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Impact of childhood sexual abuse on my mental health

December 23, 2017

Some content refers to suicide, abuse and other possible triggering details. If you are triggered, please put your self-care strategies into action and access necessary supports immediately.


This Blog took me over three weeks to write. I thought I had dealt with and overcome most of the negative effects of my experiences through years of counselling, therapies and EMDR (Eye Movement Desensitisation & Reprogramming). Although these experiences have minimal impact on me these days, obviously when they are the focus of my attention, such as writing this Blog, it can still be triggering.


As a small child we are surrounded by people who are part of our parents’ social circle. We form varied levels of relationships and bonds with these people. Many of my parents’ friends did not have children and due to this I was often the focus of the many adult’s attentions.


The wife of one couple in particular, I formed a very close bond with. I adored her. We’ll call her ‘J’ and her husband ‘A’. They both doted on me. I loved being in J’s presence, she was a radiant, effervescent and genuine person; people were drawn to her.


Although I had had several days here and there where I was sad and cried all day following my parents’ separation/estrangement, I was generally a happy child.


On the September school holidays in 1973 at 7 years of age I went to stay for a week with J & A in their Melbourne suburbs home. I was so excited, as J had had a baby boy, he was only a few weeks old and J said I could help her look after the baby.


From the very first day A would lightly tease me, poking me in the ribs, giving me a little shove, tickling and play wrestling. I now know this to be grooming behaviour, getting me use to him touching me.


On the evening of day three, while J was in the kitchen cooking tea, A and I were in the lounge watching TV. He had put his arm around me and hugged me close to him as we sat down. To me, this was not unusual for my parents’ friends to do, as they typically took me under their wing.


But then he started touching me and at first there were no alarm bells going off in my head, as it tickled and I guess I thought it was a game. As his touching became more sexual I started to have a feeling of unease, then uncomfortable, then scared and then J called us in for dinner. I had gone quiet, J asked me if I was ok and I just nodded my head. I still remember what was dished up for our meal that night, most notably the broadbeans, as I had never had them before. Broadbeans were to become one of my triggers going forward.


Following the usual nightly routine, J put me to bed and went for a shower. I was three quarters asleep when A came into the room and preceded to sexually abuse me. I felt very ill at ease, uncomfortable, scared, nauseous; I knew this was no longer a game and what he was doing was wrong, but I had no understanding of why I knew this or felt this way, I just did.


He left my room when he heard J get out of the shower. I didn’t sleep much that night, for fear he would come back into my room. In the morning at breakfast J asked again if I was all right, as I wasn’t talking (which was unusual), saying I had black rings under my eyes and I was pale.


I felt a heaviness all over my body, like the weight of the world was on my shoulders. I didn’t want to be around either J or A; I just wanted to be alone and to go home.


A couple of hours later J saw me walk down to the back of the yard and sit behind a shrub. Because she felt something wasn’t right with me that morning and was concerned, she came down to check on me; she was not prepared for what she found.


J found me in the midst of doing what was needed to take my own life. I was just 7 years of age. I don’t recall doing this. I only recall J repeatedly asking me what’s was wrong, what had upset me. Crying uncontrollably, my every answer was, ‘I want to go home’.


J arranged for the 2-hour trip home. When I found out that J wasn’t taking me and A had taken the day off work to take me home, I pleaded with J to take me, but with a new baby, she couldn’t. That two-hour trip was the longest 2 hours of my life.


First A started telling me about what good friends we were and friends looked out for each other, kept each other’s secrets. He said we had a very special secret and we had done things that only very special friends did. I didn’t respond; I was totally mute. He asked, “Aren’t you my friend anymore? Will you keep our special friends secret?” But still I said nothing.


Then he told me I had wanted him to do what he did, I had enjoyed it and that was why I was laughing and wriggling. If I told anyone, no one would believe me, because they would know that I was breaking a secret. Still I remained silent.


It progressively got worse. A then went on to tell me if I told my mother she would beat me for lying and talking about sexual things. That she wouldn’t believe me and would be angry with me for saying stuff like that.


A said if I told anyone they would put me in jail and if I told my mum and she told anyone they would put her in jail. The police wouldn’t believe me and everyone would know I was a liar. Mum would lose all her friends and no one would want to have anything to do with me anymore. Still I remained mute.


A became increasingly frustrated and angry and in the final 15 minutes of the trip, told me that if I told anyone he would kill my mother and it would be all my fault. My mother was all I had. I hadn’t seen my father in years, I had no relatives close by, I was scared and I was alone.


We arrived at my place and Mum came out the front to greet us. She was angry and demanding I tell her why I had to come home, but I couldn’t answer because A was standing right there and he would kill her. She angrily said she had made plans and now she had to cancel them because I had come home. I felt like I was a burden and so very alone.


A came in and had a cuppa before making the return trip. He watched me like a hawk. I felt his eyes continually on me; I felt sick, afraid, and scared he would kill my mum. He didn’t tell my mum anything about me trying to end my life or other behaviours I had exhibited leading up to coming home. So, Mum remained unaware of the enormity of the situation.


Over the following three years I was molested by three other males; two who were in their pre-teens, curious and experimenting with their sexuality and one an older man from my foster fathers Masonic Lodge. These instances reinforced to me that I was doing something to attract these people and thus I blamed myself.


As time went on I carried a lot of shame, blame and guilt about these instances. What people never talk about when referring to childhood sexual abuse, is what, in part, leads a child to feel shame, guilt and believe they are at fault. These feelings are born out of the fact that children experience arousal. The grooming, physical and verbal, then intimation, intimidation and threats all feed the belief that we, the victim, invited this behaviour from the perpetrator. Our mindset becomes, ‘I must have wanted it and liked it, because it felt nice, but I’m confused because in my mind I know it is not right’.


I had continuing nightmares about what happened and when I would be triggered during the day I would experience all the physical and mental symptoms I endured during the assault. To this day, when I am triggered, I still experience a racing pulse, nausea, difficulty breathing because it feels like someone is sitting on my chest and my lungs are restricted. I have an overwhelming sense of fear and go into fight, flight or freeze mode. These symptoms are called ‘Body Memory’ and it was EMDR that helped me rid around 85% of my PTSD flashback triggered ‘Body Memory’ experiences, including nightmares.


Life went on, J and A separated and we continued to visit J. But J and A got back together some time later and Mum and my step-father wanted me to come with them on a trip to visit J and A. I refused. All my fear and body memory symptoms came into play, ten fold. My parents demanded I go with them on the visit, they were not going to leave me at home alone at 13 years of age. My attempt to get out of the visit continued until Mum finally coerced out of me that A had sexually abused me. Mum was upset by this disclosure, but still insisted I accompany them on the visit, promising A would not be there as he was at work. So I didn’t fight them anymore and gave in.


It was great to see J again, but within a half an hour of arriving, the front door opens and A walks in. He had taken an extended lunch break so he could see us. I became really distressed, my body memory kicked in, I felt like his eyes never left me the whole time he was there. What did my parents do, you ask? Nothing! They just stood there and went through the greeting ritual of a hug and a kiss hello from him, which I also had to endure.


I felt so alone, betrayed, not heard, not believed and very, very afraid. My parents behaved like nothing had ever happened, they were friendly to him and the usual banter took place whilst I felt like I couldn’t breathe, wanted to throw up and cringed every time he made some excuse to touch me, on the arm, on the shoulder, on the back. Life continued as if nothing ever happened.


My assault wasn’t reported to police, nor disclosed to anyone else; it was just swept under the rug. When I asked my Mum why she didn’t say or do anything, she told me “J and A have just gotten back together and I didn’t want to upset J. Plus, it was that long ago the police wouldn’t do anything, even if they did believe you”. Again it was reinforced that I was not wholly believed. I said, “if he did this to me, he will probably go on to do this to other kids”. To which mum responded, “I can’t control what A does to others”.


I not only felt I had been let down, but that I had let down all the potential victims in the future. Deep in my gut, I knew A would be subjecting others to his abuse and I was impotent to do anything about it; I couldn’t protect the other children.


Years later, when I was 18, Mum organised a post wedding BBQ celebration for those of her friends she could not invite to my wedding. She told me she was inviting J and A. I pleaded with her not to invite A, but she responded “I can’t just invite J and not A or J will question why A is not welcome”. I asked Mum to invite neither then, but she was adamant she wanted them there. When they arrived J came into the kitchen to see us, so happy and told us how A was looking forward to and excited about seeing me again.


From the time A spotted me, he followed me around. I felt sick, my body memory symptoms were rampant; I tried to avoid him. I went into the kitchen at one stage and told my Mum what he was doing, stating “I told you not to invite him”. He knew, through my demeanour and actions that I remembered what he had done and he kept trying to start a conversation with me when I wasn’t around others. It was an awful, awful experience. I truly do not know how those who are abused by family members cope when they have to see them regularly. The constant negative energy it creates is overwhelming, all consuming and devastating.


When I was 26 years old, I got onto a good counsellor. We did some great work together and I made some major changes in my life. One of them was my trip to Swan Hill to confront A on his abuse of me. After much discussion, Mum agreed to accompany me. She knew the potential for him to have continued abusing others weighed heavily on me. I knew, that this would unfortunately cause J a lot of pain and heartache. But I strongly believed this had to be done. He had to be stopped. He had to be held accountable for what he had inflicted on me and possibly others.


I felt so badly for J, as she thought we were just coming for a visit after several years of no face to face contact. When we arrived A was out back in the shed and didn’t come in immediately. It gave us time to catch up with J. But then I had to dig deep into my reserves of strength and ask J to go and get A as we needed to discuss something. He came inside and I could tell by his seriousness and the look in his eyes he knew why I was there.


Body shaking and feeling like I couldn’t breathe, I told J in front of A why I was there, then turned to A telling him what he did was wrong and he should pay for it. J was mortified, but believed me. J asked my Mum how long she had known about this and then angrily asked Mum why she did not tell her. Mum told her that they had just reconciled and she didn’t want it to be the cause of her marriage breaking down. J was incensed, stating “you put concern for my marriage in front of your daughter’s wellbeing and potentially that of other children? How could you do that? Did you even think of the other children he might go on to harm?” Mum answered, “yes, that has always been Nicci’s concern”. J had much more to say, including describing my behaviour change during that visit, finding me in the midst of actioning a suicide plan and my demands to go home. Mum had not been aware of any of this. J indicated she had always wondered why my behaviour had changed so dramatically and what had happened to upset me so deeply, now it all made sense.


A denied it all of course. But when J saw us out as we were leaving, she indicated that at times she had a niggling suspicion, but no proof upon which to act. J again asked Mum why she didn’t say anything, especially when she knew J took on short term foster children and that now she will need to contact DHS and advise them to contact all these children to see if he had abused any of them and get help for them.


I left J and A’s place no longer that little girl scared of the big bad man, with my mind’s eye now seeing him as a pathetic old man who could no longer hurt me. Whilst all this had a positive impact on my mental health, it did not stop the symptoms I regularly experienced. Even now I am seeing a counsellor from the Centre Against Sexual Abuse and only one year ago, for the first time, did I disclose the details of the major component of the abuse experience at the hands of A. Because I just could not get them out, I could not give voice to it. I could not cope with the symptoms it invoked in me.


At 47 years old, still impacted by my PTSD/flashbacks and body memory symptoms, I approached a Psychologist to try and find a therapy that worked for me. We discussed many options, with her recommendation being EMDR. I think back and laugh, because I thought “what is this airy fairy shit”, but I agreed to try it. After all, nothing else had worked. EMDR worked for many of the flashbacks and triggers I experienced, however it did not work for my smell triggered flashback/symptoms. So again, I am on the path to try and overcome these last lingering effects of abuse I experienced 44 years ago.


Yes, 44 years. I have had people say, “you just need to let go of the past”, “you just need to forgive him so you can move on with your life”, “other people have had it worse”, “get over it, you’re letting it ruin your life” and more. The thing with flashbacks and the associated body memory symptoms, is that they come unbidden, without warning, are very much unwanted, uncontrollable, debilitating and all consuming. If we could do away with them just by following these opinions, do you not think we would have already done so?


Sexual abuse of children is prolific in our society. At least it is no longer a taboo subject and the families of the children are encouraged to report it and seek support and counselling for the child. This is integral in the healing process for the child. When the parents pursue justice the child knows they are believed and whilst their parents were not able to protect them from the abuse, they feel protected against potential future occurrences.  Getting support and counselling early aids in the child learning strategies to cope with the effects of the abuse and fosters a sense of being loved, cared for and a modicum of security.


Never think that because the child does not talk about it, they are coping with it. Please, always, always, get support and counselling for them. The child’s immediate and future mental wellbeing is dependent on it.


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