For a long time, I hated the word survivor and called myself a victim with pride. I did so because I believe in embracing negative labels and turning them into positive ones. While I now call myself a survivor, I maintain that there is absolutely nothing wrong with being a victim; and yes, there is a difference between the two.
Every survivor started out as a victim and the difference is subtle. It’s also a gradual transition; I can’t point to one moment and say, “Right there! That’s when I stopped being a victim and started being a survivor.” I just know that I used to be a victim and now I’m a survivor. What the words really describe is on which side of a certain milestone in your personal journey of recovery you are standing. Once you pass that milestone, your entire attitude toward yourself and others changes. Some people never pass that milestone, and that’s okay. Personally, I never realized the milestone existed until it was well behind me; the change in the landscape of my life came as a surprise when I first noticed it, but now I can’t imagine ever letting myself go back.
Some people make the transition from victim to survivor very quickly, but I only did so a few years ago. I know I spent more time as a victim than I should have due to the way I didn’t allow myself to hurt, but I think this actually helps me to talk about the difference between the two because I’m still very aware of what it’s like to be a victim. The differences between victims and survivors, though very important, are small things that are hard to notice; I’m sure I haven’t noticed them all myself. To further complicate things, there are even different kinds of victims.
I think the most important difference between victims and survivors, and really the only one I’ve figured out how to talk about, is how we look on new pain. I think the best way for me to explain what I mean is to use an example from my own life. It happened a few years ago, around the time when I was transitioning to survivor; I can’t remember if I’d already realized how I was changing at that time or not, but that’s not really relevant to the story. One day, I was playing an online game and I was starting to nod off a bit, so I mentioned in my guild chat that I was tired. A few seconds later, one of my guild mates made a tasteless joke implying that the reason I was tired was that he’d slipped me date rape drugs. Had this event occurred at an earlier point in my recovery when I was still very firmly a victim, I would have seen this joke as a personal attack; however, as I was no longer a victim I realized that the joke wasn’t meant as an attack and the fact that I was so upset about it had more to do with what was going on in my own mind than it had to do with what was said and done.
That’s the most important difference; victims see themselves as innocent and the rest of the world as out to get them while survivors understand that most people don’t want to hurt them. The transition between the two is learning how to own your pain and take personal responsibility for your mental health rather than blaming everyone else for your pain and expecting the whole world to learn how to accommodate you. I know it can be a very difficult transition to make and I don’t blame people who are still victims for not having made it yet.
Now, the way victims react to new pain generally falls into two groups. Some people shut down and run away, while others lash out at what they see as a threat; I’ve been a member of both groups at different times in my past. Unfortunately, the second group of victims contains some people who go too far in lashing out and wind up victimizing the people they think they are defending themselves from. These people are another reason I used to hate the word survivor. They are the very vocal minority who stand out front screaming, “You can’t do that to me! I’m a rape survivor!” They don’t know that being a survivor means you no longer believe you have the right to expect to never hurt and they give those of us who have a bad name. Pain is an important part of living and no one has the right to expect to never feel it. Nor does being a victim give one the right to turn others into victims. I hope that I have never taken things that far when I was lashing out like the wounded animal I was and I am sincerely regretful if I have.