*TRIGGER WARNING* The following article contains discussion of child sexual abuse. If you need to talk to someone, please call Bravehearts Support Line on 1800 272 831 (Mon to Fri, 8:30am-4:30pm AEDST) or Lifeline (24hrs) 13 11 14
My Story of Survival
I come from a wealthy middle-class family and I am a survivor of child sexual abuse perpetrated by my grandfather. To even write that, I question how I have made it in my life this far, but I have always had an inherent drive to find happiness and reach for healing, love, and self-acceptance.
Stories are powerful instruments of healing, freeing us from shame, and I still remember hearing the stories of other survivors when I attended a support group session with Bravehearts.
I held onto the memories of other adult survivors I met as they made me feel less alone. Before that, I had never met anyone else who openly spoke about being sexually abused as a child and I was in a whole room filled with survivors just like me.
I took two things away from the stories told in that support group. A story shared by an elderly woman who remembered her abuse, triggered by the death of her husband. She said she had never felt freer in her life by remembering and telling the truth of what had happened to her. Secondly, all the survivors in the room who had their partners with them on the day agreed that the hardest part of survival is to be in a relationship and not want to leave and flee when they were disappointed, let down, etc. in their relationship. I can now relate to both these statements but let me start from the beginning.
My first traumatic memory was ignited when I started my first sexual relationship at 17, when I remember being sexually abused at four years old. When I was eight, I told my mother what had happened to me, but she did not believe me. After years of therapy, I now understand that her reaction was programmed by her mother who uncannily responded with the same answer to me when I told her what her husband (my grandfather) had done to me.
This is what is known as intergenerational trauma and understanding this helped me to compartmentalise my experiences and the reactions from others that were gravely detrimental to my recovery.
‘I held onto the memories of other adult survivors I met as they made me feel less alone.’
I suffered from crippling anxiety, depression, and bulimia, stuffing my emotions down with food feeling a deep loneliness and need to feel loved. I sought sexual relationships that were unhealthy and had no boundaries. I had no idea what a relationship looked like and what love should be between two people, let alone what love looked like for me and how I should be treated by others.
The loneliness at times felt ever so present. I first sought a psychologist at 17 from my local GP who referred me to what was meant to be the most renowned psychiatrist in sexual assault. On my first appointment, he asked me to explicitly detail what had happened to me without first building trust and safety. I luckily followed my gut instincts and never went back to see him. It took me a few years to build the courage to seek another psychologist. I also used the Bravehearts Information and Support Line, which assisted me in getting by in between psychology sessions, and to be heard with compassion when I desperately felt alone.
As a child, I was regularly looked after by my grandparents. As the sexual abuse went on, I developed anxiety, which led to a compromised immune system being in fight or flight and a load of illnesses. This meant I more regularly went to my grandparents’ house to be looked after while my parents were at work, where the abuse occurred more frequently. I developed anxiety behaviors as a child biting to get my parents’ and sister’s attention. I did not have the vocabulary to voice what was happening to me, so I pulled my eyelashes out until it caused infections, I did not want to step on cracks in the pavement and I continuously had nightmares and could not sleep. I developed asthma, and colds that turned into infections that I could not heal from, as my immune system was compromised by the constant stress of the threat I was under weekly if not daily at times.
I was under constant stress and knew that I could not rely on any of the adults around me to stop the situation, so I developed my own plan to stop it. I started asking and then nagging my mother to be left with our next-door neighbour until she relented and at age 8 or 9 it finally stopped. We visited my grandparents’ house weekly and I was triggered by having to sit on the couch with the wool blanket covering where the abuse began. Until this day I cannot have rough wool on my skin. I had a friend who happened to live in the same street who I would go and visit as soon as we arrived and would not leave until she went to bed hoping my parents were ready to leave.
I eventually found a trauma-informed therapist in my late 20’s who worked with veterans and significantly assisted in my recovery. At age 31 I was the happiest I had ever been and met the love of my life, who I had never felt so safe and loved. My career and business were thriving, I had finally overcome bulimia and had started studying art therapy. I still suffered from mild anxiety but overall, I was happy and joyful attending yoga and receiving Musculetal body work and acupuncture to assist with healing and movement of the stored trauma in my body.
I intuitively combined talk therapy with body work and spiritual practitioners to help ease my stress and aid my healing and it propelled my healing greatly as I was receiving care and love from others I could not give to myself at times on my own. I personally found healing my mind and body was extremely helpful on so many levels to create big emotional shifts and deal with the enormity of dealing with the trauma.
It was during this happiest time of my life that I remembered further details of the sexual abuse I suffered as a child. I eventually was able to voice what had happened to me in therapy and it was the most freeing experience of my life, however, the hardest thing I have ever had to do was to speak those words of truth. To admit the horrors of what had happened to me, to my body. The day the memory came back to me I will never forget, and part of my survival is dealing with the truth, going through therapy, and getting to know my triggers and my needs. Most of all though, survival depends on having compassion for myself, especially through setting healthy boundaries and saying no.
Asking myself what it is I need, giving it to myself, and meeting my needs as simple as they might be. I remember during my studies in art therapy doing warmups to move my body and ground into myself using music or exaggerated slow movements and those exercises really helped me ground myself, keeping me from wanting to flee my body. I remember as a child I constantly felt disembodied and was quite clumsy. Yin yoga also helped to relax and calm my parasympathetic nervous system.
Living with my limits and knowing myself is key. I’m ever relearning what my boundaries are and how to enforce them with myself and in relation to others. But most of all how to love myself that little bit more.
If this story has raised issues for you and you need support, please call Bravehearts Support Line on 1800 272 831 (Mon to Fri, 8:30am-4:30pm AEDST) or Lifeline (24hrs) 13 11 14.