One of the hardest pieces of news a family can hear is from within. To learn that a member of your family, a close relative you’ve known all your life, has abused another, is devastating. I know because I have been on both sides of that coin, both recieving the news and announcing it to my own relatives. For the PTSD sufferer it is one of the bravest but most challenging steps towards recovery. By breaking the silence, unveiling the secret and putting your experiences and your soul out in the open for those you love most to question and hopefully understand, you are healing. The decision to tell family members that you have PTSD – and perhaps more significantly, what the trauma which caused it was – is one that many sufferers agonize over.
What if they don’t believe me? I will create a rift in the family. I am upsetting the apple cart. It’s in the past so there’s no point causing all this heartbreak — these are only the beginnings of various trains of thought a sufferer is likely to go through when debating whether to ‘tell’ or not. It is hard enough when the perpetrator is not a member of the family, a friend, maybe, in the case of sexual abuse. But when the abuser and the victim share the same family, it becomes a whole lot messier. Once the naming and shaming of the abuser is out there, and everyone knows what you as a survivor of abuse have been through, there’s no going back.
So, what if you’re the family member who’s just been sat in a front room, having made a pot of tea, only to have the get-together blasted into smithereens by your daughter, granddaughter, son, neice or nephew? They’ve not slept for weeks (PTSD plus the do-I, don’t-I debate), and now they’re silently sitting with the teacup still shaking on its saucer, anxiously awaiting your response.
First, engage your brain before you speak. Your emotions are high, you don’t know what to think, and the image of both the person in front of you and the person who abused them has been shattered like glass on concrete. Blurting out “I don’t believe you” will ostricize the sufferer, possibly trigger an emotional flashback, cause them to doubt themselves and their memories and make you the target of anger, frustration and hurt. Maybe you can’t reconcile the image of the accused with the accusation, but that does not mean it didn’t happen. So, think before you speak and don’t undermine the courage it took for the sufferer to tell you.
Second, please, do not go and start a fight with the accused. It helps nobody, least of all the sufferer. Going over there and having it out will result in the abuser denying everything, retaliating, possibly attacking the original victim or yourself. If there is evidence that could be used in legal proceedings should they follow, the victim has just lost it.
Third, remember that ‘outing’ an abuser is a very brave decision for the sufferer, and they will be exhausted. A game of 20 questions is not appropriate right now! To have been trusted enough to hear that they have suffered from abuse and developed PTSD because of it puts you in a privileged position. Remember that, and try to refrain from asking about all the details of the abuse, the duration, if anyone else was involved, or the dreaded “why didn’t you tell us sooner?” Some of the answers won’t be clear to the sufferer (hint: especially the last one), and some of them hurt too much to talk about. The time will come where you learn the facts of the trauma and the impact on the sufferer’s life since. Now isn’t it.
Enough of the do not’s. What should you do? Listening is important; being there and taking time to hear the sufferer is the greatest gift you can give them. Maybe the relief of having someone in the family know will result in an outpouring of emotion and grief. Be there for them, and let them know that you are available to talk with, if and when they want. Offer support and give them the safe space they haven’t had to vent how they feel. On the flipside, the person with PTSD might completely freak out and not want to say another word. Listening is still important, even in the silence. Make the person you love feel safe and supported and free to talk, or not talk, ask for help, or not.
Do normal things with this person. Them having PTSD does not define them nor should it define your future relationship with them. Take them out, invite them to meet-ups (without the abuser present) and appreciate them for who they are. As with lots of mental illnesses, sometimes socializing seems difficult, but even if you get ignored or rejected, continue inviting them while also letting them know it is okay for them not to join. Compassion and patience is the name of the game.
Also, look after yourself. Chances are the news has come as a shock, and you are now struggling with conflicting emotions regarding the abuser, especially if you knew them well and are close to them. It is understandable to be confused and upset, so take a bit of time to process the information. Often it is helpful to talk to someone you know, such as a friend or counsellor, about your feelings. Getting an outside perspective from someone who doesn’t know the abuser or the PTSD sufferer can be useful. It’s easy to feel like anything you say or do will be wrong, but honestly, you know the people involved and how to talk to them. Trust that knowledge and instinct.
I can only speak from personal experience, but hopefully there’s a nugget or two of advice in this piece to help you hear about the abuse that can happen within.
Written by Ice_Fire, who is currently a philosophy student, pondering the meaning of everything and nothing. When not doing that, she’s probably in some woodland.
Edited by Joeylittle, a freelance artist and teacher. When she’s not doing either of those things, she plays with her cats and collects old books about magic.