This is me; this is my story. But of course, it’s not just mine. This story has happened to and continues to happen to many people. The details may differ but the impact is often the same. At best, feelings of shame, confusion or lack of self-worth. At worst, lives blighted by mental and physical illness, self-harm, misuse of drugs or alcohol. Failure to meet their potential. A failure to thrive. If you relate to anything in this post, I hope you are reassured to know that you’re not alone. Negotiating your way along this journey can feel insurmountable but it’s not. There is always a waythrough.
There was a brown flower on the cups we drank our tea from.
I once filled the brown flower cup with water and around thirty soluble aspirins. I then used that vile mixture to wash down around twenty paracetamol tablets, I was 11 years old and I never, ever, told a soul… The hospital staff looked for reasons for my illness, from kidney stones (which I was ultimately plagued with) to appendicitis (had appendix out on another attempt, and never told a soul), but they could not find anything. Just that my liver wasn’t working and I was a very poorly girl. I was allowed home with no diagnosis.
A survivor’s response to Cutting Out: performed and c0-written by Viv Gordon
I feel privileged to have taken part in an online panel discussion this week at the live screening of Cutting Out, hosted by AD4E. It was a moving and quite brilliant event, safely held by the team. Following the show there was a juxtaposition of emotion in the space. Rage, grief, laughter and outrage; a collective sense of injustice and tangible show of community. The show is a stunning piece of work. Beautifully constructed, raw, and painfully observed; it grabs society by the shoulders and gives it a hard and ferocious shake. Stop. It says. Listen. We are here.
‘Cutting out is part performance, part installation and part collective act of resistance that bears witness to the estimated 11 million survivors of childhood sexual abuse (CSA) in the UK. Performed and co-written by Viv Gordon, Cutting Out is a powerful and inspirational testament of one woman’s journey as a survivor, from experiencing abuse to finding a community, connection and a sense of belonging.’
What happened after my own abuse was in some ways as traumatising, if not more. Being a silent, adult survivor in a world that doesn’t talk about child sexual abuse is terrible. I felt like I was the only one and totally alone. Carrying a burden as heavy as CSA with no idea of how to release the dangerous words settled in our hearts is a relentless effort.
“Where to start?” says Viv.
Good question. How do we begin? When silence has pushed us to breaking point we have, more often than not, piled layer upon layer of secrets on the initial secret of abuse that was never ours to keep.
“It’s hard work, all that pretending” says Viv
I didn’t know how to stop. In order to be myself I would need to reveal the real me. Which secrets would I tell first? I had so many. The darkest secret of all was locked deep inside me, imprisoned, along with my words, battened down with fear and barricaded with shame. I couldn’t tell. I pondered revealing all the rest and I knew I needed help, but how to talk about them without judgement? How to explain that about my coping mechanisms, how they had whispered promises of sweet relief but now pushed me to the brink? How to tell about the secret scars on my body? The stockpiling of pills? The numerous times I woke up the morning after, wondering why I could not die, wondering why me? How to tell of my long and involved plans to exit this world in the way that caused least grief and anguish to those I love? Where to start? Speaking my secrets was unthinkable. Impossible. People would think I had lost my mind, which, in a way, I had.
“We can’t reach ourselves… we’re far far away” says Viv
I had survived and continued to survive by going far from myself, shutting down, dissociating, whatever you want to call it, and pushing memories of abuse away, to the back of my mind where they sat like a malevolent, ticking bomb. I detached again, so far from myself that nothing felt real anymore.
“La, la, la, la, pretend it isn’t true…La, la, la, la pretend they didn’t do it…”
Abuse might not have broken me but silence and secrets; pretending, did. The bomb exploded. BOOM! I had a breakdown and was admitted to hospital for four months. This madness of mine was official. In the mental health system, my distress, the trauma, fear and grief were pathologised. Negotiating my way through this system that had seemingly little understanding of trauma and the role it played in my own breakdown was one of the hardest things to do. I thought I’d be there forever.
Tell us why you do these things, they asked but I wasn’t safe enough to tell. The hospital wasn’t safe. The patients certainly weren’t safe. I stayed silent and kept my secrets to myself.
I am not mad, I would say to myself and to the nurses handing out medication. I shouldn’t be here.
Just take the pills dear, they would reply. It’s not up to us, talk to your consultant next week.
They’re not working I’d say and over the weeks he plied me with more and more medication; a pill for each secret, a pill for each memory. Sedation for distress and chemical restraint for fear. I was told I was there voluntarily but they strongly recommended I didn’t leave as they would then have to review that.
You are unwell, they said. You must take the pills.
“I am not broken” says Viv,
The ways in which we are treated say otherwise. I was told by a psychiatrist I was broken…well, not in those exact words but he did tell me I would never recover.
He could have told me that it’s normal for a cup to shatter when it’s smashed on the floor. He failed to say there are different ways to mend; that with gentle hands, patience and love, cups can be glued back together again and whilst they may not be exactly as they were, they will still be a cup.
“Imaginea journey of reconnection” says Viv.
I found these gentle hands in peer support. Connecting with other survivors enabled me to put some of my smashed pieces back together. Shared experience helped. Validation and a safe, contained space. Ginger and lemon tea and a Bourbon biscuit every Tuesday morning on the top floor of the Samaritans did more for me than a bucket load of pills ever had. A therapist I met had gentle hands too. She used them to guide me on a journey and she sat with me in darkness and searched for my missing bits -the puzzle of me- helping me glue them back together. She didn’t leave my side. She was patient, gentle and wise and she told me over and over again how normal I was.
I would be more concerned if you weren’t reacting like this, she said. Look at what happened to you.
Not once did she say I was sick, disordered or beyond help, instead she helped me dispel the secrets and expose the rotting, festering wound of abuse, and we cleaned it together and let it dry, scab and heal. She told me how my challenges could become my strengths and slowly, slowly, I was put back together until I was a functioning person again, albeit with extra cracks and lots of glue, but whole.
“I’m still quite wonky but I’m more like a whole person” says Viv.
I was failed by the huge, rough hands of the mental health system. I couldn’t process trauma in there and elements of my treatment traumatised me even more: they felt like the hands of an abuser.
It’s unsurprising. How can a system be expected to help when society itself fails survivors; shames, victim-blames and turns away from our pain. We turn away from our pain because what is the alternative, when nobody wants to hear it?
“Listen.” says Viv. “Silence”
You know, £60m I saw was being spaffed up a wall on, you know, some investigation into historic child abuse and all this kind of thing. I mean, what on earth is that going to do to protect the public now?
Boris Johnson (quoted by Viv Gordon)
“Hello, can you see us? We’re right here in front of you” says Viv
There are an estimated 11 million of us in the U.K. so how is it the case that we don’t talk about this? Where is the outrage? Where is the justice? How many silent survivors are walking through life, unnoticed, misunderstood and hurting, like I was, like Viv was, like so many of us are? How many feel that the injustice reflects on them, that they’re not worth it? Because they’re broken?
“We need people alongside us” says Viv
Because of organisations like AD4E and because of activists like Viv, and others, I feel we are at the beginning of huge change and I feel honoured to be part of it and part of this amazing community, working as one towards the same goal.
“If we all hold hands, we’ll be bigger than the beast” says Viv
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.
One reason I love doing this work is the variety of people we come into contact with. Since piloting The Flying Child Project in September last year we have delivered training to approximately 400 people including teachers, school staff, admin staff, Masters students, practice educators, consultants, nurses, doctors, matrons and Psychology students. Today we presented to Social Work undergraduates.
The information we give to Social Work students is quite different to the information we deliver to medical staff or teachers simply because they could work in a multitude of different locations and situations, supporting a diverse range of individuals including those in prisons, schools, hospitals, care homes and family settings; they will work with the homeless, and with people struggling with mental health or addiction. As we know, many survivors of sexual violence may need support later in life. Some will end up in crisis and they risk their trauma responses being misunderstood, as ours were. We took the students on a journey and allowed them to step into our shoes as we shared our own experiences, including the impact of trauma on motherhood, postnatal depression, mental health, relationships and discussed intergenerational trauma. We had a lot to say, as did the survivors who had shared their experiences with us on social media.
With their permission, we were able to bring in many quotes from survivors of CSA- the aim being to reduce the chance of ‘othering’ the public speakers and of our stories evoking sympathy but being disregarded as unusual, or a one-off.
As well as encouraging the students to always consider trauma in the work they do, we helped them to understand why it’s not always easy for the survivor to speak out, and pointed out that people display signs of trauma in different ways. We said they mustn’t be afraid of asking the question, “what happened to you”, and discussed the power and importance of human connection and relationship.
There was an interesting question and answer session and we were able to touch upon social justice and the problems survivors face when reporting. Our focus was intrafamilial abuse, as research suggests that over 90 percent of children are abused by someone they know (Radford 2011), but we included quotes from male and female survivors who were abused by non-family members.
My biggest wish is for people to leave our talks with an insight that they may not have had before, and for our stories and the survivor quotes to give them food for thought as they move forward and start their professional journey. Above all, I hope they feel inspired to do their bit to swim against the tide and break the culture of silence surrounding CSA.
This guest blog is a first from my co-speaker and Director of The Flying Child. Her name is Anna: we first met at a peer support group a few years ago. She is a very dear friend, and plays a pivotal role in everything we do. She wanted to explain what was going on in her head and I suggested it might make a relevant blog for survivors of CSA. I relate very much to this; I haven’t spoken about the situation in Ukraine as right now I’m too unsettled to do so. Anna succinctly puts into words what I am unable to.