A woman I was, ever before I was a child. I was raised in a small town in Norfolk, but I dreamt of moving to the city that never sleeps and having an amazing career, meeting ‘the one’ and living happily ever after. A child’s romanticised dream of course. My mother fulfilled at least part of my dream and flew me to New York for the weekend for my fourteenth birthday – what a treat! I eagerly told a shop assistant at Macy’s that I would return every year. This never happened of course.
My father, 20 years older than my mother taught me traditional values. He taught me the very essence of family, dysfunctional it was, but it was ours. Listening to Jimmy Nail and eagerly listening to my dad talk about his own childhood memories and stories as a long-distance driver fuelled my passion for the important things in life. My father, when with us – he died when I was 17, covered-up life’s troubles with his dry sense of humour. It was this very humour that going into my teens frustrated me. I remember one day I stopped finding him funny. I’m certain he didn’t lose his humour with age, I had changed. There came a point like with every parent-child relationship when he fell from the pedestal I had placed him on. I looked up to him, he was my comfort.
My parents, despite getting divorced when I was six years old had a unique relationship. My dad always cared for my mum and despite their differences it always seemed to me they loved each other. Their relationship had a huge impact on who I was becoming and who I am today and for that I am grateful.
My mother, in her early twenties when she had my brother and me. I remember her as a single woman, always dancing and smiling with a zest for life that lives on in me today. My mother had faced many overwhelming challenges including loss, grief and loneliness all before her eighteenth birthday. My mum is a wonderful woman, my source of strength. Fast forward a few years she suddenly became tearful and vulnerable. It was at this moment the strong, fun, and energetic woman who would dance around our home smiling and surrounded by friends changed and needed something from the world. I remember feeling that I needed to make it better, whatever ‘it’ was. I made it my mission to protect my mum and to fill that gap she was feeling. Our roles were reversed.
During this time with my young energetic mother and traditional, ‘sometimes’ funny father I was experiencing some of the most horrific and traumatic experiences. My innocence was being stolen by an adult family member.
We will call him K. K would watch Barney with me repeatedly. My six-year-old self couldn’t wait to watch the same episode over and over again. The songs about family and togetherness resonated with me. I was a happy child and felt loved. Singing along even now with my own children, ’mummy loves you, you love mummy’. Barney became my safe haven in more ways than one. When this man would subject me to repeated episodes of abuse I would always think of Barney and the very message portrayed: that I was loved despite the cruelty I was experiencing.
The only person I told what was happening to me was a female cousin of a similar age. It was then at around seven years old I learned she was also being abused by the same man. Suddenly, I didn’t feel alone, but it did normalise what was happening somewhat. I was afraid, I didn’t understand to what extent it was wrong. As I grew older, I hated him, I hated being around him. One day through the courage of solidarity we told another adult family member what was happening to us. She told us it wouldn’t happen again. It didn’t happen again. At the time, I felt grateful. But no one talked about it; no one acknowledged what had happened. Looking back now, this was when I first learnt that sometimes I just don’t matter, that I couldn’t fight everything, maybe I’m supposed to shut up and put up.
At the age of 13, lonely, scared, vulnerable and uncertain about almost everything I met a 22-year-old man. He was charming, generous, caring, and liked me – he made me feel alive. The truth is he nurtured both the woman and child in me.
We will call him B. I felt visible around him and my pain was visible to him. I didn’t have to hide the reality of what K had done to me anymore. It was empowering in so many ways. Little did I know I was far from empowered and left vulnerable to B’s cruel intentions. B took me out in his car, bought me gifts and shared his own story of a childhood stolen (or so he made me believe). I confided in B about my earlier abuse and he told me to report it to the police. B acknowledging what had happened seven years prior and telling me to stand up and be counted made me feel safe.
Again, I didn’t see anything wrong in what was happening to me. B insisted we kept our ‘friendship’ secret as no one would understand. This was no problem for me, I had kept a similar secret for several years. B groomed me. The abuse went on for several years and with it my innocence, self-worth and confidence. At a time when I was most impressionable B was shaping me into the person he needed me to be – weak and obedient.
This time of my life should have provided opportunity and growth into the young woman I was supposed to be. Instead, I was conflicted. I was becoming a woman in so many ways, experiencing things no one should ever have to regardless of age whilst at the same time I was becoming the child I never was. I was finally questioning nothing. I was doing as I was told, pleasing others and seeking approval.
I have always been older before my years. I realise now I am an empath. I feel more strongly than I should about most things. I have always felt a need to make a difference. I have always felt different, I feel other people’s pain, even that of strangers. I feel their joy too. Some say it’s a gift, but as a young child it impacted me in ways I both relished and despised. I have now accepted this is part of who I am and I have decided to celebrate it. That warm feeling one gets from having an impact on others, from inspiring them, truly motivates me. I was asked recently who inspires me. This felt like a difficult question and, although my mum and my children inspire me with their courage and resilience I quickly realised I am inspired by me and what I have overcome. I’m inspired by the person I am today in spite of and because of my experiences. I always try to be better than yesterday – I hold myself accountable and aspire to learn something new each day. I make mistakes, but those mistakes only offer new lessons.
At the age of fifteen I gave birth to my beautiful daughter. She is now fifteen, the age I was when I became her mother. Her resilience in life both saddens and inspires me. I know my own process of healing has enforced her own need for resilience – something I never wanted my daughter to learn at such a young age. I take comfort in knowing she knows she’s loved just as I did – this kept me safe emotionally. I am so proud of her and know that whatever she chooses to do she has free will and she is confident in her use of that freedom.
I had one last battle to fight in this part my journey. I stood tall and attended B’s parole hearing and read my victim impact statement sixteen years after the abuse started. Just saying that aloud still shocks me. Sixteen years and the pain B caused still lives within me. I knew this was my chance to take a huge step forward and to truly start to let go of the damage he had caused. I requested B be present whilst I read my statement as I wanted to take back some control and prove to myself I was no longer afraid. He ‘chose’ not to attend. He had a choice as to whether he be present or not and yet he is the criminal and has shown no remorse.
Sat in a room with only a wall between us it was explained I could read my statement to the board and then I would have to leave promptly so as to avoid B being subjected to my presence. They tried persuading me this was for my protection – how can this be the case when I had requested he be in the room to hear my statement. I suddenly realised in that moment he had been told I was brave enough to stand in front of him after sixteen years. I was in control! B is a coward that took something from me I will never get back – I know now that despite him stealing something so precious he does not have the power any longer to control this strong and independent woman (no longer a child)!
I celebrate my imperfections and all my experiences, good and bad. I hope to show other young women that adversity doesn’t mean failure and that you can stand up and be counted. Today I look forward to starting my PhD studies – my passion being the ‘inter-generational transmission of resilience as a result of trauma’. I hope to one day make a difference to those who have experienced trauma, in how they are perceived, understood and approached.