The Awkward Label of Bravery
TW: sexual assault, abuse, opening up
Image used - Dhillon Ahira @dhillonsart
When I tell people directly of my experience as a survivor of sexual abuse/assault, or when someone sees my work online voicing those experiences for the public to see, I often get told I am 'so brave'. Now, these people are well-meaning, and when it comes from close friends I often feel heard and loved by them. But, when it comes from those who don't know me so well, and sometimes even when it comes from those good friends, the words can often ring empty. They feel heavy; they feel scripted. They feel weighted down by what they think they're supposed to say to someone who has been through pain. They feel like the speaker has to loudly reassure me that they see me as a hero.
But am I? What of my experiences, of what some bad people did to me, makes me a hero? Is it that I continued moving, continued living, despite it all? Was there supposed to be another option? What if I wasn't 'surviving'? Some people never see themselves as having 'survived' and prefer to acknowledge themselves of victims of a crime - do they qualify as brave too? Is there some sort of scale of braveness: how bad the assault was? How young you were when it happened? How people treated you afterwards?
I know it's the 'thing to say' and I know people are well-meaning when they say it, because what else is there really to say? Every survivor is different, and every survivor needs to hear different words of affirmation and encouragement based on who they are and their personal experiences. But, glorifying me in my 'bravery' has never sat so well with me. Calling me, and other survivors 'brave' has always felt more for the speaker's benefit than the one who is so labelled. I was having a conversation with a friend the other day about this prescription of 'bravery' to survivors, and to those who go through life overcoming different forms of hardship. A common response when one opens up to others about what they've been through is 'I don't know how you do it/I don't know if I'd be able to live with that'. As is picked up on in Roxane Gay's anthology 'Not That Bad: Dispatches from Rape Culture', to say these things to people is essentially telling them that they would rather be dead, rather be anything to be honest, than be them, than live through their lives. It tells the survivor, or the person living through hardship, that they are now necessarily defined by their struggle. Sure, I am a survivor, but I am also many other things: I am a writer, I am a friend, I am a daughter, I am an avid shark fan, I am a feminist, I am someone's partner, I am a person. When people say to me they 'can't imagine what I've been through' and that 'I've been through so much', it reduces me to those things and straps me down into the identity of 'victim' - the identity that I never wanted to be stuck in.
I don't think I'm brave. I think I am incredibly strong, and I think I am worthy of pride in myself and of the pride those closest to me have for me. To me, being brave is when you take something upon yourself that you have chosen - standing up for an injustice that has happened to someone else, for example. It's something that you handle by putting yourself out there. I had nothing to do with what other people did to me: I was not accountable, and therefore I see no medal of 'bravery' in my survival. I see just that; my survival; my strength. I will not be reduced to the inspiration others fixate on me. Of course, I am proud to inspire those with the words I speak, specifically those who have been through similar experiences as me. I am not, however, willing to stand here, as my friend succinctly expressed it, as 'inspiration porn' for those pitying eyes to relish in.
Ultimately, I think of myself, and other survivors, as more than what the word 'brave' brings with it. We are strong, even if we may not always feel it, and we are more than those often empty words of bravery strangers may throw at us. Even on the down days, we are strong and resilient against what has tried to pull us down. We don't have to be brave, we just have to be.