shame (part 1)

I’ve been thinking a lot about what holds survivors of Child Sexual Abuse back — from telling someone, from seeking help — and pushes them toward desperation and too often, self destruction. What directs us at all costs away from feeling like victims.

Because a victim must be helpless. And powerlessness feels like weakness, close even to complicity.

Victims of Child Sexual Abuse are NOT weak. No way. They are, indeed, some of the most resilient and tenacious people you will ever know in your life. They — we — have to be. We had to find ways to survive. To preserve, somehow, parts of ourselves.

One of the ways we protect parts of ourselves is to excise — to extract, remove, rip out — or ignore, brush over, push down — toxic feelings which the abuse forces upon us, the most pervasive of which is probably SHAME.

Guilt is a feeling you get when you did something wrong, or perceived you did something wrong.

Shame is a feeling that your whole self is wrong, and it may not be related to a specific behavior or event

from Verywell Mind

SHAME is the feeling that the whole self is wrong. Yes. I cannot emphasise this enough: and if the whole self is wrong, then anything the self does is… wrong. Life, and living, can become One Big Wrong Thing. Shame can become something that feels impossible to row back from, to know where even to start.

And because it’s so comprehensive, so all encompassing, most of us disconnect at some point. Something in us insists on being preserved, remember. Our instincts are always first for survival. We are hanging onto every last bit we have — which usually doesn’t feel like, or isn’t, much.

In order to do this, we don’t tell, we often don’t admit the abuse even to ourselves. We bury the fact of the abuse, we mummify it. When I first faced the terror of having been abused, the damage and shame, I used to think of my life as being on parallel train tracks. And I thought I had ‘jumped tracks’, I hoped permanently. That train track over there is the ‘bad’ part of me. I’m NOT on that track. I’m on this track here, a long way from shame.

However. The train tracks of shame run parallel to our lived reality whether we like it or not, whether we know it or not, no matter how hard we try. And sometimes, often, the tracks converge at an unexpected junction. Sometimes there’s a wreck. Sometimes the choking feeling of shame just emerges, triggered. And then if we’re lucky, the trains part ways and we are okay for a while.

This all-consuming shame is not a coping mechanism. It is the opposite. It is engendered by our abusers. It is planted there, inside us, and grows, completely out of our control. In fact, drowning in shame prevents us from coping; it cripples us.

Shame feels dirty. We feel dirty. We don’t want anyone to know that we must be dirty. We do everything we can to stay off those tracks. But sometimes we get stuck on those tracks, those shame tracks, for a long long time.

We need to keep reminding ourselves that the shame we feel is NOT ours; like the abuse itself, it was FORCED and/or MANIPULATED onto/into us. This shame is not an authentic part of us. This shame tells us we have done something — EVERYTHING indeed — wrong, and that it is all our fault.

But NOTHING — ABSOLUTELY NOTHING — ABOUT THE SEXUAL ABUSE WE ENDURED AS CHILDREN IS OUR FAULT.

Despite us ending up carrying the shame, and despite so few convictions for CSA, so little awareness, and so much surrounding disgust and horror:

NONE OF THIS IS OUR FAULT.

So what do we do about this shame? What do I do about it? Well, I run from it for years. I keep it so firmly on those other tracks that I can’t even name it. I’m not a victim, I tell myself, I am not brimming with self-disgust, emptied of all else.

Yet the energy required to run on two tracks (at least) at the same time eventually defeats me. For me, and only for a short while, the tracks converge and crash, never to be separated again. I have to figure out what to do about this ‘other Patricia’ — the one for whom everything is wrong, everything is dirty, everything is impossible. The shamed one. The one ashamed of simply being alive. Yet alive she is, and hurting.

As I have said so many times: I was lucky. I am lucky. I had help. I had love. I had a few people to catch me when I was falling so, so fast.

It’s horrible to feel so worthless. So useless. So used. So left on the tracks to die.

I don’t know how to dispel pervasive shame. I do know that words alone don’t do it. Words alone don’t do much, when it comes to emotions beyond and before words, and emotions that flourish in a place where there are no words.

In my own life, DOING has helped me overcome shame (most of the time). I have walked the walk until somehow I am really walking it, with my whole heart. I speak out. I don’t hide. I vent. I rail. I don’t Give. A. Shit. I put that shame over there, scream at it, beat it with my fists — and show it that once and for all, I have survived.

I raise my children to know these stories exist, my story exists. I don’t speak to my father before he dies (after 35 years’ estrangement), nor my stepmother, still counting. This is me DOING. This is me BEING how I want to be, how I imagine my best self to be: passionate, strong, thoughtful, committed, loving. I take care of the Patricia he hurt; I look after her. I understand that he never knew the ‘real’ me. Never. And that he never will.

I do this until I believe in and am able to enact these things. Which is moment to moment, and always pretty much now.

***

An excerpt from LEARNING TO SURVIVE, when I realised I ‘just’ need to hang in there, that I have another ‘self’. That I will certainly escape.

***

Most years we drive further south at Christmas – to see either [my stepmother’s] parents in Florida, or Ommie and Granddaddy back in Texas. It takes about three days.

            To save money we all stay in the same room in the motels along the way. For me, it is another welcome splash of rare freedom: he won’t dare, for sure.

            One such night he is changing. [My siblings} and I are all piled into the other double bed. My father misjudges, and his penis flaps between his legs, which he then catches as he slams his legs back together. [My siblings] of course think this is completely hysterically funny, and it’s contagious, because then I’m laughing too. My father instantly loses his temper, and after dressing, comes over and throws back the covers, slapping me and one of them – whoever is in reach – hard on the bottom.

            That shuts us up quick. It is the only time I ever remember being physically punished my whole childhood. Even then, as now, I am struck by the ludicrous hypocrisy of it all: does he really think it needs hiding? He has tried to get me to do things to it, with my mouth and hands.

In my last journey south with the family, I am nearly 17. The abuse has stopped. We are still all in the same motel room.

            I have been involved with Suzanne for nearly a year.

            In this final motel room, my father is irritated. He is irritated and unreasonable about everything. I know he is somehow angry at me – Suzanne, I reckon – and I don’t care. He can’t and won’t corner me tonight.

            I leave the hotel room, taking T S Eliot’s Selected into the bleak and fluorescent lit corridor. Being in a secret love – which he cannot reach – I cherish my solitude. I lie down on the sofa bench there, and open the book.

                The winter evening settles down

                With smell of steaks in passageways.

                Six o’clock.

                The burnt-out ends of smoky days.

                And now a gusty shower wraps

                The grimy scraps

                Of withered leaves about your feet

                And newspapers from vacant lots;

                The showers beat

                On broken blinds and chimney-pots,

                And at the corner of the street

                A lonely cab-horse steams and stamps.

                And then the lighting of the lamps.

            It is a familiar section, and one I know then and now by heart. That night, as I’d done so often before – in a pattern I’d set up since the moon landing – I imagine a home I will make somewhere else. On Eliot’s streets, even. I invent the fronts of the houses, the shapes of the rooms, the soft blankets, hot chocolate, smell of wood on a cold night. In my head, this house is always very tiny, and I am almost like a doll, hiding there. But alive, living, and alone.

            Suddenly – and it’s like a flash, like a fact blooming in me – I know that I will make a home somewhere else. That this is not a dream. It is real. And that the home will be for real people, not dolls: that I really can leave. That I really am leaving. In 20 months I will be leaving for university, leaving my father and his petty disgusting ways. And there is absolutely nothing he can do about it. I can leave! I really can. And will.

            All I have to do is hold on.

holding on to what matters

Yesterday I went into town and picked up my repaired bracelet, pictured here. I wear everything permanent on one side, my left: my bracelet, my watch, and my engagement and wedding bands.

Yesterday as I walked back to my car in the underground car park, bracelet newly restored, I was overwhelmed by the rich and familiar smell of oil on concrete. The smell of my beloved grandfather’s garage, and somewhat, the smell of him, working in his overalls there, fixing things as he always did. I spent hours out there with him, just pottering. Him and me.

Yesterday I got in the car and cried. My grandfather died 20 years ago this month. I couldn’t go to his funeral, as my father would be there. I also cried for my father-in-law, who passed only 18 months ago, who was my father for over 30 years with no fuss, and unconditionally.

It’s my father-in-law who gave me this bracelet, on the birth of his tenth grandchild, our young Max, 22 years ago. I wore it daily for years, wearing out the clasp. But it’s back now.

My watch? Bought with inheritance from my mother-in-law, over 30 years ago too. I only knew her one year, but she made a profound impression on me. I have always longed to have known her longer.

I miss the older people in my life whom I trusted and loved. I miss them so much. I know I was lucky to have any, but I don’t take this for granted. I treasure it. They taught me all I know and have ever known.

My grandfather and my father-in-law would both be so proud and happy for the marriage of our first son Eliot, in two weeks. My grandfather held him at six weeks old; we have a picture. And of course, my father-in-law saw Eliot grow and become someone special; they were close.

So I’m holding onto what matters, clinging to it. Not much else in my young life was worth much, to be sure. But I have always known that somewhere I was loved, really cherished. That has never left me.

There are lots of passages in Learning to Survive about my paternal grandparents, Ommie and Granddaddy. They half-raised me, and saved me over and over from the whims and instabilities of my mother. This section is about what it was like to stay with them, their authentic and entirely loving ways.

***

I believe it is some years before I understand that my favourite people in the world, Ommie and Granddaddy, are my unseen father’s parents. Rather, for all of my early life, I feel they belong only to me.

            They live in Beaumont, a big city in deep east Texas, which first built up around the oil industry, like its larger regional cousin, Houston. Being only a few miles from Louisiana and its swampy backcountry however, Beaumont is never able to take on the cosmopolitan mantle of Houston. It remains fast-growing but provincial, and in the 60’s, all of the Deep South characteristics and traditions are still in place.

            An electrical engineer, my grandfather is a successful part of Mobil Oil’s rise in the 40’s and 50’s. The house I visit is the result of a certain prosperity, designed and built by my grandparents in a then up and coming area of the city. It is a sleek, rambling ranch-style bungalow, set in a large plot of land, with an expanse of lawn and neat caladium-frilled trees in the front. Around back are Granddaddy’s spacious vegetable patch, my swings and a sandbox he makes for me at some point.

            Even now, I can recall the anticipation of arriving on their street, their block. My eyes search for their house, the long driveway, Granddaddy’s pick-up parked on the side, and Ommie’s car in one side of the double garage. We might pull up outside if there are things to unpack, and then walk through the other half of the garage, with its pungent smell of oil on concrete. Someone swings the screen door open; it often squeaks, and always clatters behind you, pushing you through the doorway, announcing your arrival.

            This is the homely way in: on the left is a toilet where Granddaddy washes up from working outside, and Ommie’s enormous laundry room through to the greenhouse. Then you are in the kitchen, with its small table and every inch of counter space laden with food. Outside that window is the hummingbird feeder, with its bright red liquid. Through the kitchen is the lounge – comfortable chairs, a huge half-circle sofa, the television, lots of Readers Digests, a candy dish of clear sweets, and a whole wall of glass doors looking out into the back garden.

            By contrast, the whole front of the house is more formal, with a dining area, a living room no one ever sits in except at Christmas time or with visitors, the piano, and the front door with a sort of entrance hall. The front and back of the house make up a large rectangle; off one end of that rectangle is the hallway to the three bedrooms and two bathrooms.

            The living room, the hallway and the bedrooms are all unusually silent places. Heavily carpeted, you can never hear anyone walk or speak between the bedrooms. The curtains in the living room are always drawn to keep the upholstery from fading, and the windows in all the bedrooms are surprisingly small, high up. Sleeping at Ommie and Granddaddy’s house is like sleeping in a cocoon. I always want to be there, always want to stay.

In truth, I begin to expect to stay with Ommie and Granddaddy; I look forward to it. We traverse the highways between San Antonio, where my mother lives, and Beaumont. I settle into the high twin beds in my grandparents’ house like they are in my own bedroom — more so, as they never change.

            It seems, at one point, or maybe more than one point, that I am always with them. My Aunt Lois tells me that I stay with them for months on end, one time almost a year perhaps. Ommie continues to work, teaching Spanish at the high school. I remember going to see a friend of hers who owned a grey parrot that speaks Spanish.

In Beaumont, I even go to nursery, and Sunday School, where I listen to the lessons and remember a colourful room to play in.

Ommie and Granddaddy take me everywhere. To my grandmother’s hairdressers once a week: a small operation with four or five brown Naugahyde chairs and women who never stop talking. Every once in a while Ommie gestures toward me, mouthing ‘big ears’ to get them to stop gossiping, but they never do. I sit and watch and listen, sipping my coke from a small glass bottle through a straw. Ommie is at her most animated with these people, with her women friends – they even talk while under dryers, their hair up in curlers, flipping through magazines and exchanging views. Sitting on my chair to the side, every once in a while someone comes by, tells me what a good girl I am. And they tell Ommie too, ‘what a good girl she is.’ By the cashier, Ommie reaches out, puts a hand on the top of my head, ‘I know it,’ she says proudly.

I go everywhere with them. Granddaddy takes me out in the pick-up truck, sometimes even in the back if I promise not to move around too much. He drives around the block so I can feel the wind in my hair. For longer journeys, though, I sit next to him in the cab. Together we go to the hardware store, the gardening shop, the fishing tackle store. I inspect tiny drawers full of screws and nuts and bolts, and once, lots of extravagant fishing flies lined up on the counter. It’s not my world, but with Granddaddy in his overalls, his hand around mine, or often, his hands resting on my shoulders, I get a peek at it.

It is Granddaddy who sets up the swing and slide in the backyard, and who builds a sandbox around the bottom of a tree for me. Outside, it is always hot and wet, but with Granddaddy working next to me, I play. The chameleons on the house fascinate me; I stand completely still, just waiting for one to run from the green grass to the red wall so I can watch it change colour. In the front, together we see the squirrels fussing in the tall trees, running through the thick spiky grass. I sit on the front step and watch him mow, watch our neighbours mow their front yards, the hands they raise to one another. And always, should anyone stop to talk, my grandfather waves me over, rests a hand on me: ‘This is our granddaughter,’ he says, ‘come to stay with us for a while.’ And whoever it is, sensing something, or maybe just liking what he sees, says, ‘Well isn’t that nice. Isn’t that nice for you?’ And my grandfather, with a little squeeze, says, ‘It sure is.’

the challenge of normalising

Two or three times in the last couple of months I’ve ended up in conversations about Child Sexual Abuse — with friends at hydrotherapy, and line dancing. Not soul mates, but folks I talk to and who talk to me. Whom I’m glad to see, and vice versa.

It has been a long time since I’ve disclosed to acquaintances. And I’ve come so far in such a short time when it comes to being open, not apologising, not rushing to make them feel somehow okay about my experiences — so far indeed, that I have been surprised all over again at the responses:

  1. oh, it hardly bears thinking about, paired with a pursing of the lips. Horror.
  2. this happened to YOU? (to someone middle class, educated, from a ‘good’ family)
  3. it turns my stomach, said with a flat hand outward, keep it away. Disgust.

Sigh. There is SO MUCH work to be done, still, in order to have ‘normal’ conversations about CSA. So many misconceptions, factual and psychological.

  1. We MUST think about child sexual abuse, as upsetting as we find it. Not acknowledging its existence perpetuates it. Silence creates secrecy. It perpetuates abuse. This is a simple equation.
  2. Abuse doesn’t happen ‘over there’ somewhere. Abuse happens everywhere. But the stigma surrounding it — that it only happens in ‘bad’ households, in ‘deprived’ areas, to ‘uneducated’ people — ensures it’s kept at arm’s length. Refusing to acknowledge how widespread it is — you guessed it — perpetuates it. If people don’t believe it happens everywhere, they won’t believe it happens anywhere near them. So it will continue. Another simple equation.
  3. Sexual abuse IS disgusting. But for 1 in 6 children, it’s a REALITY. These children don’t have the luxury of turning away in disgust. By not acknowledging this reality — again, as upsetting as it is — again, we perpetuate abuse. We abandon children to the perpetrators.

The shock of sexual abuse is real. Finding out that a friend or acquaintance was abused, or that a child you know is being abused, is pretty awful. There’s no getting around that. We all know abuse is BAD.

I’ll admit that it’s easy for me to forget how upsetting those who have not been abused or are not involved in intense dysfunction can find the whole idea of sexual abuse. I probably mention it several times a day in conversation, and have done now for a few years. It’s my ‘normal’.

However. Hear me out. NORMALISED doesn’t mean that CSA is RIGHT or OKAY. ‘Normalised’ means in the open, discussed — not ignored, skirted around, backed away from. ‘Normalised’ means part of a life. A sad part of life, an upsetting part of life, to be sure — but day to day reality for perhaps 15% – 30% of families in the UK right now (the victims and their families, and the perpetrators and their families).

When we ‘normalise’ CSA we aren’t saying it’s ‘fine’. We are saying this happens. Everywhere, and to every kind of person, across all ages and stages. We are also saying perpetrators are close by. We are also saying be alert, make space for children to disclose, be open to the possibility. We are saying: we see this, and we want to stop it.

The gap between survivors for whom CSA is an openly discussed reality, and those fortunate enough to claim they have ‘never known anyone’ who has been abused, those who are so horrified that they physically and mentally turn completely away — this gap is hard to bridge. We need to be able to acknowledge the awfulness of abuse, the horror of it indeed, alongside being able to take practical steps to help, to raise awareness, to see it as possible anywhere, and possibly perpetrated by someone in or well known to the family.

CSA is a terrible thing — destructive, damaging, a lifelong sentence for survivors and their loved ones. But not allowing ordinary conversation and awareness of CSA is another kind of terrible, the kind of terrible which guarantees more and more suffering for those who are drowning in silence, the 1 in 6 children, the 11 million adult survivors in the UK.

***

This poem is from Learning to Survive, written within days of my father (my abuser) dying. This is the openness, the awareness, the acknowledgment of complexity I know is possible. The place where we are not keeping secrets anymore, and friends and colleagues know and understand, without horror.

[…]

yesterday

white flowers

evergreen foliage

huge blooms

arrive for me

from work

they know

who you were

what you did

because I am not

keeping secrets now

there’s a card

edged in black

for mourning

and the florist

is tearful at my door

later Sarah D

sends me a text

with condolences

then Dorothy

Claire, Vanessa

Simon, Nancy, Scarlett

David, Eliot from Boston –

so many now know

so many understand

the complexities

that I begin to believe

I am grieving

the bargain

[image: ‘Make Me a Promise’ by Susana Aldanondo]

I didn’t feel I could post this on Father’s Day (UK), which was yesterday. I feel I’m stepping on others’ toes, raining on parades, being a party-pooper, for mentioning that yes, I had a father. But he wasn’t really a father. No one wants to hear this, and I don’t blame them, on that day at least.

So I’m posting today. About something which has been on my mind a lot recently.

I guess — actually, I know — that I am forever haunted by the idea that I let him touch me. Swiftly followed by why didn’t I stop him? These questions are in the same area where a lot of other questions surface for most survivors. Even if they don’t ask themselves, others ask them: why didn’t you tell someone? why did you let him/her do it?

Etc.

The answers to these questions are complex. Primarily, and for every survivor I have ever spoken to, not telling has to do with fear of consequences — either within the family (everything will fall apart, everyone will be furious and hate me) or at the hands of the abuser (the abuse will be so much worse, he will actually kill me). This fear is consuming, as strong as super glue; there seems no way to loosen its grip. And too there seems nowhere to go, no one to turn to. The isolation — the forced and manipulated isolation — of a victim is profound. Certainly I believed that my father stood between me and everyone and everything in the world. That I had to go through him to get anywhere, or lie. And because he read my diaries, and because he followed me sometimes when I went out — I couldn’t ever lie or get around him.

However. I knew the abuse was wrong. I knew I hated it. I knew it was all his perversion, and that for now I just had to BEAR it. Which I did. But as soon as my (half) sister began to approach 11 (the age when my abuse started), I felt sick with an additional fear. Was he going to start on her? How could I protect her?

When I first began seeing my now ad-hoc therapist, about six years ago, I went in because I was crazy worried about my own children’s safety. For no real reason. Her first question to me was: what bargain did you strike with your father? what did you exchange?

I knew the answer to that immediately, and told her. Apparently almost all survivors strike either a spoken or unspoken bargain with the abuser, so that the abuse seems somehow for the greater good. Because we have to be able to bear it somehow.

This is my bargain. From Learning to Survive:

***

I come back from Oxford with a bit more courage and sense of self.

            As usual, and soon after my return, one night I hear my father come downstairs. He knocks once, lightly, then opens the door. My lights are off. I can feel him move across the room, his cigarette breath close on my face.

            I wanted to see how you are, he says. We haven’t talked in a while.

            ‘Fine,’ I say, ‘I’m fine.’

            He rubs my arm. Are you? he says, then sighs. I recognise it as the sound of him building up to do something.

            I don’t say anything; I’m so tired. I just want him to go away.

            But no matter what I do or say tonight, it will happen.

            He is beginning: prying my arms apart, unbuttoning my pyjama top. He asks questions as he goes this time: Is this okay? Okay? Okay?

            ‘Daddy.’ He’s so surprised that he stops in the middle of what he’s doing.

            Yes?

            ‘As long as you promise not to do this to [my sister].’

            What?

            ‘I said okay, as long as you promise not to do this to [my sister].’

            He sits back on his heels. Of course not.

            ‘Good.’ I cross my arms again.

            You’re special, he says, I thought you knew that. He sits forward again and strokes my face. No one can take your place.           

[My sister] believes that he did not abuse her, at all. At the time, she must be 11, and my fear for her is all-consuming. I am afraid that when I go to college in three years, he will ‘turn’ to her. Once he doesn’t have me, I am afraid he must have someone else. So I desperately want to believe him when he says he won’t do anything to [my sister]. But I know now that this can just as easily have been another lie. And that the real reason he does not abuse [my sister] is that he cannot – practically, in the house – get away with it. Or that she is not as vulnerable, fundamentally, as me.

            Or, most basely, perhaps by the time I leave, she is too old for his tastes. This is a thought which – among only a few, now, years later – always turns my stomach. But the reason might be that plain.

It is a surprise to me now, and also not a surprise somehow, that I really do believe his promise at the time to stay away from [my sister]. That I do not – again, somehow – find a way to warn her. I love her and [my brother] more than anyone in the world, and I know what my father is doing is wrong. Why do I not break my silence and protect them?

            I think I know some answers to this, all these years later. Answers I could not even think, much less write, then. The first is shame:  that is, I allowed him to do this. I feel, in my eyes, and, I am sure, in anybody’s – disgustingly and irretrievably complicit. After all, I let him do it. I should have stopped him.

             The second is fear. I never stop being terrified, deep down, of what might happen to the family, of how much everyone – including [my siblings] – will hate me for making everything (because I am sure this will happen) fall apart, if I tell. That they will or can react in any other way does not occur to me – that anyone ever can or will react with anything but disgust, pity, and hate does not occur to me, in fact, for years.

            So yes. I believe him.

pretty in pink

It has taken me a long time — years — to allow myself to feel feminine. This is not to imply that all women need to be feminine — far from it — but I’ve always been drawn to fashion, accessories, and ‘dressing up’. So the idea of the feminine has always appealed to me.

However. For most of my adult life I have worn somber colours — blacks, greys, browns. I have steered clear of anything bright, or patterned. I have steered clear of anything overtly feminine, except in small ways.

It almost goes without saying — now that you are here, and you know this blog is generally about Child Sexual Abuse — that I have been careful most of my adult life never to wear anything which might be considered ‘too feminine’ (read: ‘revealing’), either.

I have been afraid, all my life, of attracting unwanted attention from men. And because the ‘attention’ I got from my father didn’t make sense, and felt out of control — I thought ALL men were like this. Liable to put their hands on me. That I was liable to ‘make’ men ‘lose control’. Logically I knew this didn’t make sense — but it was what my experiences as a child, and then as a young adult survivor, told me: men only wanted one thing, and if I don’t ‘give’ it to them, I better be careful.

In my last post I mentioned that I’ve been fortunate enough to be working with other survivor/activists and with academics at the University of Bristol Dental School, developing ideas for increased access to and trauma-informed care in dentistry for CSA survivors. The experience has been eye-opening in lots of ways, and hugely empowering. It has been a gift to sit with others who get it, and who want to make a difference.

In the first workshop, we were asked to draw ourselves as a plant that had everything we needed. I am VERY far from an artist, but I instantly knew what plant I’d be: a pink clematis, climbing up the warm brick wall of my grandparents’ house, supported and loved and feeling beautiful. This is what I drew:

Notice that the flowers are PINK. I was surprised I drew this — pink? I don’t really do pink. And yet, I thought again: in the last year, I have purchased a mauve pink top, and just recently, a bright pink cardigan. And a few weeks ago — I went for the bright pink nails heading this post.

There’s another reason femininity — and specifically pink — have made me wary in the past. Because I associate pink with the body. With orifices, with genitals, and with danger.

But NOW! Something in me has been able to reclaim pink. Enjoy it. Revel in it. Pink is lovely. It’s not dangerous. It’s not attention-getting. It’s not about sex.

As for revealing clothing: this too seems to have turned a corner for me recently. I haven’t worn a real bikini except in front of my nuclear family in decades; revealing skin has up til now made me very, very nervous.

But NOW! For the first time I can remember I’ve got up the nerve to purchase a bikini for wearing when we go away in late August. I WANT to be like other women and not worry about it. Not be ashamed. With empowerment and understanding, I’m more settled in all aspects of my body and my femininity than I ever thought possible.

Next up: pink bikini?! Hmmm.

This extract from LEARNING TO SURVIVE captures some of what it’s like to feel disassociated from my body, constantly observed, and fantasised into a ‘relationship’. Which I hated.

***

just looking

The next summer, I end up in Blacksburg. I am keen to spend time with Alice and her new college friends, and have no trouble getting another restaurant job with evening shifts.  I have the days to myself, and stay out of the house as much as I can; Alice and I go to a pool every day to swim, sunbathe, and drink margaritas. On my nights off, I go to the clubs, having several probably quite dangerous sexual encounters with strangers. There is also a woman I work with who appears desperate to sleep with me. I resist. And, as ever and at this point, none of this activity is important to me, despite various one night stands actually ringing my home phone in an effort to see me again. Sex means absolutely nothing to me, yet I seem to attract people, constantly. I wonder, in time, whether this happens to me because they know something about me, sense something, smell something almost. Sleeping with men – going straight to the sex, no enjoyment, seems required of me. I don’t know how to do anything else, or see myself, or them, otherwise. I don’t want to cuddle. I don’t want soft words. In fact: softness and fondness make me feel a bit sick. The sooner it’s over, the better. Let the hormones take care of business. Then leave as soon as you can.

            At the time, I feel I am wise beyond my years, that I know something others my age don’t: this is all there is; get used to it.

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, I am in rehab, building my leg muscles, generally getting back into shape, and use the weights every other day, doing core exercises etc 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 June comes home, he quickly gets to his feet, goes upstairs.

            Encounters like this are common, I realise now. From age 16, when the abuse stops, 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 in a secret relationship. As if external forces have ‘broken us up’, 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 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.

the body again

I feel like I’ve been ‘gone’ for ages. But I’m back, after four (?) weeks of resting, teaching, discussion — and investigations into my body’s insistence in going off piste.

First, we went away for a few days. I painted my nails pink. More on pink and what this means to me in another post!

Second, I participated in several weeks of a research project being carried out by the Dentistry School at the University of Bristol — with the aim of a co-produced outcome between survivors of Child Sexual Abuse activists, and academics, all of us keen to improve access to dentistry for survivors of CSA. More on this incredibly worthwhile endeavour in another post. And watch this space for the first outcome!

So to my health. Regular readers may recall that I’ve been dealing with nighttime coughing and choking episodes since January. After numerous interventions (two rounds of antibiotics, steroids, change in asthma treatments) and tests (peak flow, CT scan, X-ray), my own instinct was that something in me had been ‘triggered’ and had gone into ‘overdrive’. Fortunately, and finally, a GP in my surgery contacted me, remembering that she had had another patient with similar symptoms. She wanted to refer me to an allergist/immunologist, as it was also clear that I had an ‘allergic disposition’.

I decided to go privately, as the wait on the NHS was likely to be around nine months. My own instinct (and that of my GP) was that this was somehow related to my mast cells (a theory I raised a month ago on this blog). It took me three days, but I found a formally trained allergist who openly declared an interest in mast cell issues.

In preparation for the tests he wanted to run, I had to come off all antihistamines. I have been taking two one-a-day antihistamines for years. Coming off of them produced a TON of nasty things: sweating, all over body itching, a low fever, headaches etc. Interestingly, my chest did NOT worsen. But clearly: the antihistamines were suppressing a LOT that I was unaware of. I had one set of tests, then a few days later had to come back off the antihistamines again. This time I had dramatic joint and muscle pains, incredibly painful. Argh.

However. Long story not-so-short: blood tests, patch tests, and skin prick tests later, a bit of a shocker. It looks like I am allergic to NOTHING (nothing we found, anyway). I have been having ‘allergic type’ symptoms for 30 years — hayfever, asthma, various food intolerances — which have gradually worsened to the point of being quite debilitating… and yet I’m allergic to nothing. What IS evident though is that something is driving my symptoms: the overall antibody level (Ige) is significantly raised, indicating ‘allergic’ response levels are raised regardless.

My consultant says this is actually quite common. I have very reactive skin (without enough antihistamine, I always itch and have various random bumps etc. I also have ‘dermatographia‘, harmless but indicative of high histamine skin). My histamine levels (produced by mast cells) are ‘agitated’, and seem to have become increasingly so over the years. Apparently, mast cells are making more and more histamine — with no external trigger. [A side note: interestingly, there is clear research around how when countries are developed, and infection rates drop through vaccines and antibiotics, ‘allergy’ issues rise. The working theory is that the immune system develops differently (partly due to hygiene practices), thereby reacting differently to the environment. Which goes some way toward explaining why ‘allergies’ are often considered ‘posh’ things which aren’t taken seriously: because most seem to originate from a ‘more affluent’ lifestyle.]

Anyway. It turns out that most people who experience what I am experiencing are women. Most are middle aged, middle class, and make efforts to be healthy in their lives. Like me. And yet: something in their bodies seems to be constantly in ‘fight or flight’ mode, essentially.

I’ll let that sink in.

Did I mention CSA to this consultant? Yes I did. Did I outline the statistics? Yes I did. Did I make clear that there is research which shows that CSA survivors are much more likely to develop inflammatory conditions, autoimmune conditions, and chronic conditions? Yes I did. We talked about how the immune system seems to shift with trauma, physiologically. He was open, interested, and listened. He believed me.

So. My guess is that my chronic uticaria/mast cell activation springs from childhood trauma. I don’t like those apples at all, but I suspect this is the root of it. I suspect too that the several thousand of mostly women my consultant has treated for this have also undergone some kind of trauma — be it serious illness, domestic or sexual abuse or neglect. And the body (which keeps the score) has reacted like this.

That’s the super irritating news. The good news is that with several months of high dose antihistamines and montelukast (Singulair in the US), my agitated system is very likely to calm down enough to be able to very much reduce the meds or get rid of them completely. This is his experience. He also (wisely) advised me to stop trying to ‘figure out’ triggers; this in itself can ramp up the system, which intensifies reactions. This all makes sense, and I’m now enjoying NOT worrying about what is ‘setting me off’!

As I’m only now confronting the lasting physical ramifications of my childhood, there is little in LEARNING TO SURVIVE which considers it directly. This though from the end of the book does capture the sense that you don’t ‘get over’ abuse. You can’t. It stays with you, in many forms. What we strive for is how to manage it, and how to live well in spite of it. We are the ones who have to learn to live with it all.

***

My own father died unexpectedly in October 2018, while I was in the middle of planning this book. He was an abuser. I am a survivor. That isn’t all he was, nor is it all I am. But it has shaped me and continues to shape me, no matter how hard I have tried and continue to try to keep it away from what matters. I do not know and now will never know the extent to which his sexual obsessions shaped him, but I am also, unsurprisingly, not sure either the extent to which I care.

            I have for the most part grown around the deep-running grief and betrayal that I can name. But after years of saying (perhaps more in hope than belief) I am ‘past it’, that I am ‘totally fine’, I now accept that the legacy of abuse never ends. You never ‘recover’ to the point of completely letting go. These days I ask different questions – no longer why and why me – but rather: who would I be if this had not happened? What might I have written, done? Who would my brother and sister be? And my mother? My aunt? My stepmother?

            And then, of course: how has the abuse affected my own children? All aspects of my relationship with my husband, and the way we live our lives? The things I am afraid of, the things I can’t explain. The lasting sense I have that life is fleeting, and apt to disintegrate. And that I must always be prepared for the worst to happen. That what I think and feel, when it comes to it, aren’t of real significance. Would these anxieties still be here? And if not, might I have taken more risks, been more ambitious? Had, more so, the courage of my own convictions?

            I have no answers to these questions, and never will. There remains so much, so much I don’t know and will never know, and despite my survival, all of our survivals, there is so much too with which I will never be at peace. And there is so much loss. The ripples of my father’s paedophilia, his deluded selfishness, his refusal to accept responsibility, go on and on, and continue to damage all of us, and all of our loved ones. When the ripples hit the shore, they just come back again. They never disappear. It is this fact which brings the most despair for me, and these days, anger.

This book emerges here and now partly because this is a story I need to tell, like all stories which find a writer. This book is also here, I hope, partly as a way of helping to make the invisible, visible. To help stop this. To be seen, and heard: I am here. We are here.

something is wrong

[image: mast cells, stained]

I am aware that more days than is usual have passed since I last posted. And I haven’t until recently — until lying in bed last night — been able to get my head around my lack of focus.

The truth is, I have been in the middle of a world where something is wrong — to do with my health — and I don’t know what it is.

I don’t do well when I don’t understand something physical about myself. I quickly lose confidence in my bodily sensations: do I really feel this? did this really happen? Etc.

This time I knew I was spacing out when I had to speak to my husband to confirm what questions I was going to ask the doctor when they rang. We had to rehearse my questions. Because although on one hand I knew my symptoms were happening — on the other, I didn’t know if anyone would believe me.

No one will believe me.

It’s not a big leap to get to why this situation is so hard, in Child Sexual Abuse terms. As I have spoken about elsewhere: as victims we are forced to repress instinctive responses like pain, revulsion, fear. Our fight or flight mechanism resorts to shut down, disassociation — and shame, guilt, avoidance.

What most of us do feel in some way however is that something is wrong. That this isn’t right. This shouldn’t be happening. But we are helpless. We are children. And all around us, all we see is that no one is doing anything to help. So what is happening must be okay.

As an adult, for me, I am able to manage illness or disability when I am able to figure out what I think is going on. Those of you who know me also know that I once I get an idea of where things are headed — I’m a dog with a bone. I have advocated for my children (both of whom have chronic conditions) numerous times. I pursued a good surgeon for my hip operations. Etc.

But this illness has been different. It started in January — waking up at night, coughing, choking. Like asthma gone mad. It is quite debilitating. We tried to get to the bottom of it, but every time we tried something and symptoms went away, they marched right back. Then in mid-March I got Covid-19. This layered on top of my chronic chest issues made for a bit of a mess. Two courses of antibiotics and a course of steroids later — the symptoms continue. Sigh.

Just this week I am becoming convinced that my lung issues have their root in mast cell activation — like a way-over-the-top allergic reaction. But one that can’t only be controlled with antihistamines. Like most people who present with mast cell issues, I have a bunch of other stuff going on too, and have done for years, ignored to the best of my abilities: shocking insect bite reactions, mounting food intolerances, increasing allergies to medical adhesives. Etc.

All of this however falls into the realm of ‘uncertainty’. Mast cell things aren’t really diagnosed with ease, and most doctors aren’t clued up about the possibility. It’s certainly a thing, but it’s not a clear cut thing, with obvious treatments. Unless you happen upon a knowledgeable doctor. Sigh again.

There is another factor here, which just adds to the ‘is this all in my head?’ problem: victims/survivors of sexual abuse are more prone to illnesses rooted in inflammation (which is mast cell), and more prone to developing auto immune conditions. We also need more medical care in our lifetimes. These are facts, the sources of which are numerous. Here is one.

As survivors, we can’t do anything about the ways our bodies keep the scores of abuse. But the manifestations of this score-keeping are so various, so often nebulous, that we can be forced back upon our default thinking, which is something is wrong (with me). Accompanied by no one will believe me.

Which is what I have been battling with in my head for the last ten days. I know this is real, but all I can really say is that something is wrong. When I am faced with trying to prove it, I run aground and lose confidence. Who will believe me?

I am tired of all of it, frankly, of trying to bolster myself and be certain, to somehow be more believable. I long for trauma-informed care, for someone to help me and take over and say gee we know this is hard for you. We believe you.

So far though, I’m on my own. I’ll persevere, but it’s a challenge if I’m honest. I’m mired in uncertainty, and the fear of no one listening.

This now from Learning to Survive. It’s a painful memory. Who would ever believe that something was wrong? We need to stop abuse — so children are never in the position of not even believing themselves.

***

Other Mornings

The three of us kids might go into their bedroom, where the television is, and watch something.

            He is still in bed, even though it’s late.

            Only now do I realise that these particular memories must be Saturdays, and that in the UK [my stepmother] has probably taken [my siblings] to school. However it happens, there are some mornings when no one else is home.

            He asks me to rub his back. He asks me to sit on him. He moans. Then he suddenly turns over, laughing, underneath me, and I can feel his hard penis right between my legs. See how much I love you? He is smiling.

            I am 12 years old. I cannot smile back. I cannot do anything.

            Once, someone comes in and he rolls me over, pretending to wrestle.

my own private restoration

It’s Easter Sunday for Christians. We have one child home for family time and a good meal. We have each other. Although I do not consider myself a Christian, I am profoundly grateful for our lives today.

On Radio 4 this morning, the ‘Sunday’ programme asked all of its speakers what they did to restore themselves. So I asked myself: what do I do?

Dealing with the fallout from Child Sexual Abuse can be gruelling. I value ALL the work I can do to raise awareness of it, of its prevention, and of survivor issues, but the process can be hard — managing triggers, hearing such grim stories, trying to handle the reality that the world seems to allow CSA, still, by virtue of not looking, and not believing. Yet from this, I value too the support of others, and the authentic love that comes from building friendships and connections out of often such dire circumstances and despair.

So in a sense, connections are part of my constant restoration. What else? My own family. Yes, every moment of every day they restore me. I know who I am because of them, and I know that our love — hard won in many ways, generous, open, funny, and sincere — is completely unconditional.

I don’t have to look far for my lifelong restoration: my beloved grandparents. People often assume that they must have been my maternal grandparents — but they were my paternal ones. In their 80’s, they had to accept what their own son had done. But they always believed me.

I lived with them a great deal when I was little and still in Texas, so before I was six. The image for this post was taken in 1967, when I was three. Each holding my hand.

They treasured me, I see now. They absolutely cherished me. As a college student, I went to Texas to see them more often than I went back to Virginia, where I had grown up. Because in some deep way, they were and always have been my ‘home’. My memories of being with them are — from here — almost unbearably happy. We adored each other. At times I feel that everything I learned that is good in my life — I learned from them. That all the good that I can bring to the world comes down to them. To what they believed in (they had strong Christian faiths) and how they manifested that in the world: through generosity of spirit, through acceptance, through unconditional love. I know that realistically they could not have been perfect — no one is. But they were my perfection regardless, and I hold them as such in my memory always.

My grandparents were married for 72 years, and died 10 weeks apart. I missed both funerals because I couldn’t see my father, their son. But I did go see my grandmother Ommie after Granddaddy died, in that intervening 10 weeks. And later, an extraordinary thing happened on the day of her funeral.

Happy Easter everyone. Happy Restoration Day.

From Learning to Survive:

***

young again

I fly out to Beaumont [Texas] as soon as I can after Granddaddy’s funeral. My aunt Lois’s husband, Walter, picks me up in Houston, and when we arrive back in Beaumont, we don’t head to their house, but to the hospital, where Ommie has taken a turn for the worse.

            I meet Lois coming out of the elevator, and she is distraught. The care has not been good, Ommie is disturbed, Lois herself is fragmented, fractured. Granddaddy has not been gone long, and now this. She has found a bed in another ward, another hospital, and is in the process of moving Ommie there.

            We follow the ambulance over to the other hospital. As I’ve felt before, I know these are my people, and that Beaumont is my American home, and always has been. My father – despite being Lois’s brother, and Ommie’s son – is not part of this conversation. He doesn’t belong here, and I do.

            At the hospital, Lois and I go upstairs to find Ommie being hoisted into her bed. It has been six years since I’ve seen her, since Eliot was a baby, and I am shocked by her appearance. She has grown suddenly very old, and Lois says it’s all happened quickly, especially now that Granddaddy is gone. Ommie has on a diaper, her hair is wild, and she looks around her as she is hoisted, landing in her bed, with no recognition whatsoever.

            I don’t know what to do. I stand back. Lois relays all of the vital medical information to a kind young nurse, who dutifully writes everything down. I notice that Ommie has frosted nail polish on, as she always does. So the remnants of her life are still with her.

            When the nurse leaves, Lois finishes tucking Ommie in, and smooths and brushes her hair back. Ommie seems to recognise Lois now, and looks at her gratefully, occasionally saying ‘thank you’ and smiling. After a minute, Lois gestures for me to come over. She says that Ommie’s eyesight is bad, and that I must get close. I lean right over the bed. I hear Lois talking behind me: ‘Ommie, it’s Patty. Ommie, look, Patty’s come to see you.’

            Ommie holds my hand and looks right at me, her eyes flying around my face. ‘Hi there Ommie,’ I say, ‘I’m here.’

            All of a sudden she sees me. Her pale grey-blue, bright eyes fix on me, and she squeezes my hand, so tightly, just like she’s always done, shaking it just a little, as if she can’t, she can never, believe I’m really there, because I am so precious.

            ‘Patty?’ she says, ‘Patty, oh my goodness!’ And she turns to look at Lois for confirmation, and Lois says ‘Yes Ommie, it’s your Patty, she’s back!’ And Ommie gives the broadest, happiest smile for a moment.

            Then her eyes fill with tears. Lois says ‘I know, Ommie,’ from behind me, and then to me, ‘She’s sad.’

            I don’t know how I know, but I know she is thinking about Granddaddy, and about how he can’t see me, worse now that I’ve come to visit.

            Ommie squeezes my hand again, her eyes full up. ‘He’s gone, Patty,’ she says, ‘he’s gone.’ And all I can do is say that I know, that I’m sorry, and that I loved him so much.

            Ommie loses some focus then, and soon I know it’s time to leave. ‘This is a lot for her,’ says Lois. ‘But it’s good.’

            I am barely able to breathe. I say goodbye to Ommie, hug and kiss her, knowing this is the last time, even though I am here for a few days, that I will see her. She says goodbye, but I don’t know if she knows she’s saying it to me.

            Lois takes me out into the corridor, and I just about make it to the seats. There I cry and cry, sobbing, doubled over, like someone has kicked me in the stomach. It is so painful. Lois rubs my back, saying ‘I know, I know’ and ‘you were like another daughter to them’, ‘they were so proud of you, and of R and your kids’. And I cry and cry so hard I think I may break in half. I don’t know how long we stay there, but eventually we have to leave.

There are my cousins to see, and Lois to help, and I visit Granddaddy’s grave, but I don’t see Ommie again. I have said my goodbyes. After a few more days, I head home.

            Sitting on the plane is the first time I am really alone, and as soon as we start to taxi down the runaway, I fall apart. I never want to leave Ommie and Granddaddy, never, and yet I have flown away from them so many times, now for the last time, the last time. I cry almost the whole journey home, tears streaming down my cheeks. My seat neighbours check on me, but I can’t speak. I know I will never see her again. I know she will die soon. She has always said that as long as Granddaddy goes first, she will be ready anytime. And I already miss them – miss them being there, somewhere – so much.

            Three weeks later, when I come home from a day out with the kids, R meets me at the door: Ommie has passed away, peacefully. It is July 17, 2002, only ten weeks after Granddaddy’s death. Later Lois tells me that she thinks Ommie feels able to go after seeing me, that only then is she really ready.

*

the end

Ommie’s funeral takes place a few days later, and, like last time, I can’t go. But I am more at peace with it now, and on the day itself I am alone in the house.

            As the time for the funeral approaches, I am restless. I imagine everyone in the church, I imagine the gathering. I both want and don’t want to be there.

            The hour arrives. I walk out to our back garden, through the gate, and into the wild part of our land, with the stream along the end, a log cabin studio, and a patio situated underneath old trees. For some reason I want to sit down, so I perch on the edge of the studio decking, as if I’m waiting for something. The air is very still. It is overcast, but not dark. It is summer.

            Some birds fly overhead, and I notice one bird left behind, taking its time. I think maybe that bird is sending me a message, a goodbye or farewell. Eventually it catches up with the others, and they move out of sight. And then, as I’m sitting there, there is a sudden, brief rain shower, which lands almost exclusively on me. I can see that the decking is not wet. I can see that the grass is still dry. But I am covered in little raindrops, tiny damp circles spreading on my top. It lasts for only a few seconds, and then moves off. There are no apparent rain clouds, no change in anything else. The sky is the same. But it has happened.

            I look up. I feel certain that Ommie has somehow reached me today, and is letting me know that she’s okay. That they are okay. And right away, I believe her, as I always have. Right away I know that I carry in me every gift they ever gave me, and that nothing, not even their deaths, can empty the rooms where they have always and will always live.

or, naivety

I’ve been on my own this week. As I often do at such (infrequent) times, I decided to challenge myself a little. So I watched both of the new documentaries about family dysfunction and sexual abuse: House of Maxwell and Jimmy Savile: a British Horror Story.

I think I do this on my own because I can react as I wish, in private. I can stop and start. I can drink wine. And I can take time to just think about it all. I don’t know if it’s unusual, but I don’t find these things triggering. Neither documentary is sensationalised — that’s what I hate, when things are sensationalised — so I always felt on secure footing.

It was all damning of course. Decades into dealing with my own childhood and the fall out from that, I am well acquainted with the enormous intricacies and confusions and horrors indeed which surround Child Sexual Abuse.

So I didn’t expect to hear anything new. Yet the producer of Jim’ll Fix It, Roger Ordish, said something which completely threw me: ‘How,’ he said, asking himself, asking the interviewer, musing, ‘could I have been so naive?’.

Naivety. I confess that I have never, ever, even THOUGHT about that word in relation to not ‘seeing’ abuse.

And I suddenly realised: I am so steeped in the dysfunction of my young life — that I don’t know any different. Living in awareness of dysfunction is my ‘normal’. I have absolutely NO idea what it would be like to live a life WITHOUT the knowledge and suspicion of sexual abuse, or abuse of any sort really.

I don’t know what it might be like NOT to suspect abuse in the first instance.

Naivety isn’t an excuse, but it IS a reason not to know about abuse. I now — suddenly — understand that sometimes abuse isn’t seen simply due to a (blessed) lack of knowledge. Simply because it doesn’t seem possible. Not within the realm of your experience.

The photograph at the top of this post, for instance: what does it make you think of? We read situations according to our experience, like it or not.

As activists and campaigners and makers and survivors — we need to understand that some people have been lucky. Really lucky. That the whole idea of abuse is alien, and that therefore they lack all awareness of its possibility. That they are not ‘looking away’ (seeing something and dismissing) so much as not even registering the possibility of abuse.

So ‘raising awareness’ can be literal. Not just making something ‘more important’ — but making it important AT ALL. And from there — and only from there — can come action. We can break the incidence of sexual abuse to others as gently as possible, but break it we must. None of us can afford to be naive, as painful as it is to face that. I’m as sorry as the next person that the world is like this, but as we have seen: horrible people take advantage of a naive world.

From my memoir Learning to Survive, about sensing what might threaten below the surface.

***

X is for X-ray Vision

What I am afraid of, deep down and unacknowledged, when moving to Virginia, I do not understand for a long time. I have already been through so much in my six years that this – a house, a family – might well have been for the best. Security. And I have no doubt that everyone involved – my grandparents, my mother, and, I’m guessing, my father – all believe this, despite the inevitable and distressing first shifts in a new place.

            So what do I know? What about my life so far is already sending me messages?

            I do not think I have any articulable way of knowing then. But I do know now. I now understand the messages that I sense under surfaces, behind smiles, in silences.

            There is a man here at Gladstone’s Library where I am working. And I don’t like him. Not one bit. He has a soft face, a spoiled face. He moves deliberately. He watches without wanting to appear that he watches. He repels me. I have seen him in conversation with others, and he seems perfectly nice. This doesn’t, however, change my mind. I know what he is.

on not wanting to make a fuss

It is tremendously difficult to locate your authenticity when you are a survivor. Your authentic self, your authentic emotions. Because up until now so much of your life has been about masking, camouflage, compartmentalisation, and pushing down and away from painful or confusing things. Up until now this has been necessary. It’s not wrong: it’s absolutely necessary. It’s what we did to survive. And we survived. So we did our job well.

Elsewhere I’ve talked about intimacy and being in touch with your body. What this feels like to locate or not locate. The distance from ourselves combined with the longing to know ourselves and others.

But I realised this week, quite sharply, that this distancing from myself, my body and its feelings also has always created every day, practical hurdles in my life. Perhaps most strikingly: I very often do not value or ‘listen to’ the signals my body and mind send me.

Over the years this dampening down has resulted in some upsetting versions of ‘everyday’ experiences. When I was in labour with my first child, I dilated very quickly. When the midwife came to check, she was flabbergasted that I was that far along. I’d dilated with no sounds, no ‘fuss’, entirely silently. Her words: you weren’t making enough noise! Hmm, I thought, is that good or bad?! Where I came from, I realised, it was very important not to show discomfort of any sort…. I remember, indeed, having a really bad ear ache as a child, and my ear drum bursting in the night. That’s quite an ear ache.

And last year, when my second hip was troubling me, it really really hurt. But — I felt it shouldn’t, that perhaps I was making too big a deal of it. That I had misjudged myself. Etc. When I went to see the physio, she was like ‘I can feel the synovial fluid coming out from the joint it’s so inflamed – that must hurt like hell’.

Yes, it did. But I wasn’t sure if it really did. Or what to do about it. Psychologically, I struggle to find my direction, or put myself in the centre of things, deep down.

This is on one hand. On the other hand: everyone who knows me will attest I’m sure to me actively enjoying everyday attention. I love parties, I love a laugh. I love to vent, I love to recount complicated medical adventures, symptoms and diagnosis (partly because I wanted at one time to be a doctor, but that’s another story). So it’s not like I’m shy or reserved. I’m really not. I’m not one to run away from sagas, stories, anecdotes, and my involvement in them.

But there are some barriers I don’t understand. What IS going on?

This week — when I have struggled with ongoing poor health — I had a real think about it all. I have had issues with my asthma/chest since January. It is now April. I have tried several times to address it with the doctor, with weak responses, and no in-person visits or x-rays. I have tried several medication options, as well as practical ones. Then covid hit me and crashed the whole thing. I have had two lots of antibiotics and am on a steroid course. I have changed inhalers. Etc. And indeed, it now looks quite possible that the root of everything lay in my asthma. As I kind of — I’ll be honest — thought all along.

I didn’t have the confidence to keep pushing. This is not a consistent thing — I will push to high heaven for my kids, and my husband. But I am really TERRIFIED of ‘making a fuss’ about myself. If I don’t know what something is — which I didn’t in this case — I’m frightened of being accused of ‘inventing things’, ‘making it all up’, ‘making it worse than it is’. Making a fuss. I second guess myself. All. The. Time.

And here we have it. At some point I always run into this: if I don’t know or understand what is happening to me, I think it’s not important anyway. No one will believe me or care. In fact, do I believe myself?

Of course, there are MANY situations that lead people not to trust themselves. I am not saying that CSA is the only one by any means. But it IS one. It’s a thing.

One of the most important things we can do for our children is LISTEN. Listening — not only to what we want to hear and how we want to hear it, but to EVERYTHING — is not an ‘indulgence’. It’s a necessity. We need to work from within their realities. Because children’s realities are complicated. They have the full range of emotions and experiences. And sometimes they signal danger and pain, or fear and insecurity, even if they can’t articulate it. Sometimes they don’t understand what is happening to them, but they know something isn’t right.

There were lots of things in my young life which sent me the message that I didn’t matter, and that my way of life was conditional upon the ‘right’ behaviour. Not all survivors have this complicated web I know, but I reckon most end up feeling that they didn’t matter, and have been struggling to make room for themselves — their bodies and minds — ever since. I salute you all, and everyone who loves them.

From Learning to Survive, a memory I think on a visit to Texas from Virginia; this is one of the earliest times I can remember understanding that whatever I am feeling is not going to change anything, and doesn’t really matter.

***

Tree

The house is remarkable only in that it is empty, and that my mother lives there and I’ve never seen it.

            I am a little struck by whiteness, or perhaps only by coldness. My mother takes me through the house room by room. It is entirely silent.

            I recognise nothing about the place, or the things in it. This alienation, and my mother’s evident joy in seeing me, combines in a pressing way upon my heart and lungs.

            I have been gone so long, and to such a different place, that I hardly recognise her either. She is as strange to me as any other stranger, any of the many people I seem to find myself living with.

            We go through the house. In particular I remember the kitchen, with its aluminium legged table and white walls, no curtains. The curious emptiness. And always, although I have just arrived, there is the feeling that I will soon be leaving.

            Suddenly we are in the backyard. I don’t know how we get here and I don’t want to be outside. Around me, I can see other backyards, just over the tops of grey clapboard fences, but still, there is not a sound. It is like we are on some kind of set, like we aren’t real at all.

            She says to me: ‘This is the reason I got the house, here.’

            I follow her finger, and it’s pointing to a low climbing tree, dull-barked and smooth. She says, ‘I thought you might like to climb it, when you come to visit. It’s for you to climb.’

            We move closer to it. I tilt my head, look up through the leafless branches. I feel like I might cry.

            ‘Do you want to try and climb it?’ she says.

            I don’t. But I reach out and put my hands on the trunk. It’s soft, warmer than the air.

            Soon, she is helping me up into the bottom branches of the tree. She stands back, smiling.

            I look at her. I look at the flat white house behind her, at the browning sharp lawn underfoot, the utterly empty overcast sky. Without knowing it, I’ve started crying, and my mother takes me down, holds me.            

I don’t know what I manage to tell her. There are many things she can believe, that will be at least a little bit true: I don’t want to climb the tree; I miss her; I am tired. What I don’t tell her is what I hardly know: that I don’t even want to be here, and I don’t want to be with her at all. That it’s too late. That no matter what she does, I’m on my own.