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Finding your voice and using your lived experience to empower yourself and others. - By Cathy Oddie

Updated: Apr 12, 2021

For many people who have experienced family violence and sexual assault, their feelings of self-worth and self-confidence can be severely impacted as a result of the abuse they have experienced. The process of finding your voice again after enduring such trauma is an emotional journey which can ultimately be incredibly healing, however victim survivors need to be aware that at times it can also be deeply triggering. After many years of living in survival mode, being constantly in a hyper-vigilant, stressed state and being subjected to a variety of forms of abuse, it is only natural that people will continue to hear the narrative imposed on them by their perpetrator in their head, even after the relationship with that person has ended.

Many victim survivors of family violence have stated that the coercive control and verbal and psychological abuse they experienced, has impacted them to a greater extent than the physical violence. I can certainly empathise with this sentiment, having personally survived two long-term abusive relationships. Whilst the physical assaults have left me with scars, broken bones and ongoing muscular injuries, the psychological damage caused has been immense. This is because perpetrators of family violence such as what I and many others have experienced are skilled not only in breaking our bodies, but also attacking our sense of identity to the extent we begin questioning who we are anymore as a result of their gaslighting.

Even many years on, I can still hear the voices of my perpetrators calling me every type of derogatory name and remember the feeling of being so ground down by the never-ending onslaught of these attacks, that part of me started to believe that what they were saying about me was true. The journey of discovering myself again and building the confidence to speak out about what I have experienced to help assist others and inform policy and legislative reforms and improve service delivery responses, has taken me many years and is something I still struggle with at times, even after fourteen years of being a survivor advocate.

So how can you find your voice again? Firstly, by celebrating the fact that you are strong, resilient and have survived things that most people will never have to face in their lives. This makes you an absolute warrior as far as I am concerned. It is important that you know that you are not alone, and that there is a large community of victim survivors who are willing to help support you in commencing your advocacy journey. However, it can be very overwhelming thinking about how, when and where you might want to share your story of lived experience in a safe and supported way.

If you are thinking about going down this path, I would also recommend linking in with your local family violence specialist service to see if they currently have any survivor advocate training programs running. For example, I joined the Safe Steps Family Violence Response Centre’s Survivor Advocate Program when it commenced in 2007. Being part of this program has been both life-saving and life-changing for me many times over the years. The benefit of being part of a structured program such as the Safe Steps’ program, or one of the many others which exist, is that you get an automatic support network around you. The professionals who run the programs ensure that you receive training in the following areas:

  • How to recognise your boundaries in what you feel comfortable to share and what you would prefer to remain private.

  • Knowing what your triggers are and how to implement self-care practices.

  • Helping you to identify how you would like to share your story, in what contexts and whether it is safe for you to use your actual name, or whether you need to speak out in an anonymous capacity, or adopt a pseudonym to use for advocacy purposes and on social media.

  • They will provide you with training on how to respond to different styles of media interviews.

However, in addition to the initial training you receive, being part of a survivor advocate program can also mean that you experience a range of other benefits such as:

  • Becoming part of a group of like-minded individuals who have shared common lived experiences to what you have and can really understand what it means to recover and heal from the trauma of abuse, whilst at the same time wanting to make a positive impact and inform on change processes that can improve services for all victim survivors.

  • You will have the support of the organisation who is running the program whenever you are experiencing ongoing challenges in your life and need a referral to a counsellor, legal advice or other forms of assistance.

  • The organisation will act as an initial buffer between you and any media organisation requesting to do an interview or organisations wishing to engage a survivor advocate to speak at an event. I have found this approach really fantastic, as it means that the organisation is doing a risk assessment to ensure a victim survivor’s safety will be protected when they are involved in doing any advocacy work. It also has meant that the organisation proactively discusses with any company wishing to have access to a survivor advocate the importance of engaging with individuals in a respectful, trauma informed and non-exploitative way.

If you are reading this, and the thought of public speaking and giving media interviews is too overwhelming, be aware that there are many ways to use your story of lived experience to be a catalyst of change in other forums as well. Some examples of alternative ways you can contribute your voice could be:

  • Sharing relevant articles and resources on your social media pages. Never underestimate the power of showing you care on topics you are passionate about. Through you sharing crisis line numbers and other important information, you never know who that may help in your own friendship, family and work circles. Just remember these things can have a ripple effect, and that through simply sharing posts from family violence and sexual assault specialist organisations on your social media pages, that could lead to someone in your network then sharing that same information with someone in crisis who needs assistance.

  • Participating in consultations and policy submissions for government departments and community sector organisations when they are seeking input from individuals with lived experience of trauma and abuse to inform changes they are seeking to make. You can often participate in these processes in an anonymous capacity, and who knows, your contribution could result in important law reforms or other service improvements.

  • Joining movements such as the W.H.Y Campaign which promotes awareness of issues related to family violence and sends a clear message to victims/survivors and their extended family, friends, and the community to know 'WE HEAR YOU.’ This campaign enables victim survivors to contribute their skills and knowledge in a range of ways, such as volunteering, writing blogs on relevant topics and speaking at an event as part of panel discussion.

Finding your voice after experiencing family violence or sexual assault is about reconnecting with your core values. Often when we are in the midst of the abuse, we are continually having our core values undermined by our perpetrators. The reality of living with such ongoing coercive control and having to become an emotional chameleon to adapt to the needs of those abusing us so that we can survive, means that it can often feel like we are losing parts of ourselves. It can be a very confronting and deeply uncomfortable experience having to step aside from the core beliefs which we have held our entire lives up until that point just to appease those who are abusing us. To become a survivor advocate, it is important that you choose to once again live your values in a genuine and authentic way in all areas of your life.

So, as you commence your own journey into speaking out and sharing your story of lived experience, I would invite you to take some time to identify your core values and things which were important to you before the abuse commenced, and that you had to abandon but would now like to adopt in your life to regain your sense of identity again. Remember that this is not a path you have to tread alone, as there is a global tribe of like-minded people who will be more than happy to guide you and cheer you on as you take your first steps into advocacy. Finally, never assume that your voice can not make a difference. If you have had a negative experience that you would like to share to inform change for all, it is likely that others have had similar experiences. When one person speaks out, others will join, and then that becomes a movement for change and you will be no longer be a lone voice, but instead part of collective action.

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