By Sophie Olson
As a survivor who is currently ‘surviving’ pretty well at the moment, I take issue with the phrase ‘move on.’ You don’t have to move on from child sexual abuse until the time is right for you. You may never feel able to move on but that doesn’t mean you can’t recover or live a happy life.
When you hear someone telling you to move on, you need to bear in mind that what they might mean is ‘get over it so we don’t have to keep on listening to this.’
I live a happy and productive life but I don’t feel the need to move on from child sexual abuse. I spent thirty years trying to pretend it didn’t happen and that level of denial was exhausting and unsustainable. It took extreme methods to push the memories far enough away that I could survive each day and these methods sent me to hell. It took extensive therapy to be able to accept what had happened to me, and I am now comfortable with where I am so why on earth would I want to move on?
When I hear of others being told to move on, it makes me feel irritated because the person telling you to move on is probably feeling uncomfortable and wants you to stop talking about it. Here is is why you don’t have to move on. (Unless you choose to)
1. It is not your job to make people feel comfortable. Give yourself permission to keep on talking as much as you like. You deserve to talk about it. You’ve probably been silent about it and this could partly be attributed to sensing that we live in a society not open to listening to experiences like ours.
2. These are your experiences. These things happened to you. People talk all the time about all sorts of things. Don’t let people shame you into keeping quiet about a topic the world needs to hear about.
3. You don’t need to stay silent anymore. You’ve found your voice. Use it. If you want to. For as long as and as loudly you like. Forever if necessary.
4. We don’t hear parents who have lost a child being told to stop grieving and move on. Society allows them to stay with their grief forever, and yet you have lost your entire childhood. We wouldn’t tell a Holocaust survivor to stop telling their story. We listen to their storytelling. We encourage it. We document it. We teach it.
5. Recovery is a very personal process. Over time the grief may diminish but how long this process takes has nothing to do with anyone else.
There are some things in life that stay with you forever. Any situation where you’ve experienced extreme terror, loss, war, illness, grief or hardship leaves deep scars that will never be erased. Childhood sexual abuse is one of those experiences. I believed I would die at the hands of my abuser. You don’t forget or move on from that, and professionals who think you can are, quite frankly living in an alternate reality!
A participant in the Flying Child Project put it so succinctly; “Childhood trauma and CSA pushes toxic tendrils into everything we do – especially if our experiences are not validated at the time”, and how right they are. It is the unfortunate reality that experiences of survivors are unlikely to have been validated at the time. Survivors who disclose later, commonly face negative responses including judgement, disbelief, shaming or shunning. Survivors who require professional support can find themselves in systems that seem trauma-blind rather than trauma-informed.
It is common for the survivor to bounce from one system to another: many will require intervention from services. A high proportion of survivors will become stuck in the revolving door of mental health services, prison, addiction and rehabilitation: many will experience a lifetime of this. They will end up in systems that should provide opportunities to recognise underlying trauma but seemingly don’t: where opportunities to provide specialist trauma support are missed over and over again – unless they’re lucky.
Child sexual abuse affected every aspect of my life. It blindsided me and knocked me off my path. It became the academic achievement that declined at around the time the abuse turned from molestation to rape. I went from top set to bottom set maths in a matter of months because I was distracted, dissociating and traumatised. No one ever asked me why I was struggling to keep up when I’d shown such an aptitude up to that point.
The toxicity spread further and it infected my future too.
It was the degree I didn’t get. The career I should have had. The sanity that slipped out of my grasp.
Recovery (for me) was telling my story. Learning to speak was difficult and painful and it took a long time. It was one of the hardest things I’ve ever done. If I move on then do I stop speaking about it a second time? Never again will I make the mistake of remaining silent about my abuse. Staying silent nearly killed me.
In theory then… I will never move on. But that doesn’t mean I can’t recover.
Recovery and moving on aren’t synonymous.
Not moving on doesn’t mean I wallow in grief, despair, darkness, resentment, bitterness or anger. I have done a lot of work in therapy to ensure I live fairly comfortably now, alongside my trauma. This was necessary as I couldn’t keep on living as I was. Specialist support was imperative because I was drowning in trauma. Now I’m not.
Recovery (for me) doesn’t mean that I’ll stop thinking about what happened to me. I think about it everyday. Some days it may be a fleeting thought, others it may be a tsunami of memories. I may dream about it too.
Recovery (for me) won’t take away my flashbacks, night terrors, symptoms of PTSD- the most serious for me being a total inability to access medical care of any kind, because of the terror I feel during any kind of medical consultation. If only recovery meant I could go to the doctor, or dentist or even pharmacist without a trauma response tipping me into a terrifying dissociative state. I am clinically vulnerable to Covid as an indirect result of the abuse and even getting the much wanted vaccine is fraught with trauma. I don’t want to be like this yet I am, therefore in this respect I am still partially submerged, but now with a buoyancy aid. Will I be able to conquer this aspect of trauma? Who knows, maybe in time. But if not, I refuse to see it as a failure. I refuse to see it as mental illness. It is a trauma response.
Recovery (for me), means that I no longer live with shame, suicidal ideation or rely on adverse coping mechanisms to get through the day.
It is being able to be myself and not hide what happened either from myself or others.
Recovery (for me) is being able to discuss with my adult children what happened to me without shame.
Recovery is accepting that I’ll sometimes fall backwards for a while.
It is being triggered but not reaching for a bottle of wine (or worse) to chase the body memories away. But if I do, that doesn’t mean I failed. Recovery means I try again tomorrow.
Recovery is being able to voice my needs, that are a direct result of trauma, without guilt or shame.
It is being able to challenge people who believe that the sexual abuse of children doesn’t happen in their communities or to people they know. It is being able to back up my argument with my own experiences without shame.
It is being able to provide support to others further behind me – those struggling to work out how to carry such heavy boulders of hurt and shame on their backs without breaking under the weight.
Recovery (for me) doesn’t mean that I’ll ever forget or forgive, but instead redirecting my anger into my activism rather than turning it inwards.
Recovery is being able to listen to other people’s stories without it triggering my own trauma.
It is feeling at peace more days than I don’t.
It is knowing for sure that ‘normal’ life is for me too, not just for other people.
It is walking alongside my trauma, using it to educate society, challenge the stigma and lead by example. It is my way of saying, if I can do this, there’s always hope for you too.