Am I A Victim Or A Survivor?

Note: this blog post discusses, but doesn’t go into detail about, trauma resulting from being the victim and/or survivor of abuse. If that’s tricky for you, ignore this blog post but watch my Twitter for other, sexier posts in the future!


Originally, this blog post was going to be one word long, and that single word was going to be “yes”. But that seemed a tad bit brief for a blog post, so I thought I’d go into a little more detail.

Y’all know I dislike binaries. The victim/survivor binary might not look so much like a binary, but it is one, because it’s a pair of uncomfortable, mutually exclusive boxes, neither of which I can cram my traumatised little self into – and I’m sure that’s the case for other people, too.

A lot of people who have survived things want to call themselves survivors, and I personally have very little interest in policing the language that individuals use to describe their experiences of the world. I also understand the impulse to reframe trauma so that instead of being something that happened to you, it’s something you actively engaged with and survived. That puts you in more control of the world around you, and highlights how vicious of a fight it can be to make it through trauma alive. I get it.

What I don’t get is the insistence that survivors of trauma are only that, and not also victims of it. People shy away from the word “victim” as though it’s contagious, and I know that they’re trying not to step on the autonomy of already-traumatised individuals by using language they disprefer or by implying that they simply passively endured their trauma. The problem comes when someone wants to describe themselves as a victim and then they’re contradicted by people who think that the word “victim” is disempowering.

Listen, for other people, I’m sure it is disempowering, and it’s not the word I default to for referring to every individual survivor (I usually tend to refer to them with their names). But for me, personally, it’s not disempowering. It feels accurate. I don’t feel like I passively endured my trauma – I feel like I fought with it, and I do feel like I survived – but I do feel like I have been a victim. I have been intentionally selected from a world full of people by abusers looking for the easiest target within arms’ reach. I have been victimised repeatedly, assigned the experience of the victim by people who had more power than me to decide our roles. For me, the word “victim” is helpful.

The thing is, I survived my trauma, sure. I fought against it wherever I had the strength. But I also survived by doing things I’m not proud of, lying and screaming and hiding, and through unique combinations of privilege and sheer luck. There are plenty of people who wouldn’t have survived my trauma, and that’s no fault of their own. I don’t want to imply that I’m stronger than people who die at the hands of their abusers by celebrating my feat of survival. I do want to celebrate my survival, don’t get me wrong, but that usually involves a sarcastic toast to people who’ve wanted me dead every birthday and graduation, rather than any particular label I give myself.

The other thing that gets under my skin about victim discourse is the notion of “playing the victim”. This is a sort of vague and nebulous concept that seems to be applied at random to people who are having a whine, people who are rebelling against legitimate injustice, people who are disagreeing with you, etc., etc. Someone who is “playing the victim” is implied to be illegitimately casting themselves in the role of victim when in fact they are the antagonist, but it’s a very convenient trio of words to apply to someone you are in the process of abusing. The way that “playing the victim” gets thrown around creates an even more hostile environment for people recovering from trauma to discuss their experiences, because we already do enough second-guessing ourselves about who the true aggressor was (hint: it wasn’t the traumatised person) and we already convince ourselves that our feelings of hurt, mistrust, fear, injustice, anger, grief, etc., are a melodramatic response to a situation in which we weren’t really the victim.

“Victim” is a helpful word for me because it helps me to understand my role as someone who was victimised, who was harmed by inescapable power dynamics and choices made by human beings. “Survivor” is a helpful word for me because it reminds me that I fought, that I didn’t just allow my trauma to happen to me but that I actively survived the process of victimisation. I think we need both words! I just also think that if you ever correct someone’s self-description from “victim” to “survivor”, you’re being a dick, because while both of those words can be accurate, it’s polite to use the one that a person actually supplies to you – kinda like pronouns, and names, and most other principles of addressing or referring to someone politely. 

(That’s pretty much the only politeness rule I know, on account of being an autistic gremlin with little interest in social niceties but some interest in communicating compassionately and effectively with other humans. Just… believe people when they tell you who they are.)

Loving A Paramedic During A Pandemic

Stock image of surgical face masks with a title overlaid on it which reads "Loving A Paramedic During A Pandemic"

Note: This post refers to the hypothetical death of a loved one, bulimia and suicidal ideation, as well as of course the Covid pandemic – I’ve got something a lot sexier coming soon, so if any of those topics are hard for you, please give this one a miss! You look after you 💙

I wrote this post mostly across Spring 2021 when I was very angry, and it shows. Enjoy!


March 2020

We’re on our way to Tesco for whatever bread and toilet paper they might have left. My fiancée doesn’t want to use her NHS ID to jump the queue; she feels it would be cheeky when she won’t be working in the coming 24 hours, and there’s nothing we’ll starve without.

The car is stopped at the crest of the hill before Tesco, waiting for the lights to change, and we’re talking about what happens if she dies.

At this point, we don’t know what Covid can and cannot do, nor what the NHS can and cannot do. The news is saturated with death and illness, and I fiddle with the shopping list as we discuss what happens if she becomes another tragedy. What happens with the house? The car? The PS4? She’s a registered organ donor. She doesn’t want a big, miserable funeral. I drag items from the shopping list around so that all the veg is together and so are all the soft drinks and snacks. 

What happens to me?

I try not to be selfish, but in the process I have to swallow my fear. It makes me think of my bulimia days, when everything I swallowed was fear, and I just had to hope I got somewhere private before I needed to puke it all back up. If not, I spent the day feeling tainted, terror casting unflattering shadows over my face.

I finally look her in the eye because I have to, because I have to tell her I love her. I have to tell her I’m proud of her, and that I bear no resentment towards her for running onto the front line, the house and the car and the me be damned. I would do the same thing, I tell her, and I knew she was a run-onto-the-front-line person when I proposed. Whatever happens over the next few months, with Covid or with anything else, we’re in it together.

The traffic moves and we inch towards Tesco with my now-immaculate shopping list.

 

Summer 2020

I couldn’t tell you what month it is. I’m being passed around the Midlands like a suicidal hot potato depending on who might be able to keep me alive this week. My fiancée is miles away, working long shifts and having wobbles in between them. It’s nearly the anniversary of the night I proposed, under the stars with a titanium ring (the most indestructible metal I could afford), promising her the rest of my life, or the rest of hers – whichever ends first.

I didn’t expect it to be a race, but Covid combined with the poverty of the NHS and the unremitting greed of the cunts in charge seem to have pushed us over the starting line. I do what little I can to slow her down – phone calls, gifts in Animal Crossing, every funny Internet picture I can find – but I’m busy tripping over my own feet, and the finish line keeps inching closer.

The graphs are curving upwards and I check them every 4p.m., then consult the news. My thumb hurts from switching between data and news and the social networks where my friends live and die. I click it back into place so I can send my fiancée another meme.

 

January 2021

To say I’m not a morning person is an understatement; it might be more accurate to say I’m barely a person in the mornings at all. Still, when my fiancée’s alarm goes off at 4 a.m., I stagger downstairs ahead of her. I get us both cans of Monster from the fridge and I pound mine like I’m a fresher again, only this time the fuzziness is exhaustion, not booze. I help her assemble her lunch, remind her to take her meds and tell her I love her at least a few times before she kisses me goodbye and heads off for another shift, all before the birds have started with their dawn chorus.

She tells me every time that I don’t have to get up with her, but truthfully I don’t know how many more of these bleary-eyed breakfasts we might have, and at least I get to nap during the day. Besides, I have to be the one to make her sandwiches, because I have to put love into them so they taste better.

 

When she brought Covid home, I wasn’t surprised. I knew it was only a matter of time, which is why I stopped visiting my mum (asthmatic, with a boyfriend in heart failure) when I started living with my fiancée. (I stopped visiting anyone, obviously, but I miss my mum the most, and she’s the person it would be the most dangerous for me to infect. Life is cruel like that.) I didn’t feel any fear that I hadn’t already faced and compartmentalised, even when it became evident I was Covid-positive too. I was irked by the facts of the situation, that this would mean two weeks of maddening self-isolation for us both and that I felt run down as all hell, but what I felt most was a hot, indignant anger – not at my fiancée, or even at whichever patient it might have been who gave her Covid, but at the people who didn’t care. 

I want to believe I’m a patient, compassionate person, but I was already infuriated by the people – on the news, on social media, that I see in town – who just didn’t care. I have some degree of sympathy for the people who believe that the coronavirus is a hoax or some kind of government/5G/Bill Gates plot, because I too am deeply untrusting, scared and confused. But the people who just didn’t give a shit, who are going to parties or baby showers or raves or their mate’s house just for a cheeky visit, were already pissing me off long before my fiancée tested positive. I’ve been spending long days alone with my thoughts while she worked, missing my mum and concerts and nights out with so much intensity that it sometimes physically hurt, and seeing story after story about people who flouted the rules simply because they wanted to, more than they wanted to keep other humans safe.

So I was already pissed off with people’s selfishness and recklessness, the government’s prioritisation of money over human lives and a thousand other things, when I found out that my missus now had an illness that we still know very little about (and what we do know isn’t reassuring), as a direct result of saving other people’s lives at work. Again, I want to believe that I’m patient and compassionate, but two weeks of monitoring our temperatures and oxygen sats in between aches and pains and a lot of coughing made me want to punch some people in the face. I want so badly to let go of this anger, which is white-hot enough to burn me, but I check the clock again, wondering if she’s been for her meal break yet (probably not), and I feel it sear my insides – but all I can do is wait, so I wait.

 

She arrives home safe and brings the cold in with her, the bite of January blowing through the hall and into the living room. I ask her about her shift and she tells what I already know: that it was exhausting, and miserable, and she missed me. We manage to scrape something or other together for dinner, we watch a YouTube video or five, and then she goes to bed. She apologises for being so tired, for not being talkative, for going so long without fucking me, and I wave all of it away. I don’t tell her how relieved I am, every time, that she got home in one piece. I don’t tell her that I can think of countless reasons she might not have – combative patients, cars that don’t stop for blue lights, a terror attack – but I do tell her that she doesn’t owe me an apology for anything.

The people who owe me a fucking apology are probably at a rave right now. 

The UK Benefits System Is Making Me Suicidal

A stock photo, via Pexels, of coins, overlaid with the title "The UK Benefits System Is Making Me Suicidal" because I couldn't find another image to encapsulate the PIP experience

Note: As well as talking about suicidal feelings related to the PIP and Universal Credit systems, this post briefly mentions self-harm and gaslighting.


Let’s start from the beginning: the first time I claimed benefits, when I applied for PIP in November of 2017. PIP, managed and awarded by the Department for Work and Pensions (or DWP) is awarded to disabled people when their disability makes their day-to-day life more difficult. It stands for ‘Personal Independence Payments’; you can imagine, especially if you read my post on the myth of independence, my disdain for the name, but that quickly became the least of my problems. 

I vaguely remember that the man on the phone who set up my claim was nice and inoffensive, but I remember with clarity which part of my university I was sitting in when I made the call, my back to the vending machines as I sat on some chair or sofa made of prickly, cheap magenta fabric. I remember these details, because for me, claiming PIP was a big deal. It was an acknowledgement of my complex additional needs and a big step on my journey to accepting that I’m disabled, and that that’s okay. 

Except, uh, the government had other ideas.

To claim PIP, you first fill out a 33-page form which asks you, in excruciating detail, “how your disability affects you”. The form asks about your toileting habits and your abilities to keep yourself clean, which makes it more than a little uncomfortable to fill out, especially if you’re asking somebody else for help with it. You get a hearty 3 months to fill it out and return it, which is a bonus, but the process is miserable however long it takes you. Afterwards, you send off your form and wait patiently for an assessment appointment, which takes insane amounts of time, and then you attend your assessment.

This is when you learn that what you put on your form did not matter.

They ask you more or less the same questions they asked on the form, but this time in person (or, during these times of Covid, over the phone) and you answer them. You’re allowed to bring another person for support and to help answer questions, but the assessor gets to run the show, and one bitc–valuable employee of Capita didn’t allow my partner to speak at all until the very end, something I was absolutely not prepared for. 

Don’t worry, though, because that doesn’t matter either! Regardless of what you actually say or how you actually behave, they’ll send you a decision letter (many weeks later) that will make you want to kill yourself. Mine described my demeanour as “relaxed and calm”, which is a very odd interpretation of “so anxious that I was actively pulling scabs off of self-harm wounds”, and contained some outright lies as well as some fantastic leaps of logic (like, I mentioned enjoying video games so they decided that I didn’t have any problems with self-motivation. I think I brought up video games as an example of something that distracts me so much that I forget I’m hungry, thirsty, in pain or in need of a wee, but they hear what fits their agenda). 

This is the bit that makes me want to kill myself: when I have been vulnerable and poured hours into a 33-page, honest reflection of my life as disabled person, and then I receive a letter that makes me doubt my memories of the appointment, informing me that I actually don’t struggle with anything. From that, my disordered brain extrapolates that I must be an abled person who is just being an over-sensitive baby about the fact that they can’t cope with adult life. It takes my support network a lot of labour to help me stop spiralling in that direction.

If you want to appeal (and you probably will), you first send a request for “mandatory reconsideration”, which you also spend extremely painful hours writing. You send that off, you wait more weeks, and then, usually, you get rejected again. If you haven’t already committed Capita-gaslighting-related suicide or starved to death, you might choose to take it all the way to a tribunal.

Remember those weeks of waiting I described earlier? Weak sauce. To get a tribunal date took me, I believe, over a year. I phoned every couple of months to check they hadn’t forgotten about me, and each time I asked I was told some absurd number of weeks by helpline workers who ranged from bright and helpful to sounding genuinely annoyed I had called. I don’t keep good records, but it looks like I was preparing for my tribunal on the 30th July, 2019. 

That is not a typo. I started my claim in 2017, and after months of waiting and panicking and doubting my own reality, I finally found someone who would listen to me. In the middle of 2019.

The tribunal was, oddly, the most painless part of the whole affair. Apart from the general terror induced by being in a new setting and trying to communicate with real adults, I felt at the time like they were listening, and I was proven right when their decision came through: I did, and do, qualify for PIP. It was a huge relief.

Until late in 2020, when PIP stopped appearing in my account. I phoned them, and apparently I had been sent a letter about a reassessment, to an old address that I no longer lived at. They didn’t, at any point, seem to think that they hadn’t heard back from me because, oh, I dunno, I’m too disabled to keep all my records up-to-date? They didn’t think that maybe they should try my phone number, which they also had on file, to check I had received the letter (or at least to check I wasn’t dead). So instead of reassessing me and continuing my claim, they stopped it altogether, and set me back to square one.

The word count on this post is getting daunting and I haven’t even ranted about the bitch who didn’t note down my use of the Nottingham Sexual Violence Service because “we can’t report on anything that happened previously, including promiscuous behaviour”, but I don’t really need to study her in detail, because she is one cog in a violent machine. 

And I haven’t even started on my rant about Universal Credit.

Universal Credit is what you get if you don’t have enough income to stay alive. They were, when I applied in the summer of 2020, orders of magnitude quicker than PIP, but the problem with Universal Credit is that it’s seemingly designed to make your life so miserable that you give up and get a job. You’re assigned a work coach, who phones you too often and with too little notice to chide you about not having a better job yet. (Mine did not, but I think only because I’m disabled and was in crisis.) They’re meant to help you through the process of being declared “Not fit for work”, which grants you an extra £300 or so a month – this was less painful than PIP, and I was successful first time, but it still involved filling out a long, miserable form. They also tell you what you need to do admin-wise, such as turning your claim into a joint claim when you move in with your partner.

Turning my claim into a couples’ claim when I moved in with my fiancee meant losing the “housing costs” part of my Universal Credit, but I expected that. What I did not expect was for her income to be used as a reason to give me literally no money. The “Not fit for work” component gets deducted from just like the rest of it, so if your partner earns money, you get nothing. If you have trauma about being dependent on someone else for money and housing, this may make you want to kill yourself.

If that doesn’t, maybe this will: if someone in the household is earning, they don’t necessarily pay you the same amount every month. On average, you get about four days’ notice regarding what they’ll be paying you this month. It doesn’t matter if you need to budget! You spend the whole month not knowing what money you’ll have next month, and then you have four days to do some very intense maths. Maths that makes you a little suicidal, you know, because you know that even if you can make ends meet this month, next month might not yield a penny of Universal Credit.

My entire experience with this system has been negative. I want to be fair, but there is literally nothing nice to say about the UK benefits system. It is killing people. It is trying to kill me. I just wanted to share a brief (believe me) summary of my experiences with the DWP; I don’t have a grand point to make here besides, “Wow, this fucking sucks. It’s disgusting that the government is making people suffer to this extent simply because they’re disabled and/or poor. There are better ways to do this, but they’ve been foregone for a reason: the cheapest, easiest thing for a government to do is to drive people away from claiming benefits wherever possible, regardless of whether they need or deserve them. This just really fucking sucks.”