So. My post shame (part 1) tackled (somewhat) the pervasive and wholesale shame that Child Sexual Abuse survivors often battle. The kind of shame that constantly threatens to undermine you (me): I should have stopped it; I’m dirty and will always be dirty; everything I attempt will fail; I will never be happy because I’m not worth it.
There is, however, another kind of shame. A very specific kind, which is very, very hard to talk about. I want to tackle this aspect now, because I feel like we don’t address this often enough — and for me, it was a huge thing both during the abuse and afterward. Off and on, I still struggle with it.
The shame I’m talking about is the shame that comes with having a body which can react physically, no matter how hard you try NOT to react, to preserve your shell.
Those of us who have been abused in childhood learn too fast and too early that the mind and body are at once connected and disconnected. It’s important here to remember that in the case of being groomed (like I was, and many if not most CSA survivors were), there is little violence. Instead, there is coercion, manipulation, softness, (false) declarations of love, etc. Therefore often — not always, but often — the body responds in the way that bodies respond naturally to touching without violence. The way that adults understand their bodies to be preparing for a sexual encounter, whatever that may entail.
When this happens — when a girl ‘gets wet’, or a boy has an erection etc — the shame is so overwhelming, so horrifying, that, for me anyway, I hated myself. Because as children we don’t want this to happen — but we have no control over our bodies, no control at all. And yet this is happening anyway.
I tried — desperately — to get some control over my body. When that didn’t work, I opted for secondary control: I became determined not to move, or speak, or respond in ANY way that I could control. I deliberately became stone, separate from my body.
I suspect this reaction is common. It preserves something, it makes us feel like we still have a little bit of ourselves.
However. Imagine carrying this ‘I must stay separate from my body’ message into adulthood, into relationships with people you care about, with people you want to be responsive and sexual with. The profound shame around sexual intimacy — for me anyway — springs from a hard-wired message I sent to myself during the abuse: this is disgusting; I hate my body; I hate myself.
Most survivors swing wildly between being terrified of sex on one hand and not valuing sex on the other, once they reach teenage years and beyond. I was at first terrified, and then — sex didn’t matter. At all. The root of this behaviour was shame, which easily morphed into self-disgust and self destruction.
All survivors I know have had to work hard at one time or another to figure out how to be intimate and have sex at the same time. How to hang on to everything about it, and not ‘check out’, dissociate, from the situation. That’s the easier option, and most survivors can do it instantly and with very little effort: boom, I’m not here. Do what you want. I’ll come back later.
I don’t know exactly how I’ve reconciled the physical responses of a child with the physical responses of an adult. It’s taken a long, long time not to back away, and to feel that this is right, not shameful. Not embarrassing. And that I’m not oversexed or weird for reacting at all.
I’m assuming that TRUST is the lynchpin. I’ve been with the same man, very happily, for nearly 37 years. But there were things I (and he) had to learn and accept along the way: I had to learn to say No sometimes, and we both had to learn that this did not mean the end of our relationship. I had to learn to acknowledge fear and embarrassment in the moment, and then we had to find a way through together.
None of it has been easy. And there were times when I wish I could just ‘go away’ in my head, like I used to. Because dealing with shame, and deep damage to the self and relationships — all this is painful. And not my fault. The blame lies elsewhere — with my father, though he never accepted it — yet my body and mind, they carry ALL the shame. And it is hell to defuse. So infuriating. Another thing we have to ‘fix’, though we had NOTHING to do with the breaking.
An excerpt from LEARNING TO SURVIVE, directly about this.
In my memory, he touches me every night, and some mornings. All the time. But this cannot be true. Can it?
The episodes – the days, places, ages – blur into each other. Forgetting the actions forgets time, chronology. Only fragments can be dragged to the surface.
At first, there are no words. Before the room in the basement is built, there can’t be, because I am sharing with [my half brother]. For similar reasons – I’m guessing – these times don’t seem to last long either.
I always lie on my stomach at first, because he reaches the very least of me that way. I try to be as small as possible, as asleep. As silent, as still. As like stone.
I am eleven years old.
Even in this upstairs room he slides his hand into my pyjamas. I have stopped wearing nightgowns, deliberately, and try to wear underwear when I can. He slides his hand under both and slowly creeps it down, rubbing my back the whole time. He feels there, rubbing. He keeps rubbing. And it becomes wet. He sighs. He rubs more.
I am angry. I am so angry at myself. Later, in the downstairs room, he will ask if it feels good. How about this, and this?
There are fleeting moments now and forever when I am in control, when I find something within my power to withhold. This is one of them: I am always like stone.
3 thoughts on “shame (part 2)”
We’ve met a couple of times – you joined ICE and I attended a teaching session you gave on the first cohort of the Teaching CW certificate course, and also at the book launch of my Masters cohort anthology. I’m a practitioner psychologist in Cambridge, and work with a lot of abuse survivors. Your story is so brave, and you make it so accessible in the straightforward way you write. I’ve been following it since you told me about it, the second time we met, although I haven’t commented before. This is one of the hardest areas to write about, and to relate to for those who haven’t experienced it, as well as the most damaging for relationships.
I just wonder what you think about who your story is for. When I’m working with survivors, I encourage them to both write to help themselves and to read. There is a timing to the reading part – women and men often want to read stories of other survivors, but they can be triggering of course. So timing can be crucial, and also the “right” kind of material for an individual. Do you have any thoughts about this?
There is of course an audience for stories like yours beyond other survivors – for others to witness and understand and prevent and so on, so this question is really about people in therapy and people who might go into therapy after CSA.
I look forward to the publication of your memoir too – I’m sure you’ll let your followers know about when it comes out!
Hello Ruth! I remember you. You gave me a lot of hope that there might be a practical and real life use for this writing. Thank you.
I do often think about triggers. And whether my work rushes up to that. And risks them. But I guess I balance that with the thought that if I myself had read something which wasn’t sensationalised — about abuse — at a time when I was going through therapy, I would have either NOT read it, or read it and knew that others went through similar. I think this boundary is about accepting my own abuse, and that I am not unique. It helps to believe you are unique at first — and reading about others’ experiences might feel very confusing at that point. But at the point when you know you are part of a messed up dynamic which occurs over and over — reading about others can be really validating.
My hope is to show that survivors are not alone. To anyone who will listen. To show at least a part of the reality of CSA for some people, so that they and others will see it.
I’m aware too that I cannot be all things to all people. I am always happy to guide and advise and redirect, but I’m not a counsellor or psychologist. I can help, but not work through. At the end of the book, my plan is to list resources, for anyone who needs them. I do feel that is the best I can do.
The accompanying thought to this I think is that if I — or any survivor — ‘skates’ around the lived experience of being such — we are contributing to CSA happening ‘over there’, being ‘shameful’, ‘no one I know’ etc. It’s very important to me that silence and stigma be broken. There is a fine line between ‘breaking silence’ and ‘triggering’ in some instances, but I would rather err on the ‘side’ of breaking silence in this book…
Timing is important. But I’m not sure how to judge that. When I was first in therapy, trauma therapy was nothing like as advanced as it is now. However my wonderful therapist found a perpetrator and partners of perpetrators group for me to attend — through the police. I could never have attended at the beginning of my therapy, because my own certainty of having been abused at all was so fragile. But perhaps a year in, I became angry. It all felt so nebulous and unresolved. That is when I went to the group. I could then see how typical my own abuse was, how pathetic the (as it happens) male perpetrators were. It gave me perspective, although it also made me see that, basically, I was used. So there was a lot to reckon with subsequently.
Finally — I cannot think of this book I guess as a therapy book per se. I hope that it might help some people — both survivors and those who love or care for them, as well as those who are curious enough to have awareness raised — but it’s only my story. It’s not a compilation, and can’t possibly encompass the breadth of experiences that survivors undergo throughout their lives. In no way can it do this. I do not speak for others; I only hope that my speaking strikes others in some way which is meaningful.
The truth is (and you will know this): public lived experience accounts of ‘everyday’ CSA survivors are shockingly scarce, given how common domestic CSA is. I’m hoping this book paves the way for more stories, and more accounts of therapies, and more readable, considered records of healing, looking toward the future, and ongoing supports for survivors.
This is all so serious! But I’m so glad to hear from you. As I say, I’ve thought of you often. Thank you for keeping up with me.
At the moment the publishing world is slightly shying away from (‘everyday’, women’s) CSA. This much is evident. It feels, I’m guessing, a step too far in some way, and less ‘marketable’ than ‘monster’ narratives around serial (and unusual) predators like Savile, Epstein and Maxwell. The mainstream creative work around CSA remains systemically stigmatised, no doubt unconsciously.However: I will get there. We will get there! I am certain that the tide is shifting. If you are interested, a good hashtag to follow on Twitter is #CSA. There’s a lively and informed community there of survivors and therapists, and it’s always active. It may be a thought for your patients too, if they are ready.
Sending all the best, and thank you again,
Thank you for writing. I am so glad you have.