Zip

My habit – borne of self preservation no doubt – is to slam a metal shutter down, shut up shop, whenever I sense my mind or emotions edging toward remembering my abuse. It’s only natural I guess. I have become expert at shifting focus, blocking out some things, moving at speed toward others.

Only recently have I accepted that this urge in itself perpetuates damage. It keeps secrets. It tells no one. It suffers in silence.

The difficulty with allowing these memories to surface, to speak them, is that it can feel like I’m giving in. Giving in to the bleak reality that like it or not abuse has etched itself across my life, my day to day living. I’m so angry about this, angry on behalf of my child self who could not get angry: GO AWAY! I want it all to go away.

But try as I might, my triggers – my reminders – cut straight through whatever defences I have raised. And always have done. Regardless of what I want or hope for, they find their way in, just as my abuser did. They are with me daily.

And it turns out that they will never go away. It turns out that healing does not banish memories. Healing means that we learn to speak without risking our lives, without the implosion that silence brings. It’s not a fair trade, these daily reminders. Living with them is hard, and a cruelty. And none of it is our fault.

From my memoir Learning to Survive:

***

Zip

Because of you, it is years until I can bear the sound of one, or the feel of polyester.

            There are many things like this: flaky skin, a backrub.

            Some types of brown shoes. Checked shirts with white backgrounds. Thin cotton pyjamas. The feel of beards and moustaches. Teeth yellowed by cigarettes. Slightly pudgy fingers.

            Sleeping in the dark.

            Any soft caress, from anyone.

            Any romantic kindness. Any kiss on the lips.

            Any sign of desire. Any sigh.

Most of the time now I brace myself; most things surge and fade. Except for the dark: that panic never goes away.

***

holding hands

We are in the middle of #16Days of Activism against Gender-based Violence. Amid this global push to ‘Orange the World’, there are some powerful actions. One of them is Viv Gordon’s Cutting Out, mentioned in my last post.

Here are my paper dolls from that project, recently posted on Twitter. Holding hands. My words, snippets taken from my memoir Learning to Survive, decorate them — because words have cleared the way for me to say how I feel, to name the abuse, to articulate the ongoing trauma. And eventually: they helped me notice the moments of peace, the pure joys of having children, the winter sun today. Words do it all, and I’m grateful I can use them now.

I’m grateful too to be holding hands. In this together.

During the abuse, and for a long time after, I felt ‘singled out’, like a calf driven away from the herd by a lion on a hunt. Looking back, I can see that I was my father’s puppet, at his mercy and disposal: completely exposed and examined, in every intimate way, yet completely, utterly alone. Far away from anyone else, in the dark. It would have changed my life to know that there were others. That we could save each other. That I had some power.

I think of this excerpt from Learning to Survive, as I cut out my dolls and collage my words. I think: I am here for these children now, in ways that no one but no one was there for me.

***

In the Night

I have the dream again, only this time I am freezing. I am freezing because I hardly have anything on, and the wind blowing through the walls, the walls that aren’t really there, is so cold. Still I must decorate; I have to stand on the chair and hang plants, think about colours, make things just so. I begin to shiver, and the leaves of the plant I am holding shake with my shivering. I try to stop, but the more I try to stop the worse it becomes, until my whole body is shaking.

            I manage to hang the plant, putting the chain over the hook. I manage to smile into the darkness, push my hair back as if in front of a mirror. Then I take a step off the chair, and my foot keeps going down, down further than I thought the floor was, and when it touches, I fall after it into a ditch.

            I know I have broken some bones, because they are too cold and brittle. My arms are pinned to my side in the ditch, my face pushed into the mud. In the fall I lose my nightgown, and my bottom is exposed. But I can’t move. I am useless, and leave myself there for dead.

***

turning the corner?

I was sorry to miss the Shameless WoW Festival yesterday at Battersea Arts Centre (life too hectic right now). There looked to be some discussion there around #CSA (Child Sexual Abuse) as well as much-needed activism and lived experience around gender based violence. Insofar as CSA goes: might this be a corner turning?

I hope so. Bringing CSA to the public consciousness — really LOOKING at it — has been like turning around a huge ship in limited space: it will go, it will happen, but it will take lots and lots of small movements. A 1000 point turn, in other words, for British readers.

But the incremental and mighty ‘turns’ are there, now in abundance. Witness the part #CSA plays this year in #16Days (16 Days of Activism Against Gender-Based Violence); in particular, look at the work Viv Gordon and her colleagues are undertaking in Cutting Out — we ALL would benefit from doing this, mindful moments to place our concerns, anger, grief, hopes for the future into creative and ritualised action. The paper dolls go into the world to speak for us, hold us, and touch others, hand to hand.

Witness too the writers’ loud voices speaking directly to sexual abuse, sexual assault, and trauma: writers like alice hiller, Day Mattar, Chaucer Cameron, Tessa Foley, Clare Best — and myself. Witness how at last they are being heard: in Poetry and Trauma at Poetry in Aldeburgh, in shortlisting for national prizes, in national forums and readings.

Witness at last the enormous amount of grassroots work now being done by individuals and organisations raising awareness of CSA, developing policies for schools and medical professionals, and offering training for the same. I can’t help but imagine what life might have been like if someone had recognised and noticed my behaviour, or my father’s, during the abuse. If I had known that I was not the only girl going through this, that I was not on my own.

But I didn’t know that. Not for years and years. And any hint from anyone — teachers, friends, a therapist — that they knew something might be wrong, was unspoken. Nothing like this had words then, not words said in public or to each other. Looking back, I think some people in my life had suspicions. Yet they watched me have to leave my family home at 17 as a direct result of the abuse, and could say nothing. Silence damages everyone. In my memoir Learning to Survive, I write this about that time:

***

Us

[My friend] Valerie is perhaps the most upset. I remember she starts crying, right in the classroom. She wants to know why. And I have my answer, the one I use over and over ‘I just want to live with my mother before going away to college.’

            I do not realise that Valerie still cares about me. I do not realise, if I’m honest, that anyone except [my close friend] Alice really cares. Yet my going disturbs the surface, and numerous people – students, teachers – seek me out to wish me well, and ask questions. The Principal of the school asks me in to see if he can do anything to make me stay, and if everything is okay. To which I say No, and Yes.

            Of course it is [my English teacher] Mrs Amos I dread leaving the most. But again, to her credit, she doesn’t try to convince me otherwise. She wishes me all the best. She knows I will succeed in everything I do. She believes in me.

I encounter a curious mix of sorrow and knowingness when I announce I’m leaving. Looking back, I think that the sorrow mainly comes from those who cannot imagine how this has happened. Whereas the knowingness, the unspoken, rises through the eyes of those who may know something or suspect.

            From here, I see our joint powerlessness. I see how mistreatment, how abuse, is too often communicated in silence, implied. How it is up to the women to get away, how other women must urge them silently. How they are brave, deserting everything. Leaving everything – their children, their lives, their homes – behind. Forced to cut and run.

            Whereas really it’s my father who needed to leave. Really he should have been arrested. And I should have been able to stay put, and never lost [my half-siblings], the heartbreak of my life. And they in turn would never have had to carry their own complex and heart-breaking confusions – with no help from anyone — around for so many years.

***

So. Are we turning corners? I really, really hope so. So many are working so hard to ensure that safeguarding is now more nuanced, and that Child Sexual Abuse is part of the conversation. Up until now, too many abuse disclosures result in what happened to me: scapegoating, and the girl/woman/boy/man leaving/running/escaping. Isolation follows, and the attempt to remake a life. Please help us in working toward a time when this is not the only option.

the time is now

There is no beginning of all this, and, realistically, no end either. Childhood sexual abuse is as old as Time of course, and it’s hard to imagine we will ever reach a point of ultimate awareness, when these crimes are universally prevented.

However. There are times when revolution — evolution even — brings us to the point of important change, personally and in society. My own story began 46 years ago, at age 11. I attempted therapy first at 17 years old, then at 21 therapy became necessary. I have been in and out of therapy more or less ever since — mostly to do with the legacy of sexual abuse, but also around the legacy of neglect which led me to that point, and because as a result of everything I struggle to make maps and models in my life; I don’t recognise stability. And good therapists, I have found, can make good role models, good parents, and help you listen to and locate your best self.

Despite all this therapy and integration of my selves, it is only in the last two years or so I have felt the pull to activism around childhood sexual abuse (CSA). And only recently have I become aware of a groundswell of activism and art which bears witness to CSA and which is working hard to raise awareness of CSA.

A fact everyone needs to know is this: about 90% of ALL childhood sexual abuse is committed by someone THE CHILD KNOWS. The majority of these offences is committed by a family member. The rest are perpetrated by a trusted family friend.

My abuse was perpetrated by a family member. Most people I am in touch with who have been abused were abused by a family member. Yet: as widespread as they are, these instances are not highlighted by the media as part of anti sexual assault and violence against women campaigns. Lived experiences of CSA are not featured in symposia or conferences. Indeed, they rarely make it into print or art that is widely consumed.

Shame and silencing, awkwardness, disgust, horror… these things stop CSA at the door. To those who have not experienced abuse or do not love someone who has been abused — CSA can feel like Too Much Information, too yucky, like it belongs somewhere else, just not HERE.

To those who have been abused, HERE is all there is, and what must be carried, with all the accompanying shame and disgust and fury. And we are everywhere. A conservative estimate by the NSPCC states that 1 in 20 children in the UK are being or have been sexually abused. That’s at least one in every classroom. Think about that. Please.

We have got to open our eyes. We have got to help each other. We have got to protect children. The time is now folks.

source: https://learning.nspcc.org.uk/media/1710/statistics-briefing-child-sexual-abuse.pdf