Virtually every news programme these days contains a story about sexual abuse, whether it is faded ‘celebrities’ from the 1970’s; brutal gangs in various UK cities subjecting vulnerable teenage girls to campaigns of unspeakable cruelty; there is even a current police investigation into a possible paedophile ring in the highest echelons of power, involving senior politicians, military personnel and diplomats. The abject parade of guilty men is seemingly endless, the stories seemingly unceasing. Behind every single one of these stories lie blighted, blasted lives; lives ruined and laid waste; spirit and hope extinguished; childhood innocence irreparably and savagely wrenched away; the tantalising possibility of true love and companionship forever expunged from people who so desperately crave them. Yet, there are also, thankfully, many brave survivors who use their agony to campaign bravely and unstintingly for everyone who has suffered such abuse. They are true inspirations and help to give me strength in my continuing struggle.
Having experienced my own period of abuse, each story immediately triggers a surge of haunting, unwanted memories. Sometimes, I have to turn away, leave the room before they become unmanageable and overwhelming; sometimes, almost ghoulishly, I listen to or read every available detail, as if somehow seeking confirmation, validation of my own pain and horror in the minutiae of other people’s tragedies. Frequently, I told myself that other victims suffered far more serious abuse than I ever did, that mine was minor, trivial even, compared to them – and many people seemingly coped far better with its disabling psychological and emotional after-effects. I would often condemn myself for my pathetic weakness in letting it affect me so drastically; feelings of self-loathing and self-hatred, guilt and shame were destroying me. I think such feelings were also connected with my sense of what it is to be a man. Although I had never, even in my teenage years, bought into the ‘machismo’ side of being male, I was still ravaged by the fear that most other blokes would simply have shrugged off the abuse, even attacked my abuser. Was the fact that I hadn’t reacted like that a sign of my utter failure as a man? I sometimes felt very strongly that I emanated such anxieties and fears, that people could somehow see them imprinted on me, graven into my skin, whenever I met them.
However, as countless therapists and support workers have drilled into me, ultimately, comparing experiences is a futile and damaging thought process; you can only process the abuse you actually suffered yourself; only you can attempt to come to terms with your own individual experience. It’s an obvious cliché but remains valid: every person is different and every person’s response to trauma will be unique to them. Sounds obvious but it has taken me many years to realise it and I think I’m almost there now. I know now that being a ‘proper man’ has no relevance to how I responded to the abuse; my reaction was simply human, all too human.
One aspect of the abuse stories that gets highlighted is that of ‘grooming’, the term used to describe how the perpetrator insinuates themselves, physically and psychologically, into the victim’s life, preparing them for the abuse to come. It manifests itself in many different guises, from use of the internet to helping with homework. I recognise now the specific aspects of ‘grooming’ in my own case. ‘Grooming’ can have as devastating and ruinous an impact as the abuse itself for it strikes right at the person’s very sense of self; the sense of who they are, who they want to be – and all at at a period in life when these perceptions are at their most formative, sensitive stage. Because of this, the damage caused by ‘grooming’ is so deep-rooted and desperately difficult to heal. As well as my sense of myself as a man, the ‘grooming’ seemed to erase any sense of my whole personality. I felt a gaping, aching void where, I presumed, everybody else sensed their self, the place their personality was located. I was simply empty, hollow, a nullity. This can lead, as it did in my case, to filling that void with alcohol, drugs, gambling, any reckless behaviour that would fill, for however short a time, this echoing space within. Weirdly, my self-destructive behaviour was caused by the fact that I didn’t feel I had a self.
I have been thinking recently that ‘grooming’, to me, is the wrong word to use for this tormenting experience. ‘Grooming’ conjures up associations of warmth, affection, shared intimacy – the sort of loving care for one another shown by chimpanzees in their grooming rituals. It is a way of bonding, both emotionally and socially. ‘Grooming’ in the context of sexual abuse is the direct opposite of all these positive, life-affirming gestures. To me, ‘brainwashing’ is the only term that comes close to adequately describing what it felt like. The victim’s whole world-view is completely changed by the abuser’s malignantly sinuous psychological tricks and stratagems. You lose sight of your own beliefs and hopes; the only purpose, your sole reason for existing, is to now to serve in facilitating the abuser in the satisfaction of their perversions. Hence, the crippling, soul-destroying feelings of guilt, shame, self loathing. You despise yourself so much because the abuser brainwashes you into thinking that you colluded in your own violation; that you invited or encouraged them to do that which you dreaded the most. Reporting them would be the most terrible betrayal. Trusting any human being again after such an ordeal becomes almost impossible. Maybe I am just engaging in pointless, even harmful, semantic games, I don’t know. All I know is that I felt I had been brainwashed in the most fundamentally intrusive and distressing way.
My experience occurred in the mid-1980’s when sexual abuse was nowhere near as high-profile an issue it has since become. At the time, I simply did not have the language to explain what was happening to me, what was being done to me. In addition to the shame, the guilt, the fear, I also suffered complete confusion and emotional isolation. It took me a number of years before I worked up the courage, and found the words, to reveal what had happened, first to my parents, then to therapists and support workers. It did not heal the wounds immediately – that is a long, hard slog – but I did feel an immense, crushing burden had been lifted; I could sense a way through the morass of conflicting and degrading feelings. I have never regretted opening myself up to other people, exposing just how vulnerable and afraid I can be, talking about my most intimate and private moments. It is shatteringly difficult but allowing the feelings to fester is far more damaging in the long run.
So, my message would ultimately be to anybody reading this who has been scarred by a similar experience – there are people and organisations who can support you, help you make sense of what can seem utterly senseless. There is a caring and compassionate online community of survivors who can also provide help and make you realise that you are not alone. They have helped me and continue to do so. It took me a long while to realise it but I passionately believe it – there is always, always hope, always inner reserves of strength that can help you to banish the darkness and flourish in the new light.
NAPAC (National Association of People Abused In Childhood)
Helpline: 0808 801 0331 (9am-10pm, Mon-Thurs, 10am-6pm Fri)
Offers support to male victims of rape and sexual abuse through web chat and email, as well as face to face support.
If you are under 18 or are worried about a child who might have been abused, please contact Childline on 0800 1111
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