Elizabeth Shane (CSA Survivor – Author of Silhouette of a Songbird)
Look up. Two simple words that have stayed and only now, gained the realisation why this has affected me so much. I spent nearly my whole life looking down. Looking down through shame, through fear, through self-loathing and feeling too vulnerable for people to look into my eyes and heart in case they see the darkness I felt. I carried so much baggage I think I could have filled Heathrow airport without a label and would still be the only luggage that never got lost! This is a snippet of my story – condensed version.
I am the youngest of five children, three from my dad’s first wife, who he divorced. Due to her severe mental health problems and child neglect, the three children were placed in foster care from an early age and tragically their mother committed suicide. My dad took custody of them and moved back with him when he married my mum. She hated them from day one. From the time I was born, I entered a world not only full of hatred, but physical, emotional, and sexual abuse. From a young age I had no idea my dad was sexually abusing my siblings and at that time, had also began abusing me. I was never completely sure until after his death, a few years ago, when I started to experience flashbacks and fragmented memories of the abuse.
I’m not even sure how I knew I had a different relationship with my dad and half-brother compared with the other children, but I knew this much. I was never supposed to tell. It started so young. Hazy memories, blurry lines, eyes focused on one spot. But it continued and progressed to the point where I could trace the flowered wallpaper with my eyes, I stared at it for so long. When I was three or four my half-brother began to sexually abuse me as well, up until the age of about ten. My half-brother took over where my dad left off. Enticing me to his room under the guise of being able to watch TV. Loud noise, lots of it, to drown out what was happening at the mercy of his hands, his body on mine, my body on his. I told myself I was lucky. I thought I was special for having all this secret attention when everyone else in the house had abandoned me.
Around the age of ten, my half-brother moved out. My entire world dropped, I lost the only person who had even noticed me in the house and now had nothing. I don’t know how but knew it wasn’t safe to show any emotion or tears in front of my parents. Both were cold, detached, emotionless and extremely critical, angry people, especially my mum. She suffered from severe post-natal depression after I was born and seemed to vanish from existence in my world, except when physically and emotionally abusive towards me. I was petrified of both parents and could feel the anger and hatred aimed towards me from my mum, just for being born. Even though I feared my dad especially as I didn’t feel safe around him, I was desperate for him to love me and would do my utmost to make him smile and win his approval. I never gave up hope even into adulthood and would be rewarded in snippets, with memories of him reading me Chicken Licken, which was the only book he ever read and positive memory I can recall between us. I still have the book after all these years.
When I started school, I looked down even more. Feeling different from the other kids I thought they would see the shame in my eyes if I looked up. I became a complete loner and walked around the playground on my own thinking I was a rebel for saying the word ‘fuck,’ with the only highlight, being fed extra food by helping the school cook! I became a target for other children to bully me for being different; they didn’t like how I looked and often beaten up for being Jewish. I never had the kind of relationship where it felt safe to tell my parents anything as I knew they would blame me, so I never told them what was going on. I went from being bullied in school to going home and being sexually abused by my half-brother.
The only time my heart lifted was singing in assembly. I loved singing, it was the only time I was allowed a voice and sang my heart out to all the school hymns. At home I barely uttered a word taking it to the extreme of staring blankly into space, to the complete opposite and being a chatterbox as it made me feel very uneasy sitting in silence next to my parents in case they could see my thoughts. I began to develop strange habits and used to shake, making a noise with my mouth which I thought was a tuneful hum, but it used to drive my parents crazy. I would do it even more! To the outside world, no one would have guessed what was going on behind closed doors. I behaved like a ‘normal’ child although certainly didn’t feel like one inside my head. I never displayed the classic symptoms of child abuse and even if I did, doubt anyone would have noticed as I acted invisible much of the time.
I never spoke of my sexual abuse until midway through secondary school after watching a TV programme discussing this and realised things that happened to me were not supposed to. I only told the basics to a few close friends but at the time it was like reciting lines, I felt so detached from what I was saying. They didn’t know the emotional shame behind how I felt. I never could tell them aspects of the sexual abuse felt enjoyable, that I craved the attention from my half-brother and what I thought was love, which I craved desperately. I could never share that I felt special and important at times from what happened. The shame from this felt bigger than the actual abuse and knew this was something I felt too humiliated to speak about. I felt like an evil, bad person who deserved to be punished.
It was incredibly lonely without my half-brother. The thought of being a prisoner in the house at the mercy of my mum and dad with no one to love me was horrendous. I started to experience suicidal thoughts and kept praying to God to end my life and not keep me alive into adulthood, but he never did. He kept me alive and had the beginning of an incredibly angry relationship with God thinking I was being tested from the awful life I was living and somehow failed by not listening. After my half-brother left, I thought the abuse would stop as my dad was no longer sexually abusing me, but he’d continue to creep around the house spying on me through the bedroom keyhole and coming into my room at every opportunity to hover by my bed. I used to go to sleep with all my clothes on for protection and even my wellington boots. I must have owned the cleanest boots as I can’t imagine wearing muddy wellies to bed now!
The abuse continued at the hands of other men. My uncle molested me when I was eleven and the age of fourteen, this happened again with the boss at my first ever job, molesting me on a regular basis. I began to wonder if I had a big neon sign on my head saying, ‘I’m available to be abused.’ I had to endure this for the whole time I worked there without saying anything to my parents yet again, as I thought they would blame me and was too ashamed to mention anything personal to them. I silenced myself even more, pushing down my feelings, turning my emotions inwards without realising. I owned a big angry, red self-destruct button, filled with hatred towards myself and the world. When I turned eighteen my dad was arrested on suspicion of rape against my half siblings, but they pulled out and never went through with pressing formal charges. At that time, I hoped the police would question me too as I wanted to tell them what happened but didn’t think they would believe me and bottled out once my dad came home. I continued to look down.
After this, I was forbidden to see my half siblings. I never saw one of my sisters again as she committed suicide after turning to prostitution and drugs. My half-brother ran away abroad. As soon as I could leave home I did too and moved to New York after meeting an American soldier working in the air force and completely rebelled by marrying him. He wasn’t Jewish, he was a born-again Christian, which couldn’t be further from my religion if I tried! Even before I met his mother, she was controlling and didn’t realise I would be moving into another house where the family were more judgemental and critical than mine, which I didn’t think was possible.
I never realised the impact of my abuse until I was married. I took all the anger that I was too scared to show as a child from the controlling, bullying behaviour shown towards me and acted the same way but to the extreme. I had no idea at the time I was suffering with complex PTSD and a form of OCD. I obsessed about everything and became paranoid my ex-mother-in-law was trying to kill me. I didn’t believe I was lovable and pushed away anyone that dared get close to me, whilst at the same time, cried out for someone to accept me for who I was. I tried everything possible to get my ex-husband to hate me and leave so I could say, “see I told you I was bad.” I had no self-esteem or love towards myself and would ask him to rape me on a regular basis but no idea why. We eventually moved back to England together thinking a fresh start would help and to try and have a baby, but our marriage fell apart after a very rocky nine years together. I knew he had stopped loving me the day he took a gun to my head and pulled the trigger. There were no bullets in it but didn’t know that at the time. In the end it was me who left him not the other way around after finding out he had cheated on me with prostitutes throughout our marriage, destroying any last remaining trust I had.
Moving back home to England was extremely difficult. I reverted to the same feelings experienced as a child, even though I was an adult. Having to tiptoe around my parents again behind closed doors and shoving down my emotions from the devastation of splitting up with my ex-husband. I ploughed my feelings into shopping and boy could I shop, I shopped till I dropped literally. I never realised how therapeutic shopping could be until then.! Things deteriorated quite rapidly after moving home. I was more accident prone than Mr Bump and not blessed with good health, always suffering with digestive problems, which I’m sure connected to my high anxiety as a child. I somehow managed to fall down a flight of stairs causing damage to my knee and back. My dad was completely unsympathetic and left me laying on the floor while I had virtually passed out and put all the blame on me for being careless! That was the start of my health going wrong. I also started dating again, something I thought I would never do and joined a walking group where I met my husband. Within a few months of us going out I started developing unexplained illnesses. I began to accumulate a barrage of untreatable health problems which left me dizzy, barely able to walk down the road without the aid of a walking stick, unable to see properly or drive, I couldn’t look at a computer, be on the phone and the walls started jumping. I was put on heart medication, had chronic headaches with no concentration and at that point hadn’t even hit menopause! I kept telling my husband to leave as I had nothing to offer him
With all the health issues I couldn’t work at that time and absolutely hated having to depend on anyone which made me feel extremely worthless and vulnerable. I spent a lot of time feeling suicidal and started self-harming, staring into space. I also ended up with permanent internal, gynaecological damage, leaving me unable to have sex without extreme pain of feeling ripped apart. I never disclosed my childhood sexual abuse, to the countless consultants and gynaecologists I saw, despite them asking me directly if I had. I didn’t want any medical discussion to be linked to this or given a label on my records when it was something I couldn’t accept myself. Especially as the internal damage resulted as an adult, it was difficult to piece up if any of it was a result of my childhood or the blunders made by the medical profession on my body. It was beyond soul destroying. If I couldn’t be a proper woman to my husband, he wouldn’t want me, I didn’t know how to show love without sex and gave him permission to see a prostitute. He didn’t take me up on that offer and refused to leave me even though I told him to. I continued praying to God, despite thinking he was punishing me. In the back of my mind, I hoped things would improve and though I regularly felt like overdosing, I couldn’t go through with it. I had this terrible thought what if God was there for me and I missed the signs.
After nine years with my husband, we decided to try for children through IVF which resulted in a failed miscarriage. I was beyond devastated and blamed my body and myself for the miscarriage. Fast forward a year and we decided to adopt a child. Nowadays, getting a new job would be less stressful and cheaper! Going through the adoption process kicked off my PTSD to the extreme, after reading the social workers interpretation of my life where she said I had suffered trauma. Did I? I had no idea I did; I thought this was just my life and the only one I knew. The rage came overnight and thought I would explode; I knew I had to confront my parents and speak my truth. My dad called me a liar, my mother couldn’t understand why I didn’t tell them and why did I move back home if they were such awful parents? We were still going through the adoption process at this point and had to hide it from the social workers as they would have stopped us from going any further. By the time we adopted our son, it was two years from applying and having to hide all my PTSD symptoms from them.
I struggled from day one to be a mum and not feel like I was evil. I acted paranoid around him, hating every aspect of being a parent. I used to take him in the pushchair and leave him at the bus stop and walk off, spending hours at a time walking around our local lake wanting to push him in with the ducks. Flashbacks would occur every time I changed his nappy and experienced such intrusive dark thoughts, it terrified me. I was so scared of sexually abusing him and continuing the cycle. I stopped sleeping as I thought he would die on my watch, leading to severe sleep deprivation, depression, and superficial self-harming. How could I share this with anyone, let alone my husband, who wouldn’t understand the way I was feeling? I certainly didn’t understand what was happening to me. All I know is, I felt extremely out of control and isolated. At the time I was seeing a counsellor who managed to get me extra help through the GP who put me under psychiatric care.
For so long I wondered what is like not to wear the heavy anchor of shame around my neck as a survivor of childhood sexual abuse. I spent much of my adulthood trying to reconcile what happened to me with various professional counsellors and psychiatrists telling me it wasn’t my fault. I wanted to believe them; I really did. I read the self-help books, I kept telling myself it wasn’t my fault. But did this ring true? No. Instead I carried around a secret burden that I couldn’t eradicate no matter how hard I tried. It followed me wherever I went, as a parent, as a wife and a person living in a world where I felt silenced and misunderstood without knowing why.
I knew I needed to try and deal with the flashbacks and intrusive thoughts; they were affecting my life with our son and was so scared of abusing him I went to the police. I had to speak my truth and finally reported my half-brother after forty-three years. To my surprise, the police believed me and did their best to arrest my half-brother but as he lived abroad it was impossible to extradite him due to the statute of limitations expiring. But he knows I looked up and spoke my truth. I never disclosed to the police about my dad as the memories of him abusing me were so hazy from being so young and didn’t resurface until after he died. Unfortunately, he pervaded justice from the law, leaving me with distressing, conflicting emotions from the grief and love I had, losing him, yet hating him at the same time.
During the entire process I have been in counselling and still am. At the time, my previous counsellor suggested I find a healthier outlet for my anger rather than smashing plates and said how about being in a choir! I said, no way, I had no desire to sing in front of people, I didn’t even sing in the shower! She persisted until I finally went and joined one. It was the start of a continuous positive life changing journey. For the first time I felt I could look up and have a voice and kept going back each week. When they had their first concert, I sang in a trio. I knew next time I wanted to shine on my own and do a solo! My choir teacher recommended to try vocal lessons and met my amazing inspirational singing and drama teachers who have been with me on my journey. My drama teacher supported and actively encouraged me to discover my life through the power of writing and gave me a safe space to explore my emotions, which I began using as a tool to process some of my painful thoughts and feelings through poems.
It also gave me the courage to leave my job to look for something where I could contribute positively to society and handed my resignation where I had been for twelve years, not realising we would enter a global pandemic, affecting me like it has for so many others. My physical and mental health nose-dived from day one of lockdown, I had unexplained pains, ended up at hospital a few times thinking something was going to explode out of my abdomen, had a cancer scare and once my son went back to school in September after spending months at home, I felt completely lost. I had no direction, no confidence again, my volunteer work was on hold due to the pandemic and had nothing to offer anyone. I told myself I was a burden to my husband and son who would be better off without me. I found it difficult to cope with the constant barrage of criticism from family members and in October 2020 made the decision to end my life. I sat there with a bunch of tablets and a knife and posted one last time on social media saying exactly how I felt and could no longer carry the shame from the sexual abuse or deal with the wall of silence from those who wanted me to cover up their secret. I sat there in a complete mess not knowing what to do. My phone would not stop ringing and a friend came whizzing around the house banging on the door to check I was still alive. I certainly met with disapproval from family members for having a voice and speaking out. However, my public post drew support from people who had no idea what I had been dealing with for so long but found this very overwhelming and withdrew into a shell. We went away to the coast a month later and had a life changing experience. I had never felt such a connection to the sea as I did at that point. I gave all my emotional pain to the power of the ocean. What came back was clarity. Not only was I meant to survive the storm but walk through it with my head held high, with acceptance and recognition of my own inner strength. What also became clear was the overwhelming desire to open up about my journey and experience to give hope and strength to other survivors. As a result, I decided to write about my journey through poetry. Creative self-expression has been one of my mechanisms helping me cope with the emotional scars left from childhood sexual abuse and to find my voice again. It was quite terrifying and scary to open my heart so publicly with my poems as I’d never imagined sharing these, but it felt the right time to do this and self-published my first poetry book, Silhouette of a Songbird.
I keep persevering on my journey to find myself despite suffering from extreme anxiety, PTSD and a form of OCD. My health is a continual struggle and think the last time I felt well was in 2003! It’s a conscious effort not to succumb to my mental health problems particularly after the death of my dad, finding out he had sexually abused other family members, and still feeling controlled by him even after his death. I miss not having experienced a normal loving mother and crave the nurturing my teachers give. Simple problems feel like a catastrophe at times, to the annoyance of my husband and am very controlling in moments when I am overwhelmed. But I know myself better than before. I am no longer ashamed to be me or what I have been through and proud of the woman I am becoming. It is not always an easy road and one I know will have challenging obstacles along the way.
I grew up thinking I was a sinner for loving my abuser, for loving them both. That I deserved the abuse for not fighting back or saying no. It has taken me over forty years to acknowledge what happened to me as a child was never my fault. That I no longer need to keep quiet. Singing, drama and writing a poetry book about my experience has given me back my voice from an entity of silence. I keep persevering on my journey to find myself and despite my constant battle with my mental, physical, and emotional health, I will never allow anyone to push me back into a corner, forgotten. My story is mine to share with other survivors, to give them strength to know they are understood and there is light on the other side. Everyone deserves a voice and a right to be heard. I am not only meant to survive but thrive and speak my truth so others can take hope and comfort they are not walking through the storm alone. Today, I am no longer the silhouette, but the songbird.
©️ Elizabeth Shane (CSA Survivor – Author of Silhouette of a Songbird)
Follow Elizabeth on Twitter @lshanehotmailc1