Recently I was pleased to have had the opportunity to take part in a survivor/journalist interaction. We had a behind-the-scenes conversation about child sexual abuse, discussed the way it’s currently covered in the media, suggestions for how this could be improved and how we personally are contributing towards solutions in our own work and activism.
As an ice-breaker exercise we were asked to share something meaningful and the item I shared made me reflect upon the connections survivors make with one another, how precious these connections are, how we just understand each other.
In 2009 I found myself in rehab, on the edge of falling deeper into a spiralling addiction. The group was small and brutal. During 28 days of enforced therapy, we were told we must divulge our deepest secrets and relive our most painful traumas, in a group setting, a small circle of damaged people. Most were suffering withdrawal of some sort. Some could barely stay sitting on the chair. A sorry huddle of incoherent and bewildered men and women, wondering how on earth they had got there at all. Some left the room in distress, only to be chased humiliatingly by a counsellor and brought back into the room. It reminded me of school. We were grown adults but it didn’t feel that way. We were treated like naughty children – ones who had crossed a line and now we had to suffer the consequences. I sat between one man who still had the electrodes taped to his chest, after a cocaine, diazepam and vodka binge had landed him in the centre, following a quick stopover at the local A and E, and a real life prince, with a sex addiction and his own personal bodyguard standing the other side of the door.
It was bizarre and surreal and was the last place I needed to be. The one shining light in the group was a man called Justin. Like me, he was quiet and kept his secrets to himself, but we bonded in the smoking hut, during our infrequent and savoured breaks.
I can’t remember who brought it up or why but for some reason we both felt able to discuss the abuse we had both experienced as children. Perhaps we sensed each others pain. In my experience, survivors are fairly intuitive to the pain felt by those with similar experiences of trauma. Like me, most of his abuse was undisclosed. The therapists were unaware, as were our families.
He was struggling. Like me, he acknowledged to himself why he struggled with addiction, but like me, he was unable to be honest in the therapy sessions.
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It’s like a stutter. Even if you want to say it, there’s something in your mind that stops you.
He saw me struggling and he gave me a present that I will keep with me until I find the person who needs it more than I do. A small, metal angel. It had been given to him by an older woman, someone who he barely knew, who had intuitively sensed his pain. He said she had seen through his facade and given this angel to him, with the explanation she would watch over him and that he must pass her on when he met someone who needed her more than he did. He had carried her with him, until that day. He said that he thought I needed it more than him so he passed her on to me. It was the most meaningful gesture anyone had ever made. I held this angel in my hand when I entered the survivor peer support group for the first time and then one day, during one of the sessions, someone else in the group gave me another angel, painted wood, with ‘anything is possible’ written across the front.
These gifts gave me hope when I needed it most and they sit together on my dressing table, side by side.
I think of Justin sometimes and I wonder what happened to him and if he managed to break his silence. if not, I wonder if he could have survived staying silent or if his demons were too powerful.
My little angel will sit in my pocket on the day I launch the project and will hopefully provide me with the courage I’ll need to stand up in front of one hundred people and tell my story. Then, it will be time to pass her on to someone who needs her more than I do.