Hiding… in plain slight?

Content: Child abuse. Child sexual abuse.

I look back now and I wonder – how? How was this not seen, this depth of sadness, by others in my family? Why could they not sense the burden I was carrying? It was so terribly heavy.

“ It is hard to imagine how children experience this level of pain and hide it from those around them, but that is what these children who’ve been conditioned into silence, do. We just carry on. We hide pain, both emotional and physical and we turn this pain inwards instead.”

The Flying Child Project

I do know that I was really good at hiding, but was it to the extent where nothing was noticed? That I’m not as sure about anymore. It hurts much less to believe that everyone close to me was oblivious, as the alternative … well how does one reconcile that? Hearing an old teacher of mine describe me as, ‘troubled, nervous and cowering’ was such a shock. I felt both validated and failed, as he went on to say that he’d said nothing, “for fear of how he would be perceived.”

When I disclosed, the first question: “why on earth didn’t you say anything before?” was said with bewildered incredulity and I felt guilty. Why hadn’t I? I couldn’t explain. How do we begin to explain the fear and the shame? Where do we start? I said nothing. Words escaped me. They shrivelled and shrank to the back of my brain and I watched the scene unfold in that unbearably small room, probably in shock and feeling I was on the outside looking in. The words that would comfort me failed to materialise. “We had our suspicions” was said. It was a violent slap in the face that I’ll never fully recover from. It floored me that someone would suspect a man was capable of paedophilia but leave a child in his hands. How is that ok by any tenuous stretch of the imagination?

I’ll never get over that.

How do children know to hide it in the first place? My children are the first to loudly accuse me, or their father if we brush their hair too vigorously, get shampoo in their eyes. My youngest son is particularly vocal and will growl at us too. It pleases me. This is a child who will stand up for himself and others. Why didn’t I? Why did I hide what was happening from everyone else and eventually myself? It is a question I ask myself regularly. I go over and over it. I don’t remember him telling me to hide it, he never said this was “our secret.” But he did make it very clear in ways that were covert and frightening. He hurt me, in secret – physically, and pretended it was an accident. When it was noticed by others, he feigned concern and care but it wasn’t real. I understood then how different he was to other adults. He wasn’t safe but nobody else seemed to see that. Just me. He tortured animals: including my beloved family dog and he manipulated, coerced and bullied me to hurt her too. I will never forgive myself but I can see that I had no choice. Children don’t. Not really. You can educate them as much as you like, to say NO! but when they’re in the hands of a monster, and that monster is a member of their own family, and no one else seems to notice, they are as helpless as a cat with a mouse.

“The Princess tried in vain to move her body, but she couldn’t. She was caught in a trap. ”

The Flying Child

The abuse was hidden. He played mind games, tricks, and on one occasion dug up a buried pet to show me the decomposing body. I never said a word. I accepted all of it. I had no choice. I thought he’d kill me too.

This is why I do this work. If the answer was that simple and it was up to the child to prevent their own abuse by shouting loudly enough, or telling a trusted adult, I would be volunteering for major charities and promoting child safe campaigns. It helps. It must do, yet the statistics are too high. In the last year alone, stories of children; murdered by those supposed to love and protect them have become horrendously familiar.

We need to look at this from a different perspective. Real stories; speaking out if safe to do so: on social media, stages, symposiums and TV; in films, books, articles, displaying our art on gallery walls, publicly performing our songs and poetry; we can work together as one voice. We can use our anger to demand change. I believe we must normalise the act of speaking out about child sexual abuse and set the example to the children. The campaigns tell them to ‘speak out’, but they don’t hear many of the adults doing it themselves. The adult survivors who can (and not all will feel ready or able to – which has to be respected), must talk about these abusers (if safe to do so) and say, without shame – my father/my sibling/my uncle/my mother; until people from all sectors of society, including professionals and practitioners, are unable to look the other way. Maybe then they will accept the scale of CSA, stop enabling the abuse, be more vigilant, and start acting upon their instincts a little more courageously.

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