Who is this book by?
When I started writing this book, the very first question I asked myself was not the usual Who is this book aimed at? but Who is this book by? Not because I’m having some sort of identity crisis, but more because there are a number of different perspectives from which I could be thought of as qualified to write a book about surviving childhood abuse. The more I wrote the more I realised that those different perspectives all support and inform one another.
First and foremost, I am writing from the perspective of being a survivor of childhood abuse. My own story and who I am as a person are shaped by having been severely abused throughout my childhood, from pre-school to late teens, both by people within my immediate family and outside. However, although I do refer to these events, in particular where they will help illustrate a point, this is not essentially an autobiographical work.
Nevertheless, I realise that writing from the perspective of being a survivor allows me to share things from my own lived experience, rather than mere theoretical knowledge. If we think about it, the people who know most about how to survive and how to reclaim our lives following childhood abuse are those of us who have suffered and survived. That should probably be obvious, but unfortunately it is something that all too often gets missed by the professionals who work with survivors. When all is said and done, anyone who has reached adulthood after a history of being abused as a child has already come through many hard battles, and has already proved themselves to be victorious.
To be fair to the professionals, though, many of us who have survived abusive childhoods also lose sight at times of the fact that we are survivors. We don’t see ourselves as victorious, or overcomers, or any of that stuff. All we see and feel is the pain, distress and difficulty. This isn’t because we are weak or stupid. It is because the very things that helped us to survive when we were little are now the things that cause us to struggle in adult life. As a result, we tend to discount our victories, and believe that we are getting it wrong.
As a survivor, my heart has always been to be a support and a resource to other survivors. Therefore, a large part of my purpose in writing this book is to remind and encourage us (I include myself here) that even if we have forgotten, even if we never fully realised it, we had and still have what it takes to survive and break through to a full and abundant life.
I am also writing this book from the point of view of a psychotherapist and a professional helper. It is probably fair to say that I never planned to do the work I do. I seemed to drift into it by accident. However, for the last thirty years I have found myself working with some of the most broken and abused people – firstly in Social Services, with young offenders and children in care, during which time I trained as a psychotherapist. After that I worked with dependent drug users, then with NHS staff and in private practice, and discovered that the majority of my clients had experienced abuse as children. Currently, I work for a Christian charity that I founded, which works with adult survivors of childhood abuse and trauma.
There is a sense in which my experience as a survivor cannot fully be separated from my career as a therapist. Each informs the other one. What my experience as a therapist has given me is a way to give shape to and make sense of my experience as a survivor. This in turn helps me to understand some of the ways in which trauma, and in particular child abuse, impacts the human soul, mind and body. It has also helped me to develop ways in which not only can therapists help survivors, but in which therapists can also equip survivors to help themselves.
Almost as important is the sense in which I am writing this book from the perspective of an educator and trainer. A large part of my professional life has involved running training courses for a whole range of people, most often in what are called the helping professions. Much of that role as a trainer involves equipping people – giving them skills, teaching them how to do things and so on. But another of the functions of a trainer is to be an educator – someone who offers a different perspective and helps people to think about things in new and creative ways.
My present focus is very much on educating people in the Christian world (church leaders, ministry leaders, prayer teams and so on) about the impact of child abuse on adults, and how best to help and support them. However, the Christian world is in many ways something of a microcosm of the wider society, so this book is also written from the perspective of someone who is passionate about getting the message out there that we have to do better when it comes to understanding the needs of survivors, and how to help them recover, heal and reclaim their lives.
Last, but by no means least, I am writing this book as a disciple – meaning one who follows. As one who for the last twenty years has been learning to love and follow Jesus Christ, I am aware just how much my deepening relationship with Him has affected me both personally and professionally.
At a personal level, as a survivor, I know that without Him as a model of wholeness and integration, I would not have been able to heal to the extent that I have. I know that without His unlimited and unconditional goodness and love holding me, I would long ago have fallen into an endless black hole. I know that without the light that He is, I would long ago have been swallowed up by the darkness.
As a psychotherapist (literally a soul healer) I have to rely on Christ‘s leading to guide me through what is often a rugged and dangerous landscape, as I walk with people on their journey of recovery and healing. I also know that to the extent that we will let Him, He sustains and embraces every single survivor in ways that are often mysterious and unfathomable, but which always demonstrate His great heart and love for those who are broken, marginalised and in darkness.
Who is this book for?
Sometimes as authors we are told to imagine our target audience as a person – a single ideal reader – and imagine that we are writing solely for them. In this book I have to imagine three people – three ideal readers, if you like.
Survivors of abuse
Firstly and most importantly, this book is written for adult survivors of childhood abuse. All of us who share this experience know what a hard journey it can be to recover and heal from the effects of what happened to us. Sometimes as we make our way through the world we really can feel like ‘a stranger in a strange land’ (Exodus 2:22, KJV). Things that other people take for granted can seem very problematic and different for us. All in all, for survivors, the world, along with life and everything that goes with it, can feel like a very unfamiliar, challenging and even hostile place.
This book attempts to be something of a guidebook, with resources to help us on our journey of healing and recovery. Some of it will apply to all of us – there are certain things that are common to all survivors of abuse – and other parts will apply only to some of us. But whatever the type of abuse we experienced, there should be something in here for all of us.
Supporters and helpers
Secondly, my intention is that this book will be of help to those who are supporting and helping survivors of childhood abuse. By this I do not necessarily mean professional helpers. Of course they have a role too, but really what I mean is our friends, our (non-abusive) family and other loved ones. The truth is that no one can make this journey of recovery on their own. Although it is sometimes hard for survivors to admit it, we need people around us who love and care about us. But it also helps if those people have some understanding of what has happened to us, what we are going through now, and why we respond to things in some of the ways we do.
This book, then, is also intended as a resource and a guidebook for those who are accompanying survivors on their journey of healing and recovery. If you are one of those supporters, thank you. I hope this book will give you some insight and some ideas for how to be there for those you love and care about. We know you are very willing, and you really want to help. However, we also know, even if we don’t often say it, that this can be a rough journey for you as well. You want to support and do whatever you can to make our lives easier, but there are times when that can feel quite overwhelming and even intimidating. There are times when we have some pretty strong reactions to things, and you don’t even know what it is that has set us off. Half the time neither do we, or if we do, we don’t necessarily know how to explain it to you. So this journey that you have so wonderfully agreed to accompany us on is going to take a lot of patience and understanding from you at times. Hopefully this book can help you understand, and with understanding may come the patience and the energy you need to continue walking with us, as we journey towards recovery and healing.
Lastly, this book is also intended to be helpful to Christian leaders. By leaders, I mean in the broadest possible sense to include not only ministers and leaders of churches, but also small group leaders, people on ministry teams, prayer teams and so on. One of the things I have discovered as I have run training sessions in various church settings is that church leaders and those who serve on ministry teams often have a great heart for the broken and marginalised, including those who have survived childhood abuse. However, they don’t necessarily always have the information and understanding necessary to help in the ways that they might like. This has sometimes led to some tensions between churches and their leadership on the one hand, and survivors and their supporters on the other.
Hopefully this book will be a resource for leaders and those who serve on ministry teams, who desire to do something different. My aim is that it will enable them to see where there may have been misunderstandings and difficulties in the past, and how they may be able to move forward in offering survivors of childhood abuse the support and care that they need and deserve.
How to use this book
This book is intended to be a companion; something we can take with us on our journey of recovery and healing. I have tried to structure it in a reasonably logical way, so that those who wish to can read it through from beginning to end and see a progression in how we understand, think about and respond to the trauma of child abuse. However, some people may prefer to dip in and out of particular chapters and sections that seem relevant to whatever challenges they are currently facing.
At the end of some chapters you will find a section entitled Survivor Resources. These are practical ideas, exercises and other resources that can help survivors on their journey of recovery and healing. They are primarily aimed at survivors themselves, though they will also be of interest for those who support survivors. They are written for the most part in the first person – in other words, using what is called ‘I Language’. The reason for this is that very often those who were traumatised as children have had a large part of their thinking and their belief systems defined, manipulated and controlled by others – usually by the people who abused them or who enabled the abuse to take place. One of the most subtle forms of damage caused by child abuse is that very often this ‘victim’ thinking becomes internalised, and the survivor takes on a view of themselves and their world that is essentially mirroring the perspectives and beliefs of their abusers.
By writing these resources in the first person, the intention is that as they are used by survivors, that process can gradually be reversed. By speaking them out, or reading them in the first person, survivors are engaging with the language of their own internal narratives and dialogues. In this way they are empowered to bring change to the typical perspectives and beliefs that characterise the victims of childhood abuse. Over time their self-talk can shift towards narratives that are more orientated to survival, and to breaking through the limitations imposed by their abusers.
Some chapters also have what I’ve called Supporter’s Pause for Thought. These are simply one or two thoughts or questions designed to be a gentle prompt to those who are supporting survivors, whether friends and loved ones or leaders in church settings. They can be used to provoke thinking, either individually or in small group settings.
In short, these resources aim to enable survivors to live lives that are more real, full and healthy.
Note on examples used
I have used a number of stories and examples in this book to illustrate various points. Even where particular survivors gave permission for their stories to be used, names and key details have been changed so that the people involved cannot be identified. For other examples I have drawn from a number of different people and situations to create what are essentially fictional accounts of experiences typical of survivors of abuse.
You Are a Survivor
This is for you
There is something I want to say right at the beginning of this book, and it is particularly for those of you who were abused as children. In fact, it’s something that every one of us who was abused as a child needs to hear and be reminded of on a regular basis.
It is simply this. Even though we were victimised, we do not have to remain as victims. Abuse taught us to think of ourselves as victims, because we were made to feel powerless, not in control of our bodies, our minds and our lives. But the truth is we are survivors. Every single person reading this who experienced abuse as a child is a survivor. We’ve survived! We’ve made it this far, despite everything our abusers did to us. We are here! We may be bruised and battered in body, mind or spirit, but we are alive, and they have not managed to crush out the spark of life from us.
There are times, maybe many times, when we feel defeated and beaten down by life, but the reality is that we are not on the losing side. We are winners. Every day that we manage to keep on going, keep on living our lives despite everything that has happened, despite everything we feel, is a victory. It is a battle won against those who sought to destroy us. These may seem like small victories, but in fact they are huge. We are in a war. It wasn’t one of our choosing. We were invaded and subjugated against our will, but we have chosen to go on living. We have chosen to go on surviving. This is a war of survival and hope, and like all wars it will not be won by a single spectacular victory. It will be won by hundreds, even thousands, of small daily acts of resistance that build slowly one upon another, until they gain a momentum that becomes unstoppable.
Breakthrough is possible
This is the other thing we need to remember: breakthrough is possible.
One of the things that characterises our lives as survivors is the sense we all have at times that we are not getting anywhere fast. We make progress, only to get knocked back again. We think we’re moving forward, only to realise that we’ve been going round and round in circles. We try to get help, only to find that we’ve gone down a dead end.
There are practical reasons for this sense, of course. Life as a survivor is often not very straightforward. However, it is also in part due to the fact that our expectations were set by the abuse we experienced. When we were children there was no way out for us, or at least if there was, we didn’t know how to get to it. We felt trapped and hemmed in, and that feeling persists in us right up to adulthood. But the basis of that feeling, just as with our sense of victimhood, is not actually true. Breakthrough is possible, and more than possible. The fact that we have survived means that we are stronger and far more resourceful than we think. Even if the external means for creating a breakthrough in our lives does not seem to be present, we have abundant internal resources. We have inner strength far beyond the obvious. What we do not have, at least until we learn how, is a means to access those resources.
This book is all about giving survivors the means to access the internal strength and resources they have forgotten they possess. It is these resources that will make breakthrough possible for us.
If breakthrough is possible, what is it we are breaking through to?
It’s a fair question. We talk a great deal about the journey of healing and recovery from abuse, but sometimes we don’t have a clear idea of where that journey might be leading us. Many survivors seem to feel that all they can reasonably expect is a life that is OK-ish. We believe that the wounds we carry and the emotional baggage mean we have to settle for a sort of second-class life – a life in which we make do with the bare minimum of the things that make life worth living. We look at the rest of the world through envious lenses, believing that the life that is available to us can never match up to the one available to others, because when it comes right down to it, we believe that we can never really match up. Our sense of self and our estimation of our own value have been so diminished by what has happened to us that our expectations are catastrophically lowered. We feel like second-class citizens of a world that really would rather not be aware that we and our issues exist. For those of us who have a faith, we may even feel as if we are second-class children of God. If we are going to change those feelings, we need to know that more is possible.
The good news is that this is not all there is. The journey goes on a long way beyond OK. Jesus was clear that He had come so that we (by which He means all of us) could have life ‘in abundance’ (John 10:10, Amplified Version). Abundance is an interesting word. It’s sometimes translated as ‘fullness’, but that doesn’t really do it justice. Abundance has connotations of being more than full, of being overflowing. So from the perspective of Jesus, everything He did and continues to do is so that we can have a life that overflows with goodness.
For most survivors that may seem a little too good to be true – more of a pious hope than an everyday lived reality. We want to believe it’s possible, but deep down we suspect we may end up disappointed once again. The problem is, we are living our lives. We are faced with the evidence of our wounds every day, and we know what it feels like to keep tripping over them. We wince as yet another relationship runs into difficulty. We feel shame at our seeming inability to deal with the normal ups and downs of life in the way others seem to find so easy. We find ourselves wrestling with anxiety or falling into a black hole of depression with monotonous regularity. Surely this life overflowing with goodness has to be just one more thing that is out of reach? All of these experiences are true, and deeply painful, which makes it all the more important that we find ways of holding on to hope in the face of evidence that things are hopeless.
One of the ways we can do this is by understanding the nature of our breakthrough.
A journey of empowerment
Sometimes my psychotherapy clients tease me about how often I talk about their journey. The reason is that it is such a good metaphor for the process of healing and recovery from trauma. It is also a very necessary one. Journeys have a beginning, a middle and an end. They can be long or short, and they may go through many different types of landscape or terrain. While we are on that journey, we may find all sorts of obstacles that we need to overcome, but also many different things to discover and learn. Every journey has its destination, but the destination is never going to be the whole experience.
When we look at the lives of those around us, and in particular the lives of those who have not experienced the abuse and trauma we have, we can be tempted to feel that they have ‘arrived’, that they have reached their destination. We focus on the destination and, although we long for it, we fear it may be out of our reach. Of course it is! We are still on the journey.
The destination – the life overflowing with goodness – is something we have to keep in mind. We have to keep hoping or we have little or no incentive to keep on going through all the tough times. But abundance, wholeness and freedom are not the fruit of a single moment. They are things we grow into through our journeying and wandering in the wilderness. There is a reason why the Bible is so full of stories about journeys. Whether it is the children of Israel in the exodus from Egypt, the journey of encounter that Jesus took into the wilderness, or the journey of the prodigal son, they all have one thing in common – those who are on these journeys are shaped by them.
When the children of Israel left the slavery of Egypt, they were free in body. The journey across the desert to the promised land of abundance should have taken them two to three days, but they were not ready for their destination. Their minds and spirits still followed the same patterns of thinking, feeling and reacting, as if they were still in bondage. As well as seeing it as a historical account of God’s dealings with Israel, it may also be helpful at the same time to read the story as something of a parable about how each one of us makes our journey out of bondage to freedom and abundance.
As survivors we have a journey to make from the slavery of being a victim of abuse into the ‘promised land’ of freedom and an abundant life. In practice that journey of recovery and growth is far from straightforward or quick.
We may be free of the abuse we suffered, at least in as much as we are no longer under the direct control of our abusers. Nevertheless, we still have the mindsets, the attitudes of heart and the responses of those who are still enslaved by abuse. We need a breakthrough, and we need to be set free, but we don’t break through to our destination; we break through to our journey. Of course, the quick-fix solutions, the instant cures and the golden calves are always going to appeal to us. Every single creature is wired to avoid pain and discomfort. When we have already been through so much, why wouldn’t we hanker after a shortcut to the destination?
One of the hardest things for us to learn as survivors is that there are no shortcuts. If there were, the destination would be different. Contrary to what we may want to believe, it is the journey cut short that leads to the second-class life. When we are tempted to cheat ourselves of the journey, the wholeness and freedom we discover at the end of it is superficial. It looks good on the outside, but inside we are still suffering the pain and distress of wounds that have not adequately healed or been cleansed of infection.
The truth is, we are survivors, not because we have come to the end of our journey, or even because we have reached a certain point along the way. We are survivors because we have chosen to begin. We have chosen to embrace the journey of healing and recovery, wherever it may lead us, in full knowledge that it will be hard and painful at times, but still holding on to hope, and open to the possibility of being transformed by the discoveries we make along the way.
Survivor Resources: Ten things to remind myself each day
Sometimes my thoughts and feelings can seem overwhelming, and it is really hard to find the positives in my life. I try to remind myself of these ten things every day – especially the headings in bold. If any of them strike a particular chord, or if I find some of them particularly challenging, I can read through the paragraph attached to it and think about how it might relate to me and my life.
1. Struggling is nothing to be ashamed of.
It is normal for me to struggle. The abuse I experienced was not normal or OK, and it has left me carrying emotional injuries that make life challenging sometimes. This is nothing for me to be ashamed of, any more than someone with an injured leg needs to be ashamed for limping. I struggle, but I keep on going. Every day that I get up out of bed, every time I manage to do the things I need to do, is a win. I may be struggling, but struggling means I haven’t given up. I am a survivor.
2. Expressing emotions is OK.
When I was little I wasn’t allowed to express the fear, pain, anger and sadness I felt about being abused. But those emotions didn’t go away. They stayed locked up inside me, and I’ve been carrying them around with me for years. Life is challenging enough without me having to carry the weight of all these feelings. Expressing my emotions doesn’t make me bad, or mean that I’m not OK. It means that I value myself enough to let out all that pain rather than letting it continue to poison my life. It’s time for me to learn how to let my feelings out, so I can move on with my life.
3. I have the resources I need to survive and thrive.
Sometimes I feel that I cannot cope. I feel that the pain of the abuse I suffered is going to break me, and I just don’t have what it takes to become whole again. But I know this isn’t true. The truth is, I found ways to survive back then when I was being abused. Even though I was only a child, and didn’t have the power to stop what was happening, I still found the inner resources to make it through. Just as I found the resources then, I can find the resources now. Who I was as a person was enough then, and it is enough now. The only difference is that now I can find resources outside myself to help me on my journey of recovery and healing.
4. I don’t need to compare myself with others.
It is so easy to compare myself with others, but it’s really not helpful. The truth is, no one can fully know about another’s journey. When I look at others and think they are doing so much better than I am, I’m not seeing them in their hardest moments. When I’m worried that others are looking at me and judging me for my lack of progress, the chances are they’re not, and even if they are, they don’t know all the complexities and challenges I face every day. I am me, and I am walking this journey the best way I know how.
5. I am strong enough to make good choices.
It isn’t always easy for me to make good choices about my life. For a long time, coping has sometimes meant that I make the choices that help me to feel better in the short term, rather than the ones that are most helpful in the long run. But I am strong, and I’m growing stronger every day I walk this path of recovery and healing. One choice at a time, I am learning to do the things that move me closer to a life that is healthy, happy and filled with love.
6. It’s OK to make mistakes.
I don’t need to be perfect, and I don’t need to give myself a hard time when I make mistakes. Who I am and how I am is good enough. Mistakes are evidence that I keep on going and keep on trying to live my life free from the effects of the abuse. When I try, and things still go wrong, it marks a place where life got tough and I needed a bit more practice or a bit more help to keep moving forward. When things go wrong, I stop and I take responsibility for any impact it may have had on another person. Then I give myself credit for trying, even though it didn’t go quite right, and consider what I can do differently next time.
7. Being kind to myself costs nothing.
When I was little I was supposed to get kindness and love and care. But what I got instead was abuse and neglect and punishment. Sometimes even now I find it hard to give myself anything other than more abuse, neglect and punishment. But I deserved better when I was little, and I deserve better now. Being kind to myself costs nothing. In fact, it is a way of investing in myself and my life. If I invest just a little kindness – love, care and nurture – in myself, it is like planting seeds and watering them daily. Eventually they will grow, and the love and kindness I have invested will flourish and bear fruit.
8. Asking for help is strength not weakness.
There is nothing strong about trying to do everything all by myself and falling flat on my face. When people offer to help me stay standing or keep moving forward, there is nothing strong about pushing them and their help away. That type of strength is actually just pride. When I am physically injured, it’s not weak if I go and get help to patch myself up. It is the same when I am injured in my mind and emotions. There is nothing wrong with realising I can’t do it all by myself, and I’m willing to put aside my pride to ask people to give me the help I need. When I ask for help I am learning what it really means to be strong.
9. I am worthy of care and love.
When they abused me and neglected me and failed to meet my needs when I was a child, they tried to make me believe that I was unworthy. They tried to make me believe I didn’t get what I needed because I didn’t deserve it. The truth is I am worthy. My worthiness doesn’t rest in what I do, what I achieve, what I look like, what I have, what I do for a living or how many friends I have. It doesn’t even depend on me getting things right. I am worthy because of who I am. I am worthy because every human being is worthy of care, love and belonging. Even though I don’t always feel like I fit in or that I’m like other people, there are no exceptions. I am worthy because I am worthy.
10. This will get better!
No matter how bad I feel right now, it isn’t going to stay like this. When I feel scared, or sad, or ashamed, or hopeless, I can’t always see an end to it, but there always is an end if I am willing to stick with it for long enough. These are the times I need to remember how things were in the past. I need to remember the other times when I thought it was going to be like this forever. I always came out of it eventually. It may have taken time, and maybe I only came out for a little while, but it did change, and that means this too will change. This is a moment to dig deep and hold on tight, because no matter how hopeless it feels, and no matter how dark it seems, there is hope and there is light just over the horizon.
Supporter’s Pause for Thought: What can I give?
Our love and compassion are not measured in feelings; they are measured in what and how we can give to those who may not at this point be able to give anything in return. When you think about the one you are supporting, ask yourself how can I best show this person my love and care for them? It could be a kind word, a small gift, a selfless act of service, time to listen or, with permission, a gentle touch.
Think, if necessary ask, and then do.