Using the 'A' word (no, not that one...)

I had a coffee today with a friend and talked to her a bit about my history with my brother. She knew I had some history of trauma but didn't know what it was. As I was talking I used the 'a' word - abuse. (I had to stress that it was not sexual abuse, because sadly it is so prevalent that people tend to assume that's the only thing 'abuse' can mean.) We chatted for a bit and my friend asked questions like, "Did your parents have any idea?" and "How long did it continue?" I said it went on pretty much until I left home at age 20, when my brother was 26. My friend said, "He was 26? Oh, well that's abuse."

This made me pause. Hadn't I just said it was abuse? It's not a word I use lightly and it's one I took a long time to accept. I danced around it for ages, calling it teasing, bullying, being picked on - anything but abuse. Abuse is for real and it's serious. Teasing can be forgotten; abuse requires healing. It's a big deal. I know it's a big deal and that's exactly why I don't use the word lightly. I was therefore surprised that my friend didn't see it as abuse until it met some criterion in her head. My brother was still doing what he did when he was in his twenties and that, according to her, is what makes it abuse. So does that mean it wasn’t abuse when he was 13 and gave me a black eye? Was it abuse when he was 17 and told me I was fat and ugly? When he was 12 and stole my colouring book so he could draw a thick black line through every page except the one with the picture of a witch, which he meticulously coloured in and then labelled with my name... was that abuse? Was it abuse when he was 12 and 14 and 17 and 19 and made me cry, then mocked me for days afterwards because I cried?

I have agonised over this. I spent weeks with my counsellor questioning whether abuse was too strong a word, and weeks later I went through it all again, and I may well go through it again at some point in the future. One of the reasons I have hesitated is because I know there are people who’ve suffered terrible abuses that make my experiences look like a Sunday treat. While I have struggled there are others who have decided the struggle is too hard and they don’t want to continue. I don’t compare myself with those people... and yet at the same time I do. Our experiences are vastly different but the result of our experiences is the same. My reactions, my fears, my thought processes, my insecurities, my recovery process – they are all typical of someone who has been abused. Not someone who has experienced X-level of abuse; just someone who has been abused.

I should not have to explain why my experience counts as ‘real’ abuse. Yes, abuse is a big word. I cannot tell you how much I wish I never had to use it – but when I do, please don’t make me feel like I have to defend myself. It WAS abuse even if it doesn't fit your idea of what abuse looks like.
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6 comments:

Long dark hair, blue eyes said...

Yes abuse comes in many forms and just because the type you endured wasn't the type most people first think of doesn't make it any less real.

Hippomanic Jen said...

Why do we expect that an abusive 12 year old bully will grow up into someone who is not a 26, 38, 45, 89 year old abusive bully?

It's also weird that we think of children as 'innocent', then get worried when they don't 'grow out of' cruel behaviour.

And it's weird that we seem to expect that there are gradations of abuse. That you need to justify what happened to you as abuse (and not just to others, but to yourself).

I guess, though, that it is hard for those of us who only suffered teasing and the occasional physical shove fight to understand that there are siblings who are actually abusive rather than simply painful.

You're on a hard road, but keep on going, kiddo, keep on going.

Louisa said...

I agree that you shouldn't feel the need to defend the term you use, and yet also think that it's one of those terms that does need redefinition as it is often so solely lined with sexual abuse. I know it makes it a harder path for you to walk but it's an important one. Try to be patient, you are teaching as much as you are learning.

Femina said...

Don't worry, mate, I won't stop now! I'm travelling on a bumpy, unsealed road in a car with dodgy suspension but it's STILL a road worth travelling. (Note: you may need to remind me of this next time I ask what the heck I'm doing.)

Lilly's Life said...

Abuse does come in many forms and in our guts we know what is normal and abnormal. I dont talk about this too often but I was in a very abusive relationship. He tried to strangle me and that was the good stuff. Do you know that while I was in that relationship I would have been hard pressed to call him abusive. I'm no shrinking violet and never in my wildest dreams would I have thought I would be in that situation. It's abuse Femina and its left you with the scars to prove it. We need to start calling it for what it is (relative or not), but we also need to realise that anyone who has not suffered it can't get their heads around it sometimes. Never doubt yourself, ever. I am proud of you that you have sought counselling about this. Its tough but we learn what not to accept in future.

Femina said...

Thanks for sharing that Lilly. I'm sorry you went through what you did - it sucks that the people who are left with the scars are the ones who didn't do anything to deserve it.

I guess I didn't make it clear that I wasn't really upset with my friend. Well, okay I probably was when I wrote this post but I've had time to reflect since then. I know she didn't actually doubt me; she just happened to push some buttons that she didn't even know were there, and it fed right into my doubts and insecurities.

My counsellor keeps assuring me this is all completely normal... to which I generally reply, "So, I'm completely screwed up but I'm the normal kind of screwed up? Good to know!" :)

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