Confessions of a Bad Survivor

Editor’s note: This article was initially published in The Daily Gazette, Swarthmore’s online, daily newspaper founded in Fall 1996. As of Fall 2018, the DG has merged with The Phoenix. See the about page to read more about the DG.

TW: depression, trauma, sexual assault

A year ago, almost to the day, I spoke at Voices of Healing, a gathering of student sexual assault survivors and allies. I had been having a good week; I talked about healing, feeling better, reclaiming my scars. I felt reinvigorated. I felt strong.

I spent a good portion of the next night on the ground, next to the purple tree, unable to move – sobbing, wailing into the darkness, collapsed into a heap from my own panic and trauma. That night was the first time I locked my door and pushed a chair in front of it, afraid that my attacker would find his way from his own college, almost 300 miles away, to mine. I spent the entire next day off-campus, tucked into a corner of a South Philly coffee shop. I was too afraid to face any of my friends. I was too ashamed.

I was ashamed because I felt like a bad survivor. I felt like I was becoming victim to my own mental failings. In my mind, being a survivor meant more than just surviving. It meant waking up every morning, knowing that I was stronger today than I was yesterday. It meant being past triggers and trigger warnings and panic attacks and fear. It meant filling my scars with melted gold and pretending I saw them as badges of strength, not markers of shame.

A quick PSA: that’s really fucking hard. Many days, it was impossible. There were days that it took every ounce of energy I had to drag myself out of bed, to spend 45 minutes in class before crawling back in. There were days when all I had the mental energy to do was cling desperately to the edge of the life raft, with nothing left to try and pull myself back onto the boat. There were days when I felt broken – in fact, most days I felt broken.

The first day of my senior year of high school, my physics teacher gave us a lesson on graphs. He showed us what a graph would look like if we plotted each of our data points individually and drew a line from one to the next, connect-the-dots style. The lines were messy and jagged and confusing. The data would seem to be going upwards, then drop back down, then spring up again, down and up and up and down in a pattern that couldn’t be read. And then he deleted the line, and clicked a few buttons on the graphing software, and pulled up a trend line, an aggregation of the data points into the general trend they were showing. It was a clean line, a straight line, going upwards at a steady constant slope. It didn’t matter that some of the points were scattered, or seemed to be going in other directions – the data was trending upward.

This Mental Health Awareness Month, I want us to think critically about what we consider healing, about who we’re willing to describe as a survivor. Healing is not a linear process. We are eager to support people who are pushing through, who are making gains, who are “better” – why don’t we extend the same love and kindness to those who might only be surviving, but for whom just that, just surviving, may be the hardest thing in the world? In their journeys of healing, everyone has bad days. Everyone has peaks, sure, but everyone also has valleys.

I’m not going to pretend I always see my bad days as dips below a trend line that’s actually moving upward. But I try to. And I want to encourage everyone, in thinking about mental wellness, to take a step back and consider the larger picture. My healing doesn’t look like a constant progression upwards – nobody’s does. But my highs are more high and my lows are less low and that’s progress, even on the days it may not look like it.

I didn’t call myself a survivor until this year. I cowered from the term, watched it like a prize that I could grab after I crossed some magical finish line, after I leveled up in healing. One day, I thought, I’ll be a survivor. It wasn’t until this year that I realized the term survivor meant just that – surviving. I wake up every morning, and I go through my day, and sometimes I cut it short and crawl back into bed and sometimes I don’t and both are okay, because I’m surviving. I am a survivor on the good days, the days when I most feel it, but I am also a survivor on the bad days. I am a survivor on the days I collapse on the floor of my room and lock the door and sob from fear and pain and exhaustion. I am a survivor on the days I check out of my body and treat it like a burden and an obstacle and a mistake. I am a survivor on the days I ask myself if maybe, just maybe, I deserved it. I am a survivor because still, I survive.

Featured image courtesy of Medium.

Abby Diebold

Abby is a senior from Portland, OR. She has probably asked you if you're registered to vote.

1 Comment

  1. Thank you for writing this. I had a lot of the same problems with surviving and mostly just tried to hide (and eat) them away. It felt so “weak” to admit how much I was crumbling- even to my CAPS therapist. I wanted to be able to turn it all into righteous anger and use it to fight for other people, and protect them; but most of the time it didn’t feel like I could even take care of myself. I still hesitate to use the word “survivor” because I still haven’t unpacked all of what that means to me. It took a long time, support, and EMDR for me to get anywhere near where I am today. Take care, be gentle with yourself.

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