happened. Because in doing so, I’d be ignoring a label that, in reality, I can’t ever escape from. I might have to choose which label I’m more comfortable with (as each person has the right to do), but I won’t pretend that I haven’t earned the right to be called either. In fact, there is great strength in choosing my label — I’m taking back some of the power that was taken from me as a child. I can be a victim of these awful circumstances, just like I can be a survivor of the pain. Because no matter how bad the abuse was or how much I’m currently hurting, I’m still here to tell my story. Maybe “alive” is the only label that truly matters.

Photo by Pietro Tebaldi on Unsplash

Originally published: April 30, 2021
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