Speaking Out: Surviving Sexual Abuse

Speaking out begins the process of healing and I am speaking out on this blog because I want you to know that I survived sexual abuse and I believe with the right support you can too.

Two years ago my old life ended and things I thought I knew, I didn’t know anymore. People who I trusted I looked at through suspicious eyes and most damaging of all, I lost my belief in myself, I started to over-think every move, unconfident and doubtful, to be honest, I was lost.

A series of things had happened leading up to this, each event in itself was a pretty big deal but the culmination of all of them had a forceful impact on me and my sense of self.

I lost a pub I had invested in Camberwell, through an unscrupulous business partner selling it from underneath me, making off with all the money I had invested along with any profit from the sale. Bankruptcy soon followed with the family house in London going into the pot. Shortly after we  were forced to leave our spacious house in Kent when my husband became redundant.

Our furniture stored at various addresses of friends, we moved back in with my mum and stepfather, Mark (the house I grew up in as a child) in the October of that year. We seized the opportunity to save and start again. The first few months were quite fun, we approached the whole thing as an adventure, our two young boys fairly oblivious to the chaos around them. We were determined that this would be a positive experience for them and they had a lovely time, hanging out with their nan and granddad, sweets and cuddles in abundant supply lending them excellent incentives to enjoy their temporary new life.

At the end of June my stepfather Mark who has been with my mum since I was sixteen suffered an acute brain haemorrhage outside his antique shop, he was rushed to hospital, and the immediate prognosis was not good, the doctors advised us to prepare ourselves to say goodbye to him in the morning. There was no sign of life in his brain and after studying his brain scan Kings College London declined him as a viable patient.

Miraculously the next morning there was a tiny change in him and he was transferred to Queens College Hospital in Holborn. They operated and he survived and started the long process of his recovery. All hands were on deck to help my mum through this time, sharing visits in London and helping to manage Mark’s antique shop.

Its difficult to put into words the intensity of emotion that a family feels when a family members life is hanging on the line, for the following weeks and months we walked on eggshells, hyper aware of my mothers vulnerability, tuned in for any new information that may give us a snippet of good news on his progress and trying to keep family life as normal as possible for our boys.

All thoughts of saving up and rebuilding our finances to enable us to move out were put aside as I helped to manage the shop with my sister, my husband’s wages going towards paying my mum and Mark’s mortgage. Everyday there were mighty hurdles to overcome, both emotional and practical. While I moved forward with these tasks, keeping things light for the children, comforting my mum in any way I knew and trying to keep a sense of normality, a very old but familiar feeling was creeping up on me, I recognized it quite early on but coped with it the same way I had before. By keeping it to myself.

You see I am a survivor of sexual abuse…

What I was experiencing was the effects of a trauma, and the last time that I had had these feelings as intensely as this was when I disclosed the sexual abuse I had suffered at the hand’s of my previous stepfather, Clive.

I had visited and stayed at my mums house many times since I moved out as a young adult and not found the house a significant trigger, and yet at this time with the events around me unfolding, I began to relive my memories again. Allowing specific events and incidences into my head, invading my thoughts and probably most significantly, asking questions, uncomfortable questions. Questions all the more significant when I looked at my eight year old son.

Clive had moved in with us when I was five, but it was when I was eight that there was a distinct shift in my relationship with him, a man that I loved very much as a father figure, having moved in when I was so young. He was funny and made me feel very grown up and special, always including me whether he was in the garden chopping up wood or making pastry in the kitchen. I was the ‘chief wood chopper’, ‘the pastry-greaser’. He was always the go-to when I had a fall out with children in my class or had difficulty with a maths problem.

It was around this time when Clive started sharing his adult spoof magazine Viz  with me, and with characters such as The Fat Slags, the stories were predominantly sexual or violent and were a world away from my usual reading material of Enid Blyton. This marked the beginning of our secret allegiance, where I was aware that we were sharing something secretive that no one else was to know about. It was not long after this that he began to show me pornography.

I look back now and I understand the term grooming and the significance of this to me and my childhood. Although the Viz magazine is the stand-out time to me, a clear marker of when the relationship took a turn for something more sinister, from the age of five leading up to this I was always sat on his lap, helping him roll cigarettes and having a cuddle.

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Age 5, when Clive moved into the family home

I started looking at my own children, especially my eldest, seeing his eight year old innocence, and the questions started coming. Why was I allowed to be alone with this man so much who was not even my father? How could my mum not have noticed that something was wrong? There were incidents that I started to dissect in forensic detail where my mum was present and I studied and re-studied her reaction to them. The times he used to shake the bathroom door, threatening to come in, the times he used to go through my belongings, footsteps on the ceiling, drawers being pulled out, making sure there was nothing incriminating such as, shock horror, a letter from a boy at school.

What about when much later, he put an alarm on my bedroom window that I used to escape from and join the other kids at the park who were allowed out until nine or ten. These were regular occurrences in our household that went on and were seemingly accepted and treated as ‘normal’. Why, why, why?

There was also another darker question that kept rearing its ugly head, persistent and relentless ‘what if he is doing this to other children?’

I can’t tell you why I’ve never addressed this before. Back when he was arrested I knew I couldn’t face him in the courtroom,  his cold, steel blue eyes boring in to me. When the police officers asked if I thought he would do this to others, I answered truthfully, ‘no’. Back then, I felt the abuse was all about me, I made him do and feel these things, no one else, was what he repeatedly told me. Being back in that house at this time, I was confronted by this question until it got louder and more insistent. I knew I had to act, however late it may be. After a few bungled attempts to find out how to get support in this process and a very uninspiring talk to someone from Victim Support I called the police myself. *1

My mum, immersed in the horror of losing her present husband, if not physically, then perhaps mentally, was oblivious to my personal mental state and we existed side by side, me silently and watchfully re-analyzing her every move, and  her unwittingly and unknowingly coming up short every time. My silence and its paralysing effects were further compounding my feelings of helplessness and I was faced with the same dilemma as back when I was being abused. If I speak, I will hurt my mum, I will cause chaos in her life. Back then my fear of her knowing and the hurt that it would cause was so great that it took me until the age of fifteen to speak out, to a teacher eventually. This time around, she was vulnerable and weak with the events surrounding Mark and I feared I would break her with the force of my vitriol.

I did speak out, finally. It wasn’t pretty or articulate. It was raw and angry and accusative and resulted in my mum telling us to leave. We barely spoke for two years after that, I blamed her for making us ‘homeless’ and although she tried to reach out to me, I had shut down all communication and refused to let her back in.

What had she done, my mother, to deserve this? She didn’t know of the abuse, not until the police turned up at the house one day after school. Perhaps there were times that she could have spoken up, when he said inappropriate things to me, perhaps she could have spent more time with me and in turn I would have spent less time with him and he would have had less opportunity to have me on his own. If she didn’t work so much then I would not have had to wake him up every day after his nightshift, with his coffee, alone in his dark bedroom, tearfully wheedling excuses why I didn’t have to get into his bed once again.

But this would be to misunderstand the power of him, the power he had over every one of us, controlled by his temper, his cold silences when we did things he didn’t approve of, and by the manipulative and calculated way he divided and conquered us all. He didn’t hit my mum, not to my knowledge, but we all lived in fear of him. In particular rages he would go downstairs and beat the dog.

I am glad I spoke up. Silence is debilitating and if there’s one thing I have learnt in my early counselling sessions is that speaking out is hugely empowering. The first words and sentences are excruciating, the longer that secret has been held, the harder it must be. It gets easier though.

Age 15, the year Clive left

When I first began the journey into counselling it was a bit of a minefield. I was defensive, ashamed and embarrassed and the last thing I wanted to talk about as a  sixteen year old girl to a grown adult was something sexually related. Particularly when that involved something as taboo as being in bed with my stepfather. I dreaded that long walk after college to the rooms where I met my counsellor. My skin would crawl in shame as I revealed snippets of my experiences, sure that she would find something that she found disgusting in my revelations or that I would reveal worrying freakish flaws in my character.

The Family Matters counsellor was not my first but she was the most significant to me. I saw a couple of people briefly before her and I learnt a couple of things. Firstly, as with people, we are not compatible with everyone. If you’re not feeling a connection, don’t be afraid to ask for someone else. My first experience was a bit of a disaster and the counsellor chose not to speak during the whole session, a type of approach known as psychodynamic therapy. After years of my personal silence paralysing me, this was not a great start and I left in tears, feeling inadequate and defeated.

I am very glad I didn’t let this put me off. My second counsellor was a man. At the end of the session he asked if I’d like to carry on with him or would prefer a female to speak to. I said I would prefer a woman and actually I regretted this a bit. The decision I made was based on a quick reaction to the question, my gut instinct was actually to stay with him. He gave me some great advice and we chatted about boundaries and that it was OK to tell boys no. It was a useful hour that I still remember and his advice, though not always acted upon, stayed with me and impacted positively on my future actions.

My third counsellor was from Family Matters UK and she was the most significant person that helped me at that time to make sense of the last few years. After the initial relief of my disclosure and letting out this enormous secret, the buzz of my first experiences of freedom and being allowed to go down the park with my mates, cold reality had set in. I started to flounder and I was very detached from my time at college, in fact I went to college, then sixth form, then college and then a repeat year in college before I finally came out with any A-Levels four years later. Talking to her made me feel validated and believed.

I came to understand that Clive was a sexual predator who was very much in control of the situation and my responses to it. She helped me to gain an understanding of what had happened to me, to make me realise that I was not alone and that there were many others out there like me who felt similar fears and emotions. I’m pretty sure if I hadn’t met the Family Matters counsellor then I wouldn’t have kept returning to college and starting again, she made me believe that there was hope at a time when I was ready to give up. I managed to get the grades to go to University, something I would never have believed when I was at the start of my sessions with her.

I was very lucky to meet this woman and when my life began to disintegrate around me after the argument with my mum and with the second arrest of Clive, I had the gift of self-awareness given to me by her all those years ago to know that I must seek help once again. I went to my doctor and I was referred to a counsellor for twelve sessions. *2

I suppose what came out of those sessions wasn’t so surprising in retrospect. I thought I was there to talk about Clive, but the more sessions I attended the main subject turned out to be my mum. You see, I had spent twenty years dealing with Clive. There were times when I reached out to other counsellors in that time, I also had some hypnotherapy and EFT*3 when the presence of Clive started to take over aspects of my intimate relationships. The most important lesson my Family Matters counsellor taught me was that being brave isn’t always about keeping that secret to yourself. Sometimes bravery is knowing when to ask for help.

I realised that I had always followed this advice, not always straight away, but I had learnt to confront my fears. When I was feeling something overwhelming about my history, I found some help, sometimes professionally, but also reaching out to friends. This last period of counselling , I surprised myself that I didn’t  really need to speak about Clive. I needed to speak about the issue that I had never dealt with – the blame that I attached to my mum for not being able to protect me against this man.

By not dealing with those feelings when they cropped up over the years, it became bigger and uglier and burdensome. It’s out in the open now and we are rebuilding our relationship. Its slow and still a bit raw, I have never fallen out with my mum for such a long time and so violently and the void takes a lot to be filled. Our relationship is not the same as it was and we are negotiating this new terrain cautiously. It does however feel more honest and I am hopeful that when the wounds heal we will be stronger for it.

After moving out, I started again, in a new town in Tonbridge, as at that point I wanted to move as far away from the arguments and memories as possible. It took time to find peace with recent events but as is often the case when faced with adverse situations, much positive can come from the situation. One of the biggest positives for me was that I started to work with Family Matters.

When you are overcoming childhood abuse, you spend much of your life trying to overcome issues and the side effects of that abuse. It rears its head in various ways, in intimate relationships, in having issues in creating boundaries, escapism through alcohol and drugs and reckless behaviour. Bouts of depression and anxiety are extremely common and something I have intermittently suffered from. You learn with counselling and support such as Family Matters how to navigate these hurdles.

One of the things that I was always conscious of is that in spending much of my life just dealing with the effects of the abuse I never took stock of what I wanted in my career, or anything for that matter. Particularly with the timing of the disclosure at an age where crucial decisions are made about the future, I drifted through my A-Levels and the same with my degree, going for English and Media with no sense of direction and no plan. I was simply trying to survive at this time.

The adverse situations that had engulfed my life for the past couple of years in my more recent life were now coming to a close and I took the time to reassess. I started to take a bit of responsibility for my own life now, and knew I had been given another new start, the first when he left all those years ago. With the help of my current counsellor and reading books I started to really think about what I wanted to do with my life.

I started reading a book called The Element*3, its about focusing your career aspirations on what you know, your history and what you are familiar with, running with your tribe. At the same time an advert came up for Family Matters to present a rape prevention app they had created to schools and  groups. I went for the job and I got it.

My experiences of sexual abuse certainly do not define me, but I accept that it has shaped the person I am and there are many strengths I have that I may never have known without those experiences. I am resilient, adaptable and I know whatever life chooses to throw at me that I will survive it and I will survive it smiling.

People who have suffered abuse at the hands of their fathers, family friends, stepfathers, mothers, boyfriends, you are my people. We have a knowledge and experience that connects us. Some of you are experiencing this now and don’t know whether to tell, who to tell, or what will happen to you and those close to you, when you do tell.

Speaking out begins the process of healing and I am speaking out on this blog because I want you to know that I survived sexual abuse and you will to.

That I was once frightened, lost and powerless, and even sometimes when we feel that we are on top of life, unexpected events can trigger memories and emotions that we are not always equipped to handle alone. I was given a gift of a Family Matters Counsellor and it changed my life significantly  for the better. I want you to know where to turn to and what to expect when you ask for help.

Family Matters UK are a specialised charitable service and the largest provider of childhood sexual abuse and rape therapy in the country. They help over 4000 people every year and as well as experienced counsellors they have a helpline and provide ISVA’s (Independent Sexual Advisers) to help survivors through the court system.

 This blog will feature information about Family Matters and its services as well as continued posts from me, my posts will talk about ways that I learnt to cope and traversed the rocky terrain of life post-abuse, and any issues related with surviving sexual abuse. I am not a professional counsellor, and my own content and opinions are personal to me. All content related to Family Matters comes from the perspective of a counselling service, they cannot officially comment on policies of any outside agencies such as the Police and any comments related to them are purely opinion.  

If you would like to talk to anyone about the issues raised in this blog, if you are a victim of sexual abuse or if you know or suspect that someone is being abused you can call our helpline 01474 537392.

For more general enquiries or to refer yourself for specialist counselling, call 01474 536661. 

If you have any comments about this blog or whether you would also like to share your experiences or chat, my email is joleene@familymattersuk.org . I look forward to hearing from you. 

Next blog: Who ARE Family Matters and what do they do?

*1 If you are thinking of reporting a sexual violence crime Family Matters have ISVA’s to help survivors through the court system, they can advise what to expect, be with you when reporting the crime and support you in court.

*2 Clients can return to Family Matters after their first twelve sessions by self referral and will simply go back on the waiting list

*3 EFT: Emotional Freedom Technique, a form of psychological acupressure to treat physical en

*4 The Element: How Finding Your Passion Changes Everything: Ken Robinson


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