Misconceptions Part Two: Ask Why

By Sophie Olson

Another misconception about child sexual abuse is that professionals will act upon signs and concerns.

In my experience this was not the case. This short blog illustrates how easily concerns might be disregarded, and gives a brief overview into my experiences at school, as a survivor of CSA.

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Storytelling

One year ago today The Last Taboo, a Falling Tree production documenting my experiences as a silent child sexual abuse survivor through the mental health system, was broadcast on BBC Radio 4. The documentary has been broadcast twice and the first time was late in the evening. As the day progressed I began to get cold feet. I remember thinking what on earth have I done? There were things my own family didn’t know about the abuse and I’d sent an email explaining this and suggesting that they didn’t listen to it live, late at night whilst on their own.

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No Space

This was one of two poems I performed at an event by Drop The Disorder: an evening of spoken word performances to challenge the culture of psychiatric diagnosis and the pathologising of emotional distress.

I wrote it recently, on a day where I felt overwhelmed and exhausted by the consequences of CSA. In the past, I would have equated this with poor mental health and considered making an appointment to see my psychiatrist. I don’t do this anymore because the psychiatric system was unable to support me with trauma. I never experienced relief with meds, there was never enough time, my trauma history was not acknowledged as the root cause and I didn’t receive the empathy or gentle care I needed to heal. On the contrary, treatment felt punitive and came with undertones of threat and a distinct loss of autonomy.

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A Journey of Missed Opportunities

Preventing Suicide in Adolescents was the theme for the conference delivered by HSSCP & South Tees Safeguarding Children Partnership. Professionals across various agencies working with children attended the event.

This week I delivered my second workshop as part of this event.

The title of my workshop was CSA, the consequences of trauma: a journey of missed opportunities. This was the first time I’ve used my own story as the sole case study and participants were asked to identify indicators I might have shown and where the missed opportunities occurred. There was a breakout activity for small group discussion on how to open conversations with child survivors.

When there is an increase in child suicide and professionals come together to try and work out why, and what can be done to prevent it, really the only people who can tell us why are the children but they can’t because they’re not here anymore. By rights I shouldn’t be here either.

The Flying Child Project
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Drop The Disorder Poetry Night

I consider myself a survivor of CSA and the psychiatric system so was pleased to take part in tonight’s event by Drop The Disorder: an evening of spoken word performances to challenge the culture of psychiatric diagnosis and the pathologising of emotional distress.

One of the most significant moments of my journey was the time I reached out to a GP as I was leaving an appointment. She was kind, but as there was no screening for trauma, I was set on a path that delayed recovery for an entire decade. She didn’t intend to cause me further harm, she probably had little idea of what else to do with me. Trauma-informed pathways are long overdue and it is time for change. It is hard to have conversations like these without being accused of stigmatising mental illness but those who are harmed by the system must feel able to speak. When I do, I’m not denying the experiences of those who benefit from treatment, I’m validating my own experiences as someone who was failed by that system.

I regret hesitating at the door. This poem is called Door Handle Moment

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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.

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All The Lost Things

Some pieces of writing have been sitting in draft form for a while. I am always unsure whether to post things this as they don’t paint an accurate picture of where I am currently in life. This poem was written nearly two years ago, at the very beginning of my activism journey. It was a time of intense self-reflection and processing of unexpected grief. Shame was still an unwelcome and persistent visitor as I starting to speak openly but I was receiving a few negative reactions. It felt like teetering on the edge of a cliff. I nearly gave up on my ideas and aspirations but I didn’t. I had a tremendous drive to move forward to the next stage in my life that I couldn’t ignore any longer. I was just on the cusp of ‘learning to fly’.

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Survivor or Victim?

The mindset we hold about the crimes committed against us is deep-seated and individually complex. Those who have suffered Child Sexual Abuse are referred to as ‘victims’ or survivors’. How we feel about any one of these terms is most likely governed by where we are on our healing journey.

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Dance, Then, Wherever You May Be

Content: CSA. References to suicide and self harm.

I danced in the morning when the world was begun,
And I danced in the moon and the stars and the sun,

At school, during the Spring term, I would stand in a sea of bottle green tunics and grey pullovers. With my red hymn book in hand I would sing with gusto, in time with the pounding keys of the out of tune piano. I sang with all my might:

I danced on a Friday when the sky turned black;
It’s hard to dance with the devil on your back

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A Good Week!

This week has been a busy one! On Tuesday The Flying Child Project presented to a secondary school. It was successful for a few reasons: Firstly, we learnt an important lesson as to where our own limitations lie. We know that running the same workshop four times in one day is too much. When you do this work, you share from your soul. It took its toll and, during an important debrief meeting on Thursday, we decided how we can better manage the structure in the future.

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What doesn’t kill you…

Survivors are often told they’re resilient, or strong. I hate this. On the surface it seems an innocuous comment doesn’t it? Complimentary even. It’s not. It minimises our experiences and it silences us. It feels so disrespectful to the survivors I knew who took their own lives, and to the many others I know who struggle to put one foot in front of the other. Does this mean that they’re not strong or resilient enough? Of course not. There are many factors at play when it comes to ‘recovery.’ In my case, if it wasn’t for the peer support and therapist; people who crossed my path at the right moment in time, I wouldn’t be here today. It boils down to luck.

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Sounds (Part Two)

By Sophie Olson

(CSA. Suicidal ideation)

Sounds.

As well as men breathing and people eating, the sound of cars on a road are another trigger.

As she was assaulted inside a car that was parked in a lay-by, she could hear the swoosh swoosh swoosh of the cars drive by and as she detached from self, the child pictured the drivers of the cars, in her head. They were of course, oblivious. If only they had slowed. If only the drivers had stopped for a rest and been curious enough to look inside the car. They didn’t and she remained out of sight and invisible, but she was there and she heard each and every one of them. That day, the sound of cars of cars passing burnt into her psyche and became a trigger. She was nine years old.

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Sounds (Part One)

Sounds.

The bringer of joy and the bane of my life. I couldn’t live without music. I have extensive and eclectic playlists. I love the sounds of my children’s laughter, or the birdsong at dusk that floats through my attic window on a warm summer’s evening. I like the comforting drone of a distant lawn mower, or the fat crooning of the content pigeon, who rests in my cherry tree. Other than laughter, human noises such as the shout of man or the tap of shoe on the pavement make me deeply uneasy. The noise a human mouth makes when it chews, slurps, sips or swallows pains me. I can’t bear it. I simply cannot BEAR it. It’s an everyday painful occurrence as everyday someone eats in front of me. Not their fault of course as they need to eat, but it’s not mine either, so I’ve stopped apologising for my reaction.

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Reflections

It has been such a joy to work with Viv Gordon and her team over the last 16 Days of Activism. Seeing The Flying Child mentioned in the final slide makes me feel a bit emotional and I’m not sure why – maybe it’s because it makes everything I’m doing feel a bit more real? I believe in what I do, and when Viv asked me to join the campaign and work alongside her, it made me realise that other people must really believe in what I do too.

I’ve learnt so much, have felt supported and valued, and have even broken more of my own silence by contributing a short film in which I talk about my own abuse. It was a piece I wrote a while ago and wasn’t sure how to share it, as the blog didn’t feel quite right somehow. Reading it aloud, whilst cutting out my doll felt exactly right. I will share it on the website at some point. I hesitate, because some people I know subscribe to the blog. I need to stop doing that (hesitating).

The last 16 days has made me re-evaluate a bit. I need to make more room for creativity within my own work. My original vision for the project was to present our lived experience to professionals in a very creative way. I contacted theatre companies, artists and dance schools but it’s unrealistic to expect people to work for nothing and I had no funding to pay them at that point.

Over the last few weeks, I have met some inspiringly creative survivors. There is a lot of talking and planning going on behind the scenes. I have SO many plans. We all have so many plans. As the flying lady says in the illustration kindly shared with us by @lucybeacham @apinchofsaltsophie (you can find them over on Instagram) – “we have so much work to do…” and it is EXCITING!!

Illustration by Lucy Beacham and shared with kind permission by Sophie Ellen Powell

The Wisdom of Hindsight

By The Flying Child

The Flying Child CIC consists of a very small team. It is small, partly because we are still in the early stages, but also because I don’t trust others easily. I haven’t always been distrustful, in fact the opposite was true. I have trusted too easily at times and it’s been to my detriment.

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A Sense of Solidarity

A Sense of Solidarity was one of my contributions to Epione’s SeeMeHearMe blog a few months ago. Epione is Scotland’s largest trauma training provider. Check out the fantastic work they do here.

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 4 in 1985. Hand on hip, she stood back to watch as 30 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. 30 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.

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A nonsensical short story

By The Flying Child

A young woman turns up at A and E and seems a bit confused. She has a headache and is complaining of feeling a bit nauseous. The doctor sits patiently and listens to her intently as she describes her symptoms. He asks her to walk across the room and carefully observes her unsteady gait.

Ah ha!’ he exclaimes, ‘I’ve got it. You’re finding it hard to walk properly so I diagnose a broken leg! A spiral fracture!’

The young woman is feeling so unwell and she’s relieved to hear him talk about treatment. She is eager to start. She would do anything to feel better and to be able to walk without falling down, and so, with her leg in a cast, she carries home her prescription of pills and with due diligence, swallows one a day, as instructed, despite the inner voice that knows her best, saying, ‘but are you sure?’

Two weeks later, the young woman is back. She’s still not able to walk steadily, and still feels sick and confused. Her head is pounding. She feels sick with pain. The doctor reassures her that some broken legs take longer to respond to treatment and hands her another prescription for stronger pain killers, and sleeping pills to help her sleep. He gives her a pair of crutches. ‘It’s a transverse fracture’ he says with conviction. ‘This will do the trick’.

Six months later he’s a bit perplexed. He has prescribed a new cast, extra-strong painkillers, sleeping pills and anti-anxiety medication – and nothing is making the slightest bit of difference. The young woman still can’t walk from one side of the room to the other without falling over. ‘Well this is a tricky case,’ he says. And the young woman decides to come clean. She felt too embarrassed before to say that she thought the problem might be an injury to her head. She tells the doctor that she was hit on the head as a child, repeatedly, with a brick by a person she loved and that she hadn’t known how to tell him because of the shame. Because it was hard to explain. Because she was afraid of what he might think of her and her family. The young woman feels relief when the truth is out as this has been a heavy secret to carry and she waits for the diagnosis to change, and for the treatment for her injured head to begin.

‘I’m sorry to hear that,’ says the doctor, and then to her surprise he adds, ‘but you are still having this problem walking. We need to sort this out. I think we need to amputate the leg. It’s the only way I’m afraid. Sounds drastic, but others swear by it. You’ll be up and about in no time at all!

The young woman can’t believe her ears. None of this makes sense. ‘But what about what I just told you?’ she asks the doctor, and she refuses to give her consent to amputate the leg, despite his cajoling.

‘There is no more treatment’ the doctor says. ‘I therefore diagnose you with a disorder of the leg that is severe and enduring. You will never recover, or indeed live without community support or medication to manage the symptoms’

The young woman says goodbye to the doctor and walks unsteadily out of the hospital, throwing her cast, crutches and pills into the bin on her way out. (Apart from the anti-anxiety pills which she hangs on to as she’s feeling extremely anxious about her predicament)

Eventually, after a lot of searching, the young woman finds a head injury clinic. The head injury specialists know the right treatment but it takes a lot of time . They teach her how to rest and care for her head, in the way she avoided in the past because she didn’t like to think about the past, or even acknowledge that she had a head at all, and in the end she makes a full recovery. They tell her that every now and then, the sickness and headaches may return. They tell her not to be surprised if her body reacts to seeing a person, or a brick, or if she reads a story about a child being hit over the head. ‘If you react to this’ they say, ‘if the headaches, sickness and unsteadiness return, it’s perfectly normal. It doesn’t mean to say you need a cast or crutches for your leg. You now have the wisdom and tools to know what to do’, they tell her.

‘Of course’, they remind her, as she walks steadily out of the door, ‘this doesn’t mean that there’s no such thing as a broken leg, or that you will never break your leg. If you do, by all means seek treatment to heal it.’

As Long as it Takes

Trauma is misunderstood, misdiagnosed and often treated with unnecessary medication. Labels put people in a box. In my case, they left me in victim mode and unable to move on. I was told by a psychiatrist that I would be unable to live without medication and yet I have lived for years without. I choose to recognise my reactions to certain stimuli as normal trauma responses.

Continue reading “As Long as it Takes”

BBC Radio4 documentary:

Listen to Sophie Olson’s story…

A Falling Tree Production: produced by Redzi Bernard and Phoebe Mcindoe.

Precious Connections

Recently I was pleased to have had the opportunity to take part in a survivor/journalist interaction. We had a behind-the-scenes conversation about child sexual abuse, discussed the way it’s currently covered in the media, suggestions for how this could be improved and how we personally are contributing towards solutions in our own work and activism.

As an ice-breaker exercise we were asked to share something meaningful and the item I shared made me reflect upon the connections survivors make with one another, how precious these connections are, how we just understand each other.

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What is your armour made of?

This piece was homework, set by the very lovely Saša in the weekly writing group I attend. It’s one of my favourite times of the week. Saša (you can find her here, and over on instagram @sasawrites) and I have known each other for a few years and it’s a very safe place for me to speak. I can speak freely and be myself in ways I can’t in real life. She posed the question: “what is your armour made from?” and it made me reflect. Do I wear any armour? Yes I do, but it’s a different suit of armour to the one I wore during the years I stayed silent. It began to change, as I found a way to speak and tell my story…

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Silence is…

*Trigger Warning* This writing contains depictions of sexual violence and self-injury that some may find upsetting.

I use poetry as a way to release trauma. It may not be any good from a literary point of view, but that was never the point. It is visceral, cathartic and from the heart. I write (and speak) a lot about silence because I was silent for so many years about everything that happened to me.

Writing was key to my recovery from sexual violence I experienced as a child. In therapy when I couldn’t speak, I wrote instead. Now I attend a weekly writing group which I love, and much of my blog content is inspired by these sessions. I encourage anyone struggling to express their trauma to give writing a go. Writing doesn’t have to mean paper and pen; much of my writing is done in the Notes app of my Iphone!

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New Shoots

Trigger Warning: This post contains references to suicide that could be distressing.

For some, life reaches a point where it derails you completely. It is the moment where you feel that death is preferable. Some refer to this as ‘Rock Bottom’ and when I reached mine, it may not have felt like it at the time, but it was the day that I began again. I was 30, and as the first third of my life came to an end, so did the walls I’d built around myself. My persona, my mask, and my pretence began to rot and decay, along with my twenties and I was scared. I feared there was nothing underneath, that I’d just disintegrate and dissolve to nothing.

I didn’t.

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When the drugs don’t work… what then?

It is common for the survivor of child sexual abuse to struggle with their mental health. Many will find themselves in the psychiatric system. At first it can feel like a huge relief. We are told we feel the way we do because we suffer from X, Y and Z. We are told to take medication and we do, because it comes with the hope of recovery. For some, medication provides relief. They may take the prescribed dose for the recommended time and feel better, able to continue with their lives, untroubled by past trauma. But what do we do when we feel we’re not recovering from child sexual abuse? How do we cope with the bitter realisation that we feel exactly the same about what happened to us when we reach our forties, fifties and beyond? We begin to wonder; is true recovery even really possible? We hear a lot of talk about ‘recovery’ from trauma, but the truth is I didn’t believe recovery was possible – or maybe it was possible for others and there was something wrong with me. The years went by, along with the hope that anything would change for the better.

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What Lies Beneath

Processing trauma can feel like an ongoing battle; at times a bloody war. I’ve always known that I must process all of it. If I leave any stone unturned I will trip up and fall, most likely landing flat on my face, with a broken rib or two. It’s best to clear the ground now. To prevent the inevitable.

Trigger warning: The following post contains themes relating to CSA that some may find upsetting.

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… (Part Two) How TO respond to a survivor

My previous post what not to say to a survivor stemmed from a thread on Twitter that was liked and retweeted many times. Survivors identified with the responses from others after disclosing their own child sexual abuse. Some added more to the list. One person replied with ‘thank you for sharing. What would be helpful to say to a survivor?’ and I began to reflect on responses that had helped me.

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What NOT to say to a Survivor (part one)

Disclosing non-recent child sexual abuse was one of the hardest things I’ve ever done. I will never forget it. It was in 2009 during my first inpatient stay in hospital where I’d found myself after a breakdown. My family had reacted with frustration and, at times, anger at this unfortunate turn of events; after all they hadn’t seen it coming. I had presented a version of myself to the world that wasn’t real – a competent mum of two. A wife. A functioning member of society. But it was all a facade. Totally fake. As it turned out, I had been the most excellent actor and master of disguise. No one had noticed how desperate I was on the inside – and why should they? That had been my intention, but I had spiralled deeper and deeper into the fire of addiction and ill health. I was dying. I had wanted to die. I had tried to die and found myself in a psychiatric hospital.

I was surprised by the frustration. I certainly hadn’t expected anger.

Continue reading “What NOT to say to a Survivor (part one)”

Body Memories

The shape of a jawline, the smell of cigarettes and whisky on someone’s breath. The click of a man’s shoes as he walks behind on the street. Being followed up a flight of stairs. A clearing of the throat. A wink. A song on the radio.

When abuse ends, we have to find a way to live with the triggers.

Trigger Warning: (child sexual abuse/trauma)

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Left vs Right

Trigger warning (CSA, suicide)

I wrote this shortly before being admitted to a psychiatric hospital. I think back and wonder if I knew why I was so unwell. Did I equate this depressive state with child sexual abuse? The answer is yes, but I don’t allude to it here. When I wrote this, The Black Door was locked and bolted, but it was a deliberate choice to keep it that way. These memories were always clear to me but I didn’t allow myself to let them out. At this stage, they were beginning to find a way through the gaps, but I wasn’t ready to write about that. I was silent about the abuse, even inside my own head.

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Thief


“I feel like he took my soul” is a phrase that I’ve heard from more than one survivor. The first time I heard it, I wanted to cry with relief. That is exactly it, I thought. I was overwhelmed with relief that someone felt the same way as me. It made me feel less alone.

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Trained Thoughts…

Some of the most desperate in society have suffered more than you can possibly imagine.
I live near an organisation that provides help for the homeless, many of whom have challenging mental health needs. A lot, if not all of these people will have suffered trauma
in the past and now face daily judgement.

Continue reading “Trained Thoughts…”
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