Since you follow this blog with rapt joy, you will recall that I have like a shit ton of trauma from my childhood. It took me a long time to work through and “process” a lot of that trauma. By process, I mean the work of shaping that trauma into something less dangerous and painful, reducing the risk and severity of its triggering intense physical and/or emotional responses as I go through my life. More on that in a future post.
I have participated in a few outpatient trauma-focused programs with group therapy settings. The most recent was a few years ago, during the early months of the COVID pandemic, so it was all online. It was four hours per day for 3 weeks, but I took the full 3 weeks off from work knowing that it would take all my energy. When it comes to therapy, I go all in. Therapy is one of those things that requires commitment and openness to get the most benefit, so I jump in with both feet.
Trauma-focused group therapy
Group therapy settings, in general, come with rules about confidentiality. What happens in group stays in group. Trauma groups have even more. One of them is that participants are asked not to share details of their trauma. This is to help protect other members of the group who may have similar experiences from getting triggered by discussions of events that remind their brains of the trauma they experienced. While Exposure Therapy can help some people with their trauma, group therapy is typically not the place for that.
Each of the trauma-focused groups in which I have participated included people who were raped, sexually assaulted, sexually abused, or some combination of all three. As I shared in John Cazale and Inmate 19250 » Can’t Juggle (cantjuggle.com), my father sexually assaulted a teammate of mine. While I myself was not raped, sexually assaulted, or sexually abused by my father or anyone else, a lot of my trauma comes from my father’s behavior and the giant blast radius of the events and experiences stemming from it.
As I listened to these survivors discussing the toll their trauma has taken on their lives, I started to feel like my own trauma was less valid. I felt like MY trauma was on the wrong side of the line (the side of the perpetrator) and therefore I was less entitled to the empathy and compassion that I and my groupmates were bestowing upon each other. That I was being fraudulent in my pursuit of healing.
I didn’t have a word for this at the time, but the other day I came up with “victimpostor syndrome,” a portmanteau of “victim” and “impostor syndrome,” which I am defining as the feeling that I didn’t earn my victimhood, that it was only a matter of time before people learned that my trauma comes being the family of a sex offender, not from being a direct victim of that behavior, and once people found out, I would be excluded or even become the target of anger or outrage.
The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM) is currently in its fifth edition, the DSM-5. The DSM provides the criteria and framework for mental health challenges so that there is consistency across mental health providers and researchers when it comes to mental health. The diagnosis of mental health challenges still has a degree of fuzziness and art to it since there is still so much about the brain that we don’t understand. It includes no entry for Victimpostor Syndrome as far as I know. But it feels like a valid thing to me. So, who knows what the DSM-6 could include, yeah?
It is worth noting that many prefer the term “survivor” to “victim” and while I use both in this post, in the future I will try to lean more on survivor. OK. Now I want to listen to Eye of the Tiger. Back shortly…
Taking the bull by the horns
Since, as I mentioned above, I commit fully to therapy, I decided to share with my group-mates that my dad was a sex offender (going into zero details out of respect for the guidelines of the group and the spirit behind them) and that I was struggling with feelings that I was less worthy of compassion than they were because my trauma was “on the wrong side” of the line. I want to stress that there had been nothing in their behavior or words that suggested this to be the case.
The response was swift and unanimous. My feelings of being unworthy were misplaced. Neither me nor my trauma were “less than” because of my father’s being a sex offender. It helped so much to get what amounted to acceptance from survivors of rape, sexual assault, sexual abuse that my trauma mattered, too. That I mattered and was worthy of all the help I could get for my trauma.
Why am I sharing this?
Given the emotionally charged nature of my father’s behavior, I have no doubt that, now that I have shared it, some people will find it a little harder to have compassion or empathy for me. While you may want to believe that this is not true for you, I think it is only natural. I’ve been there. It took me extra effort to have compassion and empathy for myself. For some of you, this extra effort is minimal and we’re good. I have received direct expressions of this since I shared it recently.
For others, you may still be working through this effort. Some of you may never get through that effort, and you will be unable to find that compassion and empathy for me that you otherwise might. Please know that I accept that and hold no ill will toward you if you need to pull back from me. This is hard stuff.
My main reason for sharing this is so that others in my situation may feel less alone. The families of sex offenders can be ostracized, forgotten, or even become victims of disdain and vitriol due to their connection with someone who perpetrated crimes against children or other vulnerable people. Please know that someone else understands that isolation and fear.
The other reason is to remind everyone else that the families of people who do things that society has labelled as heinous are victims, too. Lumping us in with our family members that do these things is easy and may make you feel better in the moment, but it is unjust and wrong. In the long run, it does NO ONE any good. I have never experienced this myself (not directly, anyway), but I know that there are some who have. Let’s remember the sage advice of Bill S. Preston, Esq, and Ted “Theodore” Logan: “Be excellent to each other… and party on, dudes!”