From Surviving to Thriving: How We Can Support Surviors of Abuse in the Industry

As an industry I think we have taken major strides in recent years to deal with issues of abuse and violence that permeate the world of body piercing. We have had our own me too movement, with dozens of brave people speaking out about abuse and violence within the industry. Jewelry companies have taken stands to remove abusers and instate codes of conduct, and the APP has created new resources online for reporting abuse. And as an industry we have rallied to support those who do come forward. All of these are important changes. But the work seems to have stalled there. And what has happened is we have done a lot of the work that looks very good on paper when it comes to helping with abuse. But we have not done much of the often difficult, often messy work to actually support victims and survivors of abuse within the industry. In fact, we’ve largely left many of them without any support or resources at all, and further traumatized them in different ways.

I have been very open about my own story of abuse in this industry. I dealt with years of working 12 hour days, 7 days a week, unpaid- the tip of the iceberg of 5 years of financial abuse. Living and working for an alcoholic, who regularly became aggressive and violent when drunk. Graphic threats of bodily harm to me and harm to others, long nights of punching walls and throwing things. Multiple failed attempts to leave the studio, one of which culminated in a stabbing. When I did leave I was terrified to come forward. I was struggling with CPTSD, in a state of financial insecurity, unsure of where I would work and where I would live. Leaving had enraged my abuser, who began a series of attacks on my career as well as threats on my life. But I did eventually come forward and tell my story, as did others who survived my abuser. And the outpouring of support I received when I came forward was amazing. Hundreds of comments on Facebook, messages, words of love and hope. But there was where it stopped. Some people I consider friends and family were there for me past that. But the community at large left their comments, their words of support. And that was the end of it.

I had thought, foolishly, that the hard part was over. I had left that situation. I would find a new studio, find a new place to live. I would figure out the debt I had been left with. But that was not the end. In fact, leaving was just the beginning. After leaving came healing.

I struggled immensely with CPTSD. Trauma had left me broken, and was seeping into every corner of my life. Adjusting to a new studio was incredibly difficult. I struggled with asking my bosses and coworkers for help and feedback, years of emotional abuse in the workplace had drilled trauma and fear deep into me. Clients asking me about my old boss were triggering, and I often found myself white knuckling through shifts and flashbacks, struggling to keep it together and keep a smile on my face for my clients. Outside of work, my eating disorder surged and I struggled with binging and purging. I was filled with a mess of tangled, complicated emotions. Like many, mental health coverage was not accessible to me (although this eventually changed over time at my last studio), and I struggled under the weight of my debt to access care I needed to continue healing.

In this tangle of emotions I found a well of anger. Anger at what had been done to me, anger at the ways the industry had allowed and even encouraged situations of abuse like mine. Anger at past failures of leadership within the industry to adequately address abuse, and even efforts made to hide my abuse and protect my abusers. I lashed out- this anger came out in mean, hurtful comments online, aggressive emails to organizations, and general screaming into the void. I wanted someone to be accountable for what I had experienced, and I took it out on those around me in the industry. I knew there were flaws in this industry that needed fixing, and I had so much emotion and energy I tried to throw toward fixing it, mostly because I couldn’t access resources to fix myself.

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What I needed was support. I needed community. I needed mutual aid. Access to mental health resources. Help with financial planning and getting out of debt. Stable housing and access to work. Time to heal from triggers that were intimately intertwined with my workplace. I needed more than comments of support on Facebook. But there is where the majority of this industry, this community, stopped helping me.

1 in 4 women and 1 in 7 men will experience domestic violence and abuse in their life time. For trans and gender nonconforming folks, this jumps to 54%. The piercing industry and the format of apprenticeships for the last 20 years have created a unique environment where abuse can be easily hidden, and victims can be easily cut off from family and friends. It takes an average of 7 attempts to leave a situation of domestic violence, and women are 70% more likely to be killed in the first 2 weeks after leaving.

But leaving is not where this ends.

50% of requests for survivors that can not be met are for housing and shelter. 38% of all victims of domestic violence will be homeless in their lives. More than 80% of survivors report their abuser disrupted their ability to work. For black survivors, they are disproportionately likely to be criminalized by the legal system if they seek help. For LGBTQ survivors 12.2% of abusers used homophobic and anti-LGBTQ oppression as a method of power and control over partners.

The likelihood of PTSD and CPTSD increases after a domestic abuse event. 81% of women will experience long-term psychological effects such as PTSD.

As an industry, we are very quick to leave comments of praise and support for survivors when they come forward. We unfriend their abusers, stop sending clients to them, and try to warn others to stay safe. And I in no way want to minimize that, nor am I suggesting we stop doing that work- it’s important too. But those things are only the first step. We can not stop at Facebook comments and unfriending people if we truly want to make progress about abuse in this industry. If we want to help survivors and victims, we need to actually help them.

We often focus only on getting victims to leave situations of abuse. Quit that studio. Break up with that person. Leave that apprenticeship. But what next? Where do these people go? How do they afford to leave? How do we treat them once they have left? Often, victims of abuse are expected to simply shake it off and get back to “normal.” They have no other choice- they need to work to afford to live and to leave these situations.

I struggled deeply in the years following my abuse, and I realized the compassion the industry afforded me upon leaving did not extend past that. At one of my first guest spots and interviews after leaving I privately confided in the manager that I had left a situation of abuse and that my old boss couldn’t be contacted for a reference. I explained the abuse, and was give so many words of compassion and kindness. During this guest spot my abuser was harassing me, and there were a few moments I took a break between appointments to cry and compose myself. I will be the first to admit I was’t 100% on this guest spot- how could I have been? I had just left a situation of severe abuse, my life was actively being threatened, and I had no time to take a break, rest, or heal. I was homeless, and in excessive debt. I needed to work and guest and try to find somewhere to live.

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The manager, at the end of the guest spot, ghosted me, and then told me they were incredibly disappointed in having me out. I was overemotional crying on my breaks, I was dramatic for talking about my abuse, I asked “stupid” questions and I very clearly wasn’t the piercer I made myself out to be. On one hand, they weren’t wrong- I was very emotional, and I didn’t perform at 100% the entire time I was there. Dealing with emotional trauma and personal issues isn’t an excuse for doing work that is less than ideal, and that is my responsibility. I absolutely was not my best self on that guest spot and I need to own that. But when we as an industry force victims and survivors to work, and work at the highest of levels, days after leaving situations of violence (and often during the single most deadly timeframe for victims) what work do we expect? How do we expect these people to perform?

“I’m scared to even talk about this if I’m being honest. But when I left my studio I was able to start at an APP studio in the area. They knew about it ((the abuse)), and were super nice. I did struggle with drinking after I left. I’m not proud of who I was then. I was never drunk at work, but I was hungover, and I wasn’t a great coworker, it wasn’t a good time in my life. I still had to see clients who saw him, and talk about him all the time at work. It was just so hard….it’s like the abuse wasn’t really over yet.

Being in an APP studio was my dream, and I ruined it. I got yelled at for being late and hungover. Written up for things. I’ll admit I deserved it. I got fired after a while- I left the industry for a little bit to get help. I’m at a good studio now, but I’m still scared. They ((the old studio)) tell everyone I’m an alcoholic and can’t be trusted. I probably deserve that. But it’s like I never got a chance.

((At the APP studio)) I was working 5 days a week, and sometimes 6 between different locations. I was also given more responsibility then I had at the old studio- I had to come in early and do a lot of inventory most days. I was sleeping on a friends couch during this time. No, they didn’t offer health insurance or mental health care. My current studio doesn’t either.” -Anonymous

When I decided to write this piece, I wanted to see if my experience was an isolated one or not. I reached out to friends, colleagues, and others I knew had experienced abuse in the industry. And most had experiences similar to my own. They had been in situations of abuse or violence, situations often enabled or encouraged by social norms and structures within the industry. When they finally were able to leave, there was an outpouring of support online especially on social media. But with the exception of a few friends or a few colleagues, that was where that support ended. There were no real resources for people who were leaving these situations, and for the most part we as an industry leave these survivors to navigate leaving and restarting their life alone, apart from some Facebook care reacts. Beyond that, there was a lack of compassion for survivors who now faces a difficult transition into a new chapter in life, and a long journey of healing. Many people I spoke to didn’t even want to be quoted anonymously in this article for fear of retaliation not from their abuser but from bosses, coworkers, colleagues, and the industry at large.

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As an industry we encourage people to leave situations of abuse and often times these situations are intrinsically interlinked with survivors jobs and income. Because this abuse often includes financial abuse, survivors very rarely have substantial savings with which to leave, and therefore need to jump into working elsewhere immediately in order to survive. This can lead to people having to rush to find new employment, often at the detriment of the survivor who must take the closest/quickest job offer rather than take time to find one that is best for them. Let alone take time to heal and recover from situations of abuse and violence before jumping right back into work. When survivors do return to work, the studio is often the place where abuse occurred for them, and many different things in the workplace can be triggering. Because this abuse often comes with emotional abuse in the workplace, survivors may struggle with studio communication and interactions with coworkers and management. If a survivor still works in a region close to their abuser, they may have to deal with clients asking them about their abuser or coming in with stories from them, which can be deeply retraumatizing. And many survivors will struggle with mental health issues as they heal from their abuse. Very few studios offer even basic health care plans, let alone plans that cover quality, accessible mental health care. Survivors often can not access any mental health services, let alone quality ones. This can lead survivors to struggle with mental illness, addiction, and self destructive behavior. Erratic behavior, difficulties communicating, issues in the workplace, and even toxic behavior can all happen during the journey of healing. We often hold little compassion for the mess that trauma recovery can be. In fact, we punish and shame these behaviors and call victims failures and weak for not handing their trauma well.

I want to make it clear that I don’t think surviving situations of abuse gives people a free pass to be awful or hurt others. It doesn’t mean people get to be bad piercers, bad employees, or bad friends. I started this blog post discussing my own messy healing process because I wanted to be honest about what that looked like. I was not my best in the years following leaving my abuser. I hurt a lot of people in this industry, people who do genuinely work very hard for the same goals I had in mind. I have to take responsibility for the harm I caused, and I’ve damaged some personal and professional relationships I will likely not be able to fix. And I am not owed their forgiveness because I am a survivor. All I can do is be accountable to the harm I caused, and work on my own path of healing and growth to become someone who no longer causes that harm. But I must be honest, if I had more of the support and access to resources I needed when I left my abuser, my healing process would have looked different, and probably far healthier. I was doing the best I could at the time with the resources I had access to. Now, my best looks better. And I want to help others access better resources so their best can look better too.

So, how can we as an industry do the work? How can we actually support survivors of abuse and violence in this industry and allow them to leave their abusers and successfully work on healing from abuse?