The continuing story of reporting abuse and rape to the church and police. Shared in order to support survivors who wish to report and to support good practice by those whose job it is to respond, within a truth and restoration perspective.
#Trigger warning# I will never share details of my abuse, but mentioning 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 blog for a full explanation of why I am sharing my story here, and the values I bring to this.
The words that best describe the first month from making the report, are ‘Support’ and ‘Shame’.
Like many survivors of childhood abuse, rape, or domestic abuse – I live with shame. It doesn’t seem logical, but we have a huge sense of shame for what has happened to us, even though it wasn’t our fault and we were powerless to stop it. Shame is “the intensely painful feeling or experience of believing that we are flawed and therefore unworthy of love and belonging” (Brené Brown). As survivors, we carry shame around like a cloak.
Why do we take on this mantle of shame?
For many it starts with the abuser trying to blame us for what they did. When we look carefully at the fabric of shame, we find woven into it the belief not just that bad things happened to us, but that we did bad things (even if we didn’t); and worse, that we are bad. Our core identity becomes one of badness and we wear our shame like a skin or a shell.
How does this happen?
Here’s some common survivor-shame beliefs, and their roots:
• our abusers told us it was our fault, we deserved it, and we believed them
• we feel soiled and contaminated by what they did to us
• we grew up in this toxic space, and as we formed our identity, the badness of the abuse became part of our sense of self
• we think we are bad because we couldn’t stop them
• we fear we are bad because of the difficult feelings triggered by the trauma
• we fear we may turn out bad like them
• we fear everyone will be disgusted if they know the truth about us and what happened to us
• we can’t believe our abusers are bad, so it must be something wrong with us.
If you find it hard to understand why we believe some of these, remember that especially if we were children abused by our carers, it’s in our genes to love and trust the people that care for us, or as adults the people that we are close to. It’s natural to bond with them and to believe in them. It goes against our very survival instincts to think that they are bad. We can’t make sense of a world where our parents/partners don’t love us; so if they do bad things, it must be because there is something wrong with us and we deserve it. When this is reinforced again and again by our abusers, it becomes a part of who we are.
Not just that we did bad, but we are bad.
My Dad never actually told me I am bad. And because I saw what happened to my brother when he got into trouble, I was afraid to do anything naughty and tried to please everyone. But for my Dad this was never enough. He told me I wasn’t good enough, I had to try harder, do better, stop disappointing him. It was my job to keep my parents happy, and that meant doing what he said, even if I didn’t like it, even if it didn’t feel OK. So I grew up thinking that I was never good enough, that somehow the unhappiness in our family was all my fault, and that if he had to do things to me that weren’t OK, it was because I needed to be corrected. No wonder I grew up believing I was bad and shameful.
What triggers shame now?
When we inhabit shame like a skin or a shell, anything that triggers our trauma memories brings strong feelings of shame. Even with professionals who deal with safeguarding all the time, our shame response can be easily triggered.
Month One, Day 19: The caseworker contacted me to explain what happens next. The main perpetrator and at one of the bishops are still in active ministry. She will set up a core group and they will be investigated. I told her that more happened than than I wrote in my statement but she said she had enough, she didn’t want to re-traumatise me. I managed to tell her about the other perpetrator, whom I hadn’t mentioned before. She said ” is there anything else?” in an appalled voice and I felt like a worthless slut. She immediately apologised, she didn’t mean it to come out like that. I understood. It was shock, not judgement. She said it’s unacceptable, what the Bishops did. I think she meant it.
I feel really shaky afterwards. The big thing is shame. I feel dirty and small and worthless. I feel like there is all is stuff inside, I am squashing it down, but it is growing and I need somewhere to release it. I need to find a therapist. I realise part of me is a little disappointed that she doesn’t want me to make a full statement. I never had a voice before. I need one now. I need to tell someone everything. I need to keep reassuring myself it was wrong, it’s not me, it was rape. I’m so scared. I hurt. I can’t hold it all in for ever.
It can be hard on those closest to us as well. They see the full impact of the abuse, which resurfaces when you report. Often we feel guilty about not stopping our abuser, as though that was our fault.
Day 20: Nightmares again last night. My husband has to wake me up and hold me to calm down. He is beginning to question why I am doing this, when it’s setting me back. But I feel sure this is the right time, this time they will listen and if there is anyone else, this time they will stop him. That strikes hard. This time someone will stop him, like I couldn’t, like no-one did for me. I feel ashamed that I couldn’t stop him. Ashamed that I wasn’t strong enough. That I never told anyone at the time, that I waited so long, and then gave up when they tried to shut me up. That I didn’t persevere. That I didn’t speak out, which maybe meant he abused other people.
What helps to deal with shame?
Because shame has become woven into our world view, it is hard for us to recognise the wrong beliefs that it is created from. That is why it’s so important to have supporters who can recognise these shame patterns, and help us to unravel the lies and misbeliefs that form them. Brené talks about developing shame resilience by being vulnerable and connecting. For survivors, trusting people enough to connect is hard. I have been very fortunate to have a strong peer community, and to find two caring supporters on this reporting journey. Good support really helps to deal with these feelings of shame:
Day 18: Anxiety remains high over the weekend. Poor sleeping, nightmares, inside total panic.
I have a long, really helpful phone call with the supporter the church put me in touch with. She is reassuring, understanding and can answer some of my questions. I see her role as similar to the Independent Sexual Violence Advocates (ISVAs) that work with people who report rape to the police. She can contact the safeguarding worker and advise me of progress. I hope she can always be there. I will be okay with reporting to the police if I have her support. She makes me feel it is understandable and I am not being totally stupid. She checks I have strategies to deal with flashbacks and self-harming urges. It helps me to stay strong, having her reassurance and understanding. I try to tell myself, you are not stupid, you don’t need to be ashamed, this the right thing to do.
There are ISVAs around the country, usually employed by voluntary agencies like Rape Crisis. There are also IDVAs, domestic violence advocates. They do a brilliant job, especially given the shortage of funding. You can find out more about their role here https://www.refuge.org.uk/our-work/our-services/independent-advocates/. If you report to the police, they should put you in touch with an ISVA or IDVA, if you want one. I would definitely recommend it. Knowledgeable supporters are essential.
The depth of trauma-shame
For abuse and trauma survivors, often the triggers are so powerful that the shame feelings are overwhelming. I’m going to share some of the shame dialogue that goes on inside my head when I am shame-triggered; and how it can lead to an urge to self-harm. Some of the voices represent my inner children that only talk in my therapy sessions. They hold different parts of my story from different ages, so often write as ‘we’.
It feels really vulnerable to do this, but if you are a survivor, I want you to know that you are not the only one with these kind of thoughts and feelings. If you are a supporter, I want you to understand the raw depth of the shame, how it needs untangling from our very sense of self; and how you can help.
The trigger for this was finding some letters from when I first reported, including one from my main abuser (we’ll call him Fr. Slug)
Month One, Day 28: There was a letter from Fr Slug, I had forgotten. He wrote I am a liar, why if he was as bad as I said would I keep going back to him? I was “pushy.” I’m just saying this to get money. His solicitor will sue me for libel & harassment.
Scan the letters and send to the caseworker. Immediately regret it. Feel scared and guilty. What am I doing? She won’t believe me now. She’ll listen to Fr Slug. She will see how stupid and dirty I am, I should have stopped him. I hate myself. I want to cut again.
Because of the reporting, I start working with a new therapist, we’ll call her Big Heart (read on to discover why). In an early session I explain how bad I feel, no-one will believe me, it was my fault, I didn’t stop it.
She said maybe I was preparing myself for disappointment. Told her more stuff that happened. She welled up. Said it was not my fault. I didn’t have a no. He took advantage of me. She is on my side. I have very confused feelings. Want to hurt myself, punish myself for being bad, to shut myself up, scared I will get in to trouble. Feel very dissociative. My inner child wants to say “it was my fault, I’m sorry, I shouldn’t have done it, he was a nice man, I don’t want to get him in to trouble, am I in trouble, what will they do to me? Sorry, sorry, please don’t hurt me. I won’t tell anyone else. I didn’t mean to make anyone sad. I just want them to make it all ok.”
I feel like Tamar, in the rape story in the Bible: it says after ‘he laid her’, she felt ‘vile’ and ‘desolate’. That is exactly how I feel.
Later I write her a long message from my inner voices of shame:
“We are soiled and dirty, disgusting.
Bad things keep happening to us because we are fundamentally bad. We are not evil, they were evil, but there is something rotten, decayed & contaminated in us which makes us bad. We have to hide from people so they won’t see how bad we are.
We are weak and stupid. Anyone else would recognise what was going on and would have stopped it. We didn’t do anything. We let it happen. We didn’t say no because we hate saying no, we don’t matter enough to say no.
We deserved it. We must have done lots of bad things.
We asked for it because we loved them and we wanted them to love us and if you love people you have to let them do that stuff to you.
Maybe we should push Big Heart away, because we are beginning to like her and trust her, and that is not good because when she knows what we’re really like she won’t want to see us, so it’s better if we make her mad now.
It can be good when people are mad with us or do bad things to us, because that means we matter a little bit, whereas if we don’t matter at all they would just ignore us.
People being bad is safe, because its what we know. We get most afraid when people are kind and nice. But we want that so much, we want someone to share this pain, how selfish is that, but it is so unbearable, we can’t carry it alone, and we are all alone. We talk to ourselves but it doesn’t help. We want compassion so much, we are terrified we will overwhelm anyone who is nice, with our neediness.”
John Bradshaw describes the emotional abuse that leads to us internalising shame in this way, as ‘soul murder’. So how can we restore our souls to wholehearted living?
How we can help with shame
The core principle of Survivors Voices, the peer-led survivor organisation I am part of, is that everything we do should be the opposite of abuse (see our Survivors Charter on our website www.survivorvoices.org for what we think that looks like). I think it’s the same with shame – we need to turn to the opposite of the shame messages. Big Heart did that by asking questions that helped me to untangle the shame messages: ‘You were just a child. How could you have stopped him?’
And by supportive and positive affirmations: ‘You did nothing to deserve this. It wasn’t your fault. You deserved to be loved. You matter to me.’
She constantly validates my feelings and accepts me as I am, so I can express my feelings of shame without being ashamed of them. Only by bringing them out into the open can I recognise the untruths and put them back where they belong.
I sewed a ‘Cloak of Shame’ and we worked on where those shame messages came from, and who they really belonged to (the abuser on both counts). I came to see part of reporting as me taking off the cloak and putting it on the abusers. For me that is not about making them ashamed, but acknowledging responsibility. As Giles Lascelle suggests, when I can recognise that I am not ‘intrinsically bad’, it is easier to choose and accept the love that I really deserve.
Carolyn Spring calls the opposite of shame ‘unshame’. She describes it as knowing that ‘life is imperfect. But I am OK, just as I am’. To shed the shame, first we need to notice it, and then work on the habit of unshame, until we know that unshame is where we belong.
Brene calls this ‘Wholeheartedness’ – ‘engaging in our lives from a place of worthiness’. She explains that vulnerability and connection are fundamental to living like that. By being vulnerable, we expose the shame-myths to the light of truth. With the safety of connection, we can take off the cloak of shame and put on the habit of worthiness.
For me, the key was the reply my therapist sent to my message of shame:
‘Nothing you tell me will make me think that any of this is your fault. I have a big heart to hold this for you.’
For ourselves, and for others, we remove the layers of shame by being big-hearted; by accepting and holding the shame without judgement or disgust; by untangling the messages that created it; by knowing that we all matter; by affirming the goodness and worthiness in each of us.
Brene Brown Ted Talk
Brene Brown: The Gifts of Imperfection and Daring Greatly
Carolyn Spring: Unshame; Recovery is my best revenge; and online courses
Giles Lascelle: Breakthrough: the art of surviving
John Bradshaw: Healing the Shame that Binds you
Pete Walker: Complex PTSD. From surviving to thriving
For a list of agencies and contacts that can help and support, please visit Survivors Voices website and click on Support for Survivors.
If you are a fellow sailor dealing with a #metoo situation, please see my new #seatoo page with links and resources for sailors around the world.
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.