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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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.

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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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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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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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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“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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Too Close

By Sophie Olson

Sylvia Plath wrote in The Bell Jar: “I took a deep breath and listened to the old brag of my heart. I am, I am, I am”

I recently read a memoir by Maggie O’Farrell – in which she describes 17 brushes with death. The title of this book: ‘I am, I am, I am’,  has inspired this writing.

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The freedom to be me (nearly)

Today, I have no one else to disclose to. Finally at the age of 44, disclosure is complete.
Yesterday I disclosed the severity of the abuse to my own family of origin. I had hesitated because I thought it would protect them from hurt and horror and protect me from shame. I knew the documentary on Radio 4 would be listened to by my family and it felt like the right thing to do.

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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.

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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Nobody Knows

Statistics that tell us the prevalence of CSA, are vague – depending on which researching body or charity you refer to. One says 1 in 4. Another leading charity says 1 in 5. I’ve also read 1 in 6, 1 in 8 and 1 in 20. Nobody knows. It is a hidden crime. The 2019 Crime Survey for England and Wales estimated that 7.5% of adults aged 18 to 74 years experienced sexual abuse before the age of 16 years (3.1 million people).

According to NAPAC: cases of child abuse remain hidden; around one in seven adults who called the National Association for People Abused in Childhood’s (NAPAC’s) helpline had not told anyone about their abuse before.

It is estimated that only one in eight victims of sexual abuse come to the attention of statutory authorities (Children’s Commissioner 2015).

Sometimes I study these statistics as I want something tangible to bring into my presentations, and I tie my brain up in knots. There is no single definitive answer it seems. Nobody knows the true extent of how many children are sexually abused.

A singer called Brenda Rattray contacted me this week, asking if I could share the release of her new song ‘Nobody Knows’.
She describes it as ‘a song for the voiceless.’ I think it will speak to many survivors: it is beautiful, raw and honest.

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.

Continue reading “Yesterday, Today, Tomorrow.”

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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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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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.

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