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.
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?