Forty-five and still standing. I have made it this far.

So by definition I have survived. Yet, it is only recently that I have come to consider myself a survivor. This is probably common to many of us: reaching that understanding of what happened to us later rather than sooner.

My own story is nowhere near unique, probably not even rare: abused on a regular basis by my maternal grandfather between the ages of five and 11. Repeated trauma, occasionally disclosed, but never responded to.

It can be hard, particularly on a bad day, to say to yourself “I am a survivor”, or even, to use the words of pop goddess Gloria Gaynor, to know “I will survive”. After all I don’t feel like much of a survivor when I am reliving a trauma, in the midst of an anxiety attack, overdosing on attachment despair, feeling deep shame, or hating every label applied to me (including survivor). On those days I feel like a victim.

I feel that being a survivor defies definition. It is complicated – “survivordom” doesn’t start where victimhood stops. They run in parallel and they coexist inside me. Some days my fickle mind privileges the victim and I really struggle, other days it privileges the survivor and I soar.

Why do I soar? I think it is because I love the community of support that I have. Like everything good and solid it started small but is definitely now growing: the pyramid sales model of reaching out and making connections, both public and private.

First there is my therapist – nearly four years of patience, belief, presence, acknowledgement, and encouragement (particularly to write). Feeling my way to disclosing as fully as I could, sitting with the full spectrum of emotions – it has been (and still is) a long journey, but she is the bedrock of my support. Knowing that I am able to trust someone who has reliability and understanding written into their DNA has terrified me and transformed me.

Second are my two amazing friends who are simply steadfast in their support. They are my day to day. Not survivors, but supporters and part of my private survivor community. There for me at the end of the phone, with a glass of wine, a text, an email, a day out. Kindness and love personified.

Third is the survivor community I have met through social media and through writing. When I published my first blog and put it out through my new twitter account the response was overwhelming. People I didn’t know told me I was writing their experience, people shared their experiences with me and I realized they were my own. I was ‘meeting’ total strangers, but I knew instantly a very important part of them. We could connect.

When I can manage it, I take part in a weekly survivor chat session on Twitter. It is amazing to connect with a huge community of survivors who understand. When I am in ‘victim’ mode it lifts my mood, makes me smile a little, often makes me cry, but I know there are people there who really do understand. When I am a ‘soaring survivor’, I love to connect, to contribute and to hear from others. However I am feeling I always benefit.

Through this virtual community I now also have a real face to face community – the fourth step of my pyramid. Initially I became part of a start up charity to provide support to young people who have been sexually abused in childhood. And now I am part of a group of survivor activiststhe Survivors’ Collective. We are there for each other and we are pursuing projects to give voice to the issues that matter to us and to raise awareness of how abuse impacts on our lives.

My first meeting with them was plainly and simply empowering. I was talking using abuse survivor shorthand that I didn’t need to expand; wanting to say “me too” every time someone said something; reveling in being completely understood by people who just ‘knew’; and loving the kindness of strangers who weren’t really strangers.

I love the diversity of the survivor community. Some of us want to be out and proud, some of us want to share our anger, some of us want to be very private yet acknowledged, others (like me) need to be anonymous, although this is slowly changing. My experience is that everything is accepted and everyone is respected.

My journey to becoming a survivor has been long. I wrote this poem nearly 25 years ago, and it marks the start of something. I think it’s the first I ever wrote about my abuse and how much I needed my mother. I have never shared it before – but I share it now, with the huge survivor community that I know is out there, and who, along with my therapist, my friends and the Survivors’ Collective, make life much sweeter.

Published for #itsnotok sexual abuse awareness week and dedicated to my friends at the Survivors’ Collective 


Call my name
Use my name
Part of your disgusting act

At the door
You’re there, naked
I know what’s coming

Stop? I tell you
It hurts
My body and my mind

The next day
I cry at school
I cry all day

Dying – supper
Dying – bed time
Dying – all night

Where’s Mummy?
Need her, call her
Kiss her

(1990 – aged 20)



Dave Lee Travis, stalwart of BBC youth and popular viewing in the 70’s and 80’s, was sentenced on 26 September, after being found guilty of sexual assault. He was given a three month suspended sentence for assaulting a researcher on one of his shows. It’s hard to imagine that what she has suffered or been through since then has in any way been ‘suspended’ apart from her belief in the criminal justice system perhaps…

But Dave Lee Travis is just the most recent example of a string of now shamed BBC entertainers: most famously Jimmy Savile, as well as Rolf Harris and Stuart Hall. Understandably much of the focus in the media has been on the role of the BBC. It sits in our collective psyche as an important institution; beloved “Aunty” – an honorary family member – has essentially let down a generation. It has wittingly or unwittingly sanctioned crimes to take place against vulnerable people. And it has made a generation of viewers reconsider the nature of those programmes and celebrities that alongside schooling and friends made up the weft and warp of their childhoods.

But think about it – isn’t it time we, as a society, widened our focus when we consider and respond to child abuse? Any perpetrator of this crime needs to be brought to justice. Yet one of the most enduring institutions of all – the family – is overlooked in this welcome exposure of abuse in our different institutions.

The Office of the Children’s Commissioner recently launched its important inquiry into child sexual abuse in a family environment. You’re unlikely to have heard about this unless you follow these issues relatively closely or you’re an early riser. It received scant coverage on Radio 4 at around 5.35 am on Thursday 3 July then it sank with very little trace. This is an important inquiry that needs everyone’s attention, not just from professionals and people with a statutory role or function… But without the celebrity status to give it a profile or the whiffs of political scandal that are following the Home Secretary’s attempts to launch an inquiry into this issue, nobody will find it important or interesting.

But as a society we really need to. If Top of the Pops, Jim’ll Fix It, and It’s a Knockout were a favourite part of your childhood and teens you’ll know the feeling of shock, disgust and often disbelief that these people did these things. Those feelings can give everyone a window into an aspect of how it can feel to live with the knowledge and memories of abuse by a member of your family. Somebody you loved and trusted isn’t what they seemed, and there’s very little of what you may actually have held dear that hasn’t been contaminated by what went on behind closed doors.

Just as more abuse “scandals” continue to emerge and shock us further, so those realising and confronting that they were abused have to come to terms frequent revelations and reminders. What happened to many many individuals at the hands of “Aunty” needs to be fully investigated. And what has happened to probably hundreds of thousands of children at the hands of uncle, father, brother, grandfather, family friend, parent, cousin also needs to be investigated.

Childhood is a series of formative experiences, memories and routines. When you realise you’ve been abused it’s not just your memories of tea-time TV routines that are turned on their heads.

This is what the routine felt like to me.


Between the ages of five and eleven
Week days after half past three
Saturday Sunday twenty-four seven
Holidays? Let’s wait and see

Upstairs meant the serious business
Downstairs it happened more casually
Get to the kitchen – safety and happiness
Outdoors, uncharted territory

The rules are relatively easy to learn
I picked them up at five years old
You’re called, you go, it happens – a pattern
Now broken by having told


So, I am a victim and I’m a survivor – of childhood sexual abuse. The recent reports from Rotherham over the past three weeks fill me with absolute rage, heartfelt sadness and overwhelming desperation at the ‘wrongness’ of what happened there. I don’t yet have the courage to speak out openly about what happened to me, however I have been able to seek support and pay for therapy to help me process and live alongside the deeply traumatic experiences from my past.

Having worked at a national level in organisations representing the institutions that have played their part in failing the 1400 girls in Rotherham and countless other children and young people who are abused, I know that the life chances for young people in the “looked after” system are seriously diminished. I also know that the funding available to provide the kind of individual mental health care and support they need to reclaim even a small part of their lives is pitiful. Against this measure I consider myself ‘lucky’.

We organise society, public services and our lives at a macro level by relying on (often sophisticated) categorisation, based on research and statistics, and guided by policies and politicians. These can be important.  But there is such a danger in using only this approach to shape our response, practical, moral and emotional, to the victims and survivors. A tick list of symptoms, a set of diagnoses, a menu of responses – it just doesn’t cut it.

In confronting this and all the other instances of abuse recently reported as a “collective tragedy” we must not let it mask the fact that we are talking about tens of thousands of individual tragedies: lives severely curtailed by fear and terror, childhoods lost, and the prospect of a lifetime of mental and physical health problems. Even in the title of this blog I use the phrase “Rotherham” as a shorthand to refer to (at least) 1400 shattered lives. Of course it is a device. I am conflicted in using it; I know a little of what they suffered, yet I want to get the message out there.

Samantha Morton’s piece in the Guardian today is brave and stark. We need to hear more of these stories.  I do not want to see any of these girls’ experiences belittled by their very scale, nor do I want the scale of the response needed to mean that we are blunt and unsophisticated. In writing this I had the familiar feeling of ‘who am I to be saying all this?’. Suddenly I realise I have as much right as anyone to talk out on this – I have been abused.

I wrote this poem recently to express how it feels from my perspective.

Research shows
As a victim of abuse
I’m more likely to suffer
rheumatoid arthritis – artherosclerosis –
panic – anxiety – unexplained pain –
claustrophobia – agoraphobia – anyotherkindofphobia
Please delete or add as applicable

Statistics say
As a victim of abuse
I’m more likely to number amongst
the self harmers – drug misusers –
eating disordered – alcoholic –
mildly psychotic – child abusers –
Please tick all that apply

The media blares
As a victim of abuse
I’m very likely to have
asked for it – exaggerated –
got my facts wrong –
suffered at the hands of a ‘monster’
Please choose one category only

Society thinks that
As a victim of abuse
can only be
unknown to them – damaged by a celebrity –
part of a cult – raised in an institution –
used by a politician
Please rank in order of relevance

I know
As a victim of abuse
Every day I feel
exposed guilty afraid
dirty humiliated lonely
detached needy ashamed
Please use the free text box to tell me what you think

(August 2014)