It is common for the survivor of child sexual abuse to struggle with their mental health. Many will find themselves in the psychiatric system. At first it can feel like a huge relief. We are told we feel the way we do because we suffer from X, Y and Z. We are told to take medication and we do, because it comes with the hope of recovery. For some, medication provides relief. They may take the prescribed dose for the recommended time and feel better, able to continue with their lives, untroubled by past trauma. But what do we do when we feel we’re not recovering from child sexual abuse? How do we cope with the bitter realisation that we feel exactly the same about what happened to us when we reach our forties, fifties and beyond? We begin to wonder; is true recovery even really possible? We hear a lot of talk about ‘recovery’ from trauma, but the truth is I didn’t believe recovery was possible – or maybe it was possible for others and there was something wrong with me. The years went by, along with the hope that anything would change for the better.
I had a breakdown at the age of thirty which led to a decade of treatment in the psychiatric system that I know now was incorrect and unfit for the treatment of my trauma. At the time I clung to the labels and the resulting medication in desperation, like a drowning person clinging to a sinking ship. I always knew I wasn’t mentally ill, I believed this medication would allow me to escape from the daily psychological angst and turmoil that was drowning me. Whilst the psychiatric system was instrumental in keeping me alive during the times I wanted to check out of this world, it did little else for me. The meds came with side effects and the labels came with stigma. I would have accepted this if, in return I received peace of mind and soul, but I didn’t. Nothing changed; I continued to feel hopelessness, exhaustion, anger, grief, depressed, misunderstood and desperate. I turned my back on the system in the end, and still nothing changed but at least I didn’t have to contend with the frustration of ever-changing treatment plans.
I concluded that recovery meant hiding my trauma better than I had in the past. Not ‘slipping’ as I had done shamefully and publicly before: ending up in the system again. I made sure that the mask on my face was better secured. I cemented over any cracks as they appeared. I tightened my armour and adjusted my cloak of secrets and lies. I disclosed to a few trusted people but I was cautious not to reveal too much, for fear of them turning away.
But it didn’t work out as planned. I just wasn’t strong enough. No one would have been strong enough to withstand that level of trauma. Sexual violence in childhood is a tsunami of horror. It sweeps the victim off their feet and onto a different path in life, one of secrets, lies and ill health. The body keeps score of it all – mine certainly did – I literally stopped growing properly, developing a degenerative idiopathic scoliosis at the age of 11, (the age when the worst abuse ended), that progressed to the point where I sometimes require the use of a wheelchair. The medical meaning of idiopathic is no known cause. I knew the cause. I was convinced of it. It was my body’s way of expressing what had happened to me, as my voice couldn’t. It is well documented that statistically the adult survivor is more likely to suffer from addiction, maladaptive behaviours and poor mental health. We can struggle with relationships, in our interactions with others, are less likely to achieve in education, financially, and to have successful careers than if we hadn’t experienced abuse. The research paints a pretty depressing picture.
I use the term ‘sleepwalking through life’ to describe the period of time between leaving the psychiatric system and stumbling accidentally onto a third path that I hadn’t realised was there. The path to recovery.
This path revealed itself to me when I decided that I just could not live for one more moment in silence. I had to speak about my abuse. I had to do something about it, so I contacted my local rape specialist charity and found myself in a new system; one trained and equipped to deal with someone like me. I was introduced to women who advised me on the legal process, referred me to survivor groups where I heard others speak about their experiences of abuse and rape, and finally, after specialist trauma therapy, I found a way to unpack the baggage of my trauma and tell my own story.
Healing was far simpler than I thought. Speaking out was the key. I needed to purge my secrets, release the anger, be given permission to grieve, by people who understood me and, by proxy, I began to feel less exhausted, depressed and hopeless. I learnt to speak and I never stopped.
There isn’t an end point for ‘recovery’ and this is why I prefer the word ‘healing’ instead. Maybe one day I will reach an end but I can’t imagine that right now. I feel instinctively that I will be working on this for the rest of my life. Not in a what’s wrong with me? way, but in a what can I do about this’ way. In choosing to work as a survivor activist, I continue healing myself. I claw back the life I should have had. I have set up my organisation as a nonprofit so that I can give back to a society that helped me in my time of need. The groups that I attended were free of charge. The therapist who helped me to find my voice, at times refused to take payment from me when she knew money was tight.
The more I professionals I meet, the more people we train, the more I see my voice is important. My experiences did matter and when I can help others, they continue to matter. Whilst I would have preferred for it not to happen, there is at least some point to it all.
Please bear in mind that my opinions about recovery from child sexual abuse are derived from my own experiences. I am not a psychologist, I am a survivor. I recognise that other survivors may have different experiences of healing. I do not deny mental illness and I do believe that psychiatric care has a place. I would seek help for myself in the future if I felt I needed it. Unfortunately the treatment I received at the time was not trauma-informed. It caused further harm and this delayed recovery for me.