On Speaking : Developing Authentic Voice As A Survivor Of Abuse

The trauma said, ‘Don’t write these poems.
Nobody wants to hear you cry about the grief inside your bones.
― Andrea Gibson, The Madness Vase: By Andrea Gibson



I think I am finally finding a voice and I think I like it. It’s sometimes loud (which I sometimes fear as a Black woman), and its sometimes soft, clipped and clear. Its got its clear southern African inflections that I love. Finding my true voice is still very much a process as the challenge of developing a sense of positive identity simultaneously happens.
Since childhood the issue of my voice has always been a sore spot for me.
First of all, I never knew I had a ‘voice,’ or that it mattered as a matter of fact.  Secondly my voice and values belonged to other people, the people, the violators, tormentors, mockers, haters, to the ones who said you are not at all beautiful like her (pointing at the light skin girl in my school, who came from a nice home,) which I would hear again years later in a different context; and so the trajectory went on and on, sadly I became their spokesperson over my own life and personhood. Powerless, yet not powerless, because it truly is a matter of perspective.
It was commented on several times that I behaved like whoever I was around; as such, I was not consistent. I started watching myself to see how I behaved and it was the truth; the mimicking of others, and placing masks that did not quite fit who I was/am on the inside. There was no sense of solidness. Abusive experiences can leave survivors with a fragmented sense of identity and it was this identity that I was blindly trying to find in dysfunctional ways.
My voice was always soft and at school when one friend took to calling me ‘squeaky’, I deliberately tried to make my voice ‘squeaky’ on purpose.  I made myself shrink, strove to be non threatening, and in some way infantilise myself subconsciously so that I was safe. I know I am not alone in this as I have heard some women survivors of childhood trauma speak of similar issues. I have always felt silenced when it came to speaking about the resulting pain, confusion, feelings of shame and guilt, in addition to managing those around me that felt the need to minimise the whole experience.  Was I making a big deal out of nothing?

“The conflict between the will to deny horrible events and the will to proclaim them aloud is the central dialectic of psychological trauma.” ― Judith Lewis Herman, Trauma and Recovery

I have come to the realisation that it is now my responsibility as an adult how I choose to go forward. The power is in my own hands. I can choose to remain silenced or I can gradually learn to speak up. I am often afraid to speak up, and when I do, in certain situations, I am hesitant.  I now find that I speak out afraid anyway and I am starting to feel more courageous. I am no longer horrified at myself for expressing my displeasure at verbal abuse because of course I always used to believe I deserved abusive behaviour. Thankfully, now that I know my worth, it is evident in not only my words but my manner of speaking. It is a work in progress for me, but with each day that passes, I am sounding less apologetic in my speech.
The nature of all forms of abuse is such that the shame and fear breeds silence, yet the mind and heart are so filled with a myriad of thoughts.  Our bodies carry the brunt of these messages that are not taken out of us when they should. Finding my voice is an evolving process.  I often convince myself that I have no right to speak of pain just because I have reason to feel invalidated in the experiences that have so shaped my life and worldview.  Part of the reason I do this is because of other people’s responses/actions and reactions when I bring it up; whilst on the other hand there is another part of me that judges, blames and criticizes my younger self for her actions/inaction etc.
I am justified in having these feelings.  Nothing that has happened to me or I have done should ever silence me unnecessarily! I know that there are times when silence is appropriate.  I believe that it’s important to learn to discern when to speak or not speak and I have to be mindful of the content I share with you all. As I write this I realise that the years I censored myself in terms of what I shared about the pain I was feeling, are also the years I struggled the most emotionally.  It didn’t help that some of the company I kept also censored me too, reinforcing the inner critic.  Consequently, I developed fear of speaking, and shame each time I used my voice. With gratitude, and on purpose, I can now speak this out shamelessly.
Another pertinent matter on the issue of finding my voice is that of congruence. Developing emotional, cognitive, and behavioural congruence as a survivor is vital to my well-being and the quality of my life and relationships. This process for me started mostly in therapy because that gave a space to reflect, explore and become.  I believe that the relational component of therapy is what very clearly supports this development of ‘ authentic voice,’ and maturation.
I have learnt through this reflective process that concern and care for myself is not selfishness; and to speak up and out is to care for myself.  As such, I am learning  to set boundaries; express who I am, what I like or do not like; and to share my light with others in bold lovely ways. One of my biggest improvements is that I am learning to deal with abuse in a constructive manner and am willing to take responsibility for my choices from here on as an adult. I am determined to not use my voice to blame and hate, but to heal and forgive.
I think recognising that my life was changed in huge ways by abuse and as a consequence my potential for so much was shattered, made me angry.  I have hope in possibilities even if I do not yet see them. Some days are easier than others. I can honestly share that for me day to day has mostly been a struggle. My voice has helped me to express myself when I am struggling and to demand what I need mostly from myself to aid in my healing.
I also can see my voice’s ability to be loudly present even when I am silent in the ways that I show up despite struggles and in how I am sometimes not afraid to show my vulnerability… That’s courage! Loud courage!
One thing that I am currently reflecting on is how we can all use our voices to empower other people, because when we stand up and speak up, others feel they have permission to do the same. Most importantly, we become more assertive and feel more positive about ourselves. It is certainly a vital part in the process of recovery.
Love, Zoe
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