SWEET SURVIVAL

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 

KISS HER

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)

 

SEQUELAE – ANOTHER WORD IN THE ABUSE SURVIVOR LEXICON

Trusty old Wikipedia tells me that a sequela (usually used in the plural, sequelae) is a “pathological condition resulting from a disease, injury, therapy, or other trauma.” Basically, something medical and noticeable, an identifiable condition that happens as a consequence of something else.

I was prompted to find a definition after I read an article in the New Statesman by Dr Phil Whitaker. It was an article that I applauded and that also made me sigh. He tackled an important issue: many women who have been sexually abused or assaulted are often unable to undergo primary healthcare checks and screening that require intimate examinations.

He related the tragic story of Martha, a woman in her late thirties, who, despite suffering ongoing infections (which is why she presented for treatment), was unable to have an internal examination. She revealed to him that she had been sexually abused in childhood. The terrible outcome of this was that she had advanced cervical cancer and died shortly afterwards. A psychological sequela (painful in itself) and a physiological sequela (in this case terminal).

Dr Whitaker is so right to bring to light just one of the consequences of what we know thousands of children suffer, which continue throughout adulthood. And that is what I applaud. When I put my ‘outsider’ head on, and read the article from the perspective of someone who has not experienced or is not really in the know about the impact of sexual abuse, it raises awareness of something so important. The long term impact (and cost – human and fiscal) of abuse is complex, comes from all sorts of sources and is not always obvious. It makes you think.

As an ‘insider’ (someone who is a survivor of child sex abuse) there was something in the article that just made me sigh. I’ve written before about the casual use of labels and categorisations, which I find can mask the reality of what it’s like to live with the consequences of abuse. I do not have this criticism of Dr Whitaker’s article – it is sensitively written, insightful and avoids generalisations. But I still have a sense that I, as an abuse survivor, am being written about, without being able to identify with the description or the perspective.

So, I attribute a portion of my sigh to not wanting to be part of a ‘group’ defined by someone else, not me. Another portion of my sigh goes to that familiar, self-imposed distance: be outside it all, deal with it by not engaging with it, pretend, pretend, pretend. There’s a small portion of my sigh that comes from just wanting to be able to flick through a magazine or newspaper and not be confronted by the unwanted. But the final, most important portion is the horrible jolt of recognition. I know the psychological sequelae of my abuse mean I am taking risks with physical health:

I’ll hold my hands up and say that I’m 44 and I’ve had one smear test in 20 odd years. This is bad. One doctor said to me “it’s the best insurance policy you can have”. Yes, of course – and I’d gladly do it if it meant filling out a form and paying an annual premium. Another GP, to whom I disclosed my childhood experiences, listened and offered (unprompted by me) to stop the smear reminders. I understand her motivation but it isn’t the answer.

I’ll also tell you that my trips to the dentist are infrequent-to-nonexistent – I’m waiting for the toothache that will force me to go. It will be a terrifying relief, as only that physical pain crisis will get me in the chair to have a stranger make me hold my mouth open and put things in it. To tell them I’m a nervous patient underplays it somewhat.

And several weeks ago I managed to get myself to the optician. Another basic health check that I have avoided…for nine years. Recently I fell over several times in quick succession simply because I could no longer see properly; the prescription in my glasses was too old to be useful. But sitting in the chair, in the dark, in a small room, unable to move, with a stranger at such close proximity is very, very hard. Of course I survived to see another day, but I didn’t relish it.

Some days the ramifications of abuse can feel overwhelming – a chain of “sequelae” not just one or two. Martha’s story is a stark reminder that sometimes it is really bad. But amongst all this I found a chink of light: mybodybackproject.com. This project gives a bit of hope to people like me (and countless others out there) who at the moment can’t access simple checks that might save our lives.

WE MUSTN’T JUST TICK THE BOX IN OUR RESPONSE TO ROTHERHAM

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.


TICK THE BOX 
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)