The Vagenda

‘Many Suffer Flashbacks’ – Childhood Sexual Abuse: The Real Cost


I decided I needed to write this after hearing someone speaking on the news recently about Jimmy Saville’s victims and (briefly) about the long term effects they might suffer. The spokesperson clearly meant well but the only thing, other than generic “long term effects”, that he mentioned was that “many suffer flashbacks. I can’t help feeling that his, and the media in general’s, lack of detail and specificity about the long term effects of abuse might well contribute in some way to the attitude of many abusers, and even sometimes the wider public, that sexual abuse is ‘no big deal’ or that there’s no real long term ‘harm done’ beyond a few bad memories. I mean, at least they’re in one piece right?

So here are some of the long term repercussions of childhood sexual abuse, in my own experience:


Panic is something that, as a victim of childhood sexual abuse, I have to live with on an almost daily basis. I have to fight off a rising sense of panic when I see certain (everyday) objects associated, in my mind, with my abuser. As these are everyday objects, I can be hijacked by panic at any moment. The panic is brought on by triggered memories and results in a feeling of physical vulnerability that is difficult to shake.

For example: whenever I go on holiday I have to go around the accommodation and hide any wire coat hangers so that I don’t come across one unexpectedly (my abuser once tried to use one to hurt me). This clearly makes me look like a bit of a nutter and causes inconvenience to any people I happen to be holidaying with, especially when they want to hang up their clothes. Even then, just knowing that the hangers are there, hidden, can leave me with a constant need to consciously direct my mind away from them. They can even trigger nightmares.

It isn’t just an emotional response either. I get an actual physical stress response. Recently I helped my mum to clear out her flat before moving to a new one and I came across a tiny penknife that I had once used to threaten my abuser and warn him to stay away from me (I was ten). As soon as I saw the knife, a sort of fuzzy barrier slammed down in my mind before my conscious mind had even got around to registering it’s significance. My mind went blank, I became dizzy, shaky, sweaty and pale like some sort of classic feeble swooning heroine in a Victorian novel. This is  the sort of response that attracts attention when you least want it. People ask you if you’re ill and fuss over you at a moment when all you want to do is privately get your head back in gear and pretend that nothing happened. Im not the swooning type. I don’t like the attention and I find it fairly embarrassing to be honest.

 The worst panic I experience is during medical procedures. Smear tests are a particular nightmare, all of my instincts and reflexes are coiled in preparation to fight to prevent strangers from putting things into my body. The fight or flight response kicks in to the extent where I’m afraid that I will actually kick someone in the face if I don’t muster up every ounce of self control that I posses and hide away in some sort of ‘happy place’ inside my head. I used to just not go at all until I developed symptoms that were caused by a cyst and I decided that if I didn’t get it checked out I could be risking my health. It can be days after a smear test before I can stand being touched…even by my children. I need to be left alone a lot.


OK, so I am a parent and to be a parent is to be paranoid and panicky, but I guess that this is a little more than that. In the light of the experiences I had as a child I am (of course) pretty overprotective of my own children. Mostly this is not a huge problem. The kids moan a bit when I wont let them play or sleep over at a friends house whose parents I don’t know very well and I have to discipline my mind not to imagine constantly that they are being abducted the very second I let them play outside (my youngest is NINE). Mostly though it is the awkwardness and the misunderstandings that cause the problems, for example my sister once accused me of having ‘that sort of mind’ , like I was some sort of perverted creep, when I got really angry with my Mum for allowing a stranger to take my eldest son to a staff toilet at a theater, in order to avoid the queue, when he was a toddler. Whenever I am asked by a parent I barely know if my daughter can come for a sleepover, I have to quickly come up with some sort of a reason why she can’t that doesn’t sound basically like a sugarcoated version of ‘she can’t come because you might be a paedophile’. If they keep on inviting, it gets increasingly awkward. Boys don’t seem to do sleepovers, thank God, but then little boys (whose parents I’ve never met) will come up to me and ask if my son can come round and play after school and I have to say no (with a believable excuse) and disappoint a small child (at which point my son will probably chip in with a “no we’re not!” and expose my excuse as a fib).


For obvious reasons I hate not to have control over my own body and again I can panic if I feel like I don’t. This can make intimacy with my lovely husband a bit of a challenge at times, even to the extent where I have to be the hugger and not the huggee and must always be the outer spoon.

At its most extreme, my feelings of loss of control over my own body lead to an eating disorder, which is thankfully in the past now.

I even find it difficult not to panic at the opticians or the dentists. Submission to touch, any touch, particularly from someone in whom I haven’t built up trust, can give me flashbacks and…you guessed it…make me panic.


I was once on a safeguarding course for leaders of a youth club that I was involved in. The course was lead by a twatty, aggressively softly spoken social worker with terrible taste in jazzy waistcoats (harsh? You’ll see why in a moment) and he, during his talk, misquoted a fact that I had heard misquoted many many times before, he said (his exact words) “Most abused children go on to be abusers themselves”.

He was trying to get us to be a bit more understanding of abusers as people and I can see his reasons for saying it but the actual fact is that ‘many abusers were abused themselves’ NOT that ‘most abused children become abusers’. This is an often misquoted fact and only serves to add to the stigma that already surrounds victims of abuse and makes it even less likely that adults will be open about their own experiences of abuse as children. After all, what if people then begin to expect them to abuse their own children or start to look for evidence of it happening already.

Of course I didn’t put my hand up and correct twatty waistcoat man either. I mean, what if the other leaders put two and two together and realised that I was abused? Wouldn’t that make them suspicious of me?

Then there is the stigma that comes with the inevitable mental problems: the depression, the PTSD, insomnia, eating disorders, etc. The biggest issue with this, I have found, is being patronised by medical professionals who seem to think I am just not competent enough to get my shit together and handle normal life. They will (I assume, because of my mental history) either blame any and all physical symptoms on stress and/or offer me anti-depressents, before offering any other solution, for anything.

I haven’t plucked up enough courage yet to ask what exactly the mysterious term ‘Behavioural Problems’, in a box on the side of my medical record screen, refers to. I find it quite distracting while I’m trying to describe my cough or sore throat. Maybe I should start making animal sounds next time I’m there and see whether the doctor acts surprised or whether he/she just nods knowingly and adds another note to the little box.

Lost opportunities

This is the last one for me, although that doesn’t mean that there aren’t other problems suffered by other abuse survivors, but this one has perhaps been the cause of a bit of a chip on my shoulder over the years.

Imagine you feel like it takes every scrap of energy you have just to act ‘normal’ and to carry on your day like an ordinary human being. Imagine you come home from school having dragged yourself through the usual assault course that is an average adolescent school day and shut yourself up in your room to cry, punch soft furnishings, wish you were dead and seethe with hate and sleep maybe two hours in the whole night. Imagine what that does for your schoolwork, for your chances of a good university place, of having mates that don’t think your a crazy drama queen, of having a normal experience with a boy.

A few years ago a teacher friend of mine got a job in a school, doing one on one work with kids who had issues at home, in order to help them to catch up and keep up with their schoolwork. I thought this was a huge step forward and I wished that it had been available for me all those years ago when I needed it. It was, sadly, only a very short while before the funding dried up and she lost her job.

So yeah, sometimes I suffer flashbacks, but wouldn’t it be great if, without bearing individual victims souls to the world, the real cost of child abuse was spoken about and out there so, the next time some creep tries to tell himself that what he is doing isn’t such a big deal, that even he knows he’s a lying evil bastard.

In 1991 my abuser (who plead guilty) was sentenced to two months…suspended. Wouldn’t it have been nice if someone had told the judge about the real cost of his actions for me?

24 thoughts on “‘Many Suffer Flashbacks’ – Childhood Sexual Abuse: The Real Cost

  1. Great article, it takes a lot of courage to open up and talk about events that have so obviously affected your life. I’m more of a suffer in silence and lump most bad things that have happened to me outside of my control into the “shit most people don’t have to deal with at a young age” box in my head.

    Even myself have ended up postulating that what Harris did ‘wasn’t that bad’ which I feel FUCKING AWFUL FOR after reading this and very glad he’s getting a few years in the slammer for his crimes. The effect of his actions on his victims as far as I have read is that they felt ashamed/embarrassed which is hardly the extent of it if the experience is still plaguing their lives over 30 years after the crimes happened.

    Perhaps Holly and Rhiannon can use their influence to get a decent article about victims experiences (without it becoming a modern day ‘freak show’) into the mainstream media? As your article states, more understanding and education on the aftermath of abuse is needed, then perhaps these crimes won’t go unreported for so long as the victim would feel that they would listened to and taken seriously.

  2. What an incredible article. I, having fallen into the ‘sexually abused’ category some years back, often dread what my personality holds for me in future – will I be ok with others looking after my children if I have any? If I have a daughter, what kind of parent will I be when she’s 13+ and wanting a normal teenage girl life? I have an awful habit of self diagnosing, in that If I’ve decided I’m against something, there’s a small mindless part of my brain that tells me that I’m only thinking that way because of, ‘you know’, and no decisions are really my own. It takes more from you than any judge is likely to know, and so hard to really put into words just how debilitating it can be at times. Thankyou for publishing, it’s somewhat comforting in an odd way.

  3. Yes that’s a big part of the problem isn’t it. It just isn’t helpful for victims as individuals to be open about the effects on their lives, it’s not cathartic or therapeutic, BUT, someone does need to make sure that it is widely known what a big deal sexual abuse is to the victims and about the lasting negative impact it has on their lives. Perhaps it should not need to be the victims speaking up on their own behalf though.
    I’m not sure long or short prison terms are even the issue either. Yes, two months suspended sentence seemed disrespectful to me as a victim but he was also forced to get therapy as a condition of his staying out of jail while I wasn’t offered any help beyond a few months of visits from a social worker which ended with her suddenly announcing that she though I would be ok without visits now and me (age 12) feeling too proud to contradict her and tell her that I was far from ok. I would like to think it might be different now, but I don’t have much faith that it would.

  4. Thank you for this excellent and important article.
    I think stigma could be the major factor in cases being unreported … agree with Th that sensitive and honest articles like this in the mainstream press might help other people feel safe enough to find a voice- if only amongst friends and loved ones.
    Thanks again. found much comfort in this article.

  5. Thank you for this article. There is nowhere near enough of an understanding of the long-term affects of childhood abuse in the main-stream media, which means that conversations around sentencing for abusers often down-play the crime and criticize longer sentences. We need more voices like yours so people can finally understand that these experiences are deeply traumatic for victims and can have consequences that last a whole life-time.

  6. 2 months?!!! That is total insanity. Why is it that crimes against children are treated so lightly? Despite the hysterical/gleeful/voyeuristic reaction that always comes from the press when cases of crimes against children come to light the sentences always seem to be so much more lenient than if the same crime has been committed against an adult. Perhaps it’s because as the author says people don’t like to talk about the specific repercussions of such crimes. 2 months though. Really makes my blood boil.

  7. What a brave article. You will be helping so many people start to talk about this by having written it.

  8. Yes and I think that is the bigger scandal isn’t it? Overly short sentences are a travesty but the lack of help and support for victims is a worse one.
    I hope you get all the support you need to be a great mum one day (assuming you decide you want to have kids). xx

  9. OMFG this! Yes! Thank you thank you thank you!

    I, sadly, can relate to 99.9% of this article (my triggers are different but that’s irrelevant as triggers are triggers).

  10. Thanks for replying. That’s absolutely shocking that you were not offered further help, I am really appalled at that. I see your point about victims not being able to speak up, even with my own experiences I’d rather not make an bigger issue out of it. Which makes me wonder how many people within our own networks are suffering in silence. To me the thought of battling through NHS therapy waiting lists seems more stressful than dealing with anxiety itself. Thanks again for the poignant article, I wish you all the best for the future.

  11. I have been through similar and can relate a lot to this article. the smear test problem you have is likely to be a form of vaginismus by the way if it stayed after the cyst cleared up x

  12. Thankyou for this article. It is really hard to convey the awful day to day impact of childhood abuse even decades later, specially if you don’t want to be exposed or judged. Access to support services without being a basket case or being dismisssed as ‘worried well’ would be excellent.

  13. Im 50 odd and my initial abuse happened over 40 years ago. It has (mis) shaped my life completely, without a doubt, turning me into an anxious man pleaser with eating/esteem issues, multiple marriages and a complete inability to link sex with love. I have suffered long term depression and suicidal tendecies. You wouldn’t know this to look at me. But just because I have somehow survived doesn’t mean I ever got/will ever get over it.

  14. 50 years later the childhood memories are of my abuser. He’s dead now but was never brought to task as in those days we didn’t know how to talk about it. I’m now a foster carer and I think I have a bigger understanding with the children who have been abused. I feel that I can help them but when I’m alone in the night my demons come back to haunt me.

  15. Whoa!!!
    Thank you so much for this article and I can relate to everything you have said. Me also 50 something still today this day suffer the effects of all those years. And yes loose opportunity, really gets under my skin now, and the cause and effect it has on my family now. I have suffered with addiction problems for most of my adult life and when I am in relapse they suffer to. God please forgive me!!!!
    Thank you Linda

  16. I’m going thru the flashbacks now. My bio mom passed in March and it all started then. I had blocked most of the abuse. I had 4 abusers thru out my life time. One was very bad and when I started to get the first flashbacks of him I became very ill unable to eat at all everything came back up. I too was a crazy Mom never trusting anyone with my kids. My daughter had it the worst. I still put her on the bus in high school . I only just told my daughter about the abuse. I have a hard time dealing with all people. I trust NO one. and push anyone away that could get close enough to hurt me. I’m 45 and have a handful of people that I call friends. I have so much anger inside me that seems to come out at the worst times. My worst abuse was at the hands of a bus driver and he smelled like motor oil and the smell will make me ill. So I hate to put gas in car or even go to the gas station.

  17. I can so relate to you!!! I’m not sure if I can keep going at times the lack of sleep makes me crazy. But we must be strong LOL that was the first thing I was told when I asked for help at church. I never went back. Its hard to trust God. Where was he! I was hurt so bad. I have been suicidal as well.

  18. Fully relate and am so relieved to discover this piece of writing! I was actually looking for something on learning to trust a new partner with my kids. It kind of comes under the paranoia section but it’s not specified! Anyone have any suggestions?

  19. I am 45 years old. I had major flashbacks after the death of my grandmother and then my father, respectively. I suppose the trauma of losing someone I cherished so much caused the PTSD from childhood sexual abuse to flare up.

    I flashbacks cause insomnia which is unrelenting. I cannot function for lack of sleep. I fund this causes me to feel more anxious, and panicky.

    I cannot stand the insomnia. I guess it’s a defense mechanism since I was dreaming about my assault. Maybe it’s the heightened cortisol levels.

  20. Thank you so much for posting. I’ve recently started researching how to “deal” with sexual abuse as an adult.
    I only remember one time by who I THINK was my step father when I was about 8. That one time has crippled me in so many ways.
    As far as I know, I never told anyone when I was younger and brought it up to close friends while in high school. I just barely told my sister. We are now in our early 30s. I haven’t confronted my step dad or asked my mother if I told her (also sexually abused as a child) I’m so afraid to ask, what will her reaction be?
    What happened to me is coming to a head because it is effecting my relationship with my fiancé, the father of my children. I cannot connect love with sex. I’m a “control freak” as some would say. I only want to be touched when I want.
    It’s nice to know I’m not alone and very helpful to read others’ experiences. Thank you.

  21. Sorry to hear about your trauma. I, as a boy, was sexually molested. I suffer from all of what you described as the after-effects of childhood sexual assault. I was abused by men and women. 2 months for his crimes against you sends a signal to all pedophiles that if they can do the (minimal) time, they WILL do the horrific crime(s). And our justice system does not allow us to take the law into our own hands… if it did I suspect that pedophiles would be getting a death sentence from victims who were given a life sentence of pain and shame. But to murder a pedophile would only add to the pain of the victim through guilt.
    So we are stuck with a ‘justice’ system that hands out (pun intended) silly
    inappropriate light or no sentences to perverts who alters other people’s very being through sexual abuse.
    Our generation needs to be the one to end this centuries old practice.

  22. Thank you for being brave and writing this.

    Ostracism is one of the worst effects that society hands us. Silence over these things helps the cycle of abuse as you say. Though it takes people like you to be brave enough to speak. Thank you. Truly.

    If we can all inspire even one more person to speak out as you have, we’re one person closer to dealing with the entire problem. Xx