Surviving Success: Achievement After Sexual Violence Does Not Invalidate Our Struggle
As I’ve gained access to more resources and support to help with the impacts of sexual violence, my relationship with both struggle and success has continuously changed.
Intellectually, I understand that success and safety do not invalidate struggle. I understand that I will feel the impacts of sexual violence regardless of how well I do in school or how much better life gets for me. But because a majority of people in my life only see the “successful” parts and not the difficult parts, and because so often people’s expectations of survivors stand counter to this, many people find it harder to believe that I’ve even experienced sexual violence. And that can make it harder for me and other survivors to emotionally feel and believe what we intellectually understand: our success does not invalidate our struggle.
I've had to give concrete examples of what I’ve experienced just to help people understand and believe me, not because I actually wanted to share those details with them. From revealing intimate details of traumatic experiences to telling people exactly when and where I have secretly cried in the middle of a social event, examples work. They may have even worked for you or other readers in the sentence you just read. They shouldn’t have.
On one hand, it is incredibly frustrating to have to “prove myself,” to have to convince people that my experiences “count” and argue that my suffering is just as real and impactful as anyone else’s. On the other hand, I have found that offering concrete examples has been one of the easiest and fastest ways to help people see the gravity of what I have experienced.
Examples of what I have experienced show people that my life is more than the highlights and achievements that they see in public; they help people imagine what was going on behind the scenes. While it is so validating once they believe what I say, once the example helps them finally get it, I should never have to prove myself to anyone. I know that I do not owe anyone my story, but each time, I must constantly weigh the discomfort of sharing more than I want to against the aggravation of not being heard if I withhold those details.
In addition to my visible successes, people have similarly presumed that my past achievements, particularly accomplishments that occurred closer to the times that I experienced violence, showed that I was not meaningfully impacted by my experiences. While it is absolutely valid if trauma does negatively impact a person’s entire life, people who have experienced sexual violence are not automatically incapacitated by that violence. Sometimes, work or hobbies or friends are exactly what we need to help us survive after that trauma and heal. Despite this, it can be harder to be believed - and, thus, harder to survive our struggles without external support - when you look successful from the outside.
Survivors cannot be blamed for hiding our struggles or succeeding despite them, particularly when we may not feel safe or accepted enough to share what we are experiencing with the people around us. I continuously remind myself that, even if I did not react in the ways that people expected me to or seek concrete support until later on, none of these things invalidate the severity of what happened to me.
This idea that success nullifies struggle has caused me to doubt my experiences and invalidate my experiences in the ways that I have been taught to, in the ways that other people have invalidated my experiences. As the balance between success and struggle within my life has recently begun to tip further toward success and away from suffering, I still refuse to say that I’ve “moved on.” That feels invalidating for me because it suggests that the impacts of sexual violence “expire,” which absolutely downplays how terrible and destructive it is. At the same time, I do not want to spread the message that survivors suffer infinitely and will never find relief because that is not true either. Things have gotten better, particularly with appropriate resources and a lot of both self-love and external support.
The idea that survivors have to be completely destroyed by their experiences in order for things to be "bad enough" or for them to be "real survivors" is incredibly dangerous in addition to being totally untrue. We all respond to trauma differently. Whether I cry every day and drop out of school or suffer silently until I become a Fortune 500 CEO does not change what violence happened at the beginning of my story, and does not change the fact that violence is not okay. Holding the mental expectation that a "real survivor" is always going to be a complete wreck is just an excuse that allows us to ignore the fact that survivors are hidden all around us. This image of survivors allows us to distance ourselves from the issue and think, "that could never happen to me," or "that would never happen in my community," or "I'm not connected to this issue, so there's nothing I can (or should) do to help." But the reality is that survivors of sexual violence exist in every community, whether you see their struggles or not.
As I grapple with the constantly evolving duality of success and struggle in my life, I am learning to accept both.
Other people telling me what I should do or how I should be has been a huge part of the struggle in my journey as a survivor of sexual violence. Perpetrators of sexual violence literally make us experience things that we do not want to experience. While dealing with the aftermath of those experiences, some people might incline us to stay silent when it is not beneficial or when we do not want to, whether by outright directing us to keep our stories secret, by pressuring us to do so, or by creating an unsafe or unwelcoming environment that tolerates violence more than it supports survivors. Again, appearing successful in certain aspects of my life has been understood by some individuals as evidence that I did not suffer as a result of sexual violence or that my experiences "weren't that bad."
I am working to release all of those external pressures and expectations. I have decided to give myself permission to just exist each day, regardless of how the balance between success and struggle tips. I might be earning my 4.0 GPA today, sitting devastated by society’s treatment of survivors tomorrow, and actively changing the world the next day. I am unlearning the concept that suffering and success balance each other out because they do not have to be connected at all. Success does not make suffering any less valid or significant, and suffering does not mean I cannot have success. I can have one and feel the other, or have both and feel neither. I might be acing a test but unable to celebrate that because I am focused on an anxious thought or a devastating memory. I may be going through something extremely difficult while still keeping up with all of the work that I would typically do.
Neither success nor struggle make me a “good” or “valid” survivor. I am a survivor because I am still here, not because of how I got here.
I also do not need to be an inspiring success story for my voice and my thoughts to be valuable. It is okay for me to experience or share my struggles without a success-filled happy ending. Conversely, I do not need to be a complete mess to receive support and to be validated. It is okay for me to experience and celebrate success without reversing the fact that I went through something horrible and I deserve to be supported as I deal with the impacts of those experiences.
There are so many narratives, particularly in mass media, that attempt to correlate success with struggle or vice versa. But we need neither success nor struggle to be “acceptable.” Our success does not have to be a result of struggle for it to be inspiring and amazing; we are incredible all on our own. It does not have to be “proof” that “everything happens for a reason” because I do not believe at all that any level of success can justify sexual violence or make that experience “worth it.” Likewise, our struggles do not have to result in success for it to be acceptable for us to feel that suffering, to acknowledge those difficulties, and to exist as humans who have been impacted by events that no one should have to experience.
As I navigate the relationship between my success and my struggle, I am giving myself the space to experience them without requiring a correlation. Though life naturally weaves them together in more ways than one, the two need not be intertwined at every turn. My success is wonderful. My struggle is valid. And so is yours.
Grace Catan is a Filipina American advocate for survivors of sexual violence. She is the creator of The Tell Someone Project, which aims to help survivors reach out to the people around them through safe structured conversations. Grace is also a Community Organizer at She Is The Universe, a global movement for girls' empowerment and intersectional feminist non-profit organization.