As I started to write I thought I’d better put a trigger warning up front. Then I realized that this blog is one big trigger warning…I’m writing about flashbacks and I’m writing about triggers.

For me flashback is a word that doesn’t really hit the mark. I don’t like it. But I accept that we need a shared description that broadly defines an experience so that we have a common reference point.

Of course I’m not going to write about the detail of my flashbacks. I’ll keep that for me and my therapist. But I am going to write about the process of having them. This is my experience – it is individual, specific to me, and is not an attempt to be definitive.

So, the first thing to say is that I rarely have flashes of anything. If the definition of flashback is to re-experience a traumatic event from the past then that is what is happening to me. But it’s very rarely sudden, it’s not a ‘one off’ and it doesn’t really flash; although I am occasionally jettisoned elsewhere.

I live with a constant image in my head – a nasty one – that never goes away. It is the image that told me when I was a child that the abuse was about to happen. It’s with me when the sun’s out, when I’m throwing up, throughout periods of work, rest or play, and of course when I’m trying to go to sleep.

I don’t always notice it. A bit like a visual defect, a blind spot in my vision (which I also have), sometimes it is there but not there. My brain compensates for the obstruction. Other times I can see nothing else. Frequently me and that image just co-exist. Occasionally this can mean I have my own comedy moments: a serious work situation overlaid with something altogether different and no one has a clue what’s currently screening in my personal cinema.

The second thing is I usually know when I’m likely to start having the images. This is particularly true if they are new ones. I just feel different. My brain ticks over just a bit too quickly (not in a productive way!). My body is uncomfortable. A sense of unease starts to gather around me. I want to pull away from people and the world around me.

Third. Flashbacks aren’t always images. I’ve recently had the audio-flashback. A little podcast of a sound memory – voices – which invades me, then replays, then eventually settles. This is particularly irritating – not only does it interfere with my personal airwaves, but audio takes up a lot of my RAM and cerebral hard drive. It slows my brain down and I can’t adapt very well to additional sounds. In fact I really hate noise of any kind.

Fourth and final thing. The triggers are just everywhere. Really. It is not just the obvious things that trip you into a flashback. In fact talking frankly about abuse-related issues rarely does. It’s the small things, daily, that can make you feel bombarded: certain clothing, a smell, the weather, washing my hands (yes, I know…), types of behaviour or responses. Or it’s the obvious ones badly handled: casual mentions of abuse by friends or colleagues never imagining it’s something you’d know about, or skewed reporting of “scandals” like Savile, Harris, Rotherham, Church of England, children’s homes, MPs. And it can be just a bad or uneasy feeling, plain and simple, that starts the process off.

And that’s why I started #everydaytriggers on twitter. I use that hashtag to make a record, as I go, of those things that trigger me, and invite other survivors to do the same. We might have a little twitter chat about them or we might not. But we’ve said it.

Triggers give rise to flashbacks. But neither of these is really what it seems.

For my friends at Survivors Together


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)