Oh, so you think you know me now?
Have you forgotten how,
You would make me feel when you drag my spirit down?
But thank you for the pain,
It made my raise my game,
And I'm still rising, I'm still rising, yeah

Jessie J – Who’s Laughing Now

I saw an article on The Mighty about the ways Cancer can change someone and it inspired me to write this post about the ways that abuse has changed me. I know that they’re two completely different subjects, but I think that the message is quite similar: there might be physical elements to mental health and cancer, but they also have huge psychological and – so-called – ‘invisible’ affects. Things that you might never know about unless the person tells you.

I also had a conversation with my new Community Psychiatric Nurse (CPN) recently and she asked if I’d had any difficulties before the abuse or if I believed that everything stemmed from it. Initially, recognizing that the abuse has changed me in so many ways was difficult, and I tried to pretend that they weren’t such big changes but deep down I knew I was kidding myself! Then I realized that these changes didn’t necessarily have to be a bad thing. There had been positive ones too! And I had learnt and grown from the more negative ones!

So rather than do a list of positive and negative, I decided to just put it in one because I have to look on them all as being helpful otherwise, I’ll be filled with that unproductive and overwhelming anger that used to control me.

1.    A general distrust in people

When I told the Police the entire history behind the abuse and how it all began – or at least, what gave him the opportunity to do it – they said it had been grooming. My immediate thought was ‘oh my God how stupid was I not to have realized?!’ but I soon realized that I wouldn’t want another survivor to think that of themselves so why should I be any different? A notion that it did leave behind though, was a struggle to trust people. I’d thought that this person was supporting me and looking out for me. Instead, he was building a relationship that would make myself and others question his motives later. I mean, the things he’d say and do left me in shock when the abuse began. And those lovely, thoughtful things meant people didn’t ask too many questions when things changed. He’d built up trust; with myself and those around me at the time. Everyone trusted that he was a good person – even me; though obviously for a shorter while than everyone else!

At the same time though, when it came out what he had been doing to me, no one really doubted it. In fact, three people who were questioned by Police even said that they weren’t surprised and that they ‘always thought something like that was going on.’ This, led to my distrust in people more generally… With my abuser; it was about becoming suspicious of people in a position of power – as he had been, but with these people who had suspected I’d been abused and not spoken up against it… well, it was more than that! I’d like to think it’s understandable that their silence led to me questioning everyone’s motives and integrity. I mean, sometimes I feel terrible for it because it’s often people who I like and who care about me and here I am wondering if they’re being honest or if they’re hiding something. And often, they’ve done nothing to deserve my suspicion it’s just that the abuse has warped and changed my perspective and view on things, and my difficulty in trusting people makes relationships hard to maintain.

2.    Using self-harm as a coping mechanism

I think it’d be fair to say that this has been the most dangerous change in me. I’d say debilitating but the changes take it in turns as to which is more debilitating than the others depending on what point I’m at in my recovery. Self-harm though, will forever be the most dangerous.

I’ve recently talked a lot about my self-harm with my new CPN because it’s now been sixteen days since I last self-harmed and we talked about how self-harm can be an addiction. I’ll never forget taking the pin from the noticeboard and scratching at my arm when I was home alone after the fourth or fifth instance of abuse. In a way, I’m glad I do remember that first time because it was the start of something so significant in my life that it would almost seem disrespectful to not even remember when it all began.

Initially, my motivation behind cutting was the belief that no one but myself should have the right to hurt my body and I wanted to show  that this was the case and, in a way, prove that I could do far more damage than my abuser could. I think that I also hoped that self-harming would cause people to ask questions; that it might spark some suspicion and make people wonder why I would do such a thing. I hoped it’d lead people to realize that the abuse was happening. But of course, I covered the cuts and by the time people did discover them, I’d been mugged in the street, so it was easily -  and  quickly - assumed that was what had caused it, and I didn’t have the courage to correct them.

When I started experiencing auditory hallucinations, I didn’t imagine that I’d end up attempting suicide and that the self-harm would escalate as much as it has.  Self-harm became my coping mechanism for many different circumstances that ranged from flashbacks of the abuse, more hallucinations, and feeling overwhelmed with intense, negative thoughts and feelings.

I’m a great believer in not having any regrets in life but self-harming has definitely challenged that thought process. It has left me thinking ‘I wish I’d never started doing it!’  because now I  have the scars from it and whilst I’ve seen Service Users with worse, they might never really fade.

3.    A discomfort around intimacy

I’ve spoken before about how the abuse has made sex a very awkward and challenging subject for me that I struggle to even talk about! Being sexually abused and – on one occasion – raped, has led to me viewing sex as a negative and detrimental thing that should be avoided! Whilst I do finally recognize that this isn’t the case, my experiences make changing my opinion and perspective on the topic very difficult. Your first experience of something will inevitably shape your view on it, and any future experiences of that same thing. Experiencing sex as a violation and a crime, meant that I struggle to view it as something positive or beneficial in any way, shape, or form.

I guess that the other aspect to this change is around people. You know, who you share your experience with also matters. I mean, there are people who have been raped by people they have loved – people they have been married to – and yet, that person is done this terrible, disgusting act to them. This act was done to me by someone I had once respected and appreciated, someone who others did respect and appreciate, someone who – even when I didn’t seem to - had a life beyond the abuse. My point is, if I’d been abused by someone I’d already hated, maybe I wouldn’t question my judgement of people so often.

This change that the abuse has created in me feels equal to the self-harm in its chance of impacting my future even when my mental health is stable and healthy. It really saddens and scares me to think that what this person did to me, has affected whether I have children naturally or not! And no, it isn’t about me ‘letting’ him have this power over me and him ‘winning’ by affecting my life in such a hugely important way! To be honest, even when people say these things in a well-meaning way, it’s becoming an insult. As though I’d ever ‘let’ him do anything to me again?! As though if I had any choice in the matter, I’d ‘let’ him win?!

4.    A heightened sense of courage in challenging situations

I’ve never thought of myself as brave. I’m told that I am all the time but there are some things that can be drilled into you so many times that in the end, they just sort of lose their meaning and power. I think that I came to realize that to think of myself as brave; well, it had to come from me. It wouldn’t matter how many people and how many times I was told it if I didn’t believe it myself.

The thing that taught me that I have courage was when I started blogging about reporting the abuse. It was ten years ago now – that I reported it, but it’s taken that long for me to finally be in a place where I can recognize the strength it took to do that. Don’t get me wrong, I’d never say that someone who had decided not to report what they’d been through was weak. It just needs to be recognized how tough it is to tell a stranger (in the form of a Police Officer) about one of the worst things in your life. I think that actually, the most horrific part – the part that took the most strength - of the abuse was having to recount it in the detail that the Police required.

Before I reported it, I spent two year trying to pretend it hadn’t happened. I tried everything I could to distract myself from the memories but eventually, they caught up with me and I couldn’t run from it; I had to accept that it’d happened. And that took guts.

There’s a lot of stigma around abuse and rape and – to me – too big a concentration on whether the ‘victim’ fought back or not. I mean, to some people, if the person wasn’t kicking and screaming at the offender then how can you say it wasn’t consensual? During the six months I was abused, I only attempted to physically stop it once. I’ve had to come to terms with that and learn that the fact I didn’t fight back, has no bearing on my strength and my courage. Nor does it make what he did acceptable.

5.    Recognition that asking for help doesn’t make you weak

Before the abuse – and for a long time after it - I believed that asking for help was like admitting that you’d failed at something. Admitting that you weren’t good enough to do something. It wasn’t until five years after the abuse and I found myself on life support after attempting suicide, that I realized that if I didn’t ask for help then there was a very real possibility that I would die. Don’t get me wrong, it was so difficult to say that I needed someone to save my life because if it were left up to me then I’d be dead; but that human instinct to fight for survival had kicked in and I agreed to go into a long-term psychiatric hospital.

There were so many times before hospital when people would say ‘why didn’t you ring the Crisis Team before you self-harmed?’ and my mindset was that I didn’t want to ask for help, pour my heart out and then for it to not help or make a difference. Now, I realize that it’s worth giving it a chance and if it doesn’t help then at least I can say that I did my bit to get help.

Through my two and a half years in hospital, I found that I had little choice in whether or not to ask for help because the staff were there 24/7 and I was under a section of the Mental Health Act so I couldn’t exactly just walk out and not say a thing. Also, having the staff there all of the time meant that I built relationships with some of them and began to find it easier to ask for help and to tell them when I was struggling and find the courage to say what I thought they could do that might help me.
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