This is gonna be a long, rambling blog, so what I’m gonna do is tell you what I’m gonna tell you, and then you can decide whether you want to read the rest of it.
I postulate that:
- The way people react to your actions and words is only partly the result of what those actions/words are, or their impact on said people’s lives. The reasons people ascribe to your actions/words is just as important. Mens rea, y’all.
- People will have a tendency to ascribe certain reasons to what you do or say depending on their opinion of you. That opinion can be based on careful personal observations, but it can also be based on guesswork, extrapolations, stereotypes, and prejudices. Once that opinion is formed, how fixed it is will depend more on the person holding it than on its accuracy.
- In many cases, some people can be more attached to their opinion of you than to reality. If your actions/words clash with people’s expectations based on their (mis)understanding of you, they’ll rather reinterpret the circumstances than admit that they’ve got you wrong.
So what? So, if you decide to come out as a survivor of violence or abuse, this could affect you. A lot. For a very long time.
Sorry to sound dramatic, but this is A Thing, and it’s A Thing people need to be aware of. I am not saying that survivors should stay silent; I am saying that it is important for them to know beforehand that, if they choose to go public, they might encounter a particular type of backlash, and that it’s not about them. It’s a thing people do, a bug in the human code.
Let me give you a silly example that isn’t violence-related. I’m pretty open about being neurodivergent, for several reasons. I happen to love my brain, though it’s not industry standard, and I’m not ashamed to talk about it. I think there isn’t enough positive neurodivergence representation out there. Most importantly, I’ve wasted most of my childhood to masking and dissociation; I’ll be damned if I do the same with my remaining years. Having said that, I’m not terribly proactive about the whole thing; I don’t have “ADHDer and proud” tattooed on my forehead. If the subject comes up, however, I’ll talk about it. Ditto with the unholy trinity of dyslexia, dysgraphia, and dyspraxia that came free as part of the package.
It never occurred to me that this could be a problem. Bear in mind that I’m self-employed, so I enjoy a huge degree of privilege in that respect. The only consequences I could suffer are social, and those seem cheap. I mean, if someone has got an issue with me being neurodivergent, then we’re not going to get on, and that’s all there is to it. Falling out with them straight away because they dislike me in principle saves me wasting time just to give them the opportunity to dislike me in practice. So far, it’s worked out fine.
Then, a wee while ago, I happened to mention to my physio that I am dyslexic… And she decided that I can’t read. I mean, she knows that I am not totally illiterate because we have exchanged texts, but she is convinced that I do not read books because I can’t, because I am dyslexic. I have told her several times that that’s not the case, but her opinion seems fixed. She talks to me about books as if she was describing worlds I shall never visit – unless, as she urges me to do, I “manage to find the audiobook.” It’s gotten to the point that her last few texts were written entirely in baby talk and in the present tense – which, as they referred to appointments future and past, made interpreting them a bit of a challenge. Said difficulties have further reinforced her opinion that my ability to parse written communications is sketchy at best; and round we go, in a self-affirming spiral.
The situation is more farcical than it is upsetting because my relationship with the woman is extremely circumscribed: she prods my neck and ass, and I throw money in her general direction. We’re not friends. We don’t share as social circle. We don’t work together. I see her for an hour a week, max. If our relationship disintegrated tomorrow, she’d be a few pennies short until she found a client to fill my slot, and I’d have a sorer ass; that’d be it. The situation would be rather different if her role in my life was different. If she was my colleague or my boss, I’d probably end up flipping out at her, to be honest. If she was my professor, marking my homework with the assumption that I can’t possibly have read my coursework, I’d be screwed.
So what? So, if you proudly stick a label on yourself, or if you’re outed as being an <insert label>, a whole bunch of people will ascribe a bunch of attributes to you based on what they know of that label. From those attributes, they will craft their own personal interpretation of What You Are Like, and that interpretation will be a filter through which they evaluate your words and actions. Your activities won’t be judged in a vacuum: they will have the weight of an entire narrative as context. The narrative will determine your motivations and motives, and it is those motivations and motives that will determine how people treat you.
Say that you didn’t brush your hair today. You have ADHD? Then you probably forgot. You have chronic pain? Then you were too sore. You have depression? You’re in a mental health crisis. You’re genderqueer? You’re rejecting femininity. You’re a teenager? You’re rebelling. You’re elderly? You’re getting dementia.
Obviously, in each of these cases the messy hair means something different, and the appropriate response varies accordingly. Problem is, this is not a very accurate system for finding out what’s actually going on. It’s educated guesswork at best, and it’s often too simplistic. For instance, you could be a teenager and have depression, but only the former is obvious to the onlooker. Next thing you know, you find yourself getting yelled at because your lack of grooming is seen as an attack on the status quo, when it’s actually a symptom of your crumbling mental health. Or you don’t own a brush, because you’re temporarily homeless because of a family crisis. Or you did in fact brush your hair, but you nearly got hit by a car on the way to school and had to roll out of the way, and you’re still in shock. Etcetera, ad infinitum.
The exact same mental process comes into play when someone comes out as survivor of violence or abuse. Many people make assumptions on what survivors are like, often based on what they’ve read or heard, which is often sensationalistic and simplistic. Next thing you know, everything you do or say is viewed through that filter. You’re not tired because you’re overworked; you’re depressed. Your boss isn’t really bullying you; it’s just your PTSD rearing its ugly head. That guy isn’t creepy; you’re just paranoid. That guy hasn’t made a nasty pass at you; you just misread his actions, because trauma. You don’t want to go to the pub because you’re withdrawing from social contact, not because you just hate that kind of thing, and A True Friend will make you go, for your own good. Your opinions and preferences don’t count, because they are tainted by Your Trauma. All your problems are imagined, exaggerated, or straight-up caused by said trauma, and should be treated as non-issues as a result. You don’t need actual help with actual problems: you need emotional support, bless your heart, there there. Contrariwise, if you actually feel OK, you’re either suppressing or lying: nobody with your past can feel that good!
Yeah, not everyone does this; but enough people do for it to be A Thing. Yeah, you can straighten things out with most people; but that isn’t something you will always have the time and energy for, particularly if you’re actually dealing with your ongoing shit. No, I’m not telling you to stay quiet: I’m just saying that things may go south at times, and it’s not your fault. Shit gets heavy sometimes, is all.