Inspired by the recent news story of ‘Andrew’ being removed from his royalty and military titles and ordered to answer to charges around sexual abuse in the US, I began considering how the survivor must feel to have received all of this news. Then, thinking about that, has led to this post about my journey through reporting the abuse I experienced, how I coped when my abuser told the Police he was completely innocent, advice I’d give, and some helpful resources…
“WHY DID IT TAKE SO LONG?”
The very first time my abuser hurt me, I fought back, and I screamed. When he clamped a hot, sweaty hand over my mouth and muttered some very believable threats, I immediately knew that it wasn’t going to be the first time he did this. And that from that moment on, I couldn’t tell a single person about it.
And I was right on both counts. Firstly, the abuse continued for maybe three or four occasions per week for the following six months. And secondly, I didn’t tell a soul for that entire time because ironically, the longer I stayed quiet, the more opportunity I had to come up with even more reasons not to report it…
1. My abuser’s threats that he’d physically hurt me and/or have me kicked out of school
2. The doubt that anyone would actually believe me
3. The thought that I deserved it
4. Wondering why anyone would even care
5. The worry of what my Mum would do to him(!)
And the list could go on!
Whilst I had so many reasons to stay silent, that didn’t mean I wanted to. To the contrary in fact because I, actually, wanted help. I was desperate for someone to stop it because I had come to recognise and accept that I was incapable of doing anything to help myself. And so, I began (what I would call) silent screaming.
I thought that if I couldn’t tell people, then maybe I could show them. And so, I let in to all the difficult thoughts and feelings and began exhibiting behaviours which – professionals and others are frequently taught – are signs of abuse. I self-harmed, my attitude towards people in general changed, I stopped engaging in or caring about my schoolwork, and I started taking multiple showers and spending up to an hour each time!
Unfortunately, though, I was in my teens (I was fifteen when the abuse started and turned sixteen during it) and so a lot of my change in actions and attitude were explained away as teenage rebellion, or just plain rudeness in a lot of instances. And this resulted in my Mum being asked to attend a meeting with my abuser. It was held in the room he had been using to hurt me and at one point, I couldn’t stand to be there any longer and ran out crying. My Nana had been there, so she came after me and my Mum said that my abuser had started to tear up and at that time – not knowing any different – she thought it was because he was really invested and cared that I was in so much trouble. She told me her was a very good person. Knowing what she does now though, she – and I – believe he was upset out of fear that I was going to tell my Nana why I was crying. He was scared for himself. He only cared about himself and the consequences he might face. And that had always been true of him.
SIGNS OF CHILD ABUSE
ü Unexplained changes in personality and behaviours
ü Becoming withdrawn
ü Seeming anxious
ü Becoming uncharacteristically aggressive
ü Lack of social skills
ü Poor bond or relationship with a parent
ü Knowledge of adult issues that are inappropriate for their age
ü Running away or going missing
ü Wearing clothes that cover their body
For more info: Spotting the signs of child abuse | NSPCC
THE STRAWS THAT BROKE MY BACK
In my mental health and abuse journey, the notion that there’s been a point where one extra thing has been one too many, has always been there. And it’s what comes to mind when I begin to start talking about my eventual decision to report the abuse… Because it wasn’t based on just one decision. It was based on the fact that I had made the decision over and over again for six months, and on April 20th 2007 I realised that I couldn’t keep making it for a number of reasons:
1. My Mum calling him a ‘good person’ and the realisation that so many others would agree with that, which couldn’t be any further from the truth
2. I was drained from behaving in ways that I didn’t want to – ways that weren’t me and I was tired of being judged as if I was that person
3. That when I got a boyfriend, he told me if I didn’t breakup with him, he would start hurting another girl because I’d be ‘useless’
4. His attempt to spoil my sixteenth Birthday by telling me he would take care of my absence from school so that I could go to Disneyland Paris, and then he didn’t
5. The recognition that if things continued, I very likely wouldn’t achieve the grades I needed at school to have the further education and career that I wanted
WHEN I WAS CALLED A LIAR
All these straws seemed to come to a head on April 20th when my abuser and I were arguing in an otherwise empty corridor, and I yelled “think of your wife and children!” just as my abuser’s boss lurched out of his office. He demanded to know why I was speaking to my abuser in such a way and finally, I told him.
Saying what had been happening out loud for the first time was… I don’t know… It was relieving and suffocating at the exact same time. I felt terror and comfort in unison. And with those conflicting thoughts and feelings overwhelming my head and body, I remember leaning against a wall in the corridor just to keep myself upright. It was like the ground was constantly moving beneath me and I was struggling to find stability. Struggling to keep my footing as my entire world was turned upside down by those few words I hated having to say. And which I resented my abuser for, because he gave me reason to say them.
Sort of ironically, even though I had that huge fear that if I told someone I wouldn’t be believed, when my abuser’s boss called me a manipulative liar; it still felt like a punch to my stomach. It was still surprising and still upsetting. Even though I had that fear for six months, it had meant that I still wasn’t prepared for it to actually happen. With the utter shock, my abuser’s boss had to tell me twice that I was being banned from the building because it wasn’t until the second time that I shook all the horrible thoughts from the front of my mind so that I could be aware of what was actually happening.
I spent the entire time I was waiting for my Mum to come and pick me up from the building crying hysterically because all I could think about was that there was absolutely no way I could tell my Mum what had happened. I mean, looking back; I wish I’d trusted that my Mum would have never reacted the way my abuser’s boss did; but things weren’t exactly stable at the time and so I didn’t consider it. I just clung onto the fact I’d finally told someone and wasn’t believed. So, why would I go on to tell anyone else?
When my Mum came, I spun a story that was as close to the truth as I could make it without actually telling her the entire thing. So, she asked to speak with my abuser’s boss and when I heard his voice around the corner from the reception Mum and I were in, I peered around just in time to see him shaking hands with my abuser. Not in a ‘pleased-to-meet-you’ kind of way. More like an act of ‘congratulations!’ And I just remember my eyes widening so far that I felt the urge to pull them back into their sockets!
TIPS FOR RESPONDING TO A CHILD DISCLOSING ABUSE
ü Give them your full attention
ü Use open and encouraging body language
ü Being compassionate and understanding
ü Reassure that they’ve been brave in speaking up
ü Respect pauses and don’t interrupt the child
ü Respond to their body language and wording
ü Reflect back what the child has said to check your understanding
For more info: Let children know you’re listening | NSPCC Learning
HOW I COPED WITH THE DISBELIEF
Now, I think that a hugely collaborative factor in the reasons why I used unsafe and unhealthy behaviours to cope with my abuser’s boss’ response, was that until the abuse; I had an ideal childhood. I hadn’t – at least in my memories – ever experienced any real hardship or challenging situations growing up and that meant I hadn’t developed or learnt any positive coping skills. To be fair, even if I had, who’s to say that I would’ve used those in this situation?
Instead, for the two years between the end of the abuse in 2007 and my first suicide attempt in 2009, I engaged in some detrimental and sometimes dangerous behaviours…
1. I restricted my eating, self-induced vomiting, and began over-exercising
2. I started smoking
3. I binged on alcohol (yes, even though I was underage!)
4. I became friends with a group of people who were, in short, a rebellious influence
5. I began self-harming
The turning point to numbers 2, 3, and 4 was when my friendship group became involved in a fight with another group. One of my friends was held against a fence by his throat, and the boy I had been dating pushed me in front of him when another guy swung a punch in his direction. When the Police became involved, my Mum just kind of… put her foot down and said I wasn’t allowed to have anything more to do with the group.
HOW THE POLICE GOT INVOLVED
The next person I talked to about the abuse was a patient on the Psychiatric Intensive Care Unit (PICU) I’d been a patient on since my second suicide attempt in 2009.
I had been admitted to a low secure psychiatric ward initially, but after numerous instances of running away, I was transferred to the PICU. I remember being given a ‘tour’ by a member of staff and as we walked down the corridor to my new room, a lady was walking along another corridor and she had huge, white bandages on each arm, from her wrists to her elbows. I was terrified. However, after a few days on the PICU, I was sat out in the enclosed courtyard when she came out to smoke and for a reason that I still can’t remember, we started talking.
After a while – and I mean a ‘while’ because it had started to get dark – she told me that she’d been abused by a relative and suddenly it was like someone had just poured warm water through my entire body. I felt reassured and comforted. It was as though I hadn’t even realised just how lonely I had been feeling until her words freed me from it. And just as suddenly as all those thoughts and feelings happened, the words just as quickly fell out of my mouth: “I was abused too.”
We spent the following few hours with her trying so hard – and eventually succeeding – to encourage me to tell the ward’s staff. And the next thing I can barely remember is being sat in a long, thin room with the ward’s Manager telling me that she was now obliged to call the Police and to tell my Mum. I won’t lie; I was more anxious at the thought of the Police than my Mum. And I hope that it’s kind of obviously not about me not caring about my Mum’s reaction… It was just that the Police’s response would be more influential on whether my abuser experienced any – very warranted – consequences for his actions.
WHY I TALKED TO THE POLICE
I don’t think I was actually given the choice for whether or not my report should go through the police process, but if I had been? Well, I’d thought about reasons why I should cooperate with the investigation…
The first, biggest reason came when the inpatient said, “what if he’s doing it to someone else now that you’re not there?” Initially, I felt terrible that it was something I hadn’t considered. That feeling mostly stemmed from the immediate conviction that sprung to my mind that yes, he would be doing it to someone else.
I’m a big believer that I know my abuser better than others do (including his wife because she likely doesn’t even know the side of him that I experienced) and so I feel confident that I’m not making ‘assumptions.’ I’m certain. I’m certain that he wouldn’t have thought that he shouldn’t do it again out of concern that I might still report him. He would’ve thought he’d gotten away with it because it was two years later and he would’ve thought that if I was going to report him, I would’ve done it by now. He would’ve been arrogant about it.
After prioritising others, I began to think about myself; and had the realisation that if I didn’t do everything I could to make my abuser ‘pay’ for what he had done, my mental health would very likely, never improve; and I’d spent the rest of my life in and out of psychiatric hospitals. And I very obviously didn’t want that. I knew that I didn’t deserve it either. But he was deserving of all the consequences that he had the potential to receive if I pursued the report with the Police.
“THAT’S HOW I REMEMBER IT” – RECOUNTING THE ABUSE TO THE POLICE
In all honesty, I don’t remember many details from my interviews with the Police… I do remember that I was going to begin the statement process whilst an inpatient of the PICU, but the staff thought I would use the trip to the Police station as a means to run away. But then, having disclosed the abuse, the psychiatric staff thought that was a big step forward in my mental health journey and I was discharged.
I was still poorly though, and at that time; one of my biggest, most frequently used coping mechanisms, was that when reality was difficult and upsetting, I’d distance myself from it. It was a protective thing; I was just desperately trying to escape the possibility of going through another traumatic situation. And so, even my most vague memories of the Police interviews are scarce…
I mean, I kind of remember it being discussed whether I needed an ‘appropriate adult’ present and then I remember being sat with a Police officer in this dull, dark room that had toys in the corner and a camera almost immediately in front of me. The toys were a very obvious and upsetting nod to the fact that children had to experience interviews like this. It was a heart-breaking notion. And a notion that was a big reminder of just how long it’d been since the abuse, because if I’d reported it at the time… I mean, I doubt I would’ve been asked to point to areas on a doll, but it could have been a vastly different experience to what was happening now.
Since I was over 18, I think that it was assumed that I would be able to use language that I actually wasn’t at all comfortable with both using and hearing. In fairness, the Police Officer did explain that they needed me to use (or at least confirm their use of) particular words to add to the validity of my statement. And looking back, I completely understand the necessity of that, but at that time it felt as though things were just escalating. That rather than feeling better with the knowledge that what I was doing (talking to the Police) was ‘right,’ I was beginning to regret it. I was beginning to wish I hadn’t opened my mouth that day in the hospital courtyard. And I was starting to wonder why I’d agreed to speak to the Police at all!
Aside from using the language I wasn’t comfortable with – and I’m still not, to be honest – I was also required to go into a level of detail that I struggled to provide. With my coping skills centring around remining somewhat absent from reality, it meant that during the actual acts of abuse I recalled them as though I were watching from a spot on the ceiling. I was seeing these horrible things happen to some poor girl that I didn’t know and couldn’t help.
Remembering things in that way, meant that I couldn’t describe some aspects that had I been able to, might have ‘helped’ my accusation. They might have made it more concrete and believable. But instead, me trying to protect myself had turned out to actually be harmful to my future-self!
For info on the UK’s Police investigation and legal process for child abuse:
FINDING OUT HIS COLLEAGUES HAD SUSPICIONS
The next part of the Police investigation process was when they gave me the results of their interviews with my abuser’s colleagues. Even compared to the part about having to use horrible words, this was the hardest part of the entire thing.
The Police told me that comments from his colleagues varied from “I didn’t see it, but I can imagine it happening” to “I did wonder…” And before that, I hadn’t thought it was possible for my head and heart to hold any more anger and hatred than it already did. But this news proved me to be wrong. I was so overwhelmed with intense anger and hate that I felt I could’ve punched a hole in a concrete wall! I mean, my previous advice about screaming into a pillow or throwing your frustrated energy into something productive? Well, if anyone had said these things to me at that point, I could’ve told them where to go. I’m not a violent person but that? Well, hearing those comments could have brought me as close as I ever have been.
A huge part of my anger stemmed from the very reasonable but uncontrollable thought ‘you suspected it?! Why the hell didn’t you do anything about it then?!’ I was more than aware that I had the potential to have stopped the abuse myself… I mean, I recognise that I could have physically fought back. I could have reported it as soon as it started… They’re notions that I’ll never forget and will probably always continue to struggle with feelings resembling regret; so, I definitely don’t need to have them pointed out to me.
Regardless of this, I think it’s still fair for me to say that the responsible adults who were around at the time and were – apparently – suspicious, were equally well placed to end the abuse. They could have and they chose not to. They chose not to help me. They chose(!) at a time when I honestly felt like I had absolutely no choice or control over my own life and the situation at all! And I honestly hope that in learning their suspicions had been correct, they recognised that they’d have to live with their decision for the rest of their life. And I hope they feel terrible for that. Because I definitely have!
WHEN MY ABUSER TOLD HIS BIGGEST LIE
The next result I was told after the investigation was that my abuser had claimed to be innocent. I think that out of the entire journey and process of reporting the abuse, this part is more easily understood and appreciated as being difficult. Like, I got/get the feeling that I don’t even have to explain why I struggled with the biggest lie of his. It was so expected that when I was told what he’d said, the psychiatric professionals seemed to panic a bit – almost just assuming that I would end up self-harming or making another suicide attempt. And yes, they were right in a way… But I found it helpful to still have the opportunity to explain why I found it difficult.
So, I think that the first aspect of his denial that came into my head was around whether or not I had expected it. I said earlier that I believe I know him better than anyone and that one reason for my reluctance to report the abuse sooner had been the conviction that no one would believe me. Well, the reason I thought this, was because I was completely certain that he would deny his actions and people would be faced with the conundrum as to who to believe. And what were the chances they were going to choose me?!
Expecting the denial/lie begs the question as to whether that made it any more or less difficult to cope with when it happened. I can honestly tell you that I feel like it was easier… I don’t think that this would be true for everyone; some people might massively struggle with disappointment or the notion that no matter what their expectations, they weren’t prepared for them to come true etc. But for me, being passionate about having control over a situation meant that I was somewhat reassured to have been right and to have saved myself from experiencing any kind of surprise.
Believing my abuser would plead innocent mainly stemmed from the knowledge that he also liked to be in control and that he wasn’t about to voluntarily put himself in a position where he lost that control in being imprisoned and sentenced. And being in control made him arrogant. Arrogant enough to believe himself above consequences. Above the law. That attitude probably wasn’t helped by the fact that when he was abusing me, all his colleagues and others he interacted with had looked up to and respected him. No one questioned his behaviours. So why would he allow the Police to? And he maintained his ‘respectable’ image when the Crown Prosecution Service (CPS) determined there to not be enough evidence to prosecute him.
HOW I COPED WITH HIS DENIAL
Over the years, coping with my abuser’s refusal to accept responsibility for what he had done has been an ever-evolving journey. Whilst I found that his denial was – sort of – satisfyingly in line with my expectations, that didn’t necessarily make it a good thing. I mean, he was still lying. He was still insulting the impact of what he had done by denying it had even happened.
Initially, I was already very unsafe (I’d made two suicide attempts by the end of the investigation), but his denial did seem to be massively influential in leaving me feeling more suicidal and at greater risk of self-harming. But over time, I developed a very healthy question: ‘why should I be the one wanting to die?!’ Like, how was it fair for the one person who did something wrong in the situation to not receive any consequences? To go on to live his life! For him to actually end up getting a promotion at work whilst I was on life support after a suicide attempt?!
This feeling of wrongdoing gradually gave me a lot of energy to put into my efforts to achieve my mental health recovery and was a huge reason why, whilst I was in a psychiatric hospital in 2013/2014, I agreed to tell the Police just how bad it had gotten. I mean, to use the words… I’d reported the abuse but not the one instance of rape. And I think that because I was in the hospital and had finally started to engage in Dialectical Behaviour Therapy (DBT), I had finally begun to realise that I had a future. That there was hope. And that led to the equally important realisation that if I didn’t tell them everything, I would always be carrying it with me. I would never be free of it. And how could I live a happy, full life with that darkness constantly looming above me?
After reporting the rape, and my abuser claimed to be innocent again, CPS decided there still wasn’t enough evidence to prosecute him and I coped with their decision by repeatedly telling myself that at least I have literally everything in my power to stop him hurting someone else. Anything that happens beyond my reports? Well, that’s on him… And CPS.