But What If I Can? (The pandemic from a survivor’s point of view)

This was written in 2020, during the pandemic. It is important to include because it illustrates that the journey to recovery is not linear. It’s bumpy, sometimes there’s a road block and diversion, but that’s ok, as long as we keep going. 2020 hasn’t been easy for anyone. Under times of acute stress, the survivor of child sexual abuse may find themselves stumbling off the path for a while and they must climb back up. Sometimes good things can be achieved during tough times.

2020 was a paradoxical year when less became more and it felt like the beginning and also the end. Despite losing my physical freedom I discovered myself to be more liberated than ever before. This was the year that I began to put my recently found voice to good use.

The Pandemic has been challenging for everyone and people who have survived sexual violence and abuse perhaps struggled more than most with the lack of control over the unprecedented situation. Control is paramount for survivors of abuse. People like me need to feel in control because we felt powerless during the abuse.

Statistically, victims of sexual violence will be more likely to turn to drugs and alcohol, and other self-destructive behaviours, all effective and yet terrible ways to control how they feel in any one moment. The pandemic floored me because it took away my ability to control my life in the way that I wanted. I heard friends of mine, other survivors of child sexual abuse, talk about their struggles too. Some people, whose bodies, minds and souls had been violated in the most heinous way imaginable and who had previous experience of feeling trapped in an abusive cycle, found the restrictions and the rules extremely unsettling. For others, wearing a mask was a deeply unwanted reminder to the abuse they had suffered. A memory of a past hand over their mouth, or the masks worn by their abusers during ritual sexual abuse. Of course you can say that you’re exempt when challenged if walking into a shop without a mask, but that’s easier said than done when you can barely admit these triggers to yourself.

In March 2020 we were restricted. I have a condition that required me to shield. I couldn’t leave my house to go for a walk or shop for essentials, I had to rely on others to do that for me and I struggled very much with the loss of independence. I was frightened as I felt myself sinking.
I was sick and tired of sinking. Those who know me well, know that I’ve had times where I’ve barely kept my head above water.

No one really knew my story. My own family didn’t know my story. Only I and my therapist (and the monster) knew my story and when restricted in almost all ways due to the pandemic in 2020, I liberated myself in the most powerful way of all. I wrote my story and I decided to share it with ‘The World’. I was sick and tired of keeping quiet.

The smaller mask was a happy mask. He put this one on The Little Princess. This mask covered up the sadness that The Evil King didn’t want The World to see.

The Flying Child

Until I found the survivor groups in 2016, my mantra had been ‘it could have been worse.’ At the age of ten the worst sexual abuse ended (there was a final assault when I was fourteen), and although it was many years until my relationship with the monster was finally severed, I was free from him. I didn’t speak out so I was on my own with a mountain of trauma to navigate and it was impossible. I couldn’t even begin to climb that mountain. I had no knowledge, no guide and no safety equipment to catch me if I fell. I had no map and didn’t know which direction to head and I was wearing the wrong clothes and the wrong shoes. I knew, even at that young age that I would fall, so I came up with this mantra. It was crafted carefully, to protect me from flashbacks and triggers, and there were many. This mantra was a form of self-preservation to protect myself but it was detrimental in the long term as it delayed me in finding the help I needed in order to recover.

Once I realised that I too deserved to receive help to process my trauma, at around the age of 40, my mantra changed, from ‘it could have been worse’ to ‘but what if I can?’
‘But what if I can?’ was like a little footnote, hanging on to the script of 2020. Like before, it was my own mantra, but not as carefully constructed. It was a little voice that I’d hear in my mind, when I needed it most.
When I felt frustrated and defeated by the situation and wondered how I’d be ok, ‘but what if I can?’ reminded me to keep going.
When lockdown pushed me to my limit and I was full of fear, ‘but what if I can?’ shifted it into a different energy and I continued to write and to network, determined to reach my new found goals.
When I hit a legal stumbling block, ‘but what if I can?’ showed me feedback from many people and urged me to persevere. I shared my story with the NSPCC, working closely with a writer from the charity who created a new case study which will be used to raise awareness. I joined another charity that puts survivors of abuse in contact with the media. I took part in training on how to speak to the media myself. I began the recording of an audio documentary about the silence and stigma surrounding child sexual abuse. I networked and made contact with activists. I planned, I dreamed, and most importantly, I looked forward.

Here’s the hard bit to write. I want to say that I reached a point where I could leave the darkness behind but I haven’t. If I have learnt anything from the pandemic it’s that when I slip, I can fall a long way in a short space of time. I want to say that this happens when I stop following my mantra but that’s not true. Maybe I need a better mantra. When I slip, It’s not something I choose to tell people so I rarely do. It’s lonely in my head when I’m back there. I’m at the bottom of the mountain, keeping secrets. Survivors can feel unable to reach out for help during ‘normal’ times and during the pandemic this has felt even harder. Perhaps its the sense of disappointment that we have fallen again when we were doing so well. Perhaps its the fact that it is too hard to have the same old conversations with no way of seeing a different outcome on the horizon. Either way it is easier to think that no one else should have to feel responsible for another’s life when we are struggling to look after ourselves.

The difference now is that I’m not that child anymore. I have a sturdy pair of climbing shoes and a rope along with a harness, a map, knowledge and a helmet. I’m frustrated that being faced with a particular type of uncertainty, which is still here because of the pandemic, can send me into a very dark place of panic and hopelessness and I disappoint and bore myself by how close I get to the edge of the precipice.
I fear that whilst my mind is resilient in some ways it is weak in others.
But today I’m strong because my mantra worked and got me over the hump, to carry on for another hour and another day, and I’m ok.

2020 was the year my mindset changed and I ceased seeing myself as a victim. I choose to feel empowered by my experiences and use them in a positive way but my brain hasn’t caught up yet and I still have times where I reach depths of despair.

Whilst waiting for my brain to catch up, which I believe it will, I choose to view it positively. If a midwife could feel a little of the labouring woman’s pain, she would be in the best place to understand her needs. Perhaps my most important work will take place in this limbo state, whilst I’m still connected to ‘victim’, without actually thinking of myself as one. When I am weak, I am strong. Another paradox. Maybe there’s an invisible cord and the severing is gradual. Maybe there will always be a sinew too tough to cut through. Only time will tell. It’s a strange place to be and sometimes I’m sure I’ll survive it and at other times I’m sure I’ll die from it. Whilst in this very dark place, being interviewed and sending messages of hope and encouragement to other survivors, feels fraudulent and dishonest. I’m acting again and my mask is back on my face, but I have to do it because of the ‘but what if I can?’ mantra that goes around in my head. My time to rise is now, regardless of the darkness. Feel the fear and do it anyway. Because if not now, then when?

(Written late Summer 2020)

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