When the Negative is Positive
In the seventh in this series, Emily shares how negative behaviours can actually often be positive.
Welcome to part 7 in my series on ending rape culture. In the first of this series, I shared my dream to end rape culture within a generation, and in the second, I defined what I mean by rape culture. I then took a look at the little things, and invited you to start noticing those little things around you, the ones that help create a culture where women are demeaned, objectified, talked over, used, ignored, minimised and silenced. I invited you to start with a whisper, and become comfortable with questioning the existence of those little things and I asked you to become a survivor ally. Last week I shared how you could be more than an ally, how you can be the friend your friend needs you to be when they tell you their story.
This week I am going to let you know why sometimes those ‘negative’ behaviours survivors exhibit aren’t so negative after all…
What kind of negative behaviours am I talking about? Well, all those behaviours that are frowned upon and classified negative by society: drinking, drugs, smoking, eating to excess, starving oneself, cutting, self-medicating, isolating oneself, sleeping around, exercising to excess, becoming a workaholic, and more.
Now, of course, many of these behaviours are inherently risky and can result in further issues which take time to overcome, and can lead to death (for example accidental overdoses when self-medicating) but your judgement of these behaviours would not be that they are negative if you also knew what the ‘user’ is gaining from doing them.
The thing is, when the world around you is hell, when you’re living something worse than your worst nightmare because this isn’t a nightmare, this is real; when you’re in a constant state of hyper-vigilance, jumping out of your skin at the slightest suspect noise; when you’re exhausted but you’re frightened to sleep because sleep only brings terror – then you are beyond overwhelm, there is too much ‘noise’, too much feeling, too much. It’s no wonder that rape victims are 4 times more likely than non-victims to think about suicide, and 13% more likely to attempt it. One third of rape victims will contemplate suicide.
All these so-called ‘negative’ behaviours are a way to live. They are a way not to commit suicide. They are coping mechanisms. Their purpose is to either numb the pain of living, or distract from the pain of living. When you consider them in that light, does it not make the behaviours positive ones? Does it not help you to realise that these behaviours are saving the person’s life?
When survivors are chastised for ‘dwelling’ in their misery, for turning to drink, or drugs, or any of the activities I listed above, you are merely continuing to make them feel misunderstood, judged, isolated. And what they need instead is your compassion and understanding.
Afterwards, I indulged in most of those behaviours. Cutting wasn’t a cry for attention, cutting was a way to let the air out that was suffocating me. Cocaine was a way to feel happy, to feel empowered and invincible. Alcohol enabled me to be in social groups and switch off the hyper vigilance. Sleeping around helped me to feel in control of my body. Food comforted and soothed. Self-medicating with valium and sleeping tablets calmed my anxiety, my panic, enabled me to get through the night. Working 14 hour days meant I had no room left to contemplate my plan B, which I had designed in exquisite detail and the existence of which soothed me.
Of course, giving up those habits hasn’t been easy. When you are used to a crutch for emotional support, when difficult times crop up, and they do, because that’s life, then the go-to script wants to kick in and you find yourselef reaching for that crutch. The difference now, though, is that although I still get the urge to slice my arm open, or reach for a glass of wine*, I know that I also have other options open to me. And I know that I overcame the worst, so I can overcome whatever this current difficulty is too.
Giving up those habits comes only at a time when the survivor feels safe to do so, when they can replace those habits with others that are more nourishing to the soul than destructive to the body. But it’s nigh-on impossible to contemplate making that switch when the danger still feels real. This is why whenever I work with my clients, I work first with how they are coping, and how they can learn to rescue themselves first, before we even talk about putting into place more resilient practices.
*I do still sometimes reach for the glass of wine. And my relationship with food is also still an ongoing challenge. To paraphrase a cliché, recovery is a journey, not a destination…
Next time I will share my extended thoughts about the concepts of healing and recovery: are they helpful?
(I am not advocating any of these behaviours by the way. That would be irresponsible. I am saying we should understand why they happen, without judgement).