Some of what happened to me.
I was born in a seaside town in Suffolk, in 1958. My parents ran a large guest house on the sea-front, catering for summer holiday makers, often from the Midlands, and travelling salesmen and others during the winter.
Unfortunately for me, my father began grooming me from as early as I can remember. Initially, the tickles and touches with warmed up hands were pleasant. This made his later assaults all the more confusing. By the time I was 8, he was raping me regularly. I was also lent out to some of the guests in the boarding house.
When I was 11, my father took me to a big house in Norwich, which, in effect, was a brothel for paedophiles. I was abused there, as were as other children, who were mostly from a local children’s home. We were abused there by men who had the money to pay and the power to make sure that what they were doing stayed secret.
One of the men I met there had me brought to him at various other places, including being driven in the boot of his Daimler. When he died a few years ago, his death was announced on the 6 o’clock news.
During the following couple of years, I took many trips to that house, usually driven by a man who would call at our house, or by his son. These two men also drove me to various other locations. Sometimes they would assault me on the way, too.
The last time I was at the Norwich house was in 1971. After a particularly nasty assault on me, I had been told to go and have a bath. While I was still in the bath, another man came in. He asked if I had, “Told”. He held my head under the water while he asked me several times. I thought I would die in that bath. Eventually, he must have been convinced by my silence and terror, as he let me go.
I found out many years later that the children’s home where a lot of the other kids were brought from had closed down in that year.
The thought of me telling was inconceivable. Secrecy was a paramount concern for the abusers. The brainwashing started with my father, who told me that I would upset mum, I would be taken away, no-one would believe me anyway. The driver man reinforced this, telling me that they would always know where I was and that they would first kill my dog and then me. “It’s very easy to be run over when you’re crossing a road”, he told me.
It is only over the past few years that I have learnt to trust my own judgement when crossing a road and have overcome the niggling, often paralysing, fear of being hit by a vehicle, which had stayed with me for more than 40 years. Therapy has helped me to understand that that fear was based upon words used by a manipulative, wicked adult, whose threats were designed to control a child and to protect perpetrators and that those words no longer present an actual threat.
When I was being abused, it was so difficult to comprehend, so terrifying, so weird, that I retreated from the event and sort refuge in a very small part of myself that I kept away from them. My body was still there and reacted in ways that they expected so that I would avoid punishment. The essence of me was elsewhere though, keeping me sane, keeping me alive. It was the only power that I had at the time.
The whole experience was so confusing, painful and terrifying that I did not believe it was happening. It was easier to deny the reality than to have to consider the facts. That disbelief has stayed with me and has been difficult to shake. Who wants to believe that their father, whose job it is to protect their child, has done all that?
Despite my clinging to the disbelief, inevitably, the emotions and memories would force themselves out of the cupboards in my mind that I’d crammed them into. Some of the most painful memories are around the three abortions I had before I was 15. The first two done by my maternal grandmother, the third by a man in a white coat in a room at the other end of town – my father gave me the money in a brown envelope and told me to get the bus there.
We moved into a three-bed semi when I was in my early teens and the assaults by my father lessened.
The last time he raped me, I was 21.
PTSD, some therapy.
Symptoms of the complex post-traumatic stress disorder that I had been left with would often surface – flashbacks; a greatly enhanced startle reflex; mood swings; lack of trust, particularly of men; lack of confidence; misuse of alcohol; feelings of guilt and shame.
There are many things that can act as a trigger, which is something that may evoke emotions or sensations that were familiar to my childhood, or which catapulted me back into the vivid memory of an assault. Sometimes, it’s been something in the news, or maybe the way someone looks or talks, the mention of a particular place, people talking about their children or pregnancy. Part of my recovery from the trauma was to work out what those triggers are, as, once recognised, they are easier to deal with.
At various points, usually after a sequence of triggers, the pressure from the memories would be too great and I would have to seek help. I had a counsellor at University; support from Coventry Rape Crisis Centre in the early 80s; a gestalt psychotherapist for several years during the late 80s and early 90s; a counsellor through my GP in Coventry in 2005.
The enormity of what had happened was too great to tackle all of it and its effects in one go. Working through it all was a bit like trying to do a 10 000 piece jigsaw with no picture on the box. Sometimes I’d feel like I was wearing gloves and a blindfold, while trying to find and place another piece of the picture.
I would get help from a therapist, working out some of the stuff that I had to go through to get to a place of healing for that section of my experiences, and then end the therapy as I felt stronger, healthier and had put some more pieces of the jigsaw in place.
In 2004, my then partner, Ann, fell down the stairs in the middle of the night and sustained severe head injuries. As part of my reaction to that event, which changed both our lives, I had some counselling from a counsellor at the GP surgery. After a few sessions, I asked if I could talk about something else. The feelings of powerlessness, stress and anger had triggered memories of my childhood. The counsellor was very helpful.
When I moved in 2006, I still needed support. An internet search for, “child sexual abuse support”, took me to the Safeline website. How grateful I am that I live near enough to the Safeline base to have been able to have one-one, face to face counselling. I had found a pair of safe hands which could support me through some really difficult times.
I worked with a Safeline counsellor from 2006 – 2008. The knowledge, experience and understanding of a person specially trained in working with survivors of child sexual abuse was immensely helpful and enabled me to make faster and deeper progress on my journey to recovery.
Speaking truth to power. Reporting to the police
In 2008, I decided that I wanted to report to the police. At that point, I could only clearly remember my father’s abuse and so focused mainly upon that. Fortunately for me, Safeline had recently began to provide Independent Sexual Violence Advisors, or “ISVAs”. One of these came with me into the interviews at a local police station, which were conducted by an officer from my home town. Although my ISVA did not say anything, other than to ask if I needed a break sometimes, having her there was a crucial support.
The evidence I gave was investigated by my home town police, including my father being interviewed under caution. His reply to all questions was, “That didn’t happen”. Maybe he believed his own lies. After several months of waiting, the police wanted a meeting to tell me about the decision of the CPS not to prosecute. Safeline provided a room in their offices and my counsellor was there too. It was frustrating although not unexpected that my father would not be going to court. It marked the complete exclusion of me from my family but I don’t regret reporting. The act of reporting helped me to come to a point again that I didn’t need support and my counselling ended.
During those 1 ½ days in 2008, my friend Mary sat in her car, doing a great meerkat impression, as she sat waiting for me to come out of the police station. She’s been a great support over the years. I would also like to thank people who are friends, family, partners of survivors, who stick with us despite the huge challenges that can come with being close to a survivor. Sexual abuse is an incredibly isolating experience, and your support is so appreciated, even when it doesn’t seem to be.
In 2015, various things combined to once again prod my mind into recalling some more of the traumatic events which I had carefully hidden. There was an article in the paper about a famous politician who was being investigated for historic sexual assaults. Usually, I would instinctively avoid such information, yet I found myself reading the article. I realised that he had been at the Norwich house.
My mum became very ill (I found this out from a relative who was still in touch with me). Despite her utter rejection of me, I still felt protective towards her. The fact that she was dying cleared that obstacle in mind and the tumblers of the safe in my mind started spinning again.
I went to bed in a friend’s house, where I was staying while they were away. I woke in the middle of the night with a couple of names spinning round my head. I got up and wrote them down, the trickle turned into a stream and by the end of the night, I had a fairly long list of names. These led to memories of incidents of abuse. Some of the names were those of other children who had been abused with me.
I knew immediately that I would have to report again and contacted my home town Police and Safeline. I had low expectations of trials and convictions; speaking truth to power was simply the right thing for me to do. It was also possible that my information might corroborate the evidence of others.
I was allocated two ISVAs, one who supported me throughout the time that my allegations were under investigation, which turned out to be nearly 2 years. We met regularly, exchanged emails and she wrote to the police and to my employer on my behalf. She also accompanied me to meetings with the police. Knowing that I had such a strong, knowledgeable presence in my corner enabled me to maintain direct contact with the police, which helped in their own understanding of my perspective, needs, thoughts and feelings regarding the investigation – a learning experience for many of the officers.
The other ISVA accompanied me to the first 2 of the 6 interviews in Nuneaton Police Station in 2015. I also remembered new incidents in 2017, and reported them too.
Again, frustratingly, no action was taken on any of the incidents I had reported, other than all of my information being added to various databases. The act of talking to the police though, helped me to believe in my own story. An important moment for me was when my home town police officer who had come up to let me know about the latest no further action, told me, “We know it all happened, Janet. We believe you”. This, of course, has always been the message from the counsellors and therapists I have worked with over the years.
(With one exception, the only one who did not believe me. Fortunately, he was an NHS nurse and I only had to see him four times, in 1984).
I would mention here the warmth and respect I have for the young officer who did all of the interviews with me in 2015 and 2017 (some twenty hours in total). I remember asking her once what support she and the other officers got, as she was listening to some very challenging and emotive evidence. “None”, was the reply, of course.
More about my therapy. Where am I now?
I was sexually abused as a child for twenty years. I have no qualms in allowing myself at least that much time to have therapy and to recover from all that trauma. I don’t give myself a hard time for not healing more quickly, nor for taking so long to realise that I am innocent and that the shame that I used to hold so close to me actually belongs to all those perpetrators and enablers. What they do with that is up to them.
Over the past forty or so years, I have been in therapy for around thirteen of those (so I still have a lot in the bank if I need to see someone in the future).
I have been very lucky in that seven out of ten of the therapists I have worked with were very helpful and obviously believed me (some of them even told me that, which can be incredibly soothing to the soul). All seven had very different approaches and used different techniques, although all were client-centred and had an open-ended approach to the number of sessions we could meet for. Some were funded by public organisations, some by a charity, two were privately funded by me.
Each of the good therapists have helped me build up the picture on the jigsaw, by listening, by asking, by doing exercises, by asking me to watch bouncing balls.
Their calm acceptance of me and their wisdom and skills have enabled me to make huge strides in the understanding of my reality and to believe in me.
Over the past couple of years, I have also done a lot of research about how trauma affects the mind, brain and body and, crucially, what I can do to lay new neural pathways, change my thoughts and beliefs and to re-set that amygdala smoke-detector in my brain that was constantly shouting that I was in danger. No wonder I used to get so tired.
One of the best decisions I’ve ever made was to try Eye Movement Desentisation and re-processing, or EMDR. I’ve been seeing a clinical psychologist for a year now, initially weekly, currently monthly. The progress I’ve made has been rapid and profound, partly through her counselling skills and partly through the EMDR, which is watching moving balls on her ipad. The fantastic grounding I have had through all the talking therapy has set me up extremely well to be able to shake out the pieces of the jigsaw which were the most stuck.
Incrementally, over those years of therapy, I have learnt that I am more than what happened to me. I can now distance myself in a healthy, positive way from the horrific events of my childhood. I can enjoy living in the present. I know that if I get triggered, it is just that, a trigger, and that I am not “back there”, it is only a memory. I have become my own therapist. I can understand and am living the phrase, “from survivor to thriver”.
I have realised that the picture on the jigsaw box is me. Me now, calm, compassionate and full of hope. Recovery from child sexual abuse is possible, I am proof of it.