I didn’t get dressed today. Wait that sounds weird. I did get dressed, obviously, but I didn’t dress myself. I woke up and felt like death, and with mixed feelings I closed my eyes again – if I feel like death maybe I just need to be unconscious a little longer to get there. Please. Stop this. I’m tired of being in pain.
Anyway, at some point I found myself on campus. Hurrah for alter-personalities. I’d have stayed in bed all day with the duvet pulled over my head, achieving absolutely nothing and stewing in pain. I went to the bathroom and looked in the mirror, and instantly didn’t know whether to laugh or cry. Whoever got me up and dressed had put on my hoodie, which I haven’t worn for weeks, which says “this is what a survivor looks like.”
I laughed and cried rather than choose between the two. I looked exhausted and miserable. I felt it too. And now I looked soggy and red-faced. This was what a survivor looked like…really?! I’m as close to defeated as I’ve probably ever been, fighting to keep treading water and breathe through the waves crashing over my head all at once. Breathing is under-rated. I cannot describe how hard it can feel…to keep breathing…to even believe you can keep breathing…the moment where breathing becomes a conscious effort is an exceptionally difficult one, emotionally and physically. We take for granted the fact our bodies will keep us breathing. Every so often, my body seems to forget. I feel myself going dizzy and suddenly realise my chest feels like it’s about to explode, and I hadn’t noticed the pressure building. Oh yeah. Breathing. That thing we all do without thinking. Suddenly my body gasps into a kick-start, as it realises with a jolt it had forgotten it’s job. I want you all to try something…consciously count now how many times you breathe in a minute, consciously focus on the fact you’re breathing. Now imagine having to always consciously focus on the fact you’re breathing. It’s a time-consuming, exhausting, and soul-destroying process. Because what am I counting down to, really? We’re all going to die eventually. By focussing on breathing on keeping my breathing regular, I’m simply counting down to my final breath. And that’s a very weird feeling. During my sleep I can’t focus on my breathing, but recently I frequently wake up in the night gasping in a huge lungful of air, as my body re-remembers its job is to breathe. It should frighten me. Instead I’m let wondering – okay, so how long until it doesn’t remember in time? Do I want it to stop? The answer is no – I don’t want to die. What I want is life to stop. I want the pain to stop. I need more energy. I just have no stamina left.
So is that what a survivor looks like? Someone crying, focussing on breathing, who’s sleep is so plagued with vivid and terrifying nightmares that sleep might as well not exist. Who can’t eat properly. Who’s feeling crushed, and like attending meetings and lectures – for example – is living a lie. Living in a false reality. Because how the hell am I supposed to put on a ‘student’ face and discuss normal student issues with these memories and emotions floating around? I’m living a double life. I feel like a fake. I do it, because what else am I supposed to do? But more people are seeing the mask slip. This ‘survivor’ is wrecked. I’m at complete breaking point and have been heading this way for months. This ‘survivor’ is feeling so much unbelievable pain. I haven’t yet survived; I’m still surviving.
And that occurred to me, properly, whilst in the bathroom laughing and crying at my own daft reflection: I will always be surviving. There won’t ever be a final moment where I have ‘survived.’ Ironically, the only moment where I could officially be finally be deemed as a ‘survivor’ would be the point I died – providing it was of natural causes rather than suicide. The point where I died naturally would be the point I could be called a ‘survivor.’ What a twisted irony.
My hoodie should instead say “this is what surviving looks like.” That would be a more accurate description. Because whilst I have survived up until this absolute second – although arguably not all of me has survived – I am simultaneously surviving. I am both a survivor and surviving. That dual-identity I think is the only way I manage this crazy double life. In meetings I have my ‘survivor’ face on, so that I can focus and concentrate because the memories are all in the past and gone. Away from that, when my mask is off, my face is that of ‘surviving’. Looking like a survivor suggests that I am safe. And let me be clear here; I am not safe. I don’t know if I ever truly will be. So I cannot deem myself a survivor when I can never know if it’s all over for me. Even if they left me alone for 10, 20, 30 years….what happens if in 40 years they decide to try again? I mean, aside from the fact they’d all be really quite old by then, the possibility is still there. The new generation of the ring abusers will be there. I can never know if it’s over. Therefore, I am always surviving….and at the same time I am always a survivor, because I managed to live through the horrors of my past – distant and recent.
What a funny place.
So after thinking all this through, I stopped laughing at myself, and just cried. Silently but heavily, my head resting on the cool mirror. The coolness was a comfort somehow…it reminded me of one random kind grown up putting a cold flannel on my head when I was feverish once as a child. My tears were for so many things; what’s happened, what is still happening, the pain I’m in, the relief I have, the fear I have, the gratitude I have for the compassion of my friends. The hoodie is not a lie but it is neither the truth. ‘This is what a survivor looks like’ – that is true. I am alive still. I have survived to date. But to be a survivor…what does that word even mean…. http://dictionary.reference.com/browse/survivor?s=t – I like number 3: “a person who continues to function and prosper in spite of opposition, hardship or setbacks.” I would be quick to argue that I am not functioning… but I am out of bed, attending meetings, planning stuff, speaking out…. I am functioning. I just don’t feel like I’m functioning because all I can feel is incredible stomach-knotting pain, that chokes the breath out of me and leaves me either numb or sobbing. For that reason, for the reason that I feel like I’m treading water whilst in so much pain, I don’t feel like I’m functioning. But some part of me evidently is. I have functioned less. I have stayed in bed for days and days at a time, refusing to see anyone. I am against a huge level of ‘opposition’, but with a huge level of support. It’s a war. It really is.
Okay so I’m a survivor. Fine. So this is what a survivor looks like.
But don’t be fooled into thinking that means it’s all over, because it’s not. It’s far from over. Even if they never hurt me again, I have the recovery to survive. The raw recovery where I can feel the emotions I dissociated to survive. What mad dichotomy is this; I dissociated the emotions to survive, and now my only method of survival from recovery is to feel the stuff I dissociated FOR survival.
So yes I’m a survivor. But I’m also still surviving, and will continue to do so for as long as I live, probably. So I’m simultaneously strong with the fact I am a survivor, and wrecked because I’m surviving hell. I am simultaneously crying tears of relief for having survived, and crying tears of sorrow for what I’m surviving. I am simultaneously trying to speak out about what I have survived, and asking for help for what I’m surviving. I am both sad for the pain I endured, and crippled by the pain I’m enduring. I am living in the past and present, all at the same time. I am both survivor and surviving.
This is what a survivor looks like. This is also what surviving looks like.