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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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.

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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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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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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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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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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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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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 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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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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“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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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.

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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Alone in a crowd

“It’s easy to stand in the crowd but it takes courage to stand alone”

Mahatma Gandhi

Content: child sexual abuse. Sexual assault.

I’ll never forget the horror of being in danger, in public, and the sickening realisation that no one was noticing. I was too frightened at the age of fourteen to reach out to anyone at all. I felt an insane mix of terror and loneliness, on a bustling high street on a Saturday afternoon.

The worst thing about this terrible situation I found myself in, was that I felt it was my fault. I had instigated this meeting between me and the man who had sexually abused me throughout my childhood. I still feel the flush of shame when I think about that.

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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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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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… (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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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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