Please be aware this piece contains references to abuse, mental illness, self-harm, suicide attempts and addiction, which some people may find distressing.
A family member began grooming me when I was ten. I had no idea what was going on, but I guess that’s the nature of grooming; it’s the way a perpetrator prepares their victim for the abuse. He was manipulating me psychologically, so he could get away with what he wanted to do to me. He wore down my confidence, while taking advantage of the fact that I trusted him, looked up to him and wanted his approval.
It didn’t take long before he started touching me sexually. I was scared of him, but I was more scared of his threats about what would happen if my parents knew what was going on. So I didn’t put up a fight. Often, the terror response that kicked in made me unable to move. I’d dissociate, and my body would freeze. This happened at least every week for a number of months. The assaults got progressively worse as he gained confidence, and he eventually raped me. When he started to attack me while my parents were home, I tried to resist. He was violent then, and used his bodyweight to hold me down. I was only a little girl. There was no way I could win a physical fight.
The abuse eventually stopped when my parents found out. But despite the authorities being involved, the police only gave him a caution. I continued living in fear of him and feeling the huge shame he evoked in me for another eight years. So while the abuse had stopped, the feelings attached to it were very much alive. Being around my abuser meant that the trauma was cycling through me constantly.
I’ve seen a lot of doctors and been given various diagnoses. Major Depression, Complex PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder), Emotionally Unstable Personality Disorder, Anorexia. None of these really say much about what I’ve been through. They are just labels for collections of symptoms.
Anxiety has been a continuous presence in my life since the abuse. It has been so permanent for so many years that until a few years ago, I didn’t even notice that I felt scared and worried all the time. That state of constant fear was just my normal.
I’ve had bouts of depression since I was a teenager; some worse than others. This presented as very low moods, trouble sleeping, and a general lethargy that made doing anything at all feel impossibly hard.
In 2014 things got a lot worse. That was when the PTSD symptoms fully emerged. I had a lot of nightmares and flashbacks, and experienced huge anxiety and panic. I self-harmed and drank heavily in an attempt to calm the horrific feelings and distract from the memories. I also starved myself and used food or the lack of it to try and get a sense of control. I was given antidepressants, but they didn’t have much effect other than to numb me a little. My thoughts were extremely dark, and I fantasised about suicide constantly. The self-harm became so severe that I was regularly in A&E.
After an episode of self-harm that led to me needing 40 stitches, I was admitted to a psychiatric hospital. I stayed in the hospital for three months, much of it under constant observation by nurses. While this kept me relatively safe from myself, it didn’t improve my health. After my discharge from the hospital, I was more dangerously suicidal than I had been before. The traumatic memories and nightmares felt unbearable, they made it feel like my life was torture.
I tried to kill myself multiple times. I took a lot of overdoses, some meant more to harm myself and some with the intent of ending my life. I also developed anorexia, which largely was attached to my desire not to live. It felt like by not eating, I could just gradually fade out of my life.
I was under the care of the NHS Community Mental Health Team (CMHT) for some time, but my Care Coordinators never stayed with the trust for more than a few months at a time. Often they cancelled appointments or didn’t turn up.
The crisis helpline offered by the CMHT was extremely disappointing. My wife called them several times in desperation because she was scared she couldn’t keep me safe. They would just tell us to go to A&E or a café style drop in centre. In my most vulnerable times, neither of these were places I felt I could go to, and the burden of caring for me was left with my wife.
It is an absolute disgrace that there is no adequate support provided by the state. If a woman reports sexual assault to the police, she’s usually signposted to already stretched charity services, or even websites for support. It should be routine that anyone who has been the victim of such awful crimes is referred for specialist counselling to process their trauma. It infuriates me that, as far as I have experienced, there is absolutely nothing like this in existence. Given how there has been so much public discussion of sexual abuse in recent years, it is beyond my understanding that there is still no proper trauma treatment available for victims – unless they have the means to pay for it. It feels so wrong that nothing is being done to address the legacy of that trauma.
I’ve found support in a few different addictions groups, like AA (Alcoholics Anonymous) and CoDA (Codependents Anonymous). Those meetings are places I could go to and just be how I need to be, without fear of being judged.
I’m also fortunate enough to be able to pay to have psychotherapy privately. I’ve been working with my therapist for almost four years now, and I can say that without her support there are times I just wouldn’t have got through. Therapy is incredibly hard, and intensely painful, but I look forward to seeing my therapist every single week. She cares for me and accepts me in a way that I don’t experience much in my life. It’s amazing to have this very safe space with her, in which I can work through the things I really struggle with.
Even though it has now been several years since my breakdown, random interactions and experiences in day to day life still trigger the trauma feelings, shame, anxiety and panic attacks. I still find those feelings unbearable a lot of the time, and they limit me in a big way. I struggle not to self-harm, and I continue to battle my eating disorder. While things have improved, I know I am still a very long way from being able to say I’m doing OK.
I have found that guided meditations can ease my anxiety, and daily yoga practice helps to release some of the tension that builds up in my body. I sometimes use visualisations to help with flashbacks and intrusive memories. One that works well for me is imagining a big red ‘STOP’ sign when the memories come up. I really focus on the red lines and the letters and it takes my mind away from the distressing images.
Being outside in nature is also hugely beneficial for me. While I find it hard to practice ‘proper’ mindfulness, I do go for mindful walks every day. I leave my phone at home and just focus on being present. I take in the details of my surroundings; listen to birds, watch the clouds or the wind moving the trees. It gives me a sense of being grounded and reminds me that I can be free.
To anyone who may be suffering after sexual abuse, I’d say: You are not alone, and you don’t have to suffer in silence. You might feel ashamed, but that shame is not yours. That shame belongs entirely to the person who violated you. You can have a voice, and if you find someone you feel safe with, you can give a voice to that girl inside you who was so painfully wounded. Your truth matters, and there are people who will help you carry it. The road to healing is not an easy one, but you’ve had the strength and courage to survive this far, so you will get through it.