Rebuilding After Personal Abuse

This is not specific to Paganism. As has been noted before, communities outside the mainstream tend to have more people with a history of abuse, because abuse often drives people away from the mainstream. Pagan communities reflect this reality, so discussions of abuse tend to be particularly relevant to us, even if they don’t specifically address the experience of being a Pagan abuse survivor.

I originally worked this out in 2010, talking with friends and going over our respective histories of personal abuse. I made a post to my LiveJournal at the time, with the initial version of this outline. This isn’t an academic theory with research and studies backing it up, it’s just my personal observations worked out over years of being and interacting with survivors of personal abuse.

A light in the darkness

IMPORTANT NOTE: This system DOES NOT account for institutional levels of marginalization and abuse, although I have made a couple of notes about how it might be modified in that direction. It also does not address how one handles dealing with the abusers themselves. This is only about recognizing that the sources of personal abuse are not universal, that there being bad individuals in the world does not mean the world in general is actively seeking to harm us.

It’s about the journey from abused to thriving, and what the world looks like through the filters of each stage of perception.

  • Stage 0: Active and/or internalized abuse teaches me to hate myself, that I am not worthy of love, and therefore I will never succeed. I consider myself unworthy, incompetent, shameful… maybe even a Monster.
  • Stage 1: History of abuse teaches me that the world cares about me personally in a negative sense. I know that they are abusers, and they’re out to screw me over, because I am a Scapegoat.
  • Stage 2: Recognize that I have the power to make choices that help me endure being screwed over, but I am still a Victim.
  • Stage 3: Consider that being screwed over is not actually inevitable – it’s possible to avoid it entirely. It may even be possible to succeed. But nobody is likely to help me unless they have to. I am responsible for my own life, making the uphill climb on my own power, because I am a Survivor.
  • Stage 4: Identify systems as neutral tools. The point of tools is to learn how to use them to get what you need. If I don’t know how to use them, I’m likely to get screwed, but it’s nothing personal – anybody would be.  If I want a good life, I must be Skillful.
  • Stage 5: Find situations that are actually somewhat positive, because the people involved care about their work – it’s still not personal, but it IS positive. In such an environment,  it is definitely possible to thrive because I am Empowered.
  • Stage 6: Find communities and situations that actively care for and about me personally, in positive ways. Success is not necessarily inevitable, but thriving is much easier, because the people and systems around me lift me up. I am Supported.

All of these stages are places people may spend years, if not their whole life – they’re “stable” stopping points in the sense that believable, survivable lifestyles and personal philosophies can be formed from that layer of assumption, and at each stage it really does look like this IS reality, period. I have known people who have lived for decades at pretty much any of these levels.

Blessedly, for many of us, once you’ve been up to the later stages, and felt that reality, it’s possible to doubt the realities of the earlier stages even when you’ve backslid into them pretty hardcore. It may not be clear HOW to get back out, but it’s much more clear that there’s an OUT to get to, and that alone is a tremendous advantage.

Thriving

Sometimes people experience Stage 6 before Stage 5, if their personal experience is that individuals tend to be kind to them, but systems tend to be against them. This may also be more true in cases of institutionalized prejudice and abuse. Similarly, in an institutional abuse situation, Stage 4 might instead be “Identify the systems as having bias against their category rather than them personally, and that the bias can sometimes be worked around or overcome, because it’s often not conscious, it’s systemic.”

It’s interesting to me that between Stages 3 and 4 the descriptors switch from nouns to adjectives. I think this is partially a reflection of how much the past abuse defines us at each stage. Somewhere along the line, we can reach a point where instead of being a victim or even a survivor of abuse, we’re simply a person who has, in the past, been abused, and the focus shifts from climbing up out of that, and onto thriving and succeeding overall, rather than relative to the abuse history.

So, what do you think? Does this outline make sense to you? What would you add, or modify? Also, how can this be reshaped to better reflect enduring institutionalized abuse like racism, sexism, ableism, etc.?

–Ember–

About the Author

I am Gythia of the Vanic Conspiracy, founded in 2004. We are building the RedWood Vanatru tradition, a path of devotional polytheism centered on Freyja, Freyr, and Their kin. I have trained with various Pagan groups, including Hrafnar, Thiasos Bakkheios, and the American Magic Umbanda House. I present and/or staff at events such as PantheaCon, the Bay Area Tarot Symposium, and Many Gods West. I volunteer as a jail chaplain for alternative religions, and hold a BA with honors in religious studies, which I hope to expand towards a Ph.D. in the future. My personal interests include folklore, feminism, nonbinary gender, polyamory, art, music, and gaming. I am seasonally affective and have neuro-atypical sensory processing, both of which significantly influence my perception of the world, and my spiritual experience. I have lived all my life in the south San Francisco Bay Area.

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