My campaigning journey has been like a whole new and separate chapter of my life; something I know I won’t do as much of as I grow older (although I know I will always try to fight for human rights), but right now it has seemed necessary for me and important that I campaign. And it flourished faster and much further than I could have ever expected. I thought maybe I’d do one talk, a few blog posts, maybe a few people would read it and maybe I would reach one other survivor and validate them, as they validate me.
Right this moment, between the individual hits on my blogs and then online videos, the count is 73,521. On top of that are the many talks I’ve given etc. Frankly, this number terrifies me. It’s far far greater than I’d ever expected or prepared myself for. That’s 73,521 individual times my vulnerability, my most precious and dark memories, my fears and dreams and pain have all been exposed. On the other hand, it’s 73,521 times where maybe I reached someone who needed to learn more, or to hear they aren’t alone, that they deserve to be heard and recover. Maybe it just helped open society’s eyes a little more. It helps me believe that the despair from my childhood doesn’t have to drown me; I can channel that pain and grief into something which may be of use to others. As frightening as exposing myself is, it is worth it also if it reaches one other survivor. Who, maybe one day, will reach another survivor. And so the knock-on effect goes. I don’t want or need to see the effects my words have – I doubt I’ll ever know…I just have to believe my past will be worth something more than just pain. I have to put value in a childhood that was terror.
Everytime I have a bad day, I can now remember: I can talk. (well not right now, I’m on a sponsored silence, but that’s another story). They tried so hard to silence me, to rob me of my voice, to make me frightened of speaking – it was in their interests, as it is in any abuser’s interests, to keep me silent. To have me give up myself, to give up my rights and my trust in my own voice, just to aid them. It doesn’t matter how painful it gets now, how many times I break down in tears of despair and anguish, I can cling to the fact I can talk. My anchor is that they never won – they only silenced me temporarily. Now my voice has been heard, through various outlets, worldwide. This blog in itself has received views in 156 different countries (I tell you, it’s been quite a geography lesson as well!). I never intended for that or expected that – that so many strangers would be interested in what I have to say. But whatever, the abusers best attempts to keep me silent, to keep me terrified of speaking (and my god they tried, in various sick, terrifying and torturous ways) has completely failed. Whatever they took from me then, they can never own my voice again. Even if I stopped talking out tomorrow, my written voice has been ‘heard’ in 156 countries. I still won. And maybe I helped some people along the way…
Why am I writing this? Because quite often when people hear my story, of my past, they remark on how brave I was. How brave I must have been to survive. Sometimes they call me inspiring and I wriggle away from that too. I’m not inspiring – I’m just living. I’m just living and sharing my story. I didn’t have a choice in what happened.
I had no choice but to be brave. I simply could not shut down, I couldn’t cry in despair. What would crying for hours on end get me? I needed to, frequently, but I couldn’t. If I lay down and cried, then I had cracked. It also meant I wasn’t on guard, and they could sneak up on me. I remember being a very small child and wishing someone would take me away. I remember being about 6 or 7, and looking outside the window one night, and realising that there are no fairy godmothers. I wouldn’t wake up and be someone else. If I was going to make it, then that was up to me. I didn’t even know what surviving meant, or if life was any different. For me, this was normal. But I was very sure I didn’t like normal, and would do whatever I needed to do to get away from ‘normal.’ Thank God I’m not really one for conforming to societal expectations, else I wouldn’t have questioned whether liking ‘normal’ was a decision of mine to make or not!!
I was a child. Amongst other children. I couldn’t wrestle the abusers all to the ground but at one point I silenced a group of them. You learn different ways – mostly accessing the head. I learned very quickly that they weren’t all monsters, and if I could find their vulnerable spot, then they’d pause. Sometimes that moment of pause was enough for me to run away. Sometimes, I never saw them again. The children and I became first class experts at reading people. Looking in their eyes and assessing if they were frightened, dissociated, angry, cold, sad…from that assessing what they needed…compassion? Anger? Defiance? Tears? A whispered ‘you don’t have to do this?’
One young man, barely an adult, was hurting me one day. I was maybe 11. But his eyes looked heavy, and wide. He kept glancing over his shoulder, somehow as nervous about whether he was seen as I was. He wanted to make sure he was seen hurting me. It kept him safe. I murmured “you don’t have to. Run.” And he just stared at me, paused briefly, then whispered – barely audibly – “they’ll kill me.” I couldn’t argue with that – all I’d ever known was that very real threat. I didn’t understand the real purpose of the police. Any ‘police’ I’d seen had raped me. Now I would be able to tell him who to call, where to go. Back then? I was just a child. But really, so was he. He’d been dragged through this rubbish too and although he was abusing me, he was doing it to save his own skin. Could I actually blame him? Could I really hold him responsible? In reality, no. I refuse to put people in an ‘all bad’ or ‘all good’ box. We all did things we weren’t proud of in order to survive. People call me inspiring and I feel sick, because to me, I feel like a monster. Does it matter I was a child too? I don’t know. Was it brave to do whatever it took to survive? Does it matter that I never lost my compassion, that I cried endlessly, that I only ever did things I wasn’t proud of when presented with a forced choice? I don’t know. My therapist said it’s just another form of torture, of the most extreme psychological torture. Things like “do this to that one child, or we’ll do it to all 4 of them.” And they meant it. So I either hurt one and three were spared for the day, or week, or however long…or I stood by and let them brutally hurt all of them. What choice did I have? They wanted to me to identify as a monster so that I felt trapped and became one of them. It took every ounce of my strength to learn how to say ‘no.’ To refuse to be in forced choices, to look for the third way out. I remember that young man’s fear, and I refused to ever be in that position… but to manage that refusal, to find the strength to get out of the system despite the consequences…that was hard…
None of us were heroes. None of us survived by looking fear in the eye and going ‘pfft.’ I lay on beds being tortured to the point of oblivion, and be rest assured, my ability to stare the person in the eye faded very quickly. I very quickly became a screaming mess. I screamed because to hear myself meant I was still alive. I screamed because if I didn’t make it, I wanted my final screams to haunt them forever. I screamed because it hurt.
What it took to survive wasn’t a question of being ‘brave’, it was a question of being ‘necessary.’ The children and I became extremely compassionate towards one another, supported and loved each other, cleansed each others wounds and held each other singing whilst they were in pain. This wasn’t some remarkable act of pure selflessness and heroism. We were compassionate because we cared, obviously. We were also compassionate because to care for someone else going through the same stuff, meant we couldn’t not care about ourselves either. Our compassion was a lifeline. For us individually, and for each other. It was a very reciprocal lifeline, a very beautiful one, but a very necessary one.
I forced myself to keep breathing even when my head begged ‘let it stop now’ and my body shook with pain from the torture. I remember lying there, barely conscious, and just forcing myself to breathe. And it was forced. Everything hurt, the pain was so consuming I cannot even describe it, and I kept feeling like I was ‘floating.’ I refused to float. I needed to breathe, not float. I lay there, rasping sounds coming from my throat, and forced air in, and air out. I put every last ounce of energy and concentration into breathing in, and out, and in, and out, and in, and out…
Was that brave? No. It was survival.
We had no choice. We had no choice being there, and no choice with what they put us through. But we could decide whether to live, or to give up. Survival was partly pure luck, but it was also determination. People ask me why I feel guilty for surviving…and it’s because of that determination. It’s because I wonder, if I had put that energy into someone else, would someone better than me have lived instead? Was I wrong to choose to live, to choose to find a new normal, was I wrong to leave it all, to fight my damned hardest to get out of that ring and find safety and friends? Was it my responsibility as a child to save someone else instead? Was I selfish for surviving? These thoughts torture me daily. Most of my therapy sessions are spent in tears about the guilt. Nothing anybody says makes the guilt fade. It’s there, like a rock in my chest, in the nightmares, in every moment where I laugh or smile, in the distant memories of my baby crying or the sound of a long-asleep child laughing. People call me inspiring. Inspiring for what? For surviving?
I wasn’t brave. I had to be strong if I was going to survive. And for all that survival has granted me, the emotional damage will never go away. I will never stop feeling guilty, and never see myself as inspiring. I did good things, I did great things, and I did bad things. All to survive. My compassion kept me alive, and kept others alive, and it just so happened that compassion was also nice. My voice gives me reason to keep going when I don’t want to, gives me belief that all the pain was worth something, and I hope helps others.
If I am brave, then there is only one quote to define that bravery: “the bravest thing I ever did was continuing my life when I wanted to die.” (Juliette Lewis). For making myself breathe as a child, for discovering the methods of survival, for calling for help when I contemplate suicide or following a failed suicide attempt. But my bravery wasn’t a choice. It was just survival.
I’m being brave today by saying: I feel guilty for having survived.
Because nobody understands. People expect me to be fully relieved to be safe, and impressed by my ability to survive, and happy. And I am all of them. But I am also ashamed, I also feel guilty, and I also did many things in order to survive, some of which I am not proud. Some people claim I speak out for attention or fame, and you couldn’t be more wrong. I have lost friends, and I have set myself out to be defined by my past – the one thing I don’t want to be defined by. I have exposed the most fragile parts of me to strangers across the world. But I do it because it helps the guilt. I do it because it might help someone else. Nothing is entirely selfless. Nothing is completely selfish. And nothing is entirely brave.