Denial is a funny thing, isn’t it? I’m sitting at a dinner party, freshly wounded from a failed relationship, and someone is talking drunkenly about Jimmy Savile. “Well all those people who have come forward as victims, I bet it’s just for the money, isn’t it? Those people just want attention.” And at that moment, something inside me shatters. I fall through the glass floor of my own denial and remember that I was sexually abused. By my grandad, starting from around the age of five or so.
Part of my mind reels, trying to stagger away from the memories. No, no – it shrills desperately – it didn’t happen didn’t happen didn’t happen.
It did though, of course. According to statistics from the NSPCC one in 20 children in the UK have been sexually abused. One in three children who have been sexually abused by an adult don’t tell anyone. Late one evening, at the age of seven, I remember finally plucking up the courage to tell mum that granddad kept touching me there. She immediately sent me back to bed and we never said anything else about it. My parents still invited him round for Sunday lunch, just as before, and he still abused me afterwards.
The experiences are often internalised, leading to overwhelming shame, self-loathing, worthlessness, fear and disgust
It’s two years after the dinner party. I’m sitting in a horseshoe with nine other women, in a drab room in north-west London. The group is called “Recovering from Childhood Abuse”. It’s probably the first time, for all of us, that we feel we’re not suffering alone. As the weeks progress, we swap stories. One woman was gang-raped at gunpoint by members of her extended family. Another is tortured by her mother. Most of us are on anti-psychotics. Most of us are on benefits. We all have a string of failed relationships behind us. The experience of abuse is powerfully defiling – your wellbeing is shockingly outraged. These experiences are often internalised and lead to overwhelming feelings of shame, self-loathing, worthlessness, fear and disgust. Early abuse cripples your sense of self and blights your capacity to trust. Often the only way a child can make any sense of the situation is by assuming they are doing something wrong. That they are somehow to blame. This is, of course, inaccurate. The survival mechanism of self-blame often means that anger churns and boils beneath the surface. It’s difficult for a child to develop confidence in the world if an adult – a grown-up who is not just physically huge in comparison, but also in terms of resources, status and significance – chooses to victimise them in this way.
I’m astonished by the structure of the support group, our syllabus of healing. The two amazing women who run it are pragmatic, compassionate, safe. There is also a manual, published by the Oxford Cognitive Therapy Centre. In it, we read: “If you were abused as a child, you may have been denied the opportunity to learn that you were precious, that you deserved love, that you were special and that you were OK just the way you were. You may not have been given the chance to feel good about yourself.”
As a child, the trauma and torment forced me into a fantasy world. I collected photos and pictures in a desperate attempt to build highly detailed inner landscapes I could escape to.
Then, growing up, I became a wildly self-destructive teenager. I abused alcohol, self-harmed with razor blades, narrowly avoided expulsion from school and became outrageously promiscuous. This behaviour dulled pain in the short term, but ultimately attracted more censure and seemed to further confirm all the distressing beliefs I had about myself. I must just be bad – worthless, unlovable, disgusting.
At 16 I went to art college, full of the romantic notion that if you didn’t fit in the real world, you could find acceptance at art school. But I was too weird, even for art school. The feelings of otherness, of being outside and inferior, still plagued me. But making things – pictures, stories, clothes – continued to be a refuge and a coping mechanism.
Meditating with the furious desire to fix yourself is a tragic misdirection of energy
I first tried counselling for depression and anxiety at the age of 25, following a break-up and an enforced move back to the family home. At the time, I was so frozen in depression, so terrified and conflicted, that counselling felt like an excavation – unearthing the buried shrapnel of repressed pain. My lovely counsellor encouraged me to try mindfulness meditation. It was not a success. I was so ferociously at odds with myself that there could be no peace or acceptance anywhere. We briefly mentioned the abuse but I couldn’t talk about it. In the end, with her encouragement, I managed to write down the experiences for her. I saw her once more afterwards and then ended our sessions.
A couple of years on and I was again in therapy, but not talking about the abuse. I’d sort of managed to bury it again. This time it was cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT). We focused on compassion, and again on mindfulness meditation. Through those sessions, as the candle flame of compassion started to flicker, it began to illuminate the depths of my longing and distress. We practised a compassionate visualisation exercise, and formed a compassionate image. (Mine was Aslan from the 1988 BBC adaptation of The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe). The meditation frequently led to tears. But the tears were a release. I started meditating more often, and became increasingly aware of the inner roar of self-hate. The barrage of self-criticism that was the white noise of my life.
Things improved and I (paradoxically) became suicidal. I lied to my therapist about the severity of the depression. But the CBT eventually led to some positive changes – I moved back to London and got a book deal – I was still escaping into heightened imaginative worlds. I tried internet dating, fell in love, got dumped.
And here we are again, back at the dinner party – with the talk about Jimmy Savile.
After crashing through the denial into something like a nervous breakdown, I was lucky enough to see an excellent GP who referred me to the support group. There was a year-long wait for the group to start, but that was spent in one-to-one therapy, and in crying. I cried for most of the year. I was still meditating, it was getting easier, but lots of the meditation time was still spent lost in labyrinthine thinking. Anyone who has experienced the deeply soothing acceptance of mindfulness meditation knows that meditating with the furious desire to fix yourself is a tragic misdirection of energy.
In the new year, the group finally started. During our first session, we discussed our fears about entering therapy.
In my diary that day, I wrote: “As we compiled the lists of fears, I realised they’re all exactly the same as my own feelings – the inability to trust, the drive to self-isolate, the self-destructive sabotaging of relationships. They feel it too. They’re the same. It’s something that comes from the abuse. IT’S NOT MY FAULT.”
This felt like a revelation.
Together, we tried to come to terms with what we’d lost – a loving and nurturing childhood, important people who had ignored our suffering and tacitly allowed us to be abused. We wrote letters (which weren’t sent) to verbalise our sense of rage and grief. We worked on our negative and distressing core beliefs which had been forged in childhood. We looked at thinking biases, self-criticism and reframing our thoughts in a compassionate way. At first, we all blamed ourselves for the abuse, but gradually we learned to apportion appropriate blame. The blame for abuse always lies with the abuser, never the victim. We found it easy to be compassionate with each other, and then it became easier to extend compassion to ourselves. For all of us, I think, it was the first time we felt truly understood. Truly cared for and supported. Those women saved me.
These days I can finally meditate and be (comparatively) at peace with myself – it’s such a relief.
Part of the healing came from the realisation that the morass of distress which felt so unique and personal is all being lived by other victims and survivors, too. It isn’t our fault and we are not to blame. There are kind people who understand. Nothing can ever erase an abusive childhood, but healing is possible. We don’t need to struggle alone any more.