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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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.

So…how are you now?

When we present a talk or workshop on CSA, we state at the beginning that we welcome disclosures as we do like to signpost people to further support, and we always allow ourselves extra time at the end so people don’t feel under time pressure if they want to talk.
Some want to speak about their experiences and others talk about the experiences of friends or family.

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ACE’s: Proceed With Caution

I recently watched an online discussion about ACE’s and outcomes for the individual. As a survivor of childhood sexual abuse, it made me feel a bit uncomfortable. Trauma; how we react to trauma, and the consequences of trauma will vary between individuals. We are all different, and labelling trauma survivors must be done responsibly and with caution. Most would agree that support for trauma survivors is lacking and inconsistent and must be more widespread, but care should be taken when striving for a trauma-aware society, not to inadvertently end up with a one-size fits all model of care. 

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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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Unspeakable Things

By Sophie Olson

I was the victim of a crime, an abhorrent act that was done to me, and to many others like me, yet when we speak about the acts of depravity that were inflicted on us, some people turn away from us.

Why?

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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.’

Look Up (Guest blog by Elizabeth Shane)

Elizabeth Shane (CSA Survivor – Author of Silhouette of a Songbird)

Look up. Two simple words that have stayed and only now, gained the realisation why this has affected me so much. I spent nearly my whole life looking down. Looking down through shame, through fear, through self-loathing and feeling too vulnerable for people to look into my eyes and heart in case they see the darkness I felt. I carried so much baggage I think I could have filled Heathrow airport without a label and would still be the only luggage that never got lost! This is a snippet of my story – condensed version.

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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.

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BBC Radio4 documentary:

Listen to Sophie Olson’s story…

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

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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From a therapist’s perspective… (guest post)

When I began specialist therapy I was unable to speak the words I desperately wanted and needed to, in order to recover. I had learnt how to be silent about the abuse; as a child, as a teenager and well into adulthood, only disclosing after attempting to take my own life at the age of thirty. I made a few attempts at trying to ‘get better’ but nothing seemed to work. Medications numbed me but did nothing to change the way I felt about the trauma. CBT missed the point entirely and psychotherapy was too cold and detached. EMDR, that provides relief for many, felt too intense, pushing me out of my comfort zone and triggering me to the point of being unsafe.

We are all different, and what works for one survivor may not help the next. In my case, I needed complete trust in the therapist. To take things at my own pace. I needed someone who wasn’t afraid to show empathy, or to hold my hand if that is what I required at the time. I needed someone intuitive to help me unlock the ‘Big Black Door’ in my mind, behind which I kept my trauma, to support me to find my voice and tell my story. I was fortunate to find the right person and, in time, recovery for me was to be found at the end of a pen. Only through writing was I able to finally tell my story. This month’s guest post is from the perspective of a person-centred therapist. She has worked for many years with survivors of sexual violence.


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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.

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But What If I Can? (The pandemic from a survivor’s point of view)

This was written in 2020, during the pandemic. It is important to include because it illustrates that the journey to recovery is not linear. It’s bumpy, sometimes there’s a road block and diversion, but that’s ok, as long as we keep going. 2020 hasn’t been easy for anyone. Under times of acute stress, the survivor of child sexual abuse may find themselves stumbling off the path for a while and they must climb back up. Sometimes good things can be achieved during tough times.

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