I was asked this week if I would like to tell my story, and it made me think about how to explain how I got through childhood sexual abuse and what recovery might look like.
In the 1990s, a grief counsellor wrote a book that coined the 5 popular phases of grieving, you might be familiar with them. Elisabeth Kubler-Ross later said that grief didn’t follow the stages in a neat way people assumed. Shock, bargaining, anger, depression and acceptance were as unique as the person who was grieving. Her theory was that people have those feelings in common but they can cycle back and forth through them.
Our culture understands trauma as it does any other pain, that we need to ‘get over it.’ I definitely got stuck in trying to get over it. For years, I believed that if my memories of abuse were not clear and in order, they must be wrong, and that I need to purge them to just ‘get over it.’ I was looking for something like the stages of grief. I was looking for someone to help me get over it, by telling me how to do this. When none of this happened, I took the anger and fear out on myself.
This morning I sat down and drew what my story looks like. This story is deliberately split into two parts because when I thought about it, all my life experiences took me toward healing. It’s tempting to focus on the bit where the pain lessened but the life I had before I remembered the abuse matters as much. Wherever you are, it is likely that you are making those brave efforts to keep on going, you are surviving. If you are alive and reading this, then you’re still on the path to healing.
This is not a story of glory and strength (don’t you hate getting that compliment of ‘you’re so strong? I’ll come back to that one in another entry.) It’s not a story where I got over it and skipped off into the sunset. I had some help from some very compassionate mental health professionals along the way, but I did the gruelling work of grinding through the tough times.
My story begins when I was a small child, a toddler really. I’ve written ‘Abuse’ like it’s a self explanatory thing, but I include in that a mixture of sexual abuse, physical abuse, emotional abuse, not just directed at me but abuse I witnessed at other members of my own family. I was too young to put this into words, in fact I had speech problems and I suspect that the age I was shaped how my memories returned. I’m told that young children often hold onto memories as pain or panicky sensations in their bodies and those memories can be really confusing as an adult.
The abuse that happened to me was horrific, but it was my ‘normal’. My childhood was spent in this environment and I had to get by because I had no power. The years that I spent trying to coexist with my abuser (who was a parent) were as traumatizing as the abuse. I knew that telling on him would lead to consequences that I couldn’t risk so I kept silent. The issue of telling and concealing abuse and the emotions that go with that are again, something I’ll return to it’s own blog post.
In my late teens, I escaped, I went off to University. Although I was away from the abuser, the first flood of pain and confusing experiences (which I now recognize were memories) made me so unwell that I was diagnosed with psychosis and hospitalized. This catapulted me right back to living at home with my abuser. It made me vulnerable to his attempts to present himself as a loving parent to the professionals who treated me. When I entered therapy, he began to sabotage this, actively encouraging me to quit and refusing to support me.
I left home, my first episode of homelessness, which luckily led to me living with a family I knew vs being on the streets. It took several years to get mentally well enough to find a home and become secure enough to cut contact with my abuser. Going ‘no contact’ was a huge boundary for me, it was triggered by my abusers admission that he was financially abusing a family member and my anger propelled me to report that and cut contact. This experience brought up a lot of pain that I wasn’t able to cope with and it increased my abusers attempts to reel me back in. I wasn’t safe and I think that is why I didn’t gain any clear memories of the abuse.
A few more years past, I found a home and family of my own. I began working, life seemed to have settled down. My abuser violated the non contact to send me a vicious and symbolic gift, that opened up the floodgates of my memories. I was plagued by flashbacks, nightmares, physical pain, anxiety, suicidal thoughts, self harm. It was if all the mental illness had returned, only now there were no weird aspects that felt crazy or unreal. The awfulness was that I knew what had happened, I could remember it in detail and I couldn’t stop remembering. I was filled with anger, why had this happened when I had started to feel like a normal person again?
I told my partner first. It was the point at which the awfulness stopped being something that kept me alone. Finally I had someone to be with me in that pain. I decided to get help, I told my psychiatrist – who had never brought up the issue of sexual abuse but was not surprised, he said that I was one of several patients to have the experience of remembering. I trusted him enough to refer me to psychological therapies and there I began to get the courage up to heal.
This was the hardest, loneliest part of my journey. I start here because even though this covers the 29 years I kept things secret and didn’t have the full knowledge of what had happened to me, I survived. I made some really tough calls that kept me alive and got to safety. Those years were as much a part of where I am now then the part everyone assumes is recovery, going to therapy and getting better.
I also wanted to share some of the themes that I’ll be writing about here, like:
What child sexual abuse is. There is a real taboo and a lot of myths about child sexual abuse in families and what sexual abuse/exploitation is. That’s really damaging to people who are trying to make sense of what happened to them. One of the saddest things I encounter is people who share their stories and then insist that what happened doesn’t count and isn’t worthy of compassion.
How abusers operate, why the responsibility for their actions and the shame they inflict on children belongs to them, not us.
How do traumatic memories get made? Why is remembering such a scary and confusing process? How do we know that we can trust our memories?
The issue of disclosing abuse. Why do we not tell and what makes it safe to tell?
How getting help was the beginning of my journey and what that meant.
In Part 2, I’ll share what the healing stages looked like for me and how the last few years of my life have been. I wanted to end this entry on a hopeful note. There are people in my life who unknowingly gave me the kindness I needed to carry on. I can think of teachers, friends, lovers, things that were said or done that helped me move toward being able to get help. I feel like that’s important to say because while my story is a sad one, it had a lot of ordinary heroes along the way.
I hope that you are surrounded by those ordinary heroes, that you can reach out to them and get companionship even if you are not safe enough to tell yet. I’m glad you are reading along. Take some time this week to be your own hero, to be gentle with your pain.
‘“Pain is subtle. He has cold grey fingers. His voice is hoarse from crying & screaming… When people try to avoid him, he follows them silently & turns up as the bartender, or the bus driver… Pain has an elaborate filing system for keeping track of everyone… Pain respects people who are willing to take risks. If you… face him directly, he will give you a special ointment so your wounds don’t fester.”
~ J. Ruth Gendler.