What we survive, but rarely discuss

By Caitlin Kelly


Comfort in a box…

We all survive something:

An abusive parent, relative, teacher or partner.

Your parents’ bitter divorce.


Mental illness, yours and/or others’.

Chronic illness.


Natural disasters.




Sexual assault.

I’ve gotten through seven of these.

It’s a wonder, really, that so many of us are able to survive, even thrive!

As an undergraduate student at University of Toronto I studied Spanish and, for a while, volunteered to do interpreting work with Chilean refugees who came to Toronto fleeing the repression, abduction and torture of the regime of former dictator Augusto Pinochet.

As some of you know, it’s exhausting to confide your worst moments ever to a total stranger, to relive them over and over to prove how much you’ve suffered. For a man of Latino heritage, having to do so to a young Canadian girl, me, must have been so difficult.

I won’t share here what they told me, but it was terrifying and I will never forget it, no matter how much I’d like to.

I later wrote a book that focused on gun  violence by and against women, in some measure, and it left me with secondary trauma. In both instances, the stories were essential for the larger world to understand what people face, and surmount.

One of the challenges of surviving…just about anything…is when you carry shame, self-doubt and humiliation around that which you suffered and surmounted.

Here’s a powerful essay (from a site I’ve also written for), Rewire:

I vividly recall my first protest. Various organizations and individuals came together in outrage over a subpar sentencing recommendation for a convicted rapist. Armed with a sign demanding our justice system take rape seriously, I marched in front of the court alongside veteran activists, and every time I tried to join in the chants (“If you do the crime, you must do the time!”), I choked up.

That lump in my throat wasn’t borne out of sadness, but from an overwhelming feeling of togetherness and pride. I was incredibly proud to be part of a movement that dedicated itself to protecting and promoting women’s rights, one that fearlessly advocated for sexual assault victims.

Feeling of awe aside, I remained unconvinced of what end result, if any, our action would have that day. As it turns out, our protest and an online petition made a difference; the judge handed down the maximum sentence.

That triumph—my first real taste of feminist activism—taught me a powerful lesson I’ll never forget: that speaking up can make a tangible difference. And not just in one’s own healing journey, but in the lives of others. I loved playing a part, no matter how small, in that process.

It’s a perpetual dilemma when, if and how much to reveal to someone new to you, to peel back the onion and trust them with something deeply difficult.

I had two friends who were abused as young women, one by a relative, who took many years to finally share that with me. One always wore layers and layers of clothing and scarves, and I wondered why.

Then I knew and understood.

Only when I took the chance, here, and blogged about dealing with my mother’s mental illness did another person who reads Broadside open up about her own experiences with it, sparking a deeper intimacy and growing friendship as a result of taking that risk.

I’m now reading a small, slim book by a man who knows a great deal about survival — Sebastian Junger. The book is Tribe, and he examines the social dislocation so many of us now feel in an era of constant “connection” but often very shallow links to others.

What he focuses on is how we all float around, working, marrying, (or not), having children (or not), but how some of us long, very deeply, for a profound sense of belonging.

He writes of a young woman who lived through the war in Bosnia and who misses the powerful camaraderie it produced then.

Junger’s book talks about how a true tribe requires some sort of initiation, and a very deep sense of shared values.

For decades, journalism,  has been the tribe I’ve been proud to join and belong to.

No matter how much some people viciously deride “the media” and call us “presstitutes” I’m still happy this has been my choice.

16 thoughts on “What we survive, but rarely discuss

  1. Yes, I have survived many of those listed as well. We all do need to feel like we belong to something. And yet so very many of us don’t. My eyes were just opened a few years ago to how lonely people in general really are. Thank you for sharing this important truth.

  2. I’ve survived 7 from your list as well, and also work in the media, I suppose. Can’t say I’ve ever been called a presstitute but that’s probably because the only person’s pain I’ve ever preyed on is my own.

  3. this is all so true and i can personally attest to that. i think you are right, we all seek to belong, and to feel a part of something, it is our lifelong quest. i’m glad that you found your tribe and you have reason to be proud of them.

  4. It’s so important to share stories, I completely agree. I think so many people are simply ignorant, but when you share with them, they learn and become, even if it’s just a tiny bit, more aware. I’m the daughter of a Chilean refugee who came to Canada more than 30 years ago and I thank you for your volunteering effort.

  5. I studied Pinochet’s regime in-depth as part of the Spanish component in my degree — my Spanish professor went into graphic detail with videos, journalism and recordings of survivors. It’s terrifying to think of the things that human beings do to each other. And then of course, there was Argentina’s guerra sucia, which I also studied. Sickening.

    What shocked me the most when I learned about the South American dictatorships is that they were countenanced by US and UK governments — Margaret Thatcher even visited Pinochet when he was under house arrest in the UK and talked of the ‘debt’ we owe him. And Kissinger backed the Argentinian military in the 1970s.

    Listening to a Chilean refugee talk directly must have been unimaginably hard for him, and difficult for you too. What can you possibly say in that situation, after he’s been through unspeakable horrors?

    1. I wish I could forget it. There was a film with Sissy Spacek and Jack Lemmon about it, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Missing_%28film%29

      with scenes shot in a stadium where people were kidnapped and kept. I could barely watch the film (based on a true story), knowing what I had heard.

      The men I translated for (and a few women) had to tell me their story so we could create written transcripts that would later be reviewed by Canadian immigration authorities who would decide their fate. The refugees were never allowed to speak directly on their own behalf, which made our role even more essential. It was a huge responsibility. 🙂

  6. When I read Brene Brown’s Daring Greatly–particularly the parts on shame–my brain popped a thousand times over. We have a lot of work to do as a society, don’t we, in being more than just civil to each other . ..

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