In writing this blogpost I'm keeping in mind a couple of tweets I, somewhat serendipitously, read this morning. The first is from Anthony Lawlor who said "In all the truth speaking, what goes unsaid reveals the most." And the second is from Teresa Robinson who shared a quote from Anne Lammott: "You own everything that happened to you. Tell your stories. If people wanted to write warmly about them, they should have behaved better."
The fact that I feel so fearful about writing this blogpost speaks volumes - particularly considering I have previously blogged about my, too close for comfort, brush with an eating disorder, and my, even closer for comfort, brush with suicidal depression - You would think that there are few shadowy areas of my life left to reveal to the glaring light of public disclosure ... but you would be wrong.
Over recent days, weeks and months it's fair to say that the UK has been rocked by a stream of shocking revelations regarding child abuse. As each scandal broke I watched the folks in my twitter stream reacting with righteous indignation and disbelief. And I gradually realised that two things seemed to be largely missing from the media coverage and the comments on Twitter. The first was recognition that the abuse cases being uncovered are exceptional, albeit no less horrifying, occurances and that the vast majority of abuse happens not in a celebrity's changing room or in a care home, but in ordinary family homes in our own villages, towns and cities. Statistics on the NSPCC website state that 1 in 4 people experienced sexual abuse as children. Most children know their abusers and 80% of offences happen in either the child's or the perpetrator's home. In other word it is not just aged television presenters, pop stars and MPs who will be feeling uncomfortable as new disclosures about abuse come to light. One exception to this lack of recognition was Anna Nathonson's piece in the Independent which was the first time I'd read the 1 in 4 statistic.
The second thing that was even more absent, in fact completely missing, was anyone putting their hand up and identifying themselves as a victim of abuse. This heavy veil of silence is a clear indicator to me that being a victim of abuse carries with it a massive burden of stigma. A few weeks ago I came to the personal realisation that although I had stepped forward and broken free of the stigma around suicide and mental illness (yay, go me!) I was still gagged and bound by the chains of the stigma attached to the contributory causes of my mental illness. I have spent a lot of time trying to work out how I could broach the subject of this double stigma without sharing any of the details of my personal experience. I'm feeling very dizzy and heavy-skulled as I type these words ... it seems to me that I probably cannot very easily do one without the other.
It feels unfair to me that having broken the silence once I now find myself needing to do it again. At least with my disclosure about my suicidal depression there was a happy ending - my personal experience of abuse and neglect is nothing but messy, shame-ridden memories which will no doubt deeply upset my close family and friends, and very possibly break my mum's heart. In the face of that, keeping silent seems the much easier path but the cost of that silence has been too high already - my ongoing mental health problems and recent suicidal episode (which I now realise was the result of 'double depression') is directly related to my early childhood experiences and further exacerbated by experiences throughout childhood and into early adulthood. It is still very hard for me to accept my depression and my ongoing issues with anxiety as a mental illness - it just feels like the result of me not being very good at being human. At the same time I also struggle to reconcile the relatively low level abuse and mistreatment I experienced with the severity of the impact to my personality development and mental health - the result seems disproportionate to contributory factors. In all likelihood this is largely due to a failure on my part to accept the severity of those contributory factors, underestimate the impact it's had on my life and a failure to appreciate the complexity of those factors acting on top of each other over time.
By now your imaginations are probably running overtime so I'm going to share my experience as undramatically as I can - It would be inappropriate to share the full details but here are the main 'highlights' of what I experienced:
- multiple experiences of, relatively innocent, sexual contact at the hands of boys who were the same age or a few years older than me from about 5 years old through to puberty.
- being 'flashed' by a stranger in an underpass on the way home from school, aged 11.
- inappropriately early exposure to pornographic magazines and horror movies.
Other factors played their part too:
- when I was born I nearly died and my mum didn't see me or my twin sister for several days after we were born - I then had to stay in hospital for a couple of weeks after my mum had been discharged (they kept my twin sister with me). Interestingly my therapist informs me that children who experience early periods of hospitalisation/maternal separation are more likely to be abused.
- my parents split up and then divorced when I was very young (less than two years old I think) - I only found out earlier this year that domestic violence was the final straw, following years of emotional abuse (interestingly, it was my Grandma who spilled the beans on that family secret, not my mum).
- we grew up with a very strict step-father whose discipline was largely founded on threats of violence and whose outbursts I experienced as unpredictable and unjust.
Domestic violence apparently happens to 1 in 4 women (there's that 1 in 4 figure again!) so the scenario of my upbringing is not altogether exceptional. If both domestic violence and sexual abuse affect the same numbers as mental illness is strikes me as odd that they are still so deeply shrouded by silence ... particularly when there seems to be widespread recognition that childhood sexual abuse is directly related to the development of mental illness and personality disorders later in life. I appreciate that the fight to breakdown the stigma around mental illness is very recent and is still ongoing but my feeling is that stigma around the causes of mental illness need to be broken too if those who are affected are to feel less isolated.
The perpetrators of sexual abuse and other types of abuse were often abused themselves as children so breaking the stigma of abuse and providing support and treatment for victims of abuse seems key if we want to stand a chance of breaking the cycle in the future. I keep wondering whether some kind of 'abuse amnesty' together with intensive therapy and mediation services might be one way forward ... although that looks unlikely with the ever shrinking NHS budgets. Of course the 'don't wash the family's dirty linen in public' atmosphere of secrecy and complicity that is pervasive among families, the Eighties media coverage of social care service horror stories which ripped seemingly innocent families apart, and the lack of awareness of what constitutes abuse and how high the abuse figures are all contribute to the problem of tackling this potentially fatal societal problem.
And so having blogged about this publicly I face having a very difficult, but long overdue, conversation with my mum - I feel guilty about not talking to her first but I'm sure that will be the least of her concerns. I'm not even able to express much anger towards my perpetrators, let alone forgive them yet, so this is just one more step for me on a very long journey. In a future blogpost I'll try and put into words the ongoing legacy of those early childhood experiences but for now, if you are on a similar journey then be reassured that with 1 in 4 people affected by the similar traumatic experiences you are far from alone - please consider seeking a sympathetic ear if you haven't already. I'm seeing a therapist every week and have been for the last year but there are also organisations such as the National Association for People Abused in Childhood who are currently somewhat inundated but may be a useful starting point in getting the help you need and deserve.