The most powerful thing my therapist ever said to me when I found a therapist who could see what was happening to me and give it a name (post traumatic stress disorder) was I believe you. It would take me years of unraveling and remembering, somatically re-experiencing and integrating the trauma before I believed me too. So many of us are trained from birth to deny and reject ourselves, to leave our bodies completely and vacate the building (or bush) when what is being done to it is too horrendous to stay around for. Five years into therapy I asked my therapist if there was any chance, however small, that I could actually have some kind of mental disorder - schizophrenia, pseudologia fantastica (pathological liar), bi-polar - that would have caused me to have made it all up? Was there any chance that I was remembering abuse that never occured? She cried. She told me for the hundredth time “you are not mentally ill, you are traumatised”.
My sister used to beat the living daylights out of me when we were teenagers. My face and body was constantly covered in small dark bruises from the big, metal rings she used to wear. One time her assault ruptured the blood vessels in my eyeball. She held a kitchen knife to my throat one day and seethed into my ear that she was going to kill me. I was so terrified that my womb dumped what looked like an entire months lining down my legs and onto the floor.
My mother digitally raped me when I was nine. When I clamped my legs shut and told her to stop, she told me “ oh shut up you stupid little bitch”.
Women silence women too.
That was not the first time I was sexually abused by my mother. Her brothers also molested me and others, often, over many years and it was always passed off as a “joke”. When I started talking about what our mother had done, decades later, I was ousted. Completely.
The first time I had sex consensually was with someone else’s boyfriend. A month or so after it happened he picked me up on his motorbike and took me out to The Gap - an ocean cliff and notorious suicide spot in the south east of Sydney where Caroline Byrne had been pushed to her death for threatening to break her silence a few years earlier. He told me to keep my mouth shut and I fucking did.
I tried to talk with friends about what was happening to me during the times that I was barely hanging on, by the skin of my teeth most of time, in the worst years of the PTSD. They couldn’t hear it. Of my two oldest and closest girlfriends who I’ve known since we were in our late teens, one dumped me completely and the other one just avoided me. I don’t blame them, or even resent them for this; I really get it, I was a fucking mess but that doesn’t mean that it didn’t hurt. It doesn’t mean that it didn’t cause me to doubt the validity of my own self or loathe myself for not being able to just let it go and get over it. I lost another dear friend during this time. He couldn’t handle me either. I was awful. A new friend that I made through having kids the same age would switch off and change the subject if I ever tried to talk about what I was going through. Thank God my husband believed me. He held me close through long nights when my body shook so hard that my teeth clattered in my mouth. He listened as I told him the details of what I was remembering. He helped me to carry the unbearable weight of it. I don’t think I would have even been able to remember what had happened in my childhood without the foundations of him.
The reasons we don’t report abuse and rape and assault are manifold and complex and different for everyone but mostly its because we are ashamed. And we are afraid. And the thought of bringing that shame and fear into the light and having the people we trust with it turn away is more than we can bare. I didn’t tell anyone because I was ashamed and afraid and I blamed myself. I blamed myself for letting it happen. I blamed myself for not being smart enough, pretty enough, valuable enough. I didn’t tell anyone because I could not bare the knowledge of what had happened myself, let alone share it with anyone else.
We also don’t tell because people tend not to believe us. I come from a big Irish Australian clan. Just on the Australian side I have 16 first cousins, nine aunts and uncles and three sisters, all of whom experienced or witnessed abuse themselves and not one of them believes me.
When I asked my therapist that day if there was any chance that I had made it all up she said; why? Why would you make any of that up? Why would I make up a story that would leave me absolutely sure that I could not live with the truth of it? That saw me making a pact with myself that I would try to stay alive long enough to see my daughter into adulthood and then I would gratefully end my life? How could a made up story cause me to dissociate so frequently that my daughter began having a recurring nightmare where she would travel the whole world trying to find me but as soon as she caught sight of me, I would disappear? How could a made up story cause me so much torment that I was afraid to leave the house? For years? How could a made up story leave me unable to do the job I love?
When my therapist asked me why, what would I possibly have to gain by making any of it up? I believed her.