[painting: Hope Within, by Kirsten Bailey]
Sexual assault of any kind can make the victim feel dirty. If we dig a bit deeper, we arrive at the nature of this ‘dirtiness’: that is, the body feels trespassed upon, invaded. No longer our own private property, or in our control; the body becomes someone else’s. Reclaiming the body from assault can be a long and confusing process: this is my body, supposedly, but why does it not feel like mine? Or why do I hate it?
I think it’s important to acknowledge and accept that Child Sexual Abuse is freighted with all this — this body foreignness — to an almost overwhelming degree. Because the child does not yet have a body identity when the abuse happens. The abused child’s sense of self is very much still forming: what do I look like? what do I want? what do I not like or want? The child without a body becomes an adult without a body that feels like theirs.
A victim of CSA is forced to figure out their body — including its physical responses, its capacities, its foibles and pleasures — already shackled with the knowledge that their body has never felt like theirs.
The incidence of eating disorders is very high in survivors of CSA, as is the incidence of self harm. It’s not rocket science to see where this urge to destroy the self might come from: it comes from the even stronger urge to get some control, to have some impact upon this alien body that isn’t ours.
As in so many things around my recovery, I have been lucky. I had my dance, which meant I never lost my body entirely, and I found an amazing partner young, when I was only 21. Yet it has taken decades of slow work to feel comfortable with intimacy, with my body. To learn to say No thank you. To learn that others do not have ‘rights’ to my body, no matter how I dress or behave. It has taken decades to reclaim my body.
The psychological knock-on of feeling like ‘damaged goods’ is shame. After all, ‘allowing’ someone to interfere with your body must be your fault, right? ‘You should be ashamed of yourself.’
This shame, the sense of something deep down being wrong, and being your fault, for me is never far away. If I have a disappointment of some sort, Shame says ‘what did you expect?’ followed by ‘it was bound to mess up, because you will never be like everyone else’. You are unworthy. This shame has held me back in my career, and in my life. It has also kept me from enjoying some moments in my life fully, like the arrival of my first child.
This excerpt from my memoir Learning to Survive traces my pregnancies, and some of my early psychological complexities as a survivor around shame, feeling unworthy, expecting disaster, and having children.
I live for a year in Norwich doing my MA, and R meanwhile has landed funding to do a year at IRCAM in Paris. We are apart again, but spend a fortune seeing each other every other week so survive it quite well. It helps too that his father lives in Norwich; I have family again. Eventually I write stories, publish a couple, and in time complete my first novel – which, I now see, is the first full-length attempt to write this book.
In 1992 R secures an academic job in Canterbury. R’s father helps us buy a house, and we move there with relief and energy; we both know this is the new chapter of our lives, and relish it. I have teaching work in Norwich and in Kent, and R very quickly establishes himself as a fine teacher of music composition. We make close friends.
We also start trying to have children. I have always – despite everything – known I want a family. R is less committed, but fortunately I don’t believe him; as it turns out, he becomes the most natural parent I have ever witnessed, even though our wait is a long one.
In the 18 months it takes me to become pregnant the first time, I have convinced myself that something is wrong. That I am wrong. And this feels expected: of course I am. We are only 28, but have all the tests, all of which come back borderline everything. As is so often the case, we start to give up – and suddenly we are pregnant. I begin to allow myself to believe everything will be okay. R is overjoyed; I try not to panic.
Almost immediately I begin spotting. And at nine weeks, I miscarry. The grief is intense, the loss crushing. I remember sitting in the play room in R’s father’s house that Christmas, watching the other grandchildren, tight with tears, and R’s father resting his hand on my shoulder, deep in understanding.
I dream about babies for weeks. In the one I remember most vividly, I have three babies, all newborn. In the dream, I lose them and begin frantically searching the house. They are naked, vulnerable. At last I find them in a kitchen cupboard, with all the glass jars and odds and ends. One baby is fine, called Laura. Another has Down’s Syndrome, and another – I don’t look closely – is shrivelled, mewing like a cat. I leave these last two in the cupboard. The memory of this dream, of losing or abandoning two babies, triggers my worst moments in the grief following a second miscarriage years later.
However, after this first miscarriage, everyone says, all the doctors, that it will be easier to get pregnant the next time around. They are wrong. It takes much longer, two and a half years, and in that time I retreat to an old place. This old feeling, so familiar, says that I am fundamentally flawed, different. That I am not like other women: I am damaged.
Indeed. As each month ticks by, the feeling becomes more entrenched, the evidence mounting. I am not going to get what I want, and this should come as absolutely no surprise. I don’t, of course, deserve to. I should be happy with what I have.
When I finally, by some miracle it seems, and with the help of Clomid, fall pregnant again, my fear of losing the baby is almost paralysing. I feel convinced of something no one else will believe: that I am incapable of carrying a baby to term. As the days tick by, I force myself to act as if this is all perfectly normal. In secret, I create a mantra for myself: I am afraid of being afraid. I steel myself never to look at my underwear for signs of bleeding.
In this case however, nature manages to plough its furrow regardless. On 10 March, 1996, Eliot emerges, healthy and huge. Everyone celebrates, but I am numb with surprise. This numbness takes weeks to dissipate, and it is months, even years, before I believe, truly believe, that this is real, that I deserve him, and that I am not living in the middle of another disaster waiting to happen.
Eliot is the most amazing baby and toddler. Of course. He is bright, kind, funny. When he is two we begin to try for another. And after another year of trying, I fall pregnant, only to have another miscarriage, at nine weeks again. This loss, if anything, is deeper and harder than the first. I am useless, incapable, and will not get lucky again. Who do I think I am?
We decide to keep going, one more time. This time I am put onto Clomid quicker, and although I don’t conceive on it, I conceive shortly afterward. However, as with the other pregnancies, I begin to spot at six weeks. In full panic mode, I go straight to the hospital, where an internal scan shows a heartbeat; this is a relief, but also terrifying, as I now know if I lose it – I am losing a viable baby. I am reassured, placed on aspirin, just in case there’s a blood clotting issue, and within two days, the spotting stops. To their credit, the midwives at the Foetal Medicine Unit recognise that I am nearly incapacitated by fear, and I have a scan every week for another three months, suffering terrible morning sickness, and sky-high anxiety, all at once. At 20 weeks, my usual midwife says to me ‘Now do you believe you are having this baby?’, and we manage to laugh. I have to believe her. Nineteen weeks later another huge, healthy – and every bit as bright and kind — baby emerges via Caesarean, Max.