I first contacted a charity (RASASC) for advice in 2015. I was put in touch with an ISVA (independent sexual violence advisor), as I wanted to report the abuse but I was too frightened to walk into a police station without a comprehensive understanding of the process.
Not many people knew about the abuse and those who did only knew that I’d ‘been abused’ – not the details; keeping this secret was the only control I had over this terrible thing that had happened to me. I feared full disclosure because I feared handing control over to someone else. I feared the consequences of speaking out. I feared the abuser. Perhaps most of all I feared judgement. The shame was debilitating. This ISVA and I sat together for a couple of hours and she asked me questions about what had happened. It was painful to be asked this; how do you speak the words when you have spent half a lifetime pushing away any thoughts of abuse?
I tried but I couldn’t articulate it properly. I just couldn’t say the right words, in fact it was hard to say any words at all. The word ‘abuse’ would get stuck, somewhere between brain and mouth and at times in the conversation I would be rendered completely mute.
At the end she said that of course it was my choice whether to report or not but that she would advise against it at this stage. She said I wouldn’t be able to withstand cross-examination if it got to trial. She pointed out that I was shaking like a leaf and barely able to speak, and asked me if I’d had specialist therapy. I hadn’t, so she put me on the waiting list for that. To my dismay she added that it was a two year waiting list and referred me to a 12 week ‘self-confidence’ course – a group – for survivors.
A few months later I found myself outside the building where the group was being held. I remember feeling mortified that a) I was going to a support group and b) that it was being held at the Samaritans. I wasn’t sure what was worse – people thinking I was a survivor of sexual abuse or people thinking I was suicidal.
In a prior email, the counsellor running the group had said to call her when I arrived so that she could come down and let me in. I called the number with great trepidation and before long found myself on the top floor, in a group of about eight equally terrified looking women. Going into that room was perhaps one of the hardest – and with hindsight one of the most important steps I’ve taken in my life. It’s up there with my wedding day and the birth of my children.
It was the very first day of my journey to recovery.
I’d already had experience of group work and therapy in the psychiatric system – some good and some not so good. I had taken part in group rehab, attended groups in AA, NA, in therapy in a psychiatric hospital. I’d participated in group mindfulness, art, drama, CBT, yoga, psychotherapy and nothing had helped me very much. I was on my guard – but one thing struck me immediately about this group: every woman in the room had similar experiences to me.
It was the strangest feeling to look at the other women and just know that they had experienced sexual violence without even hearing them speak.
It was unexpectedly comforting in that moment when I felt most uncomfortable. I’d never experienced this before; it was both liberating and overwhelming to see and be seen in this way.
My secrets were hidden from the outside world. The abused version of me -the real me as I perceived it, was like the smallest Russian doll, encased in layer after layer of carefully constructed other me’s -acceptable versions of myself that I presented to the rest of the world. I was a daughter – one layer. I was a wife – another layer. I was a mother of four children. I was a functioning, competent member of society – except I wasn’t. These layers were a façade. The real me was trapped underneath. Silent and unseen, in the dark and this darkness was seeping though because the outer layers were cracking. These cracks were perceived as poor mental health and some had already seen the darkness underneath- the depression and suicidal ideation. People drew their own conclusions as to why but didn’t care to look underneath this façade. If they had they would have seen the shame. Under that they would have seen the fear, the silence, self-loathing and rage. Had they peeled that away they would have seen the abuse and trauma.
When I stepped into the room on the top floor of the Samaritans, I, like everyone else was announcing my abuse without having to say anything at all. It was as if these outer layers- the other me’s, had been left at the door and it was disconcerting to know everyone could see the real version- the victim of sexual abuse. It made me feel exposed and vulnerable. I couldn’t make eye contact with the others because the thought of seeing their pain made me feel deeply uneasy; I knew it would reflect my own. Part of me wanted to walk straight out again but another part was curious as to what would happen next.
I sat down choosing my escape route carefully – near the door so I could leave with minimal disruption, and opposite the window so I could tune out if necessary – a skill I had developed as a child when physical escape wasn’t possible. The group began. Some women were able to introduce themselves to the rest of the group and to divulge a bit of information, but other than saying my name, I stayed silent. I quickly realised, with a surge of shame and a sinking heart that I was the only one with a background of non-recent sexual abuse. The others had experienced more recent rape – on a date, in marriage, stranger rape… and I felt immediately angry and defensive. How would I be able to tell my story? What would they think of me?
I contacted the counsellor afterwards demanding to know why they’d referred me to a group where I felt, yet again, different to everyone else. She explained that it was just luck of the draw and she encouraged me to return the following week. She encouraged me to listen to the other women and said that if I completed the course, an open-ended coffee morning would be available to me, where I would meet others with experience of non-recent and intrafamilial abuse.
So I returned the next week and sat by the door, still feeling angry, silent and ashamed, but willing to try. I listened to other people tell their stories and, over time I discovered a way to tell my own. It took a few more years before I was able to say I’d reached a point of recovery, and it required extensive specialist trauma therapy to get to that point. However, the validation, understanding and empathy I felt, simply by sitting in a room with other survivors, played an important part. Feeling that sense of connection with others allowed me to form the support network I desperately needed. We needed each other and we gave one another the strength to move forward. The coffee morning afterwards was equally important. There, I was to meet women who were further on in their journey than me. These women were able to lead by example. Seeing others reach the light gave me hope and encouragement that one day I would be able to recover too: and recover I did.