A Sense of Solidarity was first published in Epione Training and Consultancy “See Me – Hear Me” blog.
I have always had a thing about groups. I don’t like them, I don’t trust them. I have been wary of groups, ever since the time an eight year old girl with stocky legs and suspicious eyes accused me of laying eggs during a playground game of 4040. This was the worst crime imaginable in Year Four in 1985. Hand on hip, she stood back to watch as thirty indignant little girls and boys formed a menacing circle and she stared unblinkingly at me as I stood in the middle wondering how the world had suddenly turned so dark. Thirty shrill voices began their chant:
Lay-ing EGGS!, lay-ing EGGS!
It was untrue and unjust but I did nothing; I didn’t defend myself, didn’t shout, didn’t cry or tell a teacher, I just braced myself and waited for it to end.
My family was a group that was equally confusing. One that involved trips to the seaside, games of snakes and ladders and the solidarity of watching Dr Who together on a Saturday night, but one was dominated by a leader, someone who seemed to take pleasure in causing me great pain and distress, usually under the cover of darkness, while the rest of the group carried on oblivious one floor out of reach.
Twenty years later I sat in a group drama session in rehab, listening to a withdrawing patient loudly and angrily accuse me of letting down the group. We had been told to walk around the room, to place our hand on someone’s back and ask them how they were feeling today. In the group were four men and four women struggling with different addictions including alcohol, drugs, food and sex. During our morning check in, two of the men would talk with enthusiasm about their addiction to pornography. I didn’t want their sweaty palms touching my back. I didn’t want to touch them or be anywhere near them at all so refused to take part – and consequently faced the wrath of the group. The addiction therapist was delighted; telling us to work through it.
I didn’t explain that I was triggered, that I was a silent survivor of child sexual abuse. I didn’t say I believed I shouldn’t be there at all, that I knew I needed help – was desperate for it, in fact. I knew I needed to speak about my experiences, but not here. Anywhere but here.
I said nothing at all. I braced myself and waited for it to be over.
A few years on and I was invited to attend a breastfeeding clinic. I was keen to go as my new baby had a tongue-tie and his latch was wrong. What I hadn’t expected was for this breastfeeding advice to be given in a group. I certainly hadn’t expected the male partners to also be allowed to attend, and they hadn’t either. I watched the ones trying to look anywhere but at an exposed breast but it was hard for them not to. There were twenty women in the group so breasts everywhere, of all shapes, sizes and colours. Some of the men stole surreptitious glances and when it was my turn to demonstrate my breastfeeding ability, I hesitated.
Don’t worry love, we’ve seen it all before, said the midwife, grabbing my baby’s chin with one hand and my nipple with the other. One man caught my eye. I braced myself, waited for it to end and I never returned; choosing to struggle instead at home.
In my opinion groups were to be avoided at all costs because they were all the same; a facade of friendship and connectedness but with the propensity to turn at any moment into a trap where backstabbing predators would look to identify the weakest, target, pounce, humiliate and go in for the kill.
A short time later, when I had lost my way in life I completely fell off the path and into another group. I looked at the other women in the room and saw to my surprise that some were very young, only a couple of years older than my own teenage daughter.
I don’t belong here. I thought.
They began to speak.
I’m not like you. I thought.
I didn’t want to speak so I stayed silent. I braced myself and waited for it to end.
But I couldn’t help but listen. I heard others tell their stories of abuse and rape and over time I wondered if one day I might tell my own.
The peer support group didn’t turn on each other. This was a group where I understood the rules. For the first time I knew what it felt like to feel connected to another human being and not like an alien on an inhospitable planet, Alice in Wonderland wondering why everyone else was mad but being the only one with the label. There was no humiliation there, just validation. I found my tribe in that group room, above the Samaritans on a rainy day in January. The day I stepped foot in the room was the day the fog began to clear and the chaos that had reigned since childhood stopped and took a breath. My healing journey was rocky and challenging but that was the day I had an inkling it was possible.