What is going on? An abuse survivor’s experience of the pandemic

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(Trigger warning – contains references to abuse and other traumatic experiences) 

The world has felt very odd for a long time now. Its been tough for so many.
I’m a survivor of child sexual abuse and unexpectedly the pandemic has affected me more than I ever thought it would. I’ve written this piece to help any other survivors who relate to these feelings. 

This post feels quite negative. I guess I wanted to put a little spin on it a bit… Some things during this time have been okay! Not having to go out… No pressure to be social… Not having to touch people (I appreciate the fear of that for survivors)… Not feeling like you have to be ‘doing.’ This is all there alongside the struggles of the past few months. 

The whole world is experiencing a trauma, not just a group of people — THE WHOLE WORLD. As a survivor you do all you can to avoid further trauma in your life, but this one no one has been able to escape. Simple things that keep survivors feeling safe have been pulled away – routines, changes in care, travel, shops, even the TV schedule, ALL are different. I rely on controlling as much as I can in my life to feel safe, even the small daytoday things and now I can’t as much as I used to. My heart literally skips a beat with fear. 

The world has felt under attack, and we are being told to fear and be cautious. As a survivor my abuse meant I lived in a state of fear, having to second guess everything I did to try and keep safe as I could. We are now living in the situation again 24/7. We are being told to fear strangers, that touch can potentially be harmful, to avoid people to keep ourselves safe. It may be a completely different context, but fear as a survivor is deeprooted. Being told to be cautious about danger sets all our alarm bells ringing. Our subconscious is telling us we may get hurt, so we are now living in high alert even more than usual — and that is just exhausting. 

Control is such a major part of abuse. Survivors were often forced by powerful people to keep to certain rules; they lived under threat and were scared to do anything ‘wrong’ through fear of what might happen. Recently we have seen some of the most powerful people in the country dictating a lot more of our lives, with consequences if you are not compliant. We logically know this is to keep everyone safe — but living under rules, conditions and restrictions again is hard for survivors.

Personally it’s brought up many conflicting feelings and fears. What if I get the rules wrong? What if I forget what I have to do? What if someone shouts at me for accidentally doing something wrong? These fears have made basic tasks terrifying. For example, going into a shop, being scared of touching something youre not supposed to, getting too close to someone, someone telling you youre not ‘sticking to the rules.’ Not following ‘rules’ in the past led my abuse to be worse, so now I live my life trying as much as I can to be ‘good.’ We’ve then got the other side of it where we are seeing people (and senior people!) flouting the rules. The little child in me is screaming ‘No, we’ve got to stay good… we’ve got to obey the rules’ and becoming panicky if people are not doing so 

We are being told that people are contaminated; that we are potentially contaminated. People literally cross the road to avoid coming near you. For me this taps into my feelings of being dirtyunwanted and contaminated from the abuse. It may not be true but those feelings are powerfulIt makes my inner child scream. She already feels ‘disgusting’ & ‘contaminated’ — and now she’s being told she potentially is, and people must avoid her. I know logically this is far from the case – but when you are feeling vulnerable, survival mode kicks in and it’s hard to focus on anything logical. Someone crossing the road to avoid me or having to stand further away from me inside automatically taps into the everyday feeling I have of feeling horrible, disgusting, unwanted. 

This whole situation has really highlighted how society sees the vulnerable, and how vulnerable humans are treated by systems. There’s has been so much good coming out of from this, so many people coming together to help one another, but its also shown how badly some people are treated. So many of us had to experience being trapped in your own four walls, unable to go out, unable to be with loved ones, unable to socialise. So many people have commented how they have never had to do this in their lives and could not cope. But lockdown was about 8 weeks… For many survivors & vulnerable people in our country, living in ‘lockdown’ is their world. Feeling lonely, missing interaction with others. Missing out on things they’d love to do. What an opportunity would that have been for society to wake up and understand what so many people are going through behind closed doors, and to make a real change. As life slowly returns ‘back to normal’our lockdown continues while the world carries on. The grief about that is painful. 

One of the most horrible shocks for me is having to face a trigger I never thought would affect my day to day life, and that is PPE, specifically masks. Some of my abusers wore masks. Now, with so many people wearing masks, my mind is automatically telling me that anyone who is covering their face is coming to hurt you. They are a threat, they are dangerous. My mind instantly remembers my abusers above me, their eyes staring at me. Its awful. And now it’s everywhere. As much as I tell myself people are safe, my body freezes, and my memories tell me otherwise. It means living in a constant state of fear. It breaks my heart that my friends, work colleagues and parents wear them, and even that scares me.  

That’s the worst. The other side is wearing a mask myself. I tried so hard. I was even sent a gorgeous floral one and tried it. My abuse included being suffocated, having my mouth covered and struggling to breathe. Wearing a mask makes the feelings of sheer terror flood back. I physically feel sick and panic. My body tells me it’s happening again. But this now means I can’t follow a rule… which brings its own fears, as I described above. It makes me feel guilty for not helping others. It makes me feel frustrated how much the abuse affects me. It makes me feel I can never escape my abuse and that it’s always coming back to test me as a survivor. 

Then there’s the ultimate thing we haven’t mentioned. Zoom, Skype, phones…I struggle immensely with these things, especially when it comes to accessing support. That’s been hard. I literally live my life analysing body language, atmospheres, spaces — anything to help me feel safe and in some sort of control. You just don’t get that on Zoom. Yes, you can see someone, but it’s not the same. We humans are social animals, and it’s not natural speaking to each other on screens. Its also meant that support is offered to me in my own home, and from the therapist/workers home too. That messes with my head quite a lot. I prefer having support away from my safe space. When I’ve had counselling before, as hard as it’s been sometimes, the bus journey home with blaring headphones and scenery, or even going for a drink afterwards, has helped ground me before going home. The way we communicate at the moment feels very strange. 

On top of all my own stuff there’s the human aspect of all this. The world has lost many lives, many lives have been torn apart, many livelihoods have been damaged and so many are struggling. People without any significant trauma history have been deeply affected. We have been forced to live in different ways and forced to change our lives very quickly. It is scary for all of us. 

So where has this left me as a survivor? 

I’ve been a horror to live with. I’ve lashed out at so many people around me. I’ve struggled to understand my feelings, I’ve been horrible to myself. I’ve gained friendships, Ive lost friendships, argued with family, made up with them. I’ve felt completely and utterly mixed up. I’ve connected with some amazing people. Had more open conversations. My job role changed completely. Spent days in bed. It’s been a bit weird! 

I’ve felt immense guilt for struggling during this time. I’ve been fortunate COVID hasn’t directly affected me or those around me in terms of illness. I know so many people have been worried about practical issues and my issues as a survivor are emotional ones. But as I’ve learned from speaking to other survivors that it’s not just me who has felt all this and it’s incredibly unfair of me to be hard on myself for struggling. What I’m feeling as a survivor is real. It is ridiculously cliched to say be kind to yourself — but actually it’s true. The amount of time I’ve sat here, telling myself how stupid I am for linking a virus to my past abuse, when I’m not stupid at all. 

Its absolutely, horribly unfair that we have to experience what we experience. Its also incredibly unfair that it’s so difficult to process and pick apart. When I was abused I had to learn to do anything to survive and feel safe. I had to learn things no child should learn, I had to live in a state of absolute fear for so long. This pandemic has brought all that back, and now it’s time for me as an adult to look after little me. Stop telling her it’s wrong to struggle during this time, and instead tell her actually, the world’s really traumatic right now and it’s okay to feel everything you do. 

Do what you need to do to look after the scared survivor living inside. Have days where you wrap yourself in a blanket to feel safe from the world. Take it slowly, exploring how the world is now different, and don’t beat yourself up for struggling with it. 

We live in a word that’s constantly telling us to be positive, but we are in a PANDEMIC. Its called that for a reason. The world is in survival mode and high alert — which is very familiar for an abuse survivor. Give yourself a break x 

By Sally-Ann  

You can read other blogs by Sally-Ann here: https://sallyannr93.wordpress.com/2020/09/06/covid-19-how-it-is-affecting-me-as-a-survivor