Dentists Need To Know

Over the last few weeks I have been using my own lived experience as a survivor activist, working with The University of Bristol, Bristol Dental School and activists Viv Gordon, Patricia Debney and Hazel Larkin to coproduce research ‘Improving Access to Oral Health Services for Adult Survivors of Child Sex Abuse.’ It has been a wonderful and empowering project to be part of, beautifully and safely held by all, and I’m excited by the change already on the horizon. Many survivors (including myself) find accessing dentistry almost impossible and I look forward to the day in which survivors’ needs are recognised. We can be perceived as ‘nervous’ patients but this is not the case. We are traumatised by our experiences of abuse and going to the dentist can be triggering and re-traumatising, leaving many of us avoidant. The fault does not lie with us for not being able to ‘overcome our fear’, it lies with a system that doesn’t (yet) understand and accommodate our needs. Many thanks to Brigstow Institute and Bristol and Weston Hospital Charity for funding such valuable and vital research, and to Viv for setting this ball in motion.

This is my response to one of the creative writing tasks from the workshops. We were asked what we thought ‘Dentists need to know.’

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Catching the Feather:

A short story of CSA

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.

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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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Swim Against the Tide

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.

Worldwide Trigger

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.

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