Wednesday, 21 June 2017

Speaking out

I recently saw a thought provoking question on Twitter and felt the urge to answer. It said: “If you are a survivor of abuse, what might have helped you to tell someone sooner?” It is certainly a difficult question to answer because I can’t imagine how things might have been different for me. I was a very open, talkative child but still I stayed silent. Survivors of abuse carry a lot of shame and will therefore keep the secret to themselves for a long time, usually for as long as about 20 years. However, as a society it is within our power to change this pattern and ensure that children are protected and able to speak openly.

Firstly, I believe it is the responsibility of adults, such as parents, teachers and doctors, to be aware of behaviour in children and how it differs in those who are being abused. The next step would be to arrange a therapeutic intervention with a child that might enable disclosure; this could be made easier for children if they are educated on the topic of abuse and made to realise that it is wrong. Survivors of abuse will have a blurred understanding of abuse because they will probably have been lead to believe that it is normal. In my experience it was normalised so in my childhood I didn’t actually know that what was happening to me was wrong. 

I say this a lot, but education is key. We can’t expect children to speak out if they haven’t been educated about abuse. And even if they are aware of it, they still may not wish to disclose if they have feelings of guilt and shame. At the same time, professional adults who work with children also need to have a better understanding of the effects of abuse; it might only take one conversation with a child to discover what is happening behind closed doors. It is then equally important that the child is listened to, believed and that action is taken to stop any further harm to the child. 

In my experience, it has helped to speak with other abuse survivors because we tend to understand and relate to each other. As a result of comments I have had on this blog, I know that my writing has also helped others to know they are not alone and to feel inspired to heal. Therefore, I know that I must keep writing about the topic. However, this has all happened in my adult life when it has certainly not been too late but I can see that my life has been affected as a result of the abuse. Therefore, it is essential that we help children from a young age so that they may lead better lives than a lot of us who had to suffer in silence for years. The silence needs to be filled with education, support and understanding.

Monday, 15 May 2017

Counselling survivors of abuse

Over the years I have had therapy with a number of counsellors and my experiences have varied. I feel that I am now at a point where I am able to reflect on what worked well for me and what didn’t. In this post I’d like to include some ideas for counsellors who are considering working with survivors of abuse and trauma.

First session

Consider the fact that the client may have never spoken about the abuse until the first session. Therefore, be mindful of how much information you ask of the client as you don’t want to re-traumatize. The client may have trust issues so a therapist needs to work towards building a good rapport and a trusting relationship. I would certainly advise against asking too many questions, which may feel like an interrogation to the client, and it might make the client feel judged and anxious.

Comfort

Tell your client that they can have comfort breaks if they wish. Anxiety can lead to an increased need to go to the toilet, and unfortunately if a counsellor doesn’t offer comfort breaks, the client may suffer in silence. Counsellors may need to consider physically offering tissues to the client if they don’t ask. Survivors of trauma are generally terrified of expressing needs and may endure physiological discomfort rather than ask for help.

Silence

Silence can be a dangerous place for survivors, so counsellors need to manage it carefully. Counsellors should generally speak less than clients, but if there is silence, a counsellor may feel the need to fill it with speech. The resulting problem is the fact that a survivor is not given the opportunity to find their voice. So gently encourage the client to speak and check how he/she is feeling. 

Dissociation

Be mindful of the fact that the client might be so out of contact with their body that they only inhabit their head and lose contact with all inner sensations. Survivors may avoid all sensations, feelings and thoughts, so it is important to help them integrate inner experiences. A good suggestion for survivors is physical exercise, which can allow them to regain contact with their body and feel in tune with their body.

Non-judgement

Survivors will often feel intense shame that they will have carried around for a long time. Therefore, if a counsellor is non-judgemental and emphasises that a child is never to blame, a client may feel comfort and dissolve the feelings of shame. Once the survivor realises how vulnerable they were, feelings of anger and grief may surface and the healing process will begin.

Education

Education about the psychological effects of abuse is important. If difficulties in life and ways to cope are explored, survivors will be able to better understand their range of behaviour or responses. This will enable a survivor to take control of his or her own life rather than be controlled by maladaptive behaviour.

The points I’ve mentioned may seem obvious to the reader, but unfortunately not all counsellors bear these things in mind when working with abuse survivors. I’ve heard a fair amount of horror stories from survivors, which I won’t mention here, but I only hope that counsellors will remember to be extra sensitive when dealing with people who don’t have a voice let alone self-esteem. Counsellors need to help survivors build self-esteem and enable their voice to be heard. Just being heard by one person can be such a release in itself and the starting ground for the healing process.

Monday, 13 February 2017

Breaking the silence

When someone shares a difficult or painful story, it is sometimes hard to know what to say. But an uncomfortable silence can sometimes hurt us more than words. In the case of survivors of abuse, they have probably hidden their story for a long time. Therefore, breaking the silence is of utmost importance. So imagine how they might feel if their story and feelings are not acknowledged?

Our response can be simple but effective, and most importantly it can show that we empathise. Whenever I listen to survivors and they share something that I sense is difficult, I say, “I’m sorry to hear about your experience, and I’m sorry that you are hurting right now.” My response not only shows empathy, but it also shows that I am joining the survivor in breaking the silence. I also thank survivors for sharing their story because I know how difficult it can be to put a traumatic experience into words.

Unfortunately, some people are insensitive and ignorant, and they are the people that could break the vulnerable. I’m sure we’ve all met those people whose response to your story is an experience of their own or another story that they have heard. I have experienced this myself and I know how hurtful it can be. The person may well have heard a similar story but they didn’t hear my story. What these people are really saying is, “Your story isn’t important.” They are wrong. Everyone’s story is important and everyone deserves a voice. 

The most critical factor in recovery from trauma is the strength of the surrounding community. That is why survivors often support each other through strength and compassion. However, in society, survivors of rape and abuse are often discouraged from speaking about it, and people generally shy away from the topics. But silence makes an epidemic seem rare and isolates survivors further, which makes it terribly difficult to speak out. It is for this very reason that we must bring the topics of rape and sexual abuse out of the shadows. It may feel uncomfortable to talk about it, but it is certainly more uncomfortable for the people who have endured these awful experiences.

Sunday, 8 May 2016

The key to my past

Child sexual abuse (CSA) has lifelong effects that are often not recognised or understood. Sexual abuse usually takes place in secret and is therefore kept secret. Due to the silence surrounding CSA, children are forced to endure the abuse and its effects alone. As a result, adult survivors often continue to feel alone and isolated. It is quite common for survivors to not remember the details but only have a vague recollection that something wrong has happened.

As a child I learnt many coping mechanisms, one of which was to pretend nothing was wrong. My story had been written but I decided to rip it to shreds, lock it up in a cupboard and throw away the key. That locked cupboard remained untouched for many years until one tragic day; the day I found the key to my inner pain and depression. During the ensuing period I can only describe what I experienced as shock and inner turmoil. My whole life had been turned upside down in a split second and I felt alone and helpless. It would be nice to think that I pieced together my story, had a few sessions of therapy and moved on with my life but, unfortunately, it’s not quite that straightforward. 

When I felt ready and able to face therapy it not only helped me to start feeling better about myself but it enabled me to remember some of those repressed memories. The frustrating element was that I could only remember certain parts of the story. Speaking with other survivors reassured me that childhood blackouts, in which large chunks of time are forgotten, can be common. After that period of therapy I felt able to move on with my life but the memories did not stop there, in fact they kept popping up, sometimes at inopportune moments.

Three years after my initial therapy, whilst living in China, I had a rather disturbing memory that I couldn’t just brush away. I vividly remember an evening filled with music when I danced under the stars wearing a T-shirt emblazoned with my name. It might sound like a happy memory but there was also a dark side and a feeling of discontent that emerged. The only uncertainty I felt as a result was the age of the little girl in the memory. A photo that captured my vivacity that night confirmed that I was in fact 4 years old. Having previously believed that the abuse started much later in my childhood, I had to once again grieve for that little girl and the childhood I lost.

Repressed memories are like jigsaw pieces that depict the story of our lives, they don’t necessarily emerge in a logical order but will resurface at their own pace. Therapy and healing will therefore take time, there is no quick fix solution. While it is difficult to confront these unknown memories and work towards recovery from childhood abuse, healing is possible. I feel I can safely say that I’ve recovered most of my shreds of paper and locked them away again. However, I’m glad that I am able to open that cupboard and share my experience with others, not only to raise awareness of the long-term effects of CSA but also to show other survivors that they are not alone. 


                                                          The aforementioned photo of me aged 4

Sunday, 21 February 2016

Small steps lead to big results

Last September when I met my MP to air my views about mental health services in the UK, I was unsure of the consequences but went ahead nonetheless. I remember telling him that I would like to be a spokesperson for other survivors of abuse and I stand by that statement. Now that I have the strength to come forward and speak out I don’t think I’ll ever look back.

A letter was sent on my behalf to Mike Penning MP (Minister of State for Policing, Crime, Criminal Justice and Victims) outlining my views on the lack of counselling facilities for CSA survivors. I highlighted the lack of resources in the south London area in particular. In Mr Penning’s response he stated that in recognition of the demand for services of rape support centres, the Ministry of Justice has awarded an uplift of £2 million to organisations it supports. He also said that I should contact Rape Crisis if I am in need of counselling services. I am aware of Rape Crisis and the good work that they do, however, last year when I perused their website they didn’t appear to offer counselling for CSA survivors.

In reply to Mike Penning I explained the difference between rape and sexual abuse and the fact that they shouldn’t be compared although they may appear to be similar. As I have experienced both I know that it is possible to come to terms with rape in 6 counselling sessions and move on with one’s life. In contrast, CSA is a complex subject and a survivor will need ongoing counselling sessions throughout his/her lifetime. Therefore, the type of counselling needed by rape and sexual abuse survivors is very different.

It seems that my perseverance and correspondence paid off because a small but significant change has been made. Since January of this year additional support has been made available via Rape Crisis for survivors of child sexual abuse. I’m quite proud to be a part of this change in society and it has given me renewed hope. The first step I took last year was just the start of my campaigning journey, I will keep taking small steps and believe they will lead to big results.

Thursday, 21 January 2016

The freeze response

As a survivor of sexual abuse a term I’m familiar with, and have often experienced, is the fight or flight response. I believe it is our way of surviving instinctively when faced with traumatic situations. In my reflections over the past couple of months, I’ve noticed that in certain situations I feel unable to fight or walk away, instead I simply freeze. Intrigued by this revelation and interested in finding out more, I did some research and was relieved to find that the fight or flight response is now referred to as the fight, flight or freeze response.

I’m sure we have all seen footage of predatory attacks where an animal suddenly “plays dead” in order to potentially survive. It’s interesting how humans adapt the same technique in dangerous situations. I recently saw a film of a polar bear being chased, he suddenly froze and his body started shaking. Seeing this image of the polar bear shaking made me cast my mind back to a traumatic event in my life. I remember the way my body shook profusely for what felt like hours after the event, now I realise it was my body’s natural stress release.

The freeze response occurs more commonly in children as the capacity to protect themselves is limited. In adulthood the capacity to deal with difficult situations should be greater than it was earlier. However, those of us who were exposed to ongoing trauma during childhood might rely on this response in adulthood, and use it inappropriately. Anxiety, phobias and panic attacks can frequently be symptoms of a freeze response that was never processed once the original experience was over. PTSD can be directly linked to these unrectified traumas.

In my experience, a situation in the here and now has reminded me of a trauma suffered years ago. The original fear or panic linked to that memory has made me feel as though what happened in the past is actually happening in that moment, and this is when the freeze response has come into play. As a child I adapted and used this defence mechanism to dissociate from the pain and trauma. As an adult it has been frustrating when my body goes into freeze mode again and I’m seemingly unable to act appropriately.

Thankfully I have been able to work through some of these triggers with a counsellor, and the panic and fear I felt in certain situations has gone away. On reflection, it seems that my present freezing reactions aren’t necessarily linked to a specific memory so I believe they may be caused by heightened stress. The reactions have certainly decreased since therapy though and I no longer feel I’m living between the past and present, so my observations are positive.

The challenge I’m faced with at the moment is learning to recognise when I’m using the freeze response. If I am able to feel it happening, I think I will use grounding techniques similar to those I have used when experiencing a flashback, such as noticing the environment around me, reminding myself I am safe and concentrating on my breathing. I realise the importance of understanding that the freeze response is an automatic, subconscious reaction. I accept that my body chooses to use this response from time to time but I’m glad to know more about it.

Tuesday, 15 December 2015

Secondary wounding

I’ve previously written about the effects of child abuse and the years it can take to heal from traumatic experiences. It takes a lot of courage for a survivor to disclose abuse and seek help. In fact, I was recently surprised to read that the average duration between the start of abuse and accessing support is 20 years. When I worked out the maths in my head I realised that in my case it was 21 years.
  
Unfortunately for many abuse survivors who choose to disclose their past with family or friends, they may be disbelieved, blamed or experience ignorant responses. These reactions to a survivors’ accounts or feelings are often more damaging than the initial abuse and can result in a survivor feeling worse. This is also referred to as secondary wounding
  
Upon reflection I realise that I have been repeatedly traumatised throughout my life as a result of peoples’ insensitivity and lack of understanding about abuse. As a result of my disclosure, I experienced a multitude of comments. Here are some examples of secondary wounding and things that were said to me.
   
Denial/ disbelief
    
Some family members denied what I told them, one person said “I don’t have proof” another said “I don’t believe it”. Those people were in denial and already knew what had happened to me but chose to ignore it. The sad thing was, I had just shared a very traumatic memory with them only to be traumatised again by their responses.
  
Minimising
    
One member of my family knew what happened to me before I came out and deep down she knew that I was telling the truth. However, she tried to minimise the effect of the abuse on me by saying: “At least you didn’t get beaten up” or “You’re overreacting”.
   
Blame
    
Criticism, accusation, punishment and humiliation are all blaming behaviours. If someone blames us for what we did/did not do, it remains with us and we start believing it. I felt as though it was my fault when someone merely responded, “Why didn’t you call the police?”
   
Stigmatisation
    
There is a problem with stigma in our society, I feel this is because people find it easier to avoid subjects such as mental health or sexual abuse. I have often been judged negatively because of my reactions to abuse. No one has the right to try to make us suppress emotions that have already been bottled up for many years. Some negative reactions: “You need to stop dwelling on the past” or “Aren’t you over that yet?”
   
Siding with the abuser
   
It can feel very isolating if members of the family side with the abuser as it can make us feel worthless. If people side with an abuser, we may feel invalidated and question what happened to us, and whether it was wrong. We end up feeling alone and as though we are to blame but we’re really not. One person’s reaction to my disclosure made me feel very alone, “I’ve known him for 30 years and doubt he would ever do anything like that.”
  
Silence
   
Silence is supposed to be golden but there are times when gentle words are necessary. When people don’t know what to say it can be very hurtful as we feel that no one understands us. Words can sometimes hurt our feelings but so can silence. Unfortunately, I have experienced people changing the subject or just walking away. As a result I have felt very alone and not supported.
     
Cruelty
   
Some people can be very insensitive and cruel and it saddens me that they’re unable to be empathic. I think that aside from direct, abusive comments like, “you deserved it”, nasty jokes about rape or abuse can be equally painful. Unfortunately, one of my ‘friends’ thought it would be funny to make jokes about child abuse in my presence.
     
All of these examples of what people said are not okay and survivors do not deserve to be on the receiving end of insensitive remarks. Generally, I find that some people are ignorant and do not know enough about abuse and the long lasting effects it has on survivors throughout their lives. What people should remember is that blame, guilt and responsibility lie in the hands of the perpetrator and are certainly not the fault of the survivor.
    
Healing from secondary wounding
   
I experienced a lot of the comments above during my healing process when the initial abuse was still quite raw. Personally I found it helpful to write down the experiences, I also shared them with my counsellor and discussed how they made me feel. I decided to walk away from all those people who hurt me as I believed they did not deserve any more of my time. I knew that their attitudes would not change and refused to let them hurt me any further. Now that I think back on those experiences they don’t sting like they once did. Instead I realise that facing my feelings enabled me to distance myself from them and heal.