February 1 – 8 is the sexual abuse and sexual violence awareness week. To mark the week, we will post a series of blogs exploring what it means to be a survivor when you’re a man, and how we can all work to better support survivors.
In this blog, we hear from a man who was abused by his father as a child. Please note that this story may be upsetting to read, and if you feel you need to talk to someone our helpline is available every day 12 – 8 pm. Just click ‘Talk to Us’.
I have survived 73 years of complex post-traumatic stress disorder. The trauma began in the first few months of my life. It was violent at first, extremely painful, and I experienced terror, being in fear of my life. It continued, without the initial pain and terror, until age 12 or 13 (puberty), when the abuser, who was my father, lost interest in me and turned his attention to my sister, 2 years younger than me. All memory of this abuse was repressed, forgotten, until in my early 40s I had a series of 3 flashbacks, two of them extraordinarily vivid, like videos in real-time, as if I were re-living the experience, with the senses of touch, pain, sight and, in one flashback, taste. The trauma was sexual and physical abuse.
In the first flashback, a kind of generalised memory of countless very similar events, there was rape, which I’d evidently got used to and somehow been persuaded, or compelled, to accept without resistance. This flashback occurred while I was lying in bed in the dark age about 43, about to go to sleep, having just closed the book by Alice Miller I’d been reading, either For Your Own Good, or Thou Shalt Not Be Aware. I was reading both these books at the time, and both gave me a very strong feeling that the author understood how childhood experience shapes later development, and what kind of adult the child grows into, their actions and reactions.
In the second flashback there was extreme and sudden pain of attempted rape and a feeling of terror and also recognition: at the moment of the onset of pain I remembered that this had happened before.
In the third a hand was pushing my head firmly down into a pillow, I couldn’t breathe, and throughout this relived “video” there was a continuous feeling of terror, absolutely constant from beginning to end. There was the acid taste of vomit in my mouth. I could see patterns, caused by the pressure of my eyes against the pillow. The hand was lifted. I lifted my head and looked to the left. It was completely dark. Then light appeared from beyond the foot of my bed and spread across the wall to my left, reached halfway and then receded. That must have been the door letting somebody out (my father).
I had a strange childhood. It wasn’t all bad, some lovely memories of flowers in the garden, encounters with people, stroking the cat, and so on. But all the way through I was aware of something wrong. As I grew older (still not yet an adult) I saw this as being me, something wrong with me, not necessarily my fault, but something intrinsic to me. If I wasn’t born like this, I was growing up to be like this. This was just what life was.
In my late teens I began to feel there had been something wrong with my family. My father, in particular, I completely ceased to love, after he’d dumped me for my sister. I didn’t remember the abuse but I was aware of the nice things, affection from him, and so on. Suddenly that stopped, and perhaps understandably I became jealous of my sister, and also very depressed, and began to have suicidal thoughts, which back then were no more than thoughts. But it really did seem to me that there was no point in going on living.
I began to withdraw. I had few friends, and no real friends at all, no close ones. I was isolating myself. I became cynical. One day, when I was about 15 or 16, I was expressing my views to a friend at boarding school, and he said to me something like: “That’s really nasty.” Or, “There’s no need to be nasty.” This gave me a shock, and made me think. I decided I needed to reform. I made myself make a friend or two, approaching people who were outsiders like myself, misfits, maladjusted ones. I threw a lot of effort into work, and did better in exams. It was all an effort, top-down, but it did get me out of my spiral of self-destructive self-isolation. My new philosophy got me into university, and into my first job. Then I panicked. I can’t do this job, I thought. It will drive me mad if I try to keep going. So I gave up my first job after university after only one month, with no other job to go to. Eventually I drifted into library work, thinking, rightly as it turned out, that this would be less stressful, and give me some space to see if I could understand and work on my problems.
But emotionally I was still a mess. I was still trying to find out the right way to live by means of effort. I read books, going from Henry Miller to Dostoyevsky, John Cowper Powys, and J.Krishnamurti. My first dip into my first book by Krishnamurti, as I was browsing in a bookshop, convinced me that he had the answers I was looking for. Just something about the way the words were put together on the page. This was before I had begun to understand what he was actually saying.
But the problems continued. And I thought, if I’m right and Krishnamurti has the answer, why is there no change in me? I realised that I was merely repeating his words and saying, “That’s right! That’s right!” But nothing in the way of understanding, insight or change had passed from the book to me.
One morning, feeling pretty grim and low, I phoned in to my library employer to say I was sick with ‘flu’ and went back to bed with a copy of J.Krishnamurti’s book The First and Last Freedom. I told myself: I’m going to read this book (which I considered covered the most ground, and contained all his essential points and ideas) until I get it, until there is a change in me. All morning I read, giving it everything I’d got, making tremendous efforts, hunting through the book, understanding it up to a point, but then another question would pop into my head and I’d be off hunting through the book again to see what Krishnamurti said about it. This went on until about lunch time. I put the book down. Suddenly I saw the obvious contradiction. Over and over in Krishnamurti you find him saying, no emotional or psychological problem can be solved through effort. The truth is what is, what actually is from moment to moment, not in the future. There is no path to truth, or to the right understanding of life. And there I was, trying so hard, making such efforts!
So effort, from that moment, ceased. I mean emotional or psychological effort. One has to make an effort to lift a piece of furniture, or pull up a weed, climb steps, or even walk a mile. But that isn’t the same thing at all. You don’t need to make mental efforts to do anything physical. Also one has to work hard at certain mental things, like learning a language, learning how to use a computer, how to play a musical instrument, how to read music, and so on. But again, this is a matter of application, of doing something you want to do, or are obliged or need to do for some reason, so you get on with it, and have a bit less fun maybe while you are doing it. But there is no conflict in you, it isn’t a mental struggle. You do it. You have a break. You go back to it. It isn’t a problem. And you don’t burn up energy unnecessarily.
And so a nervous breakdown was narrowly averted. A new life started to grow out of the old. People noticed the change. My performance at work improved. I started going for walks, and enjoyed looking at things, the sky, weeds growing by the street, and so on. I found I could relate to people more easily. I could understand what they said without concentrating hard on every word. I could relax, and the sound of their voice speaking the words told me much more than I’d ever got from listening before. Barriers and impediments crumbled and vanished.
20 years on, problems returned. The stress of a new job, and moving to another county, leaving behind my familiar home town and friends, began to affect me. There was a constant background fear. I could feel my memory failing. Instead of learning more about what I had to do, I was forgetting even the little that I had learned so far. I never thought of asking for help. I did what I’d done before. I handed in my notice and went back to live with my parents. And things got worse. There was something very disturbing about being back in the presence of my father. At mealtimes, sitting at table with my parents, with my father at the end of the table on my right, I felt the worst of this. He had a habit of gripping both sides of the table with his two hands, which involved his left hand moving along the edge of the table towards me. It never touched me, but just that movement was enough to cause a sensation in the pit of my stomach, a mixture of hatred, fear, anger, and disgust. I felt this feeling clearly, I didn’t try to suppress it or pretend it wasn’t there, but I couldn’t voice it, there was nobody I wanted to talk to about it, so I just endured it. But the cost of endurance in emotional isolation was too great, and suicidal thoughts became more frequent. I never actually got as far as attempting suicide, but many times I left my parents house for a walk with the intention of doing it. I went down to the river and put heavy stones in my pockets, then lost my nerve and came home again. At one point began to hit my head against a tree trunk in the woods, but stopped myself before I did any harm, or even made a mark on my forehead. I stood on bridges over railway lines and motorways. I climbed to the top of multi-story carparks. But I never jumped.
Then I went into the kitchen, while my mother was laying the table, and got a very sharp meat-cleaver from the drawer, intending to take it up to my bedroom and cut my throat. My mother heard me and asked what I was doing. I told her the truth. The doctor was phoned, and a psychiatrist came round and talked to me. She prescribed amitriptyline, and I was booked onto a psychiatric ward in the nearest psychiatric hospital.
I didn’t believe I would recover, but, slowly, I did. I was discharged. Before this, however, I had a week-end’s “leave”, which I spent at my parents’ house. It didn’t go well. My father tried to talk to me about my problems, and just listening to him made me panic, I didn’t know what I was afraid of, but I knew I was very afraid. I phoned a friend, who drove around and took me out in her car, and I felt better. I asked her if when I was discharged, her landlord could put me up where she lived (where I knew there was a spare room). She asked him, he said yes, I was over the next hurdle, and recovery continued.
The story certainly didn’t end there, but I’m going to stop now, and I will write the next episode soon.