post-traumatic growth

This photo of me was taken a few weeks ago by the same brilliant photographer who shot E and A’s wedding last summer (Hannah Hall Beddoe/Cuts the Mustard). I have known for a while that I needed new author photos, as the wonderful ones I had (by friend Nancy Wilson Fulton) were over 10 years old.

After discovering that my work was shortlisted in the Bridport Memoir Awards this year, I needed author photos urgently. I’ll say more about the awards in the next post, but suffice it to say I’m thrilled to bits. Child Sexual Abuse reaching the top five in an international, open competition. This is a win no matter what.

But back to the photos. I went to see Hannah of Cuts the Mustard because I trusted her. She was in the Lakes (six hour drive from here), so a bit of a haul over a weekend, but I knew I couldn’t go to a stranger. Especially a man. That was not ever going to happen.

In the couple of weeks which followed the shoot, I tried to identify my feelings. The process of doing them had felt harder than I anticipated. I felt on the spot. I felt awkward. And at some point, I realised that I felt scrutinised. Not, I hasten to say, by Hannah — but by the camera itself somehow. I tied myself into a knot trying to appear ‘normal’, all the while feeling so very ‘different’.

It’s not rocket science to figure out what is going on here. Being forced to appear ‘normal’, to perform, when really so much is NOT normal under the surface. Really you want to run away forever.

To Hannah’s enormous credit, I began, as the session went on, to see the person behind the camera for who she is: a friendly face, a face which means me no harm, a face which believes in me. Hannah knows my history, and I began to think ‘oh, just be how you are every day’ — she likes you! You like her!

The shoot improved exponentially partway through. I can identify when I began to ‘risk’ showing myself. I realised she wasn’t going to use anything against me. That I did not need to hide.

Because that’s what my father would do. Swoop into any show of my ‘true self’, try to weasel his way in, try to ‘steal’ it — or so it felt. So I learned to hide the way I felt, nothing showing on my face. I learned to live with scrutiny, with my father seeming to examine my face, my movements, for anything he could bring up later, in my bedroom, that night. Anything to get ‘closer’ to me.

At some point, in my teens, while the abuse was still going on, my father took pictures of me. They are not explicit pictures, but they are agonising nonetheless. They look grown up, so focused on me, the camera’s cold gaze. I was frozen, yet required to be ‘relaxed’. A child forced into grown up poses. Thinking about it now, I feel just sick, sick to my stomach.

Somehow, these experiences led to me being convinced that I do not, under any circumstances, ‘take a good picture’. My children and husband are ‘photogenic’. I am not. I have felt this way for as long as I can remember.

When the photos come through from Hannah though, I am gobsmacked. And elated. There, on the page, in so many photos, I am myself. I recognise me. My husband recognises me, seeing in my movements and expressions so much that is ‘typical’. I look: yes, I am happy with that kind of ‘typical’. I am happy with how I guess I must appear to the world. This is me.

I have always hated representations of myself. They feel so far away from my nebulous idea of ‘me’. I harboured a fear in fact that I always looked fake, that there was always some of kind of ‘wall’ between my interior self and my external appearance, and never the twain shall meet. I honestly had zero idea that these photos could be ‘me’ in the world. But my friends and family assure me that they are.

So what happened? How did I arrive here? Later, I spoke with my good friend Clare Best (another CSA survivor) about this. It turns out that she wrote a blog post herself about having author photos taken — by her son in this instance — and how this led to a sense of growth, of being more rather than less grounded, connecting with the self in profound ways.

Clare mentioned the idea of ‘post traumatic growth’. I’d never heard of it. But reading up on it: this is clearly what has happened to me, in particular ways, over time. The latest one being finding my way through being photographed, and experiencing it differently than ever before. There is a part of me that might have turned away completely from having these photos taken. I did find it gruelling at first, extremely emotionally challenging. But at some point, unawares, I grew past/through the initial, old trauma. I can now see that I have done this a number of times in my life, around very specific things. It is patently obvious that PTG is by no means the inevitable outcome (‘what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger’ — NO!), nor should there (as the above linked article is careful to point out) ever be an expectation or imposed narrative of certainty around PTG happening. Because we all know that there are some things about having been abused which will always remain raw — different things for different people — but forever traumatic and triggering. It’s just that for me, surprisingly, being photographed is now not one of them.

Last night we went out to dinner to celebrate the Bridport prize. My husband took a picture of me in front of some nice food, to send to the kids. He showed it to me — ‘you won’t let me send this, will you?’ After 37 years together, he is prepared! But I looked at it and thought: nah, I don’t care. Send it! So he did.


The following excerpt from my memoir LEARNING TO SURVIVE, recounts being scrutinised by my father. This particular event happened when I was over 18, but it is one of many such occurrences throughout my teen years.


That same summer, the household in Blacksburg acquires a set of weights and some gym mats. They are in the basement, in the half of the downstairs sitting room which has never been used for much. After a serious knee dislocation during a modern dance rehearsal at Oberlin College, I am in rehab, building my leg muscles, generally getting back into shape, and I use the weights every other day, doing sit-ups and stretches as well. When he’s home, my father comes downstairs to watch me. He says he is learning about weights, and smiles, laughs a half-laugh. But I know he’s simply coming down here to look at me. When [my stepmother] comes home, he quickly gets to his feet, goes upstairs.

            Encounters like this are common, I realise now. From age 11, when the abuse starts, right up until the last time I see him, at age 21, every time we are alone he behaves as if I am party to a secret, a secret between us. He behaves, I realise now, as if we are actually in a secret relationship. As if external forces ‘keep us apart’, but we still ‘long’ for each other.

            For me of course, nothing could be further from the truth. He repels me, disgusts me. His laugh, his hands rubbing together, fingers clasping. His physical awkwardness. I have a hard time being around him at all. I have no wish ever to see him again. Yet: here I am. Here is the family. Here is Blacksburg. Here is where I grew up.

            What I struggle to accept now is my tolerance of the situation. How do I not storm out and never come back? How do I eat in the same room? How do I smile? How do I breeze in and out every day? Secrecy, I guess, is hard to break the surface of. It holds firm, membranous and tough, despite the liquid chaos underneath.

            And I suppose, if I’m honest, a part of me still hopes. I hope that all of this will pass, and I know that some part of me is strong enough to last until it does. I continue to hope – for years – that he will change. That he will seek help in the ways that perpetrators I later witness are forced to seek help. I know – deeply and with real regret – that everything about his attitude to his relationship with me is wrong. What takes me so many years to do is give up on him. Give up on the family, give up on [my stepmother]. And it’s this giving up which brings lasting pain, to this day.


We have had a really lovely ten days in our household: one ‘child’ and partner with us for Christmas, and the other and his wife surprising us with a visit from the US tomorrow. I have loved every moment of stringing fairy lights, having sherry (yes, my American and elsewhere readers: it’s a thing, and a very good thing), eating good food, going on some walks, and opening some presents.

Overall, and as is the pattern for years now: we are so relaxed, so easy, so loving and full of good humour.

In the last few months, I’ve had a couple of Twitter conversations about celebrations in families where Child Sexual Abuse was a feature. My own memories of Christmases, birthdays, Thanksgivings, etc are opaque. I remember them — such as they were — as fraught times, tense times. Never daring to put a foot wrong, say the wrong thing — or worse, attract the ‘wrong’ kind of attention, whatever that might be.

My family was not violent. I remember one tap on my bottom my whole childhood. There was no corporal punishment of any sort, ever.

Yet I was afraid. All the time. And especially at celebrations, which seemed by their nature to threaten to spin out of control. And I was certainly afraid of anything out of the usual routine. Anything I could not predict. Because that unpredictability might lead to more abuse — out of sight, under others’ celebrating noses. Anything different just seemed to produce an opportunity for my father. Maybe it was the enforced proximity — more chances to strike? I don’t know. I know I tried anything and everything to avoid being alone with him. Mostly — I think — this involved always being around other people, always talking (so that I would be missed if not there, perhaps?), and always volunteering to help.

I remember almost nothing tangible about the 11 Christmases I spent with my larger family. I only remember one present, one that didn’t happen: I remember desperately wanting an opal necklace one Christmas. When it came to it, my stepmother received an opal necklace, and I did not. I was cut to the quick, and knew even then, age 13 or 14, that someone was putting me ‘in my place’. I had bookmarked the page in the catalogue and everything…. But I didn’t get the opal.

I was a child my father abused, and claimed to be in love with, most nights. But I wasn’t his wife. Someone — whoever bought the opal — was telling me that. I knew this of course, but the icy isolation of this punishment made me feel like it was all my fault: I was being punished for having his attention, no matter that I didn’t want it. It somehow seemed the natural order of things that I be ‘frozen out’ of Christmas celebrations.

As for birthdays and Thanksgivings, I think I’m right in remembering we barely celebrated them. No birthday parties. And no Thanksgivings? Can this be right?

It is as if — in my waking, daily life — every effort was made so that I NOT feel special. It worked. In my daily life I felt almost invisible at home, unimportant, damped down. Yet my father claimed otherwise at night.; he sought me out, he gave me gifts, he said he ‘loved’ me. In the day I felt punished, ignored. At night I wanted nothing more than for the attention to stop.

With all of the abuse and twisted loyalties going on in our household — against the background of that — I can’t seem to settle in myself how much of this bleakness, fear, tension, is actually ‘normal’ in families around celebrations. What do the children in ‘ordinary’ families feel? Do they have fun? Or are they always worried? Do they like being around grownups? Or are they just waiting for it all to be over?

Once again, I have no bearings when it comes to any of this. I have no idea how much conflict is to be expected around celebrations and holiday times. All I know is that I dreaded trying to find my way through it, all the while trying to avoid my father. I even hated it anytime he spoke directly to me in front of anyone else, family or not. My fear of him ‘giving it away’ by too much attention, and how that would shame me, was profound. My ‘double life’ was completely entrenched.

And yet: were these tensions actually present? Were they able to be perceived by others? Or were they all ‘in my head’? It’s so easy to fall into believing that I’m making something out of ‘nothing’, much like how my unspoken fears around the first steps of my father’s grooming and abuse were waved away: it’s no big deal, it’s ‘natural’, ‘I’m just preparing you for when you are older’.

In other words: what you feel isn’t real.

It is so so hard to believe your feelings again after such gaslighting. Even harder to stretch your perceptions back in time, and believe those feelings are accurate reflections of how things were generally in those years, and how we did Christmas. I just don’t know. Those years feel so emptied, the cold wind whipping through them, that every last bit of warmth, of possible care, blew away long ago. I don’t know what to think.

I am relieved and proud that my grown up family and friends — our celebrations — are authentic. I trust that now. But to get here, I had to start from scratch, had to learn over and over that that there was nothing secret going on, nothing unsaid. I had to start over, and did.

the cost of immobility

On the advice of my consultant, I’ve been forced into ‘complete rest’ recently. Somehow my lower back started acting up, and six weeks later not only is it not recovered, but I keep ‘setting it off’. It’s a rollercoaster.

As a consequence of my indeterminate (thus far) back issue, I haven’t been to dance or do hydrotherapy in weeks. Complete rest for me is extremely difficult. I am used to just throwing myself into things, and my body coping. The advantage of being strong and bendy is that I’ve always been able to do virtually anything without any serious consequences. I always get injuries, yes, but they clear up more or less in a few weeks. Now I am finding that things simply aren’t healing; my chronic pain has escalated, and it seems that my early arthritis (common with hEDS) is impacting everything.

So. What of mobility?

I have mentioned before here my reliance on dance as a way of shifting trauma. Dance has always been the way that I manage to stay in touch with my body — not disassociate, be grounded, be meditative, etc.

Free movement in my environment has been crucial to my mental health for decades, and, probably more than anything else, preserves my wellbeing and my belief in the future.

I noticed when I had my hip replacement operations that within a couple of weeks I felt low. Everything seemed to stop. I felt paralysed, unable to help myself. Useless. But each time, I knew the end was in sight: slowly slowly I began to move again. I had goals. I did physio diligently. And in each case, I was walking well by six weeks post-op.

My current situation is different however. The end of my immobility is not in sight. The cause of this pain and reactivity is unknown. It’s not clear that I will dance again, though I will do everything in my power to get there. I have no exercises to do, no agency in this. Except to be patient.

Which is not my top personality trait, if I’m honest!

I suspect that immobility triggers many Child Sexual Abuse survivors. There are several aspects of this for me:

  • I froze while I was being abused .
  • I could not walk or run away from my father; I was stuck.
  • I could not push my father off of me. I could not move my arms. I was afraid he would do something ‘worse’.
  • I stayed still in order to ‘disappear’.
  • I felt in danger of imploding, the withheld fear and panic inside me almost overwhelming.

Helplessness — true helplessness, powerlessness — is extraordinarily grinding. Your body seizes up much like your mind does. You turn into a rock, and cannot reach out. You cannot do anything to help yourself. You simply cannot. You feel yourself slipping into invisibility, nearly losing yourself in the process.

Immobility, for me, equals being nothing. Not being able to dance, for me, risks dissociation. It can also bring the inner turmoil of CPTSD: bad dreams, flashbacks, the ramping up of despair.

I am completely aware of what immobility means for me. But my reactions are not something I can control. They are hard-wired.

I am much stronger now than I was when I was a child, of course. I have more to live for, a lot more hope. And I know that whatever happens, I can bear it. But lasting through, time and again, does come at a cost.


(Side note: I won’t be excerpting Learning to Survive for a little while. I’m all good though, and am so grateful for everyone’s companionship and belief.)

final going back (6)

This is really a kind of epilogue. There was another important thing that happened when I went to the US — specifically, to Texas.

Some of you may remember the little town between San Antonio and Beaumont, where my grandparents would meet my mother, and I — like the bundle of acceptance I was then — would be passed one way or the other, depending on my mother’s health: from my grandparents back to her; or, more often, from her to my grandparents. This town is called Luling.

When I was staying with my San Antonio relatives this time, my Beaumont Aunt Lois asked if we could meet just outside San Antonio, to avoid confusion and traffic. She was picking me up to take me to Houston airport, and from there I would fly home back to London.

She told me she was thinking about a little town, and I said ‘You’re not going to say Luling, are you?’. She was, and did. Chills ran up and down my spine, and she said along hers too.

Yes. Luling it was then. We were once again going to bring the two sides of family together, over 50 years later.

The image featured at the top of this post is the sprawling Bucee’s where we met. A long way from the tiny diner which appears in all of the background photos here on this site. And yet: it’s the place we where we met, once again, and where I passed, completely willingly, from one car to the other.

I couldn’t help myself. I was…ecstatic. Of the three relatives there with me, the San Antonio and the Beaumont sides — no one could remember if they’d ever met before. But they all shook hands, shared stories, under the blaring full Texas sun. We were all together. Something had healed for me, knitted as one. Finally.

And then I came home.

going back (5)

Three weeks ago today in San Antonio, Texas, my cousin Jamie (more about my love for him here), my cousin Linda, Jamie’s wife Patricia, and I scattered my mother’s ashes across the graves of her (and their) beloved grandparents’ graves.

I read the Hopkins’ poem God’s Grandeur , and anyone who wanted to say something, said something. There was no sugar coating of the difficult relationships we all had with her, but we all loved her.

It was wonderful to be with people who knew her, and who cared for her and for me, no matter what. My people.

The journey to Texas with my mother’s ashes was traumatic; I do not recommend it. I was completely unprepared for the separate examination and testing the box would need to undergo. On my own in an airport of rushing people, security folks handling ‘my mother’, I just stood there and sobbed and sobbed. The low point. But I had to get her to San Antonio. Which I did.

(After security, I found a place in the terminal to cry more, send a sad note to the family WhatsApp, and blow my nose. Within a couple of minutes I spoke with E in Boston, heard from M in Pittsburgh, and spoke with R in Cambridge. I am so grateful for my solid, loving family.)

I had not been to San Antonio in 34 years, since leaving for the UK. Yet there, especially after the scattering, sheer elation took me by surprise. I was so happy. I felt like having a party – dancing! Home at last. My home, which I had truly thought lost to me forever. It was so much more powerful and empowering than I could ever have imagined.

My mother would have been delighted, through and through. And would have utterly relished the cracking Tex Mex we had afterward for lunch. We toasted her with margaritas.

Goodbye Mom. Rest in peace now.

going back (4)

This is a photo of my grandparents’ old house in Beaumont, Texas. I took it nine days ago.

The house looks small to my eyes now, though of course as a child it felt palatial: so many big rooms, sofas cool to the touch, cool floors too, even those winding further back into the house, deep soft carpet. The garden full of chameleons I watched turn red on the brick walls, a sandbox my grandfather made for me, and swings.

When I was very little — younger than six — this house meant safety, security, and peace. It meant good food, praise, friendship, and love. It feels impossible to overstate this central truth: my grandparents made me who I am today. They rescued me from the unstable — neglectful — life with my mother and her boyfriends, over and over.

Nine days ago in Texas my aunt Lois and I filled every moment we had together with conversation. We have always been close, almost like sisters, despite our nearly 20 years’ age difference. This post makes clear how and why we always had such a connection — but the truth is too that we ‘never meet a stranger’ (in her father’s, my grandfather’s, words), and we are able to talk for hour upon hour. No exaggeration, the first day we saw each other this time, we managed to talk for eight hours straight. Yep!

I’ve always known — I remember, indeed — that I stayed with my grandparents in times of particular crisis. I was happy with them, and always longed to be there, so I have always taken comfort in my memories of all this. My conversations with Lois two weeks ago revealed a bit more, a couple of surprises: that at one point I stayed with them for at least a year, and that Lois assumed they were going to adopt me.

Lois was at university during this time, so knows few details. But it’s clear that they all considered my mother a danger to me. I don’t know why they didn’t adopt me, but I suspect that my grandparents deferred to my father (their son) — which, as we know, sent me from the frying pan into the fire. But they weren’t to know that. In any case, I was taken aback last week by the realisation that everyone knew I wasn’t safe. I am struck afresh by this refrain of my life: it wasn’t my fault; it wasn’t me; it was his/her doing all along.

I hadn’t been back to Beaumont in 20 years. My parents’ hold on me — my father’s wedge-driving, my. mother’s toxicity — effectively kept me away from a place and people I now know I truly love — and who truly love me.

Lois took me to the house, to the school where my grandmother taught; I saw my beloved cousin again, and I met his three beautiful children for the first time. Lois also ordered an autumn bouquet, which we placed on Ommie’s and Granddaddy’s graves, which I’d never seen. Being with them there was joyful really; in my mind I thanked them, told them about their great grandchildren, and let them know how happy I am now in my life, so much due to them.

My own parents are both gone. My father doesn’t have a burial place, and I scattered my mother’s ashes last week in San Antonio (more on this soon). With this trip to Virginia and then to Texas, I feel set free, an orphan released into love. I embrace the times with my grandparents, and all of my Texas relatives, with a full heart. It’s impossible to know what goes on behind the closed door of any house, but I do know that this house always felt like home.

going back (3)

I took this photo three days ago. This is the house where everything started, and everything ended.

I was six years old when I came to live with my father, my step mother, and my two half siblings. Even at six, I wanted a family life, and deep down I was hopeful. My mother had been unpredictable, frequently immobile, and I had only seen my father once in my life before moving in with them. And yet: I was hopeful.

When I was 11, my father started grooming me in this house. Soon after, he began sexually abusing me. In this house. The abuse increased in frequency and severity until I was 15, although I don’t remember how it stopped. I locked the door? He stopped because I was too old? I don’t know.

But the abuse stopped, and within a year things fell apart to the point that I left this house at 17, back to my unpredictable and neglectful mother.

The hardest decision I ever made in my life was leaving my siblings. All in this house. I left them here, and I felt like pieces of me had been torn out. No one ever knew any of this.

This looks like a pretty normal house, right? It looks like a lot of houses in a lot of neighbourhoods.

Make no assumptions folks. Do not rely on appearances. Listen to something deeper. I’m sorry to say that everyone who reads this will have lived on a street or in an apartment block – possibly next door – to a family where child sexual abuse is happening. We need to do better. Starting now.

going back (1)

[NB: probably part of a series]

After several years away, in two weeks I am going to the US. My main purpose in going is to settle my mother’s things, collect her ashes, and take her back to Texas from Virginia. I’m so grateful for all the support I will have over the two weeks I am there: Max, Brett, Anthony, Anna, Lois, Jamie and Patricia. I’m not sure any of this would be doable without you.

My mother died in May 2021. She was 79, and had been in a nursing home for a few months, following a few months in hospital. She had huge mental health challenges, and I now recognise that she had Narcissistic Personality Disorder. In her younger years, she could present a kind exterior when she wanted to. She believed she was kind, indeed. And more clever than anyone else, more sympathetic, wiser etc. She once told me, almost pleading with me to believe her, that she was ‘good with children.’ My understanding is that narcissists have no idea that they are ill. Because the problem always lies with someone else, not them.

I am her only child, and her only relative (bar Jamie in Texas) who ever spoke to her. She had also alienated all of her friends, one by one, as her selfishness became her single prominent characteristic.

I know she was lonely. And yet I called my mother only twice in the last year of her life. The penultimate time, I could hear that she was slipping. And, exactly like the old days when this happened, she called me names, accused me of conspiring against her, and said that I should stop trying to help.

It’s so hard to tell the difference between mental illness and actual personality traits. I came downstairs after that phone call, and as usual, completely fell apart. I was 56 year old, and my mother’s sharp, disparaging tongue could hurt me every bit as much as it used to.

I went into therapy again. I knew I needed to free myself from her, but I had no idea how to do it, having tried and failed numerous times.

It took a long while to unravel some things, in particular to unpick the deeply imbedded guilt: she’s had such a hard life, and everything about our relationship is just making it worse; why can’t I love her? Etc.

One day, as I was struggling to express this rock of guilt, my therapist said: ‘you do realise that in this day and age you would have been taken out of your mother’s care?’

My mouth literally fell open. ‘What?’

‘Yes,’ she went on. ‘She was abusive. She took drugs in front of you, she did sexual things in front of you, she allowed you to get into dangerous situations. She was neglectful. Nowadays social services would have been called in.’

After the shock, relief washed over me: there is a social consensus about caring for children, and she did not satisfy it.

No she did not. She did not know how to take care of me, and therefore didn’t.

The last time I spoke to my mother was shortly after this realisation. She was still in hospital, and her meds had clearly been balanced. She was pretty lucid, softly spoken, and nicer than she’d been in years. I had called to talk about plans for her apartment, and her belongings. And she said two things, bittersweet: Patty, you don’t owe me anything, you really don’t. And Patty, I trust you completely. You’ll make the right decisions. This was the closest she ever came to acknowledging her part in our disastrous relationship, and the only time she ever entrusted me with anything.

As her only child then I am going to Virginia in two weeks to go through what remains of her things. I am collecting her ashes, and then getting on a plane to San Antonio, where Jamie and I will scatter them. She was always but always trying to get back to Texas. I am as certain of this as I am of anything in my life: she wanted her ashes in Texas.

Finally: it’s important to register that my mother’s negligence and inabilities set me up for the sexual abuse I would later undergo. We never spoke directly about this, but I know it’s true. By six years old, when I went to Virginia, the pattern around love and attention being conditional was already well established. My grandparents planted unconditional love in those first six years and afterward, enough to see me through the very worst times of my life, but no one — not even them — could fix my mother’s conditionality. Or my father’s, for that matter.

In a change from Learning to Survive, here are three poems from my last poetry collection, Baby (Liquorice Fish Books, 2016), with apologies for having to work with wonky images. Formatting is not fun on WordPress!

The ‘you’ in these poems is my mother.


in hope or in despair

The Flying Child’s recent blog post about arranging to see her abuser again — and what happened in that visit, in public — has stayed with me for several days.

Over and over in these days, I replay the scene in which I did something similar: I went to go stay with my father — my abuser — for one night when I was 20 years old. He was living alone in an apartment in Washington DC. The excerpt from LEARNING TO SURVIVE, below, recounts what happened.

That night marked the last time I saw my father. But it didn’t mark the end of me trying to ‘solve’ the family dynamics, of me trying to make him accountable, accept responsibility. Of trying to get an apology. These useless hopes, this belief that maybe just maybe I could ‘fix’ something — went on for another 10 years or so, through letters, therapy, and a few more conversations. To no avail: I do not believe he ever accepted that his actions, his arrogance, his delusions and pathology, were at the root of every single messed up relationship not in only his life, but in the lives of every member of his family. Delusion is indeed the word.

And so I return to why I — and Sophie of The Flying Child, and others, I’m sure — thought seeing our abusers again would be anything other than excruciating, or at worst, dangerous. For me, I can see now, I desperately wanted everything to be over, to be passed. I wanted him to be a father — as in fatherly, parental — and thought, somehow — because the warped world view of abuse also affected my self-perception — that I could lead him to that change of role simply by inhabiting a daughter role fully, and pretend nothing had happened. It’s important to note here that Child Sexual Abuse also skews how the victim views themselves: in my case, because my father seemed unable to ‘control himself’ in my presence, for years, I thought I had some influence over him. And I wanted to ‘use’ this ‘influence’ for good. Somehow. Looking back, knowing what I know now about abuse, I can see that this odd inflated ‘power’ dogged me for years. My perception of all relationships alternated between me having ‘no power’ and me having ‘all the power’. Just like how I registered the abuse.

So when I went to see my father, deep down I wonder if I figured that this was a time when I had all the power. That he would be able to see I needed to be free of him, and that the only way I wanted him in my life was as a father.

I was crushingly wrong about all of it. And yet only ten years later did I truly give up hope — and this giving up involved me cutting ties, me set adrift all on my own. As victims, we are forced into isolation, loneliness and confusion in exchange for escaping unresolved abuse and its attendant distortions. As a result our pain and despair can appear self-inflicted. Yet another way in which the abuser screws us. We strike the world and our families as self-destructive and stubborn. When all we are trying to do is save ourselves.

From Learning to Survive:


The summer between my junior and senior years of university, I see my father for what turns out to be the last time. I have worked all summer in a yet another restaurant in Roanoke, a country and western one this time. My father is doing some work in Washington DC, also looking for a permanent job there, never having made the progress he wanted in academia. He is living on his own in an apartment at the weekends. I am not certain what takes me to DC – perhaps I am seeing my friend Daniel, who lives close by, or perhaps I still have the particular blindness that comes with abuse, the compartmentalising that leads me to think that everything is manageable. In any case I am there on my father’s floor in a sleeping bag.

            It is an uncomfortable night. I become afraid that he will come in, that he will touch me. Eventually he does come in, but ‘only to talk’; he wants to ‘see how [I am]’. I am lying on the floor; he is crouched next to me. He wants to talk about the abuse somehow, to discuss ‘it’ – but I cannot imagine how this will happen. Ever, really, at this point, and never with him.

            I survive the conversation, virtually mute. He touches my hair. I am afraid I am going to throw up, although I have never thrown up in his presence before. Paralysis sets in. I know now that I want to hit him, to push him away, and that this is why my arms ache. For the first time then though, I know, I really, truly know it’s not safe: that I’m not safe. That I must go away for good, and not come back until things have changed, if ever. I leave after that night, and never see him again.

            Once the compartmentalising breaks down, it is impossible to put the cat, as it were, back in the bag. I know now that because I am by senior year mostly happy, settled, and with direction, I am for the first time grounded enough to open Pandora’s box. Apparently my body and mind now believe I can withstand whatever emerges, although I do not know this at the time, and although at many points over the next two and a half years, I do not feel I will ever make it through.

on expecting disaster

[photo: Dan Meyers]

I now realise that a good portion of my psyche, my everyday psyche, is always ready for anything, waiting for the worst to happen. This hypervigilance is one of the key indicators of (C)PTSD (Complex Post Traumatic Syndrome Disorder), and it’s not at all unusual in survivors of Child Sexual Abuse or in fact of any shattering trauma.

Getting into therapy when I was 21 (which I wrote about here), speaking about my father’s abuse of me, released some of the intense pressure I hadn’t realised I was carrying inside me: like loosening a gasket or bleeding a radiator, some of the painful steam escaped over my three years with Diana, and subsequently with other life-affirming therapists. I suddenly found I had more energy for life, for learning, for loving and being. Holding back and down the facts and effects of the abuse — keeping those secrets — had ‘dumbed down’ my whole self. My energy for meeting the world, for being in the present, for enjoying anything, had up until that time been meted out, carefully titrated (as a method of self protection) so that I could survive, keep going. Good therapy released so much of that. I remember feeling uncontrollably overjoyed, bouncing, feeling so, so light with relief, with the sense that this, this happy person, was the Real Me.

With getting older and having more responsibilities however, the truth is: now this Real Me comes and goes, and I’m beginning to accept that she always will. I feel her more often now, and form my life around her as my proven reality — but the imposter who knows and says Bad Things Happen, who waits for the worst to happen, who insists on preparing for everything going wrong — that presence continues to occupy space in me. Indeed, I know that I am slipping into an actual unwell space when this sense of disaster takes over and descends full force. This doesn’t happen often anymore, but when it does I become paralysed, certain of catastrophe taking away all light in the world.

A clearcut example of this is something which has improved over the years: flying. I have written about my fear of flying elsewhere, and the roots of it, but one aspect of this was a kind of hypervigilance on steroids: I took every plane ride determinedly alert to something going wrong. I had a deep sense that if I was prepared for anything, if I held this preparedness in the forefront of my mind, then the plane and everyone on it would be fine. On long flights (UK to US and back again), this state of mind was completely exhausting; I couldn’t concentrate on anything, I felt sick with every bump, I could barely eat or drink, such was my focus on staying alert.

Thankfully, that feeling on plane rides for me is now very muted. I can read on them now, eat and drink, do puzzles. Only when turbulence strikes do I find the hypervigilance difficult to keep at bay.

There is a lot of ‘magical thinking’ tied up with extreme hypervigilance. For me, it’s always manifested in not only keeping myself safe, but keeping everyone I love safe too. This of course is directly related to my blog post the bargain, which looks at how I ‘sacrificed’ myself for my sister — or so I thought. In any case my concerns have always been generalised: it is up to me to keep things going okay. This pattern stems no doubt directly from not only keeping secrets around the abuse, but also the necessity I felt to be a ‘good girl’ through my mother’s significant neglect and psychological abuse of me.

It’s not a big leap I think to see how hypervigilance such as mine can be blown through the roof by the arrival of and care for children. And for certain dealing with hypervigilance has been one of the most significant challenges of parenthood for me. I know that my own anxieties have contributed to my children’s anxieties — and yet, my hypervigilance through the development of their own chronic conditions (Type 1 diabetes and Joint Hypermobility Syndrome [likely EDS]) has meant that I have been able to do a lot to keep them safe and locate the best care for them — identify too certain things before they became dangerous. But it’s difficult for me to draw ‘the line’. It’s hard for me to stop being vigilant. They are now in Boston and in Pittsburgh respectively, 1000’s of miles away and meeting their lives head on — yet often in the day, every day, I want to know that they are okay, sometimes hour by hour. They know this about me, and almost always respond with ‘I’m good!’ when I give in and send them a message at last, asking how they are. I have tried hard — and not succeeded — to control this vestige of my vigilance. It’s here to stay, I think.

My children understand all this because they know about my past, and because they both also have challenges of their own — because in both their cases, and despite all my vigilance and bargaining with the world, Bad Things Happened to them. In both their cases indeed, kinds of disaster struck, over which my hypervigilance had absolutely no sway whatsoever. More on this in another post, perhaps.

Over time, I’ve got a bit better and worked hard at believing ‘what will be will be’ and ‘we are where we are’, two phrases I railed against for years. In reality there’s a profound release in ‘taking my eyes off the road’, and if I allow myself to, I can almost always feel that surge of relief and happiness come back now: I survived, I love and am loved, and I’m truly happy. Everything really is okay.

I know now that I’m a hard-wired optimist, and I’m grateful that this love of life is able to fuel me most of the time. But I do continue to resent — at 58, so many years after my childhood, and with both parents dead — the old grey-faced imposter who rocks in the corner, always expecting disaster.


A poem from the chapbook-sized section of poetry toward the end of my prose memoir LEARNING TO SURVIVE, which was written over the few weeks when my father was unexpectedly ill, and then died. I wrote this right after his death, seeking solace in the silent crypt of Canterbury Cathedral.


in the cathedral

You are the smaller candle, placed right there. For once I’ve let you in, and you waver, your light pretty weak, your reach limited.

The rest of my life draws me nearer. The big glass candle, already lit, from which all else springs.