From Victim to Survivor
by Alisa Kaplan
One night, after I spoke at an annual sexual assault awareness event, a woman approached me as I was packing up my things.
“I’m a victim, too,” she said.
I looked up in alarm; her word choice had startled me deeply. In support training, we were careful to use the word survivor. The idea is that the word victim is passive—it robs the survivor of her agency and turns her into someone who was acted upon, whereas the word survivor highlights her resourcefulness and strength. It also acknowledges the strength required (often just to get through the day) in the aftermath of a trauma. Hearing the word victim when you’re used to survivor can be jarring.
As our conversation continued, I realized that her use of the word victim hadn’t been accidental. Victim was how she felt about herself. It was then that I realized, with a little surprise, that I no longer considered myself to be a victim.
For a long time, I had parroted the party line that you hear in rape crisis centers: We’re not victims; we’re survivors. But although I was calling myself a survivor, I felt like a victim. I still blamed myself for what had happened. I still blamed my attackers for ruining my life. I was calling myself a survivor, but I was thinking—and acting—like a victim. But hearing this woman identify herself as a victim made me realize that, somewhere along the way, I’d begun to believe that I was a survivor. I’d been faking it until I felt it—but then I had felt it.
The answer I came up with was pretty simple: I’d made the transition from victim to survivor by finding meaning in what had happened to me.
My calling, I believe—what God wants from me—is to help others who have suffered. It is to share what I now know with other victims—that there is an “after”—so that they can become survivors, too. We have to fight to learn what we are called to do, because doing that work is the best way to heal.
Part of the healing process is accepting your path: all of it, all of the things that happened to you, both the good and the bad. It will always be a temptation for me to see the rape as the incident that derailed my life. But the truth is that the trials God put in front of me have helped to build my character and my convictions. I have been tested—as so many of us will be. And I have survived, stronger for my tribulations.
If you’d shown me what the future held for me when I was sitting, humiliated, in a courtroom or smoking meth in a filthy squat, I would have told you that you were crazy. That’s why I think it’s so important to tell other survivors that there’s an “after,” and why I think it’s even more powerful for them to hear it from me, someone else who didn’t think there would be one.
In the very depths of my despair, I would never have been able to predict any of the wonders that the last four years have brought. Never! Who would have thought that I would get into college, let alone excel there? Who would have believed that my relationship with my parents would be closer now than it has ever been? That I would be on my way to forgiving my attackers, to letting go and being free of the anger and hate in my heart? That I would let my walls down and be open to relationships again, both new and old?
I certainly can’t take the credit for any of these miracles. Indeed, the biggest surprise to the me of four years ago would have been that I live my life following God’s will for me and not my own. I couldn’t have predicted the close and beautiful relationship with God that I now enjoy, or the fact that I spend every day dedicated to living in Jesus’s name and image. My faith has brought me a sense of peace, contentment and security that I couldn’t have imagined before.
Today, I am happy. I have God in my life—and he saved me. He has led me to find joy, redemption, forgiveness, and freedom from the bonds of guilt and shame. I began to thrive when I found God and allowed him to fill my life. I began living by his will, and he showed me that I needed to practice forgiveness if I ever wanted to move forward and transform a series of horrific circumstances into a beautiful opportunity for grace. God now fills the loneliness and emptiness I carried for so long, and I don’t want or need anything else. Only God can fill in the missing pieces, and he has done exactly that for me.
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