The continuing story of my experience reporting abuse and rape to the church and police. I am writing it to support survivors who may wish to report, and to share good practice with those who’s job it is to respond, with a focus on truth, justice and restoration.
#Trigger warning# I will never share salacious details of my abuse, but mentioning generally what happened and talking about the symptoms of trauma and the impact may be triggering for some. Please take gentle care of yourself as you read this and remember to stop reading and breath or use other grounding techniques if you start to feel triggered.
Please read the introduction to my first #metoo blog for a full explanation of why I am sharing my story here, and the values I bring to this.
The first crack in the shell.
Whatever happens afterwards, telling someone about your abuse for the first time is always a massive thing because it breaks the silence. Abusers rely on silence to get away with the abuse. The shell of silence is built on many layers; coercion and manipulation by the abuser, fear, shame, distrust, risk, a history of poor responses when you attempt to tell. There has to be a strong reason to try and crack its shell. Phil Hearing
In my last post I gave 7 examples of why victims don’t tell. This time I want to suggest why we might break the silence.
7 reasons why it’s good to break the silence.
- We don’t need to keep bad secrets. The only person this protects is the abuser.
- The abuser took our voice away. Breaking the silence is the start of getting back our voice.
- Abuse and rape are heavy burdens to carry alone. Breaking the silence shares the load and can be validating.
- Many victims are silent because of shame, but that is not ours to hold. The shame belongs entirely to the abuser and disclosing puts it back where it belongs.
- Silence keeps us in the darkness of lies and secrets. Disclosing brings us into the light of truth.
- As relational human beings, when we are hurt our whole community is wounded. Reporting engages the community in seeking justice and restoration.
- They may have abused someone else or may still be a risk. Reporting can help to save other potential victims. (However it is never a victim’s fault if there are other victims.)
This not to suggest that abuse is easy, or the responsibility of survivors, or the right thing to do for everyone. Reporting is incredibly costly emotionally, and may not achieve what you want from the process. Less than 10% of rape case result in a prosecution, for example (I’ll look at why in a future blog). We have to do this because we feel this is the right decision for us. It doesn’t matter what anyone else says.
I knew reporting would be hard, but I wasn’t really prepared for the emotional cost. It’s all about the triggers.
A brief explanation of how trauma triggers activate our survival responses.
Our bodies see abuse as a threat, of course, and this triggers our nervous system into threat response – either hyper-arousal (fight-flight-fawn mode) or hypo-arousal (freeze mode). It can be helpful to think about it like a set of upside down traffic lights.
When we are feeling safe, sociable and OK with the world, we’re on green. This is our happy place. You’d hope to be there much of the time.
When we sense a threat, our fight/flight instinct is triggered. Some survivors learned to appease their abuser instead of fight, this has been called “fawn”, like a puppy rolling over, submissive. We’re on amber alert, our body floods with cortisone, we’re ready to react.
If the threat is overwhelming or life-threatening, we move to red. This is our most primitive instinctive survival response, we shut down. Like an animal playing dead.
When we have experienced trauma, especially from people we should be able to trust, our nervous system can become very sensitive to threats. We are easily triggered from green to amber or red. Some of us spend much of our day on amber alert, constantly watchful and ready to react. Some of us dissociate into freeze of shutdown.
Sights, sounds, smells, situations that we associate with the abuse can trigger our survival response even though there is no danger. For example, one of my triggers is a certain aftershave. Another is clerical collars. Even though I know that not everyone who uses that aftershave or wears a clerical collar is a threat, my body can react as though they are. On amber, I may feel anxious and afraid, I may be unable to concentrate or sleep, or feel angry and confrontational, or over-eager to please. On red, I may feel numb or like I am in a dream, or depressed or exhausted, I may withdraw and switch off.
Dr Stephen Porges has written about what is happening to our nervous system in his Polyvagal Nerve Theory books. Debs Dana has written a helpful guide for therapists, with great worksheets. It’s not designed as a self-help book, but something you might be able to use with your therapist. I would certainly recommend that anyone working with people trauma survivors reads one of these books.
As soon as I made the decision to report again, I went to amber alert. So far I have found it very difficult to get regularly back up to green. These extracts from my journal give you a glimpse of what it is like.
Breaking the silence day 3
I decide to ask for a meeting to find out about the process. I have nothing to lose. I don’t have to go ahead. I email the safeguarding worker, being careful not to reveal any identifying names or details. She emails back within the hour and offers an exploratory meeting on the first date I suggested. She gives me a choice of venue and confirms privacy. We agree details.
It’s really helpful that the response and the meeting are so prompt. Each time you send something you are on tenterhooks until it comes back. The quicker the response, the less time the anxiety has to escalate and imagine all sorts of terrible things. The thing is when you had a poor reporting experience before, they are not imaginary. That is what makes the fear so strong, what happened before may happen again.
My stomach is in knots and I can’t sleep. I am back in high alert flight/freeze mode. I am tense, jumpy and scared. The nightmares return, not so vivid, but similar to before, being smothered by this big black monster that overcomes me and I can’t move or speak.
Still in knots and incredibly nervous and apprehensive. I can’t sleep, so I read and write a lot to calm myself. I find copies of the letters that I wrote to the Bishops and my original statement detailing the abuse. I had actually forgotten that he had a solicitor send a letter threatening to sue me for slander. Strange what you blank out to protect yourself. There’s also a copy of a journal entry I wrote as a letter to my husband, to try to explain the reality of the agony, flashbacks, fear, nightmare visions and overwhelming feelings I was experiencing, behind the visible distress he could see. It was so distressing I couldn’t finish reading it.
I make sure I am prompt for the meeting and walk slowly up the steps and through the entrance. Strange to be back somewhere with so many associations with abusive pasts. I am very dissociative, it’s like watching yourself walking through a video, I feel numb.
(Note: the meeting is in one of the buildings one of my abusers worked in.)
Why did I agree to come here? Every instinct tells me to run out of the door. I sit in reception waiting for her to fetch me. Other people are walking through, some chatting, but its weird like I am watching them through a glass and the sound is muted, like they’re in an aquarium. I am really dissociating. I poke myself with a pen to try to keep myself grounded and present. I feel an urge to self-harm that I haven’t felt for years.
Testing the waters
It’s wise to be careful who you disclose to about your abuse. Not everyone understands, or reacts well. Friends and family may be shocked into denial, if they know the abuser, or may be awkward, or worse, silent, because they don’t know what to say. Christians can rush to try to heal you, or tell you you have to forgive. Professionals can be just as unhelpful. One doctor I saw when I was feeling depressed and suicidal, just gave me the phone number for the Samaritans. On the other hand, those that are trauma-informed and good listeners can be brilliant. I like to manage the risk by testing the waters before saying too much. The next journal entries describe what I learn about the typical reporting process in the Church of England. (It may vary slightly, depending which Diocese you are in).
“I decided it is better to scream. Silence is the real crime against humanity
Nadezhda Mandelstam, Hope against Hope.”
Day 5 continued
The meeting is in a quiet, private, blank room, a colleague brings a cup of tea then leaves me alone with the safeguarding worker. She is quietly friendly and professional. I give some background and it feels like I am babbling, I apologise saying I am nervous. She reassures me this is understandable. She answers my questions about the process. A core group is convened asap, ideally within 48 hours. It is like a professionals risk management meeting, focused around the alleged perpetrator. She informs me about who might be there (depending on the circumstances of the case) – the Diocesan Safeguarding Adviser (DSA), a senior clergy person representing the bishop, a parish representative if it is a parish case, or a member of the National Safeguarding Team of it is national, a communication adviser, other agencies (Police, local authority) if appropriate. (Details can be found in the Practice Guidance )
As she talks, and asks me questions, and allows me to talk, I start to realise that she is taking this seriously, taking me seriously. That what happened is a serious matter, even though I was an adult, it is an abuse of trust. I dip in and out of revealing parts of the story ( in general terms, no names) and talking about safeguarding and procedures and our professional backgrounds in social work. That little kernel of hope starts to grow. Maybe it would be different this time. I have some concerns about the process. The core group is a professionals meeting, survivors are not invited. There will be someone who will liaise with me about progress and through them I can offer input and will be listened to. I can see why some people have been publicly critical of and dissatisfied with this. It is more of a risk management/disciplinary process than safeguarding. It’s really just about the perpetrator. My role is to light the blue touch paper and step back.
She advises me that they can also offer me support, possibly help with counselling. This again is hopeful. Last time there was nothing. Anyway I won’t need anything. I don’t feel anything. I can’t trust anyone else with this.
I manage to use the word rape when I mention the first time there was sex and explain that I was vulnerable because of childhood abuse. My belly hurts and I start to feel that urge to self-harm that I haven’t felt for years. Her response is validating. I explain I was 19, an adult, and didn’t do enough to stop him; she says it was an abuse of trust. She seems equally concerned about the Bishops’ poor response. She would want to know if the bishops were still in active ministry, if they could now respond properly.
This helps to contain the huge grey tangled ball of shame that threatens to overwhelm me. Maybe it wasn’t all my fault. Maybe I wasn’t just a dirty stupid slut. Maybe I was right to try to report it. Maybe there were others. Maybe it could be different this time.
She is honest about the negatives too. She says that if I decide to go ahead, she can confirm it will be thoroughly investigated. She can’t say it will be easy. Probably I will find it a painful and frustrating process. There may not be a good outcome, from my point of view. The outcome may be no further action. There may be no resolution in that for me. I get that. Her honesty makes me more inclined to trust her. I don’t expect a good outcome, to be honest. It would be enough to be taken seriously and for them to be properly investigated. Because of course I may not be the only one.
She puts me under no pressure, for which I am grateful. I am still the scared hare, ready to run. She has given me a lot to think about. I am feeling very anxious and triggered and spend a little while in a bookshop to calm down before going back.
Most helpful things you can do if someone discloses abuse to you
- Be safe. We are ready to run and you need to earn our trust. Be careful to create a safe space and hold clear boundaries. Never probe or push us.
- Be compassionate. Understand how incredibly hard it is to tell you anything, how scared and triggered we are. Be gentle and reassure us we are doing the right thing and you are here to help.
- Validate our experience. Recognise that we will tend to minimise what happened and often think it was somehow our fault. Reassure us what happened was wrong and never our fault.
- Be honest. Give us the information we need to have realistic expectations of the process.
- Offer support. It’s impossibly hard to go through this on your own.
- Be empowering. Make sure we have as much choice and control as possible.
- Be trauma-informed. Understanding about triggers and the need for relationship, for the process to be survivor-sensitive and not re-abusing, this so important.
Day 10 The shell cracks
I spend the weekend pondering whether I have courage to go ahead. I feel reassured that it will be investigated properly, and resigned to not expecting too much as an outcome. What made me feel I could trust her enough was how seriously she took what I said and her honesty. It’s terrifying but it also feels important to do this. I send the email 12am Monday night, to be read Tuesday morning. I attach all the correspondence I have from my original attempt to report 18 years ago.
I haven’t been sleeping and I’m shaking and triggered. The nightmares of the big black monster continue, and my emotions feel raw and confused. My adult head is clear this is the right thing to do, my child is going shit shit shit what have you done? I am scared no-one will listen again. I am scared he will get a lawyer again. I am scared I will get ill again. I feel dirty and ashamed. It was all my fault. I should have resisted more. I should have stopped him. I should have stopped going back. I want to self-harm. I manage to resist, pinging my wrist with a hair tie. I am wounded enough. I check my email every few minutes to see if she has replied. My stomach is in such tight knots I feel sick.
I realise I am coping badly. I am close to falling apart again. I email a supporter to see if I can talk to her this week, I need an anchor to hold on to while I wait to see what happens.
The safeguarding worker replies just before 3pm. Again it is validating. She says “Your decision to disclose the identity of those involved and what happened to you is courageous. ” and “This is clearly a serious matter and one that will need appropriate investigation, not least because Bp X is still very active in ministry.” This is reassuring. I am not stupid to think what happened was wrong. She is listening. They are going to investigate.
She reminds me that I can talk to the supporter if I need to. She says “Please don’t apologise for the letters and the statement. Your anxiety and frustration at what was being proposed by the Bishop as a way forward is quite understandable.”
I feel relief. I’m not stupid or mad. Even with the basic information I have given her, she thinks it is serious. Even without reading what the Bishops said, she sees why I was so anxious about what they proposed. This time, I am not being brushed away, I am not being made to feel stupid and wrong, someone is listening.
Behind the relief there is still a huge amount of fear. Once they know it all, will they think I am a fraud? I have no evidence, it’s all a waste of time. If there has been other young women, will they be found? Will they want to? What kind of giant machine might I have set in process? Now I have pushed the start button, I have no control.
I start to feel a send of panic. Being out of control take me back to the experience of abuse and the mental distress. Stuff is happening and I cannot stop it. I cannot soothe myself anymore, I reach out to the supporter and arrange to call tomorrow.
The phone call with the supporter is not as helpful as I hoped because there are other people in the house, this means I don’t feel safe to tap into the strong emotions that I am holding in with that tight gut. I stay in my sensible adult and talk about it like it’s happening to someone else. She is lovely, sympathetic, reassuring. She explains more about the core group and helps me to think about what support I have around me, who I can talk with that can give spiritual support. At the moment I can’t think of anyone. She offers some help to find someone, if I would like.
Home at last. Big hug with my husband at the station. I feel safer straight away. Hugs are essential to recovery and wellness.
Safe hugs to you, dear reader, if you need them. You are a beautiful person. Thank you for travelling this far with me.
For a list of agencies and contacts that can help and support, please visit our website www.survivorsvoices.org, and click on Support for Survivors.
Thank you for reading part of my story. I will be posting regularly as the process unfolds, with links and resources to help survivors and anyone involved in justice and healing from abuse. If you have found this helpful, please share to spread the light, and I hope you will visit again. Please be in touch with your reflections, and thoughts on what works well and how things could be better, so we can all learn and work together to be the change. You can write a comment below or use the contact page to email me directly. Please note I am currently living on a sailing yacht and don’t have internet every day. I will respond as soon as I can.