TW: Sexual Assault
I am not a survivor. And I don’t know if I’ll ever be.
My mom always says, “You’re a survivor. You’ve always been a survivor.” When something violent, hurtful, or absolutely heartbreaking happened to me — she would always reinforce the term ‘survivor’ and my legacy of resilience. But I always felt disconnected from this loving sentiment because the affirmation I needed wasn’t in the term ‘survivor.’ Over time, and throughout many recent experiences with sexual assault and abuse, I have wrestled with myself around ‘survivor’ as a default term for victims, or as the shape we become when healing is over. I’ve realized that I am not a survivor, I am a victim. And I refuse to carry ‘survivor’ in my name unless I decide so.
I rarely ever refer to myself as a ‘survivor’ by choice. Personally, ‘survivor’ is a term that is often connected to a one-dimensional expectation of performative wellness or a culturally accepted title of someone who is still alive after harm. ‘Survivor’ feels in opposition to the fragile vulnerability I am still experiencing. I don’t want to swallow my pain, disguise my wounds, or pretend that I have healed. I am not a survivor. For me, to claim ‘survivor’ as a title would only serve the world around me to perform a resilience I have yet to arrive at. And even when ‘survivor’ is held with the nuance it deserves as an experience, embodiment, and title — it feels like a distant stranger to my body.
In some ways, I carry shame around the societal and antiblack burdens of what ‘victim’ has been coded to be. I often blame myself for what I didn’t escape, what I didn’t foreshadow, and what I didn’t prepare for. I internalize that ‘victim’ is a moment but not a lifelong impact. I conflictingly hold onto the fact that ‘victim’ has been culturally translated to weakness, brokenness, attention-seeking, and/or perishing. I also carry the burden that ‘victim’ is often reserved for non-Black people who are culturally designated human while Black people are seen as savages/ property/ nothingness. There is an inaccessible vulnerability in the word ‘victim’ that feels like failure in a world where Black people are trying to outrun our prescribed deaths. And as a Black fat queer person, it feels like I’m moving in fugitivity to escape the claim that I have survived what has yet to end, that I have healed from what will not stop bleeding. It feels like I’m not allowed to be a victim if I’m not dead.
I have daily flashbacks of horrific memories from being raped by a man who convinced me that he was nice. I remember feeling safe and then feeling deeply afraid in an instant. That shift, that moment of debilitating fear, takes over my spirit in the most random and triggering moments. Sometimes I’m laughing with my friends when a wave of eerily familiar terror creeps over me and I see his face, I feel his breath, I experience the rape all over again. Sometimes the memory of him wakes me up out of my sleep, invading my sense of safety even when I’m unconscious.
Recently, I survived an emotionally abusive sexual partner who spent so much time gaslighting and lying to me that I still spend days in isolation spiralling from the inability to find my way back home to myself. I continue losing my grounding because I can’t trust myself anymore. I question my decisions, my reality, my truth because of a deep manipulation that has reverberating impacts long after it ended. Additionally, I received community accountability support around this experience which led to other community members to participate in victim-blaming, silencing, and retaliation against me. How can I survive when there are people committed to telling me I was never a victim? How can I survive when the very abuse I suffered corrupted my ability to trust myself enough to name myself as a victim?
The truth is, I’ve barely experienced the uncomfortable and necessary intimacies that come with naming myself as a victim. Therefore, I am deeply triggered by being called a ‘survivor’ without my consent, without my journey, without my truth. I am actively denied access to victimhood because a society rooted in antiblackness and rape culture would only ever designate me as a perpetual casualty but a necessary survivor. The demand of Black fat people to be only survivors and never victims — to be bearers of unimaginable pain and also superhuman healers — is because the world needs us to be resilient caretakers for others’ suffering. Who would assume the role of mammy to the embodied mammy? Who would inspire abundance to those who seek to siphon from us? Who would curate life where there is only death?
The world projects ‘survivor’ onto my Black fat body in order to force the narrative that I am alive enough to breathe life into the bodies around me. The world wants me to embody the happy ending that never comes for abuse and rape victims, and often doesn’t come for Black fat people in general. Ultimately, the world needs me to die in order for me to be a victim; because breathing, performing aliveness, and mannequining presence signifies surviving and signifies the availability for labor. But the truth is — I am always drowning. I am viciously bleeding out. I am deeply suffering. And I have died over and over again everyday since.
All of the traumas I’ve experienced run into each other, blur the lines of triggers into my moments of safety, and become engulfed in chronic debilitating emotional pain. Even with affirming coping mechanisms, therapy, and a fantastic support system — my trauma has a lifetime impact on my day-to-day. From PTSD, to nightmares, to interpersonal struggles, to toxic coping, to suicidal ideation — I have not survived. And I may never.
It’s vital that we as individuals and communities expand our definitions and embodiments of ‘victim’ and ‘survivor,’ but it’s also imperative that we remember that consent and self-identification are required for these titles. Everyone will not feel at home or in alignment with ‘survivor’ and/or ‘victim.’ Our agency to designate ourselves should be honored first and foremost. All victims do not survive. We do not inherently become survivors because we are breathing. We do not default to becoming survivors because we are able to tell our story. Surviving can be a process, a destination, a title, a marker of resilience, a feeling, a moment, a lifetime. And surviving can also be a world we never arrive at.