athornebrooke@ricentral.com

EAST GREENWICH—Survivors Speak RI, an advocacy and education group dedicated to lifting the veil of stigma from victims of sexual assault, addressed the town’s Opioid Task Force last week to highlight the role that assault frequently plays in driving people to addiction and other destructive behaviors.

Survivors Speak RI co-founder and co-owner Mary Burn said that “Visibility is very important. The proof is in what we have seen happen. Every time someone well-known comes forward about an experience with assault, others come forward. They think, ‘if they can do it I can do it.’”

That mission, to bring to light the everyday struggles that survivors of sexual violence deal with by highlighting their own stories of survival and perseverance, is at the core of what Survivors Speak does.

“We started about 10 years ago with Day One, one of the largest agencies addressing sexual assault in the state,” Byrn said. “Three of us decided that we really wanted to set out on our own. Because we were restricted on when and where we could speak by the organization, so we started our own company. We are an LLC and speakers bureau, and we address sexual assault to pretty much any one who will listen to us.”

Key to the endeavor of providing meaningful insights to the realities of living with a violent experience or experiences is the fact that every member of Survivors Speak is a survivor, either of child molestation, adult rape or assault.

“At first, we all wrote our stories and tried to whittle them down to about 20 minutes,” Byrn said. “We all bring that experience to our presentations. We seek to have survivors get beyond it and take back their life, otherwise they might end up living under the shadow of their abuser, and essentially giving them the rest of their life too.”

As a survivor of sexual violence, and as a mother of a daughter who was abused, Byrn expressed the need to tell one’s story, both for herself and for the people who might benefit from hearing it.

“It was a 10-year battle for me. I never believed I was as good as other people,” Byrn said. “I was guilty and ashamed of something that was not my fault. For years I also didn’t know what was wrong with my daughter. When she was 25, she finally admitted she had been molested and had turned to drugs and alcohol, which are often used as agents to dull the pain.”

“The only thing I can do for her now is bring attention to the fact that sexual abuse leads to drug and alcohol abuse, and if you don’t deal with the former, addressing the latter won’t work.”

Survivors Speak frequently presents to medical students and military installations regarding this relationship between trauma and substance abuse, and that connection formed a key aspect of their presentation to the opioid task force last week.

“When you confront an alcoholic or addict, you need to know that there may be more there beneath the surface. So, we told the task force what we are all about and brought attention to the connection with opioids and the fact that there very well could be a connection to untreated abuse in many cases.”

Overall, Byrn was heartened by the effect that her organization had on the town’s task force, and of the hope that they give everywhere they go.

“You can’t beat hearing it from a survivor, you can’t get it from a textbook,” Byrn said. “We are the experts and, inevitably, there will be a line of people after a talk who say ‘it happened to me and I’ve never spoken about it.’”

“We need people to know that they can go forward with their life and be happy. Saying that you need help is one of the hardest things to do, so hopefully we have made a difference. If we can reach children when they are young enough, we can prevent them going down that darker path of addiction. I can speak for all of us when I say that we want to make a difference.”

“Abuse is done to someone, not by them. That is so important to know. It takes time, but we want help.”

Indeed, the presentation delivered by Survivors Speak seems to have done just that, with numerous high-school-aged students expressing solidarity and thankfulness after the presentation and highlighting how the stressors of their experiences have pushed some to difficult places.

East Greenwich Drug Program Director Bob Houghtaling was among those who expressed great appreciation for the work of the advocacy group.

“Survivors Speak have put together a really powerful program,” Houghtaling said. “Having them come in and share their experiences with our task force was powerful. They were very well received, and seeing the interplay between them and the students in attendance was very powerful.”

“They take away the stigma. Their courage as individuals to talk about this subject helps to till the ground that makes it okay to talk about and get the conversation away from stereotypes. It is truly important work.”

The presentation and its reception have also led to tentative plans for the town and Survivors Speak to work together again later in the year.

“We’re looking to do a community forum and more longitudinal work in September or October,” Houghtaling said. “This presentation opened up a lot of bridges for the kids and the mental health professionals and school officials. It reached a broad spectrum of people and got a lot of very powerful reviews. We want to continue what we started and do additional work in the community.”

“We have a tendency to compartmentalize abuse, but there are a lot of coexisting problems. Mental problems, substance abuse, physical abuse. Survivors Speak is making it okay to talk about that. I can’t say enough about the good work that they do.”

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