When people hear my story of surviving a ritual abuse ring, and what the cost of that survival was, it’s not infrequent to be asked ‘but how do you have such a sense of humour?’ And sometimes, I wonder too. But the answer is quite simple, really. But it’s been a journey and a half just to find that answer…
The problem is, I struggle immensely with survivor’s guilt, and this year in particular I’ve struggled the most with, and it had a major knock-on effect to my self-esteem, sense of humour and belief in my right to ever feel happiness. It’s been a long time now since anyone commented on my sense of humour, where once it was mentioned a lot. I squashed and squashed it, pushing it further and further down.
I feel a little bit like for the last year I’ve been robotised inside. I immersed myself in insane business whilst being President of the music society here, and also juggling my degree along the side. I laughed when others laughed, or when the rational voice in my head told me to laugh. I smiled when people smiled. My cheeks ached endlessly, and everytime I was aware of actually feeling genuinely happy, I’d instantly feel the sharp pang of guilt. I’d think of the children who didn’t survive, and question why I survived instead, and the warm happiness would be extinguished by that pain. I would think of people who had asked me how I had such a sense of humour and wonder if they meant that question as ‘it’s remarkable that you can’ or ‘it’s horrible that you can, don’t you care?’ More and more I believed the latter. I started hearing voices and became paranoid that everyone was judging any ounce of happiness I dared to show and feel. Equally, I felt they were judging any unhappiness, judging me as an attention seeker undeserved of compassion because I survived. So I tried to settle for neutral. At home, and with close friends, I hurt and they saw me hurt. But to the public, I tried my damned hardest to remain a neutral person, functioning well at my job as President and not letting myself laugh or cry too much in front of anyone.
With the help of my therapist, I came to learn that this paranoia was a mixture of abusers’ voices still affecting me, and also survivor’s guilt. I had wriggled away whenever she mentioned survivor’s guilt, but I couldn’t wriggle anymore. It was drowning me slowly, my role as President had finished, I was no longer able to hide behind a mountain of work. I had to face facts, I had to talk about my guilt. She commented on how incredible it was that I survived, and I bowed my head, said ‘I feel so guilty…’ At the word ‘guilty’, my voice cracked, and I felt myself break. My shoulders heaved and I sobbed. I felt the screams of the children, which I’d locked in my chest – the memories of their screams, of their tears – I felt them build and build until my chest cramped with pain. My therapist stayed gently calm, gave me a tissue, and quietly said ‘that’s really hard…I know…’
This was a few weeks ago, and every time I’ve seen her since then, she’s gradually helped me to take a bit of the guilt out of my heart, hold it in my hands, look at it with her, cry for it, talk through it, comfort it, and learn it’s not mine to carry. I was just a child, and then a teenage girl. I cannot be held accountable for the hideous actions of grown adults. I was trapped in a huge system of hell, and frankly the fact I survived and still had any faith left in humanity and could be compassionate is a miracle. The fact the children and I could find something to laugh at every day, that we could still laugh and cuddle each other, that we still – on some level – kept hold of our identity. She asked me if I would blame any other of the survivors, around the world? When I receive messages from other survivors, do I hiss at them? Of course I don’t. I feel utter relief they made it too. So why not relief for myself?
I feel guilty for the things I was forced to do to other children. But do I blame the other children who were forced to do things to me? No. Gently my therapist and friends have helped me understand I was used as a tool, and put in an impossible situation. At least I sang to the child, stroked the hair out of their face, or held their hand. I looked into their eyes so they could see my own compassion – that I hadn’t betrayed them. I tried my damned hardest, always, to bring them comfort.
I was a toddler who couldn’t reach the bathroom door and yet knew I needed a bath to clean myself up. I should never have known how to wear my nappy so it didn’t hurt where I’d been tortured.
I told my therapist I had taken it on myself to carry the guilt the abusers should have felt. I needed to know someone was carrying that guilt, for the sake of the children. It’s only right. Carrying this much guilt, which was never mine, was killing me. Kindly, she encouraged me not to try and carry this, that it would be wrong to do so, and another way for them to hurt me…
And then it came to the final blow. My babies aren’t here. My darling daughter with her gummy smile in a morning and starfish position in bed. How can I let myself smile and laugh when I failed my ultimate job as a mother? My abdomen aches with the emptiness, where it carried them for me, carried my precious little ones. My arms ache with not having a baby to hold, to whisper to and to stroke delicate eyelashes and soft forehead to shush them to sleep. I am here and they are not, it should be the other way around. And the grief gnaws at me, taints everything I do.
But then she asked me to describe what giving birth meant. It wasn’t in hospital with pain relief and caring friends to hold my hand whilst the pain gripped and crashed through me. Mostly it was far too early for the baby to survive. Sometimes it was alone, in a dark room, or chained to a wall, or cable-tied wrists to a bed. Sometimes they even raped me when I was in labour, because the sensation of me moaning in pain and writhing around excited them even more 😥 I remember one man behind me, pinning my arms behind my back, forcing me to kneel when my body wanted to be on all fours, and I tried so hard…so so hard to fight the urge; I didn’t want to give birth here, I didn’t want my baby born into this mess. But I had no choice; my body was stronger than me. And for half a second, whilst feeling her wriggling at my thigh, and I looked down and had tears of so much love and I forgot where I was, just for that half second, and whispered hello to my baby girl. And then they took her from me, cut her from me and then took her out the room, wailing and scared. And I strained against the man holding my arms and I screamed and screamed and never saw her again…
I described this to my therapist with my hands over my eyes, my face sticky with tears. I described the early miscarriages, the forced abortions. I finished and looked at her, waiting for her to judge me. Instead she quietly said ‘and how could you blame yourself?’
And suddenly the horror of what I’d just described hit me, and I realised I couldn’t. And the mix of relief and utter heartache and sorrow for what I’d suffered hit me like a train and I howled. I heard her quietly say ‘well done…’
Again we talked about other survivors and she let me know some techniques previous survivors have used.
So that was my battle through the harshest edge of survivor’s guilt. It will never entirely go away, but it may become manageable. I will always miss them, my own and also the children I fought with and laughed with. It’s coming out of a warzone and never knowing who survived.
My therapist asked me what survival meant; at the time, as a child, what did I do to survive? Well…dissociation, which saved my life. Logic. Compassion, and a refusal to let go of it.
And humour. Everyday the children and I would actively search for even one thing to laugh at. Because if you can still laugh, then you aren’t ready to give up yet.
And suddenly I realised why I’d felt like giving up for so long recently – I’d not allowed myself to laugh properly. When did I last laugh so hard, genuinely, until it hurt? As a child we told each other if we could laugh then we weren’t ready to give up. I couldn’t laugh anymore lately because of the guilt, and some part of my head had thus translated that to ‘then I must be ready to give up.’
And I’m not.
I’m ready to live.
I have no reason to be ashamed of my ability to laugh. It kept me alive. It gave me a reason to fight, a lifeline to hold onto, a line to measure my stamina with. It allowed me to never believe the world was 100% black, and drown in that, but actually believe that the world had some light too. My humour allows me to look past hell and see something worth fighting for. I see beauty and light where others’ might not see anything, or may not even notice. Humour and laughter gives me strength, and keeps the laughter of those children going. It keeps me alive. I could laugh despite being tortured and abused. This does not make me ignorant or uncaring, it makes me a fighter.
My laughter and humour is part of the reason I am alive today. And if I am alive, then the childrens’ stories and bright smiles and tears and memories are still alive too, on some level.
I will laugh again, and I will be proud of my ability to have done so, and continue doing so, in the face of such horror. There is so much in this world that is beautiful, to smile or laugh at…so completely beautiful and funny, and I am so relieved to finally be a part of it.