How to Be Friends with an S/RA Survivor: A Quick Start Guide
Hey everybody. I’m back with some continued thoughts on doing life and friendships/relationships with people who have experienced S/RA (Satanic/Ritual Abuse). This is not meant to be all-inclusive, but just a starting point. I can’t possibly write every single thing that will be helpful for every single person out there, because everyone is different. All DID (Dissociative Identity Disorder) systems are different. If you’re the significant other or friend of a survivor, you’re going to have to do the work to get to know the survivor’s particularities.
Anywho. Here is a good starting point for being friends with us:
1) Know that you can’t fix or save us. Only we can do that, by our choices, and you can remind us of our power to choose, but you can’t choose for us (at least, you shouldn’t). This is a really important thing, because many people burn out when they don’t feel like their friendship is making any difference in our lives, which basically means they approached the relationship with an agenda, whether they knew it or not. The agenda was to rescue, fix, save, or otherwise help or change us. Let me save you a lot of time and let you know up front: you can’t. Your friendship WILL make a difference. I promise. But it’s not going to look the way you might think. It may not look like anything. But it makes a difference. We need friends who will simply be there with us, and be there for us, with no agendas. Someone that has the grit to sit in the presence of extreme pain and just be silent and be there. This is harder than it sounds; so many people are uncomfortable seeing someone else’s pain and not trying to shut it down or re-direct their thoughts or minimize what’s happening. If you can just accept it – perhaps saying, “I’m sorry you’re hurting, is there anything I can do?” – and just be there, you’re a step ahead of a lot of people. In fact, everyone needs these kinds of friends, not just survivors.
2) Don’t dismiss or belittle our feelings. This kind of goes along with #1. When people see someone in pain, most of the time their natural reaction is to want to alleviate that pain. That’s a good and altruistic desire, but sometimes it’s at least partially because we’re uncomfortable facing our own powerlessness if confronted with the awareness that we cannot fix it. The truth is, even though we feel powerless when we cannot “save” someone, our real power is empathy, not rescue. Empathy enters into the other person’s experience and says, “I’m here. I’m with you. You’re not alone. I know this is awful, and I’m not going to leave you.” Letting someone feel their pain, and own it, allows them to work through it and discover – at the right time – that THEY can make choices to heal themselves. This is far more empowering to a person in the long run than being saved by someone else time and time again. In fact, stepping in to “rescue” sends the person being rescued the exact opposite message than the one they really need to hear. Rescuing sends the message: “You are not strong enough to live your life and make good choices. You need someone else to run your life for you and keep you safe.” Which is definitively untrue. Survivors are HUGELY powerful people…it’s just that most of the time they’re the last ones to see or believe it.
3) In keeping with #2, learn how to be a good listener. If you don’t know how to do active listening, there are many resources online that you can take a few hints from. Learn how to ask open-ended questions and reflect back what you think the person is saying. While you are doing this, believe what the survivor tells you. This cannot be emphasized enough. There are those who wonder (even if only privately) if everything S/RA survivors have gone through is really real. In fact, we ourselves wonder it probably more than all the rest of you combined. The answer to this question is complex. For one thing, most (if not all) victimization begins in early childhood, sometimes even in infanthood or the womb. ALL children experience a stage of development called “magical thinking,” between ages 2 and 7, where they literally cannot understand the world logically. (Logic and abstract thinking come later; the brain is psychologically incapable of it until the child is older.) In this way, when early abuse memories are recalled, they are being recalled from a mind that recorded the events in this younger stage; therefore, the memories center around what the child perceived to be happening. This may or may not match up precisely with what did actually happen; there may be features of the recollection that are quite accurate, and there may be other details that didn’t happen exactly as described, but that doesn’t mean the person is making it up. It means it’s what they perceived. Generally speaking, little kids don’t naturally lie. They may learn to lie, to avoid punishment or abuse, but naturally, they don’t do it. They’re indiscriminately honest. And they tell fantastical stories – but they’re not making it up. To them, the stories are real, and they really happened. So just imagine throwing a kid in the magical thinking stage into an environment of abuse, deception, double binds, elaborately designed settings and schemes (such that often occurs in S/RA), and duplicitous language, and no wonder they can’t always tell exactly what’s going on. Neither can most adults. I’ve had the privilege of talking to a lot of people about some of these things, and my conclusion is that unless formal criminal charges are going to be pressed, the accuracy of memories does not really matter. The pain is real. It comes from somewhere. I don’t worry about whether a person remembers everything exactly as it really was. Memory is completely subjective anyway, and fluid over time. What matters is what the person needs now, in order to heal and become whole. And that starts with being believed and validated.
4) Find out how the person wants to approach triggering words or situations. This is going to vary from person to person, and possibly alter to alter, and even stage of healing. Find out if there are certain situations they need to avoid in order to keep themselves safe or stable, and ask if there are any triggering words or phrases they’d like you to avoid using. Ask how you can best support them if they do find themselves triggered; sometimes people like to be alone, sometimes they might like a safe hug, sometimes certain music can be soothing, or being reminded of the day and year and that they are safe now. Littles may prefer a particular blanket or stuffed animal or toy. Others might like to change the subject and talk about something benign to distract them. It really just depends on the person.
As I’ve healed more and more, I actually don’t mind being triggered that much these days, as long as I know I won’t be punished or abandoned for my reaction. It rarely happens, but when it does happen, I tend to view it as an opportunity to conquer another land mine. There’s a famous dog trainer named Cesar Millan who says (something like), “We can’t ever teach a dog not to bite if the dog is never put into a situation where it does bite,” and nowadays I see triggers that way. I can’t do the work to nullify a trigger if I’m never in a situation where that trigger is brought to the surface. Once it “bites” me, I can “teach” it to stop doing that, even if it takes several times. To me, this is ultimately more productive than trying to live life avoiding all triggers at all times. But, I also recognize that others who are somewhere else in the process may not be able to take this stance yet and need to do whatever is best for themselves.
5) Show the person you’re dependable and committed to being in their life. Do what you say you’ll do, or let them know when and why you can’t. Let them know what you can and can’t do, so they know what to expect.
6) Be teachable. The person who will know the most about their inner experience is the survivor. Have an open mind and create an environment where it’s safe for the person to open up to you. Give them plenty of time to evaluate when they feel it is safe to be vulnerable.
7) In the case of DID (Dissociative Identity Disorder), try not to obviously prefer one alter over another. Even if you prefer the company of someone in particular, do your best to be safe and compassionate to all of them.
These are all I can think of, at the moment, but like I said, it’s really only a starting point. I encourage everyone to add their own ideas and thoughts to lists like these. Until next time…Cheers. ~J8