What is the cost to trauma survivors when we are working toward culture change?

Until recently, I hadn’t realized that someone might label me a survivor of Military Sexual Trauma (MST). Although this description might be technically accurate, it feels pretty new and it’s not internalized as true for me. Labels are tricky like that. Anyway, it’s a category I’m often assigned to since I told my story.

I just took a week off, and it gave me some time to reflect on the pace and volume of requests that I receive as part of the lived experience/survivor community. To some degree or another, we’re all survivors of this culture, but some have been affected more than others.

Many of the people leading change in the Canadian Armed Forces (CAF) are paid members of the Defence Team. However, survivors who have paid the steepest price in terms of loss of career and diminished earning capacity due to MST/PTSD are often called upon to continue paying in emotional effort and volunteer hours. 

Survivors have paid the steepest price in terms of loss of career and diminished earning capacity due to MST/PTSD. Yet, they are called upon to continue paying in emotional effort and volunteer hours.

We’ve heard from the Defence Team’s leadership that they are busy listening and learning (although, after several months, we don’t really know what they’ve heard and absorbed).

Who are they hearing from? Survivors. People are reliving horrible, traumatic, deeply personal moments in the hopes that others can see the problem they know too well. We’re putting ourselves on the line, not knowing if we’re going to be believed and given the chance to heal.

Globally, survivors are telling their stories of systemic racism and police brutality, residential schools, genital mutilation and honour killings, rape and other forms of physical violence due to sex or gender identity. Hearing the truth and seeing the cell phone videos seem to be necessary to make progress.

How do we care for those who have already given (or had taken) so much of themselves? Can we really keep asking them for more and more? How can we make this process sustainable for the survivors we are relying on.

How much can we ask of those who have already given (or had taken) so much of themselves?

Depending on the intersection, I’m either/both a learner and survivor. I’m learning about the experience of Indigenous peoples, LGBT+ individuals, racialized groups – and all the subconscious biases I have held that have contributed to injustices. On the other hand, I have the lived experience of being victimized within a toxic military culture where systemic inequalities are exacerbated by abuses of power within the hierarchy. I can see and feel the ways people are hurt by discrimination, and I can speak up to educate others.

When I take on the “survivor” label, I want to be part of the discussion and solutions within the military and society. I want to be asked for input and engage in challenging conversations. “Nothing about us without us.” I find it very meaningful and part of my healing journey to be able to work to ensure others do not suffer what I did. At the same time, spending half a day volunteering on a panel is half a day that I cannot be working with paid clients in my work as a leadership coach and consultant on organizational culture.

Whether it’s MST, BLM, residential schools or LGBT+ discussions, we need to be mindful of our relationship to the survivor community and the cost that survivors bear when we mine them for their lived experience. As a survivor, I don’t want to be left out of the discussion (what if posting this will cause me to be excluded?), but it’s a lot to try and balance given the emotional and economic costs.

The imbalance reminds me of how the Army was quick to ask too much of certain types of performers and let them burn out…while those who took advantage of talented subordinates rose through the ranks at the cost of their followers’ mental health. You can probably pick up on my personal feelings and experience in that example! But we’ve all seen it happen, it’s part of the way the system is set up.

How do I use my privilege in certain areas to ensure survivors are compensated for their efforts, or supported in their needs. On a personal level, how do I balance my own healthy boundaries and how deeply I want to contribute. These efforts need to be fair to be sustainable.

These efforts need to be fair to be sustainable.

I’m more deeply understanding the leaders within the Black Lives Matter movement as they expressed their exhaustion. Victims, survivors – are tired. We want to support the culture shift, and we often need support that goes beyond being verbally acknowledged and thanked. The thanks is genuine and it is meaningful, but it is likely not enough to fuel the effort that is being asked of many survivors.

As exhausting and taxing as this work is, I don’t want to have to dial back. (I will if I need to, but I don’t want it to get to that point). I especially don’t want to be not-asked, or treated like I can’t handle it. I’ve learned to take care of my mental health and have great supports in place; I feel like I set a strong example for many survivors in how to start with self-care and say no when it’s necessary. However, I want “the system” to make it possible for survivors to contribute without further harming them (us). 

“The system” needs to make it possible for survivors to contribute without further harming them. 

This discussion that needs to be opened up. It’s complicated and nuanced, because everyone has a different set of capabilities and needs. We don’t have to (and can’t) figure out one big solution, we just need to keep on having the conversation and taking care of people. Especially those who are still so destroyed that they haven’t yet gotten to where to take care of themselves.

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