Survivor Activism: Q&A

Last week I was asked to be a guest speaker alongside Viv Gordon at the #CSAQT Twitter Space. It was a space beautifully held by Five (@sur5vors) and Lucy (@smile4wales), and despite my nerves, I really enjoyed it! (It also helped doing it with Viv as we have worked together quite a lot and I feel quite comfortable with her).

If you missed the Space or you’re interested in Survivor Activism, you can read some of my answers below – including my answers to questions we didn’t have time for. Thanks Five and Lucy for inviting me and for helping me overcome my fear of Twitter Spaces!

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Misconceptions (part one)

Misconceptions (part one) by Sophie Olson

There are many misconceptions surrounding Child Sexual Abuse. This is in part due to the silence, but they are perpetuated because misconceptions are more palatable than the reality.

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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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Why didn’t you say anything before?

Why didn’t you say anything before? Were the words said when I disclosed. I didn’t know how to respond to that. The things I wanted to say spun inside my head and stuck in my throat but I couldn’t say them. I swallowed my words and looked at the floor instead.

Why didn’t you…?… you could have… you should have…

The events of that disclosure day unfolded violently, like a bomb exploding and glass embedding itself in our hearts. It was one of the hardest and worst things I’ve ever had to do. I tried to say why I hadn’t, I really did but I was mute with shame, regret and fear.

My fault was how I interpreted these responses. It’s my fault.

I was probably in shock too. Disclosure might be shocking for the recipient but it’s far worse for the one saying the terrible words we hoped we might never have to actually say – no more hoping that someone would just notice, ‘get it’ instead. It felt like peeling the skin from my bones, exposing the essence of me to the world. It hurt. I wanted to run away and hide. I wished I’d never said anything at all.

It was impossible to explain why I hadn’t because where would I begin? How could I describe my inability to retrieve the correct words and to speak them aloud? I didn’t say much after I disclosed. I couldn’t answer their questions and some of them made me feel so unsafe I wanted to die. I stayed silent and scrutinised their faces and body language. I was looking for any nuance of behaviour for a sign they didn’t believe me.

I waited to be cast out of the family and shunned for saying these terrible words.

Why didn’t you say anything before?

Now I have my words and if I could go back in time and do it all over again I would say,

I did.

I had been non-verbally disclosing since childhood but nobody was listening. They didn’t understand what I was trying to say.

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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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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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.

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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

“Not me and not my child”

This powerful quote is one of a few used by The Flying Child Project during our initial presentations. It was interesting to watch professionals during the project launch. I didn’t know what to expect and I was surprised when I first saw visible signs of connection. Faces softened. Arms uncrossed. Body language shifted from impenetrable professional to vulnerable human being.

At first, my co-speaker and I felt as if we were holding our breath, not because of nerves or because we felt re-traumatised by the process, but because we were both desperate for the audience to just get it. To understand exactly why we were there. Not as a curiosity, or freak show. Not to tell our sad and tragic stories. Far from it, we were there as survivors. Ones who’d made it through the trials and pitfalls of recovery. Ones who’d seen darkness but, through a combination of luck and specialist support, had managed to reach the light. Not only were we bringing our own experiences into the room, but we were standing in solidarity with a spirit army of other survivors from around the world. Other survivors had contributed and their voices, with their permission, were brought to the attention of staff who needed to hear them, via presentations, film and groupwork.

We were there as advocates for the children. The ones who can’t speak up for themselves. Children who, without specialist support are unlikely to speak out for many years.

“Not me and not my child.”

We would rather not think about child sexual abuse. We might accept that it happens, but we prefer to believe it doesn’t apply to us. It is more comfortable to believe that abuse of children happens elsewhere: to other people, not to people like us, or to people we know.

This is understandable. It’s challenging to engage with the horror of it. CSA is horrific. It’s unnatural. It threatens the safe world in which we want to live.

Not engaging with the topic compounds shame that the survivors already feel. How can we speak up when we sense, from childhood, society’s unwillingness to listen to stories like ours? When we speak, we’re shamed. Victim blaming is appalling but it happens all the time – to adult victims of sexual assault and to people who were abused as children.

There is a lot of work to be done. People don’t engage with this subject very well. Social media is a good indicator of this reluctance. On Facebook, when people post about the work of The Flying Child, it never gets much response. It’s not a radio silence, and there are a few great comments, but the large majority stay silent. A post about trees being cut down by the local council on the other hand, causes total uproar. Eloquent messages are fired by outraged individuals asking; what can we do about this? Who should we contact? Shame on the ones responsible! A post about an injured bird or hedgehog will evoke a similarly collective emotional response. Personally I agree that the trees should be saved, and that an injured bird is sad, and I think taking action on these matters is admirable and important but I care a lot more about the risk posed to children, in every community, by predators who will be only too aware of society’s preference to look the other way. The ones who will be noticing the lack of response, and not feeling any shame at all.

“Not me and not my child.”

The lack of response, messages, likes or emoji faces, in comparison, is a telling reflection of the negative responses survivors face day to day. Why the silence? Where is the indignation? The rage? The militant call to action? There will be many reasons I expect. Some people reading will be victims themselves but unwilling to engage because if they are silent about their experiences (which let’s face it, most are), then what can they possibly say? Others will be abusers. The majority will be ‘normal’, good people who prefer to believe not me and not my child and simply look the other way and patiently wait for the post to pass by before jumping on the next, more palatable bandwagon.

Prejudice is another reason for the silence. This is a phenomenon not specific to CSA. We see it in discussion about domestic violence and rape. Some would agree the narrative has changed slightly in regards to racism or misogyny, but only when it fits society’s expectations. Sarah Everard’s story has sparked an important national reaction – and conversation, but what about Nicole Smallman, Bibaa Henry and Blessing Olusegun? Why is society less outraged about their murders? What about Bernadette Walker? – murdered by the man she called ‘dad’ after years of sexual abuse. Are their deaths less worthy of debate, discussion and incensed fury because of the colour of their skin? Or the nature of the relationship between victim and predator?

This is not good enough. There can be a paradigm shift when we stop playing by the rules set by stigma and expectation. The statistics tell us that children continue to be sexually abused, many in their own homes, behind closed doors, in ‘normal’ families.

It strikes me that dissociation around child sex abuse is a wider collective experience too – as a culture we find it very difficult to engage with something so devastating and so threatening to the our understanding of the world as a kind and safe place .

Viv Gordon

Surely we have a collective responsibility to engage with this topic – for the sake of these children, and of the survivors too: doing their best to cope with the aftermath of trauma. Their coping mechanisms frequently misunderstood or judged by others – not because people are deliberately unkind (although sometimes they are)- but because they are simply uneducated about CSA and its ramifications- because nobody talks about it.

“Not me and not my child.”

“It’s Time to Move On…”

By Sophie Olson

As a survivor who is currently ‘surviving’ pretty well at the moment, I take issue with the phrase ‘move on.’ You don’t have to move on from child sexual abuse until the time is right for you. You may never feel able to move on but that doesn’t mean you can’t heal or live a happy life.

When you hear someone telling you to move on, you need to bear in mind that what they might mean is ‘get over it so we don’t have to keep on listening to this.’

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Two Halves

I am dead:
Thou livest;
…draw thy breath in pain,
To tell my story

Hamlet Act V scene ii 

(Content: CSA, suicide).


She simply died, infected by the touch of him. It began, this slow death, with a hand upon hers, iron fingers curled around small bones that could snap like twigs in an instant. A wrist too small, always too small for this. She was born small, stayed small, perfectly small for this. 

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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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Yesterday, Today, Tomorrow.

Yesterday I was buried. Six feet under. There was no light. I could not see in the dark. When I opened my eyes, I was blind.
When I opened my mouth I was choked.
When I tried to shout, I was mute.
I could not breathe as my chest could not rise.
My arms were pinioned to my sides. I could not move.
There was space for my legs but this was unfortunate.
I couldn’t sit up so I lay on my back. There was no one else there because I was alone until I realised I wasn’t.

A monster lay with me.

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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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The Power of Speaking Out

I was questioned recently as to the point in my activism work and why I had chosen to tell people what happened to me. It was a good question and one I fully expect to be asked again. It made me think. What is the point of all this; the blog, The Flying Child Project, the activism? How is this work perceived by others? Does it even work? Does speaking out achieve anything other than raising pity?

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