This blog post discusses the impacts of sexual abuse. If you are affected and need to speak to someone, please contact us via our helpline.
I humbly invite you to bear with my ramblings. I hope that knowing and understanding my experience may help you in some way too.
I lived a privileged childhood. Born in France, then four fun formative years in Spain where I learned street Spanish as well as the Queen’s English. Then four even more fun formative years in Kenya, land of the Rift Valley, Acacia trees, tall jumping Maasai warriors, Simba, Tembo, Nyati, Chui, Kifaru, Lion, Elephant, Buffalo, Leopard & Rhino – the ‘Big Five’ animals you hope to spot on Safari. We attended a school opposite Nairobi game park with sport every afternoon routinely interrupted by the piercing African rain washing away the rugby pitches or the local pride of lions straying onto the school grounds. Evenings were spent milking jersey cows, chasing the guard with a chameleon on a stick, eating avocados off the tree outside the front door, chasing our dogs around, and laughing as they got stoned from eating the gardener’s side stash of grass. As rose-tinted as my recollection of my innocent childhood before the abuse undoubtedly is, enchanted indeed it was. By any measure.
I am the youngest of four sons. My dad was a hard-working, ambitious, and quite heavy drinking journalist. My mum a dentist’s assistant who then dedicated her life to bringing up her four boys, keeping her family together and following my dad as we darted peripatetically from one continent to the next.
In 1986 my dad got a new job in the same company; this time based in Buenos Aires. We would be setting up base on our third continent in four years. It also meant boarding school for me back in London. My eldest two brothers were already attending the school. Now all four of us would don its uniform in the shadow of its imposing clocktower, cloisters, and red brick Victorian splendour.
I was sexually abused there by a teacher at the beginning of my second term, February 1987 in the depth of winter. Thousands of miles away from mum, dad, and home, alone in a cold, wet changing room after a swimming lesson.
That teacher would become my form teacher and tormenter-in-chief the following academic year, instructing me in Latin, English grammar, Geometry, Algebra, bullying, coercion, blame, guilt, shame, and abuse of power and responsibility.
I survived at the time by severing myself from my own nascent emotions, aged nine and a half. With nobody to talk to, I buried what had happened so deep inside. At times I would recall it, rationalise it, change the ending. There was no abuse. I escaped. My brothers would kill him if he did it again. I remained in control in that parallel version. All to fit the narrative of the heroic, happy, capable schoolboy with his three big, protective brothers, aged 11, 12, and 15 at the time. Absurd but the mind re-jigs to survive, not process and thrive. Nobody protected me.
I buried the trauma so deep and so well in fact that I passed through the next three decades with a huge weight inside of me never realising that normal people do not carry this burden. Nobody should ever have to. I always knew that I stood apart from most but would never admit to myself why. The truth is I was never in control of my life for those 33 years. Rather the abuse controlled and strangled me for 33 years and I was too afraid to admit it and confront it. I even regularly beat myself up over the fact. Everything that disabled me was all my fault, I only had myself to blame.
Last year two big jolts smashed open the drawer into which I had so methodically and successfully stashed all of all my pain. My eldest brother passed from a horrible brain tumour. My partner of twelve years walked out on me right before my brother passed. I was reacting to these twin traumas the same way as I had the original wound. I cut myself off and dissociated to control the banalities of life and in turn be controlled by the abuse violating my boundaries every day. In school, I would underline every title in my notebook three times. 33 years later I would re-do my list of things to do three times. The illusion of control. Alas, it was always my abuser controlling me.
Taking back control
Two weeks into therapy in July 2020 I found myself in that cold, damp changing room once again. I fell apart, piece by piece. I recall my therapist telling me, “everything has burst out of your suitcase. Find the pieces you want to keep with you and let the rest go.” I had no idea about the long shadow abuse casts over a life. It is no life at all in fact. It is just passing through. I had no idea what the pieces were. It took me six months to go through it and acknowledge that I had been sexually abused.
That therapy gave me huge insight into what was going wrong in my life, how to begin to care for myself, how to go back and grab the innocent child pre-abuse still inside of me who was longing to come back and rescue me. Everything that never felt right before but which I ignored began to come into view.
I began to connect with my inner child by going jogging in the rain and going swimming. Jogging in the rain reminded me of the smell of that piercing African rain. Swimming was always a huge part of my enchanted childhood in Nairobi. I was a water baby. My therapist helped me to recall one instance when, aged 7, I had jumped into rescue another child who had fallen into the pool and was drowning. Two insights. First I learned compassion and empathy for others’ feelings and experiences very early in life. It is a part of me. I now view that sensitivity as a strength and gift to celebrate not a weakness. But it must be managed with boundaries and post-abuse I had none. Second, I didn’t give a shit when the swimming teacher told me off for putting myself in danger. I was not meant to go into the pool without permission until I had passed certain tests. Never mind that, I still knew for sure that I had done exactly the right thing no matter what the teacher said. I trusted myself and my own instincts so much more aged 7 than at any time post-abuse. My abuser took that and so much else away from me.
I also began to look at my relationship breakdown in a new light. Compassionate, empathetic Chris with his boundaries ill-defined and ill-formed ‘needed’ nothing more than somebody else to rescue from that swimming pool as distraction from the real need to rescue himself. Much of what my brain needed as a distraction I found in one man whom I did love deeply and with whom I shared 12 years of my life. I ran at his problems. The sense of betrayal I still feel over how and when the relationship broke down is very real and hard to let go of. I have a strong urge to have kids, be a dad, I think because I want the chance to protect another innocent soul from experiencing what I had to. He led me on for years saying he wanted kids too. He never did. But he too was afraid, in need of protection. He is not callous. And protecting him from that fear still kept the relationship going well after my own intuition told me that he was not being honest about not wanting kids.
What I have learned is that nobody can rescue anyone except themselves. And I must watch that I do not fall into relationships where the other person’s issues are placed front and centre, with all the unhealthy co-dependency that then develops. It is still so tempting but at least now I am aware.
Replacing blame with responsibility
I ended that round of therapy in January 2021. The second COVID lockdown kind of passed me by. I resolved to tell my parents about being abused. Wow did I hate them for a time.
“You failed to protect me. You sent me to that school to be punished for something I did wrong. Much of our relationship ever since has been based on codependent fear. I go the extra mile to seek your approval because deep down I am petrified that you will send me back again to be punished for something you say is wrong.”
It is the toughest conversation of my life, way harder than coming out. Growing up abroad with an ethos that family is all has led to very closely-knit and not always healthy family relations. I risk losing all of this, being alone and vulnerable. The truth is I already know that I am vulnerable knowing this insight. My parents are defensive when I tell them. My father probes me like a good journalist. My mother even deigns to link my homosexuality to the paedophilic act I had suffered. Shocking and outrageous.
After telling my parents I told the police. The investigating officer then interviewed the school about my allegation She later put me in touch with the pastoral lead there. She also referred me to SurvivorsUK.
My abuser died in 1996. But he continued to entwine himself like a coiled dirty serpent round my whole life, twisting and disabling me. It took me four months of therapy with Survivors UK to understand this. My ISVA then persuaded me to join a group therapy session. Six weeks into group therapy one of my fellow survivors’ talks of a shared experience with which I find affinity. He also mentions shifting from blaming others to taking personal responsibility.
Twice since telling my parents I considered cutting off relations with them. I was so angry with the whole world, with my parents for sending me off to be abused, with the school for allowing it to happen, with the abuser for screwing up three decades of my life. I was consumed by it. Most of all I blamed myself for letting it happen, for letting others transgress my boundaries, for not being good enough, for not realising that it had happened for three decades. The more I blamed others the more I was just blaming, punishing, and hurting myself.
I want to thank my ISVA, Marcia for helping me to realise that all of the disabling traits wrought by the abuse are not my fault.
You will not trust your own emotions when you are forced to hide them to survive in a boarding school with no one to tell about being abused. You have to learn to listen and trust your emotions.
You will have your boundaries violated and keep putting others’ needs first because your abuser has already forced you to; so you have never learned to assert your own space.
And when you are feeling horribly down and depressed and you blame yourself for wasting time and not doing much, it is because something that someone said or did has just triggered the abuse.
None of this is your fault. I repeat. None of this is your fault. Take care of yourself, don’t punish yourself. It does not work. Believe you me. I know. I tried it for 33 years.
Marcia plus one close friend supported me so that I would have the strength to face my abuser and the institution where he was allowed to operate. This I did on 10 June with one of my brothers. I read out exactly what he did at the place where he did it. I also explained how he bullied me for an entire academic year after the year he sexually assaulted me. I half-wrote a poem that describes him as a snake coiled around my life, strangling and choking me. I have left the last stanza unwritten until I am ready.
So this is where I turned the tables. It is, alas no flick of the switch but the start of the next stage in the healing process. Things do not miraculously heal. It takes work. I often feel that my parents still do not get that things have changed. They want to go back to treating me like the 9-year-old as they have got so used to me seeking approval and doting on them. I accept they are not perfect and, at their age, they are never going to change. But their behaviour triggers me frequently.
At the very least I do not feel like I have to hide or run or be ashamed anymore. I leave that with my abuser now.
I also want to thank Laura for helping me go through the process of applying for government compensation, for listening, and for helping me write down my experiences for the Truth Project. All of these are acts of taking back control, of taking responsibility for removing the shame.
Back to my fellow survivor in group therapy. The idea of replacing blame with responsibility sounds odd. If it is someone else’s fault, why can’t you just blame them? Well, you can and indeed I did. Wow, did I so hard for so long. But it gets you nowhere. The abuser just keeps on winning. You keep holding onto the poison. The snake stays coiled around your life choking your spirit. So my fellow survivor mentions this idea of replacing blame with responsibility. I guess I was already doing that when I faced the school on 10 June when I took back some control. But I did not feel it at the time until somebody spelled it out. The fact that it took a fellow survivor to point it out makes it all the more powerful. Replacing blame with responsibility IS taking back control.
My abuser is the bad driver who crashed into me and wrote my car off the road for 33 years. It is his fault. He is to blame. I blame him. But it is now my responsibility to fix my car and get back on the road. Nobody else can do that for me. It is not my fault. But it is my responsibility.
In the last group therapy, I was able to recount the physical act that my abuser performed on me for the first time without smelling him and feeling sick and helpless. That’s taking back control, bit by bit, day by day. I guess that since beginning to feel it, the snake is beginning to uncoil and slither off, disappear.
Asserting Boundaries and Managing Triggers
My abuser violated my boundaries before I had even worked out what my boundaries are and way before I had worked out how to assert them. People who are not abused do not understand what it is like to operate without this ability. Or if they do, wow they are being pushy.
In my case, coming from a numerous and closely-knit family it is of course those same family relations where I have found it most challenging to assert my boundaries.
Twice I nearly chose to cut off relations with my parents as the solution. Treating me like the 9-year-old takes me right back to ‘you did wrong, time to punish you again.’ It triggers the abuse. How can it be that the people who love you and only want the best for you can also trigger you? Well, it is because you care about them so it hurts you more. Now I am learning that where I meet my parents and for how long changes the dynamic. I do not need to cut off relations with them. I am truly grateful for the support they can give. What support they cannot give I must of course find myself through other means. And I am learning to deal with the triggers better, bit by bit. It still gets to me. Four months ago it would take a few days to realise that I had been triggered then I would be knocked back for a whole day drowning in a pool of depression. Now I realise straight away what is going on and the impact is shorter. And knowing that you might be triggered in any given situation makes it feel a little bit less severe whenever it does happen. Alas, the way to deal with triggers is to take responsibility for coping with them, not run away and avoid them. It is impossible to avoid them.
I am also learning that you do not have to be dramatic to assert your boundaries. It does not need to be some huge thing that you do to make the point. One recent example involves another close family relation. She likes to have information agency – be the middle man so that she can control proceedings. She then thinks she owns the relationship and the people once she manages to get in between them. It is highly manipulative. Whilst I tolerated this when my late brother was alive, I no longer do. However, I recently found she was taking up far too much of my own headspace because she violated my boundaries. She got in between me and my late brother. That I can never accept. So of course I blamed her and but really I was blaming myself for letting her get away with it. She tried to put herself in between me and my late brother by controlling every aspect of remembering him. She gave me a pair of his glasses two months after he passed. The glasses suit me. But the symbolism was clear. SHE was giving me the glasses so she was controlling access. I could not tolerate this. On the first anniversary of my brother’s passing, I put the glasses next to his urn in front of her and said, “have your glasses back bro. They’re yours, not mine and I do not need anyone or anything to get in between us.” She heard every word, quickly snuck off to the other side of the room, and, in my eyes, shrank like one of those coloured party balloons that had just been untied and let go, darting about the room directionless and deflating to a shrivelled nothingness. So the space she once took up in my head has now shrunk to nothingness too.
At the same event she tried to interrupt a story I was recounting about my brother before her time. I simply carried on recounting it and did not let her interrupt. She backed off. Since then I have heard nothing from her. She needs people to feed off, information to control, and use. Shrinking contact kills off her power and means she cannot trigger me because she cannot cross my boundaries. Simples!
If you have made it this far and can forgive my ramblings, I am sorry to tell you there will be a bit more for you to read soon. I am now ready to write the end of that poem. I will publish it on SurvivorsUK. Just as handing back my late brother’s glasses worked as symbolism for some abusive family relations, this poem will work too against my abuser. And the act will be understated, thoughtful, reflective, compassionate, and caring because that is who I am and I am proud.
My inner child helped me to be proud once again of these gifts and it is with these gifts that I now rescue myself.
Last thought, the poem will also be stapled on the front of my abuser’s file in the school archive by my abuser’s old line manager. That’s taking back control, asserting my boundaries, bit by bit, day by day. Thank you for reading. Hope it helps you all too!