On the Crest of a Wave

Content: Child sexual abuse. Suicide.

This week I have been considering why it’s so hard for survivors to reach out even when our support network is strong. I feel that I’m an old hand at this and it should be easy to say when I’m triggered but it’s not. Some triggers grind me to a halt and I need to take a few days to reflect on what it was, process the memory and wait for the wave to pass.

Since disclosing child sexual abuse, I’ve been on a journey that some would call a journey to recovery. The definition of recovery is “a return to a normal state of health, mind, or strength” and I hesitate before using this word because I don’t believe it’s helpful to consider myself or my trauma responses as abnormal. A more appropriate word to describe this journey from abuse to survival would be healing. “the process of making or becoming sound or healthy again.”

This word feels kinder and more appropriate. I recognise that my coping mechanisms were never particularly healthy. 

Healing from CSA can be extremely positive but the journey is not always linear. Emotions ebb and flow. It can be complex, messy and bloody difficult at times. Every survivor’s experience of healing will be unique to them, because everyone’s experience of abuse will be different. Abuse is certainly a common denominator but there are different factors at play that will determine how ‘easy’ or not it is to work out what happens next. Many of these factors are out of our control and it’s unhelpful to compare one person’s journey to another.

Last week I was triggered by the Netflix documentary: Savile, A British Horror Story. Generally I can listen to accounts of sexual abuse without being triggered but this documentary really did push me to my limit for a few reasons.

When pushed to my limits it never fails to amaze me how I can so quickly go from competent, driven and positive, to overwhelmed and back to waking in the morning with the weight of the world on my chest. When triggered in this way, the feelings of suicidal ideation return. This is really hard to admit. I don’t know why these thoughts return and I wonder if it is in part, habitual rather than meaningful. It was my default for years and allowing my mind to dwell on suicide once again is a reflex so familiar it can feel almost comforting at times like these.

I acknowledge and recognise how far I’ve come on my journey, and most importantly that I’m not suicidal yet those old feelings are there… that little voice in the back of my mind whispers: when you feel like this you can always escape. You’re not trapped. There’s a way out if you need it.

I know myself well enough now, and have lived through this so often to know it will pass. It’s a wave, that’s all and trauma rides on the crest. It will settle in my bones and feel in the moment like an unwelcome visitor, determined to stay, and that perhaps I will drown, but it will pass in the end, it always does – sometimes surprisingly fast and I’m ok. I do get fearful though. I start to wonder what I would do if it didn’t? Who would I turn to? There are no spaces for trauma survivors who need a bit of time and support to step out of life and ride the wave. They simply don’t exist. Mental health care is not a viable option for me, in fact it’s so unsuitable it scares me. It treats ‘illness’ and ‘disorder’ and this is not that. It is a normal response to a trigger. It frightens me to think if I’d reached out to mental health services whilst triggered, that today I might be waiting for my first appointment with the CMHT. Maybe I’d be sitting in a psychiatric ward in my pyjamas or queuing at the nursing station for my paper cupful of new tablets.

Luckily I didn’t do this as one week later I’m fine. Totally, absolutely, one hundred percent fine. I did speak about what triggered me, to a fellow survivor, who listened, validated and understood, and the wave receded, and I could breathe again. I was then able to confirm that I’ll be hosting a panel at the upcoming Festival of Activism. I started work for another activist on a CSA campaign and next week I start consultancy work on a major research project. Healing, for me, has always been about speaking out. It’s the only thing that helps me and I’m grateful to the strong community of survivors, able to provide a listening ear and I willingly do the same for anyone who reaches out to me.

This blog started in response to the documentary but I decided against giving that individual any more publicity. We all know what he was and what he did – but I will say one thing.

I was deeply saddened to see there was no expert voice educating the viewers about trauma.

One survivor said “Why didn’t I call out, tell someone?”. It was heartbreaking and the silence that followed made me want to shout at the television. The ones who understand how trauma works would have possibly felt as frustrated as I did at this point. We know why not. The fawn response is a normal reaction to sexual assault. It stems from a place of survival and strength, not weakness or cowardliness. But it was not validated as normal, it was not clarified as such by a specialist in trauma. The explanation remained unspoken like it usually does, and the survivor’s unwarranted shame was painfully clear to see. 10 years ago I would have absorbed that shame, and wondered why I didn’t speak out or call for help. I used to blame myself too and it took a lot of unpicking in therapy to understand why.

This sad and public display of shame will have perpetuated the myths that lead to victim blaming. Sadly there will have been viewers who agreed. “Why didn’t you just say something?” is commonly heard by survivors when they disclose.

Things won’t change until these misconceptions are laid to rest. She couldn’t do anything because she was frozen with fear, shame, confusion, and shock. Because she was a child and he was an adult. It’s always the perpetrator at fault, never the victim.

Activists recognise the importance of a trauma-informed mental health system, police, education and NHS, but we really need a trauma-informed media. We need documentaries like these to be less sensationalist and more informative. We need every producer behind these programmes to understand the responsibility they have to make sure these myths are laid to rest once and for all.

Sophie Olson

3 thoughts on “On the Crest of a Wave”

  1. Dear Sophie,
    Thank you so much for your heart felt words. I particularly appreciated your observation of the fawn response and how this could of been validated.
    I work as a therapist and have shared this website with the wonderful survivors that I work with. Reading your words will help others to understand their journey and healing process. Deep bow to you for sharing your vulnerability so bravely and eloquently. Thank you ❤️

  2. Well said. Your words convey how the trauma affects survivors and why they can’t speak out. So helpful.

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