“Tiger, tiger, burning bright
In the forests of the night…
What the hammer? What the chain?
In what furnace was thy brain?
What the anvil, what the grasp
Dare its deadly terrors clasp?”
– The Tiger, William Blake
“How do you do? I’m an incest survivor.” You don’t hear that often. When should abuse victims first introduce the subject of abuse into conversation with friends and acquaintances ?
It is, of course, up to victims whether or not to disclose the fact of their abuse. We tend to err in one direction or the other – disclosing to strangers, before a sufficient degree of intimacy has been established to support discussion of such personal subject matter, while keeping the abuse entirely secret from friends (even spouses), sometimes for decades.
Victims can choose the setting, and establish parameters for this conversation. We can speak with one individual or several. “There’s something about me I’d like you to know.” “Let’s take a walk (or sit here for awhile, before the others get back).” “This is hard for me to talk about.” “It would be easier, if you asked specific questions (or didn’t ask questions, right now).”
But the topic of abuse makes people uncomfortable. No doubt about it. Few people unfamiliar with abuse – physical, emotional, sexual or neglect – will know how to respond to such information, at the outset.
Not that any sort of etiquette applies. Still, do they ask for more details? Or would questions be intrusive, insensitive? Should they hide their discomfort, move the conversation along to a less personal topic, as if abuse had not been mentioned? Or should they express shock, reach out to us – appalled that we would have suffered to such an extent?
Keeping silent allows some victims to ignore the painful reality of their abuse. A few will attempt to build a life on this fragile foundation. But the victims of a tiger attack will inevitably reveal their scars. We may as well enlist the aid of friends and relations in dealing with those scars…or, at any rate, attempt to do so.
Some people will not be able to handle the subject of abuse, no matter how it is presented. They will always prefer discussing sports and film stars. This is the reaction we fear most – withdrawal, as if we were disgusting, unclean. But that inference is ours. Withdrawal may simply reflect the limited capacity of a given individual for empathy.
Others may find an initial conversation with us difficult, but subsequent conversations on the subject gradually less so. Genuine friends will be supportive. In fact, they may feel hurt, if we keep the information from them for an extended period.
The experience of abuse is, after all, a part of who we are.
There is no shame in having been attacked. Our physical and psychological scars are not a sign of weakness. They are a memorial to the severity of our wounds…and the strength it took to survive in the wake of a tiger.
 This post addresses only relationships which may develop after the abuse has ended. It does not deal with our initial disclosure of the abuse secret (in an effort to obtain help) or with our confrontation of the abuser.
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