As expected, following previous blog posts, the last few days have been a mental yo-yo going something like this:
I’m alive. I survived. That goal as a child – to live – has been achieved. I’m here. I’m breathing. I’m alive. But how? How did I make it? And why? Why me? What right do I have, over others? And why did I have to go through that in the first place? Why? Why why why? I’m alive, shouldn’t I be relieved? I am. But I feel guilty. So guilty. And horrified at what I lived through. And sad. And amazed. And shocked. And guilty…
Round and round and round and round. As it is, I spent the last three days horse-riding, or otherwise working at the stables, which was a very welcome distraction. It’s very difficult for my mind to wander when I’m riding – I kinda need to focus in the here and now, otherwise I might fall off. I’m also quite aware that if I was distressed, it might distress the horses too, so I just push the life I’ve had away, and for a few hours, I’m okay. I’m pretty normal.
This new state is pretty exhausting, nonetheless. So many people take for granted the fact they are alive, and healthy, and with a safe home. How many people finish their day at work, or school, or university, or wherever and think ‘I’m so glad I have a home I can go to now, where I can relax and watch telly if I want to, or work, or read, and eat dinner, and laugh with my family or friends, and go to bed safe and warm, and not be disturbed by someone wanting to hurt me?’ Not many, of course, because to mentally think that every day would be exhausting and also a bit random, especially if you’ve never known anything different. Of course everyone is grateful that they have it, but to consciously think about it endlessly might not be the most practical and effective use of mental energy. In this current stage of recovery, I am very consciously aware of simply the fact I can breathe without someone trying to drown me in the next minute…
My body doesn’t seem to know how to cope. And it’s not even as though I’m completely safe and free from danger. Intense body memories keep coming from nowhere; as though my body now feels safe enough to process the trauma it went through, feel the shockwaves of agony again, and remind itself that it survived. Just as my mind needed to re-live and remember so much horror in order to process it, my body needs to do it now as well. It also keeps freezing, my mind too, in absolute shock. I think partly it’s also just the culture shock, as the reality of my life past and present is hitting me. Once upon a time I’d be clock-watching at school with terror, sometimes getting told off for sneakily turning the clocks back an hour (I so desperately wanted to believe that it would buy me time, that if I just kept turning the clocks back, I would just never have to go home). When the final bell of the day rang, my heart would hammer, but at least in the last few years I had music rehearsals to escape to. Even then, I’d take a stupidly long time to pack my steel drum away, or I’d try to find a reason why I was delayed. As I grew braver, I would leave it to the moment I saw my brother coming towards the music building – sent to fetch me. I would then decide to wash up all of the cups in the music building, using the fact my grandmother wanted me as a trophy in the public eye as an excuse – ‘don’t you want people to think you’ve brought me up with good manners?’ I’d say, through gritted teeth, down the phone. She’d then give me five minutes to clean the cups. I remember enjoying the sensation of the washing up liquid bubbles between my fingers, the warm water running across my skin, soothing it somehow. I remember focussing on the water’s every detail, how it swirled and cascaded if I moved my hands in different ways. Even today, if I’m feeling very anxious, I might go and run a tap over my hands, and just calm myself by watching the water and feeling the sensation. What started as a ‘buying me time’ exercise gradually became a grounding trick. I of course didn’t want to wash the cups. I wanted more time away from home. And in that period of my life, every second counted.
But ultimately, the five minutes would be up. I’d wait until it was exactly five minutes, even if I’d long since finished the cups. Then I’d trudge to the car, my head down, my arms hugging me, my feet barely lifting off the ground. I always remember the queasy feeling from the surge of adrenaline, my heart hammering, and me struggling to keep my breathing calm. And I wasn’t even in the car yet. My head would be racing with thoughts: think about today. Did I do anything which might get reported to her? Good or bad? Think of a lesson, don’t mention music, what did I do in maths? English? Do I have any homework? Am I late? How much trouble will I be in? Will it be shouting tonight? Or worse? I’d silently get into the car and clock the time; usually just after 5pm. Okay, by the time we’re home it’ll be half 5. It’s only 15 hours until I’m back at school. I can manage that much.
I would be interrogated on the way home, as predicted, and I’d have my answers ready. My brother and sister would have already had their interrogation and would mostly sit in silence, my sister occasionally being brave and speaking. Can you imagine such a thing…where just speaking is brave? Not so long ago this prospect didn’t even register as abnormal, never mind utterly wrong. It was such a norm. Now it staggers me. Abuse may happen as a series of large-scale monstrous events, but the ripple effects from its damage can be seen in the smallest of actions – such as simply finding the bravery to speak about our day. The evening would be spent walking on egg-shells, to the extreme. There would be rows, and my grandparents would drink, which always totalled disaster. They were cruel anyway, by any person’s standards, but when they drank they transformed into hideous monsters with a consciousness drowned by alcohol, and an internal rage fuelled by it. My grandmother in particular turned vicious, and her emotional abuse was deeply damaging. We would have dinner, and we (my siblings and I) would scrub the kitchen clean every night. By scrub I mean the three of us would spend a minimum of an hour in there, not because it was filthy (how could it be, we’d only done it the night before) but because for whatever bizarre reason, my grandfather had a particular obsession with the cleanliness of the kitchen. I remember one day, in the middle of my exams (for 7 alevels) I dared say I wasn’t going to help doing the kitchen, because I needed to revise. I was burning out, very fast, and knew these exams were my ticket out – if only I could muster the energy to attempt them. My grandparents of course knew this too, and their plan to overload me with 7 alevels and push me so over the edge that I failed wasn’t actually working. They were getting desperate. Desperation, in abusers, can show itself in a variety of ways. Sometimes they make more mistakes. Sometimes they turn Mr Nice Guy on to convince you they’re good. Sometimes they just lash out even more. That’s my grandfather’s response. I said I couldn’t do the kitchen, he grabbed the back of my hair and smashed my face into the tiled wall. I heard my sister scream, and when he let go, I just slid down the wall, aware of the trail of blood as I fell, and numbly thinking Now I’m gonna need to clean that too… I lay on the floor, and he left. My mouth was full of blood and my nose *throbbing*. My brother passed me some kitchen roll to stem the bleeding, and soon we were all back to ‘normality’ – cleaning up. Such events were just too normal to freeze up at for any length of time.
I’d have to justify any time I spent alone in my room… mostly it wasn’t worth the battle, and I’d just work downstairs. This meant my bedroom could sometimes be my refuge, but was mostly my prison. I had a huge king-size bed. The room was simply somewhere I went in to sleep, and wait to be raped whilst I lay there, or holding my little one. Again, this now staggers me despite it being once such a norm. It never occurred to me that – whilst scared by all means – I shouldn’t have felt such acceptance whilst lying there, half-asleep, simply waiting to be raped.
And as a child? I spent lots of my time at the ring’s location up until the age of 12. I might not see my house for weeks, if it was the holidays, and then when I returned my parents wouldn’t bat an eyelid, never mind show concern that I’d vanished and come back half-starved and bruised.
All in all, the fact I now have a safe home to go to at the end of the day is nothing short of a miracle, as far as I’m concerned, and it is something I think about every day. No matter how hard or stressful or dangerous a day has been, I know I have a safe home to go to. I can go home and cry, if I want. I can go home and hide whilst one of the little alters comes out, if I want. (This I do most often.) Equally, I can come home and just relax and do normal home stuff, if I want. I’m under no obligation to behave in a certain manner, and this is still quite alien but amazing to me. There’s such a luxury in being able to sit on the sofa writing a blog, without fear of being hit or raped, for example. There’s a massive luxury in getting up in a morning, however full of nightmares the night has been, and blearily sitting on the sofa and drinking an un-drugged cup of tea and having mundane ‘it’s too early’ conversations with a close friend, and knowing I wasn’t raped during the night. There’s a luxury in knowing my house-mate won’t ever ask me, or expect me, or want me, to go and sell myself on the streets so that I can earn enough to live. (This in particular is something which has only hit me very recently, and left me with tears streaming down my face – tears of utter relief – whilst I processed it.) I know the safe home, the safe space, the place in which I’m gradually finding my feet and acknowledging my right to safety, and actually the fact I’m alive at all, could not have happened without this amazing friend who offered me a home. I don’t know if I’ll ever be able to put into words how grateful I am, as I’m fully aware of the rollercoaster my life may have sprung onto his, but to be able to write this blog whilst he’s hoovering up and grumbling about something as mundanely innocent as the house work (with no abuse attached, unlike housework at my childhood home!) is like something I might have dreamt about as a child, a dream of what I believed to be the impossible, and is in fact real…just three weeks before my 21st. I’m so grateful for his ramblings as he hoovers up, for the safeness in which this can now happen. It’s reassuring and amazing for me to watch. And he’s probably face-palming round about…now. 🙂
But to be alive? It’s one thing being staggered by the reality of having a home. But being frozen to the spot simply by the fact you’re alive? How many people lie down in bed at night time and think ‘I’m alive. I’m still breathing’ and wake up in a morning feeling the same? This has been a constant throughout my life, and not always has the fact I’m still alive been welcomed with relief. Actually a fair amount of my life – especially in later years, and even in very recent weeks – this fact has been met with despair.
It was such a norm to check each child’s pulse in a morning, such a norm to watch to see if their chests still rose and fell. It was a complete normality for me to wriggle fingers and toes in turn, to check I could feel every part of my body – that I wasn’t dying slowly. In my teenage years, it was completely normal for me to wake instantly into adrenaline rush, and lie in bed curled up, feeling hideously queasy and nervy, and bitter to be alive…or indeed, hopeful, as I became nearer to the prospect of ‘university’ – for so long a target too far away in the future – became real.
As a very young child (aged 4/5) I dreamt of exploring more of the world I knew but was mostly kept hidden from. I knew it existed. My child-like curiosity lay buried in the ‘other’ world, and I would tell stories of this ‘other’ world to the children kept in the ring. In Reception class, I often pretended to myself that my school teacher would adopt me, and I can remember feeling intensely jealous as her baby bump grew. Now of course I am old enough to understand this simply would never have happened, but I guess at the age of 4 I just assumed any ‘nice’ person could adopt a child if they wanted to. I didn’t really understand what adoption was – but knew it meant ‘nice’ people looked after children. My school teacher seemed nice – she gave us all a lollipop at Christmas – and so because of that, I thought she would adopt me if I was nice back. But she had a baby, and although now I laugh at my naive, jealous young self, at the time I was really quite upset and described the new baby as ‘having three eyes, with slimy fur and lots of legs’ to any of the children in the ring. Dear oh dear… jealousy the green eyed monster hmm??
From the age of 6/7, the target changed from exploring the other world/being adopted by a fairy godmother in disguise, to simply making it out alive. I grew up very quickly. I saw babies born and die. I saw children who might vanish the next day. I was tortured to a point of breaking point, more times than I can count, and it was only going to get worse, and yet there was a twisted kind of irony that the more the abusers hurt me, the stronger and more resilient they made me – both physically and mentally. Their efforts to destroy me simply made me stronger.
My mind was controlled through various programming techniques. My bruises hidden with full school uniform, and as time grew on, my body grew more able to heal itself faster anyway, and bruising became less and less of a problem. The target for me now wasn’t even about escaping – where would I escape to? I had nowhere to go. The goal was to survive. The goal was to be alive by the time I was ’18’ – a magical age, apparently. The teachers had told us all that at 18 we would be adults and allowed to do as we wish. All of my friends had excitedly babbled on about having as many Barbie dolls as they want, and going swimming and eating sweets all day. Despite my tender age, my dreams didn’t match their’s. Only a few years before, and it might have. But I remember distinctly deciding that if I was going to get to this magic age at all, I had to survive. I had to fight. I had to live. I would decide what to do at this magic age if I actually made it that far in the first place.
It’s hard not to feel ashamed or guilty of some of the mechanisms I used for survival. Moments of intense rage, or trickery, or playing dead so they stopped, or screaming and kicking and hurting the abusers, even at times silently wishing it was happening to someone else, not me… all of these were ways which kept me alive, but all of them have the sting of shame with them. I don’t know how else I could have made it, but I equally wish I’d never done some things, but then I also wish I was never in that position in the first place. I guess nobody is all good, and in a place of such evil, sometimes behaving ‘badly’ was the only way to stay alive…and sane. Nonetheless, I never enjoyed hurting people – even abusers – and I never felt a kick out of being in control (for however short) or for having tricked them enough to grant me another day alive. I had my values which made me who I was and am, and these were never robbed from me, even in my best efforts to survive.
It’s also quite extraordinary what the mind and body can do to keep itself alive. Dissociation, for example, however disabling it may be in a ‘normal’ world, simply was the absolute reason I survived. I could not have single-handedly coped with full consciousness with that level of physical, mental and emotional pain. Various alters carried and took various bits, and the ability to numb so I could think straight enough to get me out of the next crazy situation gave me more second-chances than, frankly, I probably deserved.
So here I am.
I reached the magic age, and now I’m near the next magic age – 21. Ultimate adult. (But still 5 foot 1, and still asked for ID when buying a lottery ticket.)
The last few days I’ve had to stop, at times, to just listen to my heartbeat, or listen to myself breathing. I’m still suicidal, but less inclined to act on the suicidal urges now, because the fact I’m alive at all feels like a miracle. And frankly, for entirely selfish reasons, there’s just no way I’m putting that much energy into years of intense battle and fighting for survival, to just end it all now because the recovery is too unbearable. On a less selfish level, there are children and survivors I need to reach.
I’m staggered by the fact I’m alive. My head keeps going over and over so many different events where my life was at serious risk, where my body and mind were pushed to their limits, where the effort to keep breathing was almost entirely a conscious one. Before this week it hadn’t really hit me, or processed, or seemed abnormal that it’s amazing I’m here, amazing I have a relatively okay body (all things considered) and amazing that I am alive. I really am. The 6 year old part of me that aimed to just get to 18 alive is ecstatic – that not only happened, but has been passed, and there’s a future possible, and I have a safe home and safe friends and music and horseriding and compassion… and a voice.
I also feel so guilty, the guilt is quite crippling. Survivor’s guilt. I can’t understand why I’m alive and others aren’t – including my own babies. I wish I’d been given the chance to swap places with any of them, to die where they might live and meet safe friends and recover. I did bad things but babies are innocent, why am I here and not them?? The guilt leaves me crying myself to sleep, and catches me whenever relief hits me. But the relief is also so powerful, that I keep jumping between overwhelming relief, shock and staggered amazement… to guilt, grief, shock and horror…. it’s exhausting, leaping between the two…. and a luxury to be able to feel the two… relief is short-lived, because guilt digs its claws in, but when it fades, relief re-appears. Relief comes in intense waves, whereas guilt is a aching constant, rearing it’s ugly head especially if I’ve been feeling relieved for too long…
Oh the little ones… 😥 😥
But I’m alive.
I made it.
I’m alive. Somehow. But should I be? I don’t know. Why me? Why? What did I do? Am I wrong to be alive? Is it wrong? It shouldn’t be me 😥
And the horror…. so much horror….what’s happened…what I’ve survived and seen…my God…. 😥
But I am alive, nonetheless. I’m breathing. After everything, I’m breathing. I’m here, I’m alive. Okay I have fibro, I’m in endless pain and I’m very tired, and okay I have a lot of trauma to recover from, and okay I’m not yet completely safe. But I’m still alive.
I survived it. I made it.
Oh my God.