Healing after a childhood of trauma

Dedication: To all those who have suffered trauma like mine

Trigger warning: Before reading this post, please be aware that it contains descriptions of childhood sexual molestation.

It is very difficult to describe my childhood as even thinking about it can bring in waves of PTSD flashbacks. Most of the time I never speak at all about my past, but there are times when a person just needs space to say ‘this was hard, and it wasn’t ok’.

On paper my life today looks very successful and happy: I’m married to the love of my life for the past almost 10 years and we share one beautiful child together. I have a successful and well paid job in the VFX film industry as a senior texture artist and have worked on many feature films. I attribute my career success however to the fact that as a child my only escape from the torment and chaos I was experiencing in my home life was school. My safe space was school and my art, and I simply buried my head in academia and became a workaholic to block out the pain of what my sisters and I were enduring on a daily basis.

I was the first born for my mother and father. I was an accident, and my mother talked many times about the fact she never loved my father, and yet she still had me by accident. And two years later, she slept with him again and had my sister. I suppose at this point they decided to try to make a family but it was never really a family. My father was an alcoholic. My mother is generally a very confused and disturbed person. As an example, when I was around 3 and my sister 1, my mother’s sister was dying of cancer. My mother made the decision to live with her sister the last few weeks of her life to ‘assist’ her death. That alone sound like a caring thing, but in fact she ended up sleeping with her dying sister’s husband during this time and still can’t understand why the rest of the family struggled with this because in her head it was very rational… my sister and I were left during this time in the care of my father who can’t look after himself never mind two small children. My mum blames her unhappiness with him during this time as the reason she slept with her dying sister’s husband. My parent’s ‘relationship’ deteriorated after this, with both of them sleeping around and dysfunctional, until my father came home in a drunken rage one day and smashed up the house, including throwing a plate at the wall which broke over my head. I don’t remember this, it’s just what I’ve been told. I would have been 4 at the time. My mother left him and took my sister and I with her. For two years we had a somewhat more stable life with my mother, until she brought the next man into our lives (this was a pattern for her, choosing unsafe men). My step father came to live with us when I was 7, and brought his three sons with him, who were all older than my sister and I. My step father is still the most terrifying and vile human being I have ever met in my life. He began molesting my sister and I from the very start. He initially groomed us and made it seem like games but it quickly turned to sexual abuse. At first my sister and I tried to protest his constant touching of our bodies and my mother kept promising to talk to him but it never stopped. And then obviously because the grooming touching he did with us in full view of the family never stopped then my sister and I stopped protesting before it even turned to full blown sexual abuse. It’s amazing how easy it is to convince a child that protesting or seeking help is futile. The abuse was so regular and so persistent that over time I developed a very severe dissociative disorder in the form of DID. I was only diagnosed with this a few years ago however. My sister is diagnosed with CPTSD and a dissociative seizure disorder. When she has flashbacks of the abuse, she goes into full blown seizures which mimic epilepsy. The sexual abuse got worse as time went on. At first he would abuse us in the bath. I still struggle to understand why my mother allowed a new man in the house and thought it suitable for him to be giving her two daughters baths constantly. That should have been a red flag in my eyes. One time my aunt actually caught him with my young cousin in the bathroom and raised it with my mum that they should leave him , and yet she continued to stay put. I always felt like my mother’s relationships with men and her need to be loved by a man came before her care of her own children. My step father was very violent, we often witnessed him being physically abusive with his boys and occasionally my sister and I too. One time, when he was really mad at my step brother, I watched him hit him so hard that he flew backwards across the kitchen floor and hit a dining chair so hard that it smashed under him. My step father was the sort of man you had to walk on eggshells around. If you breathed the wrong way in the wrong moment it could be enough for him to unleash his rage on you. I very quickly learnt exactly what I needed to do to minimise any anger coming towards me. The sacrifice I had to make internally to achieve this upsets me to think about. Ultimately, I ended up creating different ‘personas’ that would take over for different occasions: there were personas that could feel no emotion so that when he was raging inches away from my face then I wouldn’t react in any way as crying or any emotion displayed would enrage him further. I learnt to separate out my inner experience and live in a state of dissociation and so connect from my own self, essentially for my safety. I had personas for his rage, personas to take the sexual abuse, and personas to carry on with life at school that were completely disconnected from the trauma at home, because how can a young child continue at school otherwise and survive with the full awareness of what was happening to them at home? You can’t, it’s impossible without some level of dissociation in fact. Things got worse when my mother decided after several years to have another baby, with him this time. They had a little girl, my half sister, who was ten years younger than me. Sadly, he began abusing her too. I know this because my half sister and I shared a bedroom, and he would ‘visit’ her at night, like he did me. I never once thought about telling anyone, which might seem strange to anyone who hasn’t been in that situation, but after so many years of being abused, and the grooming that went along with it, I actually thought at that point that that was just part of life and something you had to endure. I didn’t question it at all any more. Which is devastating to me now looking back. I feel so much heartache for my sisters and I. The abuse got worse and worse from this point, and I think my step father just got very complacent, thinking he would never be caught. My mother was completely and utterly out of it and in denial, up until the point that my step father right at the end started to act much more aggressively and sort of ‘snapped’. He became extremely unwell at the end and much of what he was doing I still don’t have access to due to my dissociation – something my therapist has taught me to be thankful for, as I’m pretty sure I don’t want to remember that stuff. But at some point my mum eventually did start to question things, and broke into our shed, which my step father kept padlocked. After breaking the lock, she found literally hundreds of papers stored in folders of porn and also his journals which documented his obsession with ‘young girls’ etc. At this point she did panic and asked my sister and I if he had done anything. I remember being surprised that anyone cared or that this was not normal but I was able to explain some things, though it was hard for me to know what was normal and what wasn’t as this had gone on for so long, my sister too. My mother did end up taking my step father to family court to ensure he had no access to my sister, but I have a lot of trauma about this process. He convinced all three of his sons and his eldest two son’s partners (they were adults by this point) to write statements vouching for him in court. One of my step brothers called me and basically told me it was all in my head and that what we were doing was very serious and that we were going to send an innocent man to jail. I panicked and backed down in the police interview. Another really upsetting thing that happened in the court case was that the expert witness went on holiday and somehow lost all the papers from my str father’s shed, of which there were no copies, which was our main for of hard evidence against him, other than our police video interviews. She ended up being fired for this in fact. Due to all the conflicting statements etc given in court, the case was deemed to be a civil matter and my mother was painted as the vengeful wife trying to block childcare access out of spite. During this process however, my step father was only allowed supervised visitation with my half sister, who was then only 4. The social workers who were present during the supervised access were so alarmed by his behaviour around my half sister that they initiated a new court proceedings. My half sister was at this point spoken to and she at 4 years old was able to say that she was frightened of her dad and that he had often hit her when they were alone. This time he was blocked from all access to my half sister fortunately, and an injunction was placed against him so that he could not be near any of us. He never paid any child support for her or contributed to her upbringing in any way after this. Soon after all this, my half sister’s school contacted my mum to say that my half sister would keep trying to touch the private parts of the male teacher at school, and was displaying sexualised behaviour. I’m still quite shocked at how the court case never went to criminal court and my now therapist has said that if we went back to court now we would almost certainly end up with a conviction true to the sheer amount of evidence and abuse that we suffered. After all this I tried to get on with my life but life since then has been very hard. I have pretty much no friends as I have huge social anxiety and lack of trust in people. I suffer still from DID and PTSD. I finally cut contact with my parents after the birth of my first and only child. I had a very backwards relationship with both my parents and my husband said it was codependent: I parented them rather than the other way round. My mother became impossible when I became pregnant. I was extremely ill during the pregnancy and diagnosed then with hyperemesis gravitation, which is severe and constant morning sickness. I was so ill that I was in and out of hospital constantly being out on a drip to rehydrate me as I couldn’t even drink water. My mother can’t tolerate when she is somehow not the centre of my attention and she began bizarrely mimicking my illness, to the point she became convinced that she needed constant care but would refuse any care from anyone except for me. So as I had moved several hundred miles away at this point (really I think because I was subconsciously trying to create a boundary for myself from her) my routine at 6 months pregnant was to go into the hospital on the Friday evening to be put on a drip and rehydrate, then I would get on a train that evening to travel 200 miles up north to go and spend the weekend looking after my mother before travelling back on the Sunday evening. It got so bad and my mother became so psychologically dependant on me during this time that I begged her to see a GP. I had her screaming at me down the phone telling me she didn’t want a GP. I finally managed to get her checked into a hospital for tests. They kept her in hospital for a few weeks running many tests but (surprisingly) could find nothing wrong with her. During this time she still was forcing me to visit her at weekends in the hospital. I eventually stopped as one of the doctors at the hospital took me to one side and told me basically that my mother is fine and it is mental health, but that I needed to stop tracking to look after her, that I was putting myself and my baby’s life at risk’. At this point I did stop the visits and surprisingly my mother, upen realising that her approach wasn’t working, ‘miraculously’ made a full recovery… her behaviour got worse again after my baby was born though. I fully believe that she was jealous of my divided attention towards my own child and just could not tolerate the fact I couldn’t be as present for her any more. She would call me at 11pm some nights to talk about her new boyfriend for example. When you’re a first time mum who has slept properly for weeks with a new born, you’re obviously looking for support from parents, not the other way round. At this point my mental health started to deteriorate very quickly. I found that my anxiety got worse and worse. I started having panic attacks, I developed postnatal OCD and depression and got more and more unwell until I had a complete breakdown. I had a panic attack that seemed not to end. I got stuck actually in a hyper anxious state, hyperventilating and unable to sleep or function. I was having what I now know is depersonalisation, where the world around me started moving and shifting around. It was one of the worst experiences of my life. Ultimately I was diagnosed with depression and PTSD. I was told that giving birth can often bring up past trauma for some new mums and was advised to seek therapy. I began therapy for PTSD and after a year of work with this therapist we started trauma work. This went wrong very quickly. My therapist essentially had to tell me that personas were coming forward and telling her about the sexual abuse, yet I had no memory of this. She had never worked with DID before, and at that point I didn’t even know what dissociation was or that you could have a dissociative disorder. She ended up giving me a leaflet about it and told me she could not work with that as she wasn’t trained. That was a very very traumatic time for me as essentially someone had given me the green light to open the can of worms, so to speak, and all the trauma had surfaced and yet I now had no therapist to help me process it. At this point I did seek a diagnosis and approached the Pottergate centre for dissociative studies in Norwich for an assessment. I was diagnosed at this point formally with full blown DID, on the severe end of the dissociative spectrum. In looking for a new therapist at this point, it is amazing to me how many therapists did not answer my emails or follow up my phone calls as soon as I mentioned DID (dissociative identity disorder). I came to see that apparently it’s not well understood still and many therapists simply don’t believe in it, despite it being in the DSM-V. In one devastating experience, a therapist agreed to give me a first session. I thought it had gone well but when I came in for my second session and sat down, she proceeded to tell me that she could not in fact work with me as she didn’t feel that she was at a point in her life where she could commit to working with a client with DID. Whilst I appreciated her honesty, at the same time I really started to feel extremely hopeless and isolated, as my symptoms and flashbacks were so severe at this point. She did however pass on the name of a therapist who was her supervisor I believe, and when I reached out to this therapist she agreed to work with me as she specialised in this area. Fast forward to today and she is still working with me, and has helped me through some of the hardest moments of my life. With her hero, I’m finally relatively stable for the first time in my life, I’m able to function on a daily basis, I have cut contact with both of my parents, and begin to heal from the past. In a bizarre twist, last year, one of my step brothers reached out to my half sister and told her that my step father had also sexually abused him for many years. I asked if he would be alright to speak with me about it as it was him who called me back when I was 14 to convince me not to speak up in court. Although he didn’t want to call he did answer my questions by text, which did help me to heal more from the past as I could finally accept without any doubt what had happened to me.

I think the most important thing that families can do when there is a disclosure of sexual abuse form a child in the family as the disbelief and lack of validation that often occurs at this moment can be as traumatising for the victims as the abuse itself sometimes, that was the case for my sister and anyway.

I hope to continue to heal for the sake of my own child. I have a beautiful and loving relationship with my child and thanks to ongoing therapy and support I have been able to prevent the intergenerational trauma in my family from going beyond me. Seeing my child grow up feeling safe and happy in their own home has also given me a sense of hope and healing for the future.

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