This is the final chapter in our series on the silencing that has affected so many victims/survivors of childhood sexual abuse in their own families or family networks. The nature of this type of abuse and the trauma it causes, make it particularly difficult for victims to tell their stories, even to themselves. This is one woman’s journey through progressively deeper and more personal layers of silencing and blocks that hid her story from her until her mid-life.
Here are personal, trauma-informed insights into the scars of violation that silence us from within and from the private spaces. In bringing her story to light, ‘Gaye’ has overcome many hurdles, but there is one final piece of rather shocking wisdom that stops her in her tracks.
The traumatic effects of childhood sexual abuse don’t just stay in childhood. They are often with us into adulthood. Equally as common are the entrenched and trans-generational patterns that keep us silent and our abuse hidden.
Before you will be able to truly hear my story, you need to understand my silences
We need to employ our most sensitive listening skills and the utmost gentle patience with each other and with ourselves. Our truths often only come to the surface, in barely decipherable blobs. This is because they are acutely personal and private and are guarded and guided by the self-protective functions of our sub-conscious. Forcing the process when we don’t feel safe or grounded can be re-traumatising. Thus silences, side-tracks and retreats are often a needed part of the healing process.
Sex is a private, adult thing, isn’t it? Paradoxes that stifle us all.
The sexual nature of childhood sexual abuse makes it especially difficult to perceive and talk about.
Inherent in the nature of child sexual abuse are at least three paradoxes that stifle us all – creating blindness to its existence, silencing victims and blocking intervention and prevention:
- Paradox 1 – It is children who are exposed to sexual acts meant to be the domain of adults
- Paradox 2 – These ‘private’ acts, in ‘private spaces’ involve ‘private’ body parts. If the child speaks up they must break the taboo of making private things public (when, cruelly, the taboo broken by the adult has usually occurred as a private secret – thus a double paradox)
- Paradox 3 – The abuse occurs in sacrosanct family space by adults who, by implication, are respected and trusted to protect and care for the child.
Unspeakable things have been done to unspeakable parts of our bodies. Many of us take on the message that we are the problem, or that these disturbing experiences are normal. If we do attempt to tell someone, either as children or adults, our utterances are often drowned out by cultures that automatically disbelieve children, blame the victims or see the child as unreliable or the sinful, deviant or deficient one. This is especially so when the perpetrator appears to be a family-oriented or child-loving, upstanding citizen.
In short, speaking out about child sexual abuse can instantly make the victim the problem, or at least cause people to turn away or avoid the intensely uncomfortable situation.
In the last few decades, we have begun to shift some of the taboos on talking about sex and acting on child sexual abuse in families. It is a chilling reality, though, that incest and other forms of child sexual abuse will be visited upon many of our young ones today and tonight, unseen, unchecked and, in many instances, ignored and unquestioned.5
Let’s pause here and take a moment to honour anyone, anywhere
who has ever spoken up in any way
about childhood sexual abuse experiences.
What courage and persistence it takes to
break through these barricades and paradoxes.
Drip-feeding our story to the world – Honouring the Tips of the Icebergs
Many of us who are victims of child abuse have grown up in environments that actively cover up our most dangerous truths and have trained or threatened us to keep hiding them. So it is not surprising that we may take years, decades or life-times to overcome the blocks, amnesia, denial or ambivalence that can hijack us when we try to tell our story.
We may only be able to talk about the ‘tip of the iceberg’. It is often imperative for us to ‘dip our toe in’, to ‘test the water’ or come at things sideways so we can see if we are safe. If we are only able to indirectly or partially tell our story, or if we come and go from a readiness to tell it, we may sense that people find it difficult to hear, believe or understand what we are saying. And what do we do, then? We stop trying to tell.
Sadly, this awkwardness can see us labelled as unreliable or mentally ill, giving others even more reason to not listen to us and confirming our wobbly self-perceptions.
I wasn’t conscious of my tendency to tell only tiny snippets of my personal story, to ‘test the water’ before I decided if it was safe or appropriate to offer a bit more. That was until a long-term friend gently observed this in me. I was surprised one day when we were sharing stories about our families and she gently said, “You only mention the tip of the ice-berg, don’t you?”.
No judgement, just an observation from a friend’s loving attention. This comment sat within me, nurturing my awareness as I grappled with the mass of frozen confusion that was starting to rise from the deep. Once I could come face to face with the realities of my early childhood abuse and started to see the effects of the trauma it caused, I realised how precious these ice-berg tips were. They indicated little glimpses of the truth that lay buried in me. Truths blocked from my conscious mind by an unconscious set of rules about what must remain hidden. A set of rules that I had internalised at a very early age.
The ice-berg tips were a familiar part of my internal landscape. I desperately wanted to talk to people about them but there was an ever-present sense of foreboding and a self-censor that prevented me from acting on this desperation. I thus had an awkward social presence where others seemed to flow. Sometimes I would tentatively, often inappropriately, refer to the tip of the iceberg (for example – how much I hated being tickled as a child) and then watch carefully for the reaction. On the rare occasion it wasn’t dismissed, ignored, frowned on, or reacted to, I might add a little more information (I hated tickling so much that it nearly made me gag, I couldn’t breathe and thought I was going to die). But that would be the most I could reveal, even to myself. There would often be an uncomfortable silence or change of subject in response to the ‘lead balloon’ I had dropped in. It was common for me to leave the conversation, one way or another, feeling socially embarrassed. [Later in the processing of my trauma memories, I came to see that, in my toddler years, ‘tickling’ had been a segue into some instances of abuse].
The long-term effects of the abuse: Blocks and wounds in our emotional, mental and physical make-up
Any form of abuse in childhood can leave us with gaps and dysfunction in the foundations of the adult we are to become. The trauma creates physiological, neurological, emotional and psychological blocks and overwhelm that confound or hijack our ability to tell our story, even to ourselves. On top of this, sexual abuse has particularly warping effects. The intangible, developmental wounds often remain hidden and unhealed, leaving us peculiarly sensitive and reactive, or hardened, stuck and distant.
Raw wounds – old but unhealed.
We often hear “It was so long ago, surely you’re over it by now?!”. If only we could simply leave it all behind us!
The wounds and scars we are left with might be old, but they are real and raw and still affect us in this moment because they have been forced into hiding and covered up. Like a physical wound that has not seen healing light, care and fresh air, there is pain or dysfunction, surprising sensitivity or awkwardness, or a shut-down, when something touches or comes close to our buried trauma.
Until we are able to release, acknowledge or shed light on what we have been silently carrying, until it has been graced and healed by gentle nurturing attention (our own and others) our physiological reactions will continue to hijack us, block us and often, silence us.
Trauma Hijacks Our Emotions and Physiology.
Alongside the memory blocks and blind spots created by trauma there are the surprise outbursts, out of proportion or ill-fitting reactions that hijack us in all sorts of contexts. The trauma might be in the distant past, but our physiology reacts as if the threats are here and now. We can be our regular self, going about daily life and, before we know it, a situation, a sound, taste, smell, sight, touch or words or actions from someone near us trigger a reaction in us. It is very literally ‘before we know it’ because the executive part of our brain that thinks things through at light speed and puts them into context, rating their threat level, has been side-stepped. Thinking and processing stop. Bodily functions such as heart rate, digestion and breathing either start racing or shutting down, to bring us into survival mode, preparing us to run, fight or freeze.
The things that trigger such reactions might have obvious connections to our trauma (Vietnam vets and helicopters, for instance). Or they might be so oblique and surprising that it’s impossible to see the connection, until we have processed and unpacked enough of the trauma. Whatever the case, the trigger has shown us something about the trauma we are carrying. We have been hijacked by our physiology. Our pathways to understanding are blocked, as is our ability to tell ourselves, or others, the story of what is happening.
For most of my life people would describe me as calm, serious, responsible, and measured, though sometimes remote. Looking back, I can see that buried layers of anxiety were so much a part of me that I didn’t recognise them. I had a tendency to shut down whenever emotions within me or around me started to run high. So, the following reaction that occurred when I was in my mid-forties, just before my youngest child’s fifth birthday, took me by surprise. I was in a toy shop looking for her birthday present when I noticed the beginning of a mid-life hot flush. Suddenly I found myself running out of the shop, struggling to breathe. Once I was far away and had given up on the shopping expedition, I felt incredulous. “This is not me; I am not the one to panic, I am the level-headed one, for goodness sake! How much have I learnt from yoga about the calming effects of simply breathing!”.
A few years later, after I had started processing my childhood trauma and unpacked various situations and memories, I discovered what a clear signpost this panic-attack had been. Whilst I had found it quite easy to find just the right birthday present, each year, for my son, I had never been able to do so for my daughter.
It all started to make sense. Birthday celebrations had been one of the settings in which I had been abused – I couldn’t face my daughter’s birthday with inner joy because, deep in my psyche, a warped link had been made between little girls’ birthdays and sexual abuse. Sub-consciously, I was doing everything I could to NOT pass this on to my daughter. In this toy shop, my physiology had me reacting like I needed to, but couldn’t, when I was 2, 3, 4 years old, terrified about birthdays, beyond words and beyond consciousness. The act of running out of the toy shop contributed to my healing, as has making this connection, and telling the story.
Doesn’t Speaking Out Make Things Worse? – Handling The Backlash
Another inter-generational pattern is the handing down of the piece of ‘wisdom’ that says that talking about ‘it’ makes things worse. Many of us have experienced major reactions, outbursts and retaliation in our families when someone or something has come too close to that which cannot be named or pointed to. Perpetrators and others who maintain the systems of pretence and silencing can react quite severely to any hint of speaking to ‘outsiders’.
Many of us who have gradually practiced standing in our truth can tell stories about how unsettled we, ourselves, have become along the way, especially in our early stages of speaking out. With time, support and self-nurturing, we come to see that facing the challenges of ‘chipping away’ at our trauma (always at our own pace) brings immense personal liberation. We come to see the deep wisdom in the notion that, in genuine healing, things often seem to get worse when they are on the way to getting better.
When I began to tell my story, I noticed that each time,
a short while afterwards, I would experience
a particular type of low mood and unsettledness.
At times it came with a distinct feeling of catastrophic dread,
not related to anything in my daily life.
At first, I thought these were backward steps in my healing process.
But then, as I watched this recurring pattern,
I came to call it ‘The Backlash’ – an understandable response
to breaking the life-long bonds that had silenced me.
I gradually developed confidence that my newfound strength could
withstand the backlashes.
I scheduled self-nurturing downtime, connections with nature
and chats with people I trusted, after speaking out.
Gradually the severity and duration of the backlashes have diminished.
I now absolutely trust that there will be an exhilarating
sense of liberation on the other side of any challenges that come up.
The Value of Facing The Inner Backlashes
With even more hindsight, I see that learning to identify, accept and process my internal backlashes was preparing me to face the inevitable backlashes from the world around me now, as I begin to speak out more publicly. I am even pondering on the possibility that, somehow, I now have an extra layer of self-protection.
As I stand stronger in my truth, it seems to me that harsh reactions from family members and other parts of the world no longer reach me or destabilise me as much as they used to. There’s something about having practiced standing in my own truth and then withstanding and understanding my inner backlashes that seems to have made me more immune to the backlashes from the world. Perhaps it is even the case that the stronger I am, the less backlashes there are from others.
… Am I ready to face the world and put my name to this piece?
Oh no! There is something of immense proportions that is still silencing me. It is one of the most insidious aspects of childhood sexual abuse:
With the Abuse Comes Attachment
‘With the abuse comes attachment’ – a piece of distilled wisdom that is well worth mulling over and considering from many angles, as sad and as sickening as it might be.
A child can be quite attached to the perpetrator of the abuse, especially if they are a caregiver or authority figure within the family. It is a biological imperative for a child to attach to their caregivers and if those caregivers are abusive this sets up deep conflict within the psyche of the child – an overwhelming conflict that often continues well into adulthood and throughout life.
It is understandable, then, that many people struggle to tell their story because it means exposing the person they have been attached to. They risk losing the relationship that, whilst damaging, has also given them some form of security, love, belonging and grounding in the world.
Please, please be gentle with us and our confusion.
What else is there to say here? As we struggle to digest the enormity of what this means … let’s tread very carefully. Let us not turn away or be blind to this acute dilemma and the hundreds and thousands, maybe millions, who are struggling with it. There are many of us who have overcome its effects and we’re getting ready to tell our stories, even if only partly so.
Because my mother is still deeply attached to her father,
I can’t do it. I cannot put this out as I intended, triumphantly in my name.
Sadly, my truth-telling brings my mother undone,
in the same way her ‘sweeping it under the carpet’ and
“… just remember the good things he did!” sends me off the edge.
Intellectually, I know I am not the cause of my mother’s situation.
Yet I see, clearly, that me standing in my own truth
(albeit quietly, in relatively small circles and not in her presence)
has contributed to her slipping from reality and
turning on me as if I am the enemy.
Who I have become and my truth-speaking
challenges our relationship to its core because it
threatens her strong attachment to her father
who both loved her and abused her.
What will a public revelation like this do to her?
I cannot put her in a situation that I believe will break her.
Yet the act of being silenced will never sit easily in me again …
So, I give this piece of writing to you, but once again, under the cover of anonymity.
In Conclusion – Thank you for listening.
I sometimes feel like I’m squeezing out from under a smothering boulder, at other times it is as if I have been clawing my way out of an engulfing black hole, or gradually dispelling a fog of delusion, depression and self-doubt. I’ve heard some people say it’s like grappling with an age-old dam wall that is ominously cracking. Countless other metaphors might depict our situation. Whatever way we find to stutter out our story, it is likely to take numerous attempts for us to find words and harness our voice.
Infinite compassion, respect, forbearance and kindness are required. We need to keep listening and believing each other (with courageous hearts and open minds) as we grapple with our pain, terror, grief, life-long self-censorship, shame, overwhelm, anxiety and confusion.
If we trust that even the most damaged of us have all the self-healing power we need, within us, then it is simply a matter of giving each other a safe space. And time. The healing, the solutions and resolutions will then flow naturally, albeit slowly.
Then, we can all grow together as we create a new world of respectful, empowering and authentic relationships.
I trust these three instalments and the glimpses of very real layers of silencing assist us all in finding a respectful, patient space to test out our understanding and our voice as we grapple with:
- The nature of the abuse itself: Abhorrent, sexual, pervasive and private
- The long term effects of the abuse: Blocks and wounds in our emotional, mental and physical make-up
- The relationship with the abuser and their enablers: Hidden control, darlings and demons, blaming and shaming
- The family/childhood environment: Trans-generational patterns, pretences, attachments, blind spots
- The social/cultural context that allows and perpetuates the abuse and the silencing – for example, blaming the victim, prioritising forgiveness, power over/ownership of women and children
Let us honour all of those who have been silenced but are now courageous enough to not be completely silent.
About the author:
‘Gaye’ has worked for over forty years in different roles with families, children, teenagers and older people. She has a university degree, is a trained human service professional and currently works with a range of people through alternative wellbeing and mental health networks. When the effects and memories of early childhood abuse surfaced in her late forties, ‘Gaye’ thought she was ‘losing it’. She stumbled into a counsellor who understood trauma and she used yoga practices to stabilise herself as she explored what was happening within. Now, sixteen years later, ‘Gaye’ feels more alive, whole and liberated than ever and can’t help but break her silence (almost) and add to the current courageous waves of speaking-out.
1 The Truth is Longer Than a Lie, 2006:5, Mudaly and Goddard
2 The last Social Taboo: How an unspeakable crime against children remains largely hidden’. ABC ‘Background Briefing’, November 13, 2021, Tracey Shelton
3 The Prevalence and Impact of Child Maltreatment in Australia: Findings from the Australian Child Maltreatment Study – Brief report, Haslam et al, 2023, Queensland University of Technology
4 Childhood Trauma – the Long-term Impact, Kezelman in Humanising Mental HealthCare in Australia, 2019:43-55
5 Still Unseen and Ignored, 2021:3 & 24, Tucci and Mitchell, Australian Childhood Foundation (ACF)
6 Trauma and Recovery, 1997, Judith Herman
7 The Body Keeps the Score, 2014, Bessel van der Kolk
8 Draft Five-Year Strategy, 2022, National Centre for Action on Child Sexual Abuse (NCACSA)