Hear my Cry: Finding answers beyond the Silence

02/09/2013 at 08:18 (Anorexia, Personal, Reviews, Writing, Writing Reality articles) (, , , , , , , , , , , , )


This article carries a Trigger Warning, for references to sexual abuse, violence and eating disorders.

It took me two years to tell my family about the sexual abuse which happened in my teens. By that point, I was a shadow of my former self. The vivacious girl who had been voted “Most Likely to strap herself to a rocket in protest” on her school prom night, was in the spring of 2002 a shivering waif, tied down by anorexic silence. Shame and guilt far outweighed the benefits of unburdening myself. They even took precedence over fears of recrimination from the instigators of the abuse. The latter’s damage had already been done. They had left their mark. Physical wounds heal soon enough, the body is remarkable in that. The mind and the soul are abstracts, though – still capable of being broken, but there’s no handy cast to put them in. No Key Word to unlock the residual pain, setting free the life caged behind it.

Back then, I believed that to even articulate what had happened would only worsen the situation. I didn’t allow myself to dwell on it. To do so would only embed deeper the feeling that I had somehow deserved the treatment. That I’d gone along with things. I’d let myself be made vulnerable, turned into a victim; had swum to the deep end without bothering to check if I could put my feet down.

I was fifteen years old, and falling away from the path happily trod in childhood, full of its daydreaming and writing, reading on windowsills and long walks through woodland. My parents were caught up in their bitter arguments, and the divorce proceedings that would dog my teens. Exams were looming. Those woods, formerly green-gold and populated by faeries, became dark. The magic turned its face from me, and I felt unworthy, couldn’t seem to grasp the old whimsy. My writing felt clichéd, the words dropping as stones from my mouth. I became one of many grumpy teens, with that twisting fear inside that breeds unrest. I longed for escape, for reality.

I fell in with that bracket known as the “wrong crowd” – though who truly has the right to say which child is right or wrong? We all came from the same broken/breaking backgrounds. We were all in pain. They had trust issues and parent issues and drug abuse, alcoholism; dark movements through the claggy night. We shared illicit cigarettes in the alleyway up from our school, daring each other like young pages in jousting. We imagined ourselves to be brave, rebellious; talked about love and fucking, the intrinsic knots between. We swore vengeance on teachers we hated, then ran laughing through the rain when they came upon us at the end of Lunch Break.

But it didn’t matter who we bragged to, or how loudly. Our eyes were still wide with fear. I remember several girls in particular, already showing the chicken-scratch signs and hollow cheeks of a life of suffering. The boys often took things a little more literally, painting the ebony night with flaming angels thrown across the wide bowl of our local recreation ground – rags stuffed into bottles of petrol. The way they burst into flames was a brief respite, a gleam in the eye and on the teeth of our grinning mouths, as we sat on the kiddy-swings and talked about escape from this tiny-mind town.

The girl who became my best friend at that time was one such lost soul. Always on the move, an orphan swung from one family to the next, she was more live-wire than girls our age. She’d boast about school scraps with either gender. She had vibrancy singing from every attractive curve, and God she knew it. She moved like a dagger piercing skin. She knew what she wanted, was a woman, and God help anyone who stood in her way.

She appealed to my baser instincts, my constant search for the Real Deal, which still holds true today. I was an easy target. A social butterfly, unable to settle to any one group or image, which I now recognize as unwillingness to conform to cliches. She broke the mold. We were raucous and at the same time, obsessively secretive about our movements. Our bond was almost frightening. She once told me how she’d knocked out the front teeth of a girl who crossed her. I pinky-swore never to get on her wrong side, though her right one was easy enough to stoke, with ego-brushes. She loved flattery.

No longer the skinny waif of childhood, I was self-conscious enough about my developing curves, to smother them in as many layers of clothing as possible. I dressed like a twelve-year-old going on forty. Never wore a scrap of makeup, frequently forgot to brush my long blonde hair. I’d walk barefoot into town (still do, weather permitting.) Back then, I told people it was because I wanted to feel the earth moving under my feet. Truth is, I was ready to run away from every situation, as fast as I could go.

The girl had an older boyfriend. He lived in a nearby town, a coastal region that still causes a nauseating snag to rise in my throat. He worked in the music industry, was only a little bit older than us, so she said. The girl decided to set up a recording at his house, citing our park-nights spent under the lamplight haven, warbling at the milky swirl of stars. She wanted to lay down a demo tape. I said Fine; it’d be one way to snag the attention of a guy I liked in school, a drummer. She knew who I meant, agreed that it’d really do the trick to catch his attention.

The warning signs were all there. The bad hunches, which I’ve learned over the years to pay closer attention to. Signs are to be searched for, and anyone who sees them lying in wait and decides to shut their eyes at the last moment, is a fool. To this day, I can’t get past the guilt of allowing myself to be talked onto that bus ride across the towns, swigging from our respective liter bottles of cheap fizzy cider. I knew better. The fuzziness in my head – it was my first experience of alcohol – wasn’t the pleasing experience I’d heard about. It was a softening of the limbs and deadening of the staccato warning in my heart. She’d made it explicitly clear that we should be drunk by the time we got there; said it’d make the experience more fun, as well as loosening my self-acknowledged stage fright.

I went along with it out of fear, didn’t want her to turn away from me. She had some renown among our group. Worst of all, to my mind, I wanted to appear grown-up for the first time in my life. She assured me I’d seem very professional, that this was standard procedure – everyone did it.

I was hammered by the time the bus pulled up, and we slugged our way down the pavement to his house. I have flashback-memories of that place. To walk past a row of terraced houses with a blue-painted bus stop, still brings a foil-bright fear clawing up my throat.

I don’t remember his face, or much of the interior. I do know that there was another boy-man there, an unexpected and nasty surprise. I was warned to stay away from him, he was lechy – the truth being, he was the one who left me alone. To this day, I don’t know his involvement. I slunk away to the garden to smoke, reeling from residual fears of childhood experiences around men and boys. Their hands, always finding me as something they could possess. Suddenly, this didn’t seem such a good idea. But by that point, I couldn’t walk straight, let alone think coherently.

Music was put on, pop hits of the time and some older tracks that were once beloved to me and are now tainted forever. Weed was sparked up, and more bottles opened. I have a distinct memory of being curled up beside a sofa, knees drawn to my chin and wondering if this was what it meant to be adult – to feel like an undercover agent, watching yourself be someone you’re not. Faking to make it.

A whole afternoon unraveled, gluey with alcohol. Scenes are fragmented, with long stretches of time between, when the sun moved across the walls and I wasn’t awake to mark its passage. I remember sitting on the carpet of the spare room at one point, reading sheet music that had been left lying there like a trampled prayer book. The girl walked in and found me there; laughed and called me “Samantha” by mistake, then laughed again and added sorry, that was the other one.

I’ve never found out how many other kids they lured back, how many others had their trust breached. Days later, the girl had disappeared with the man to London. Theirs was a relationship built on the need of a lonely, frightened orphan, and a man with a desire to control. I remember staggering up the stairs to pull him off her, when his hands went to her throat. The next moment, they were kissing. My memory fractures again. It’s not something I’m willing to pursue. There’s a white-out space that I go to when under threat, known as dissociation. My novel’s protagonist, Joe, is bound by the same instinctive need to separate himself from reality; asking of the movie posters on his wall, what would you do? It allows him access to heroics, by proxy.

For years, I’ve done the same – often becoming a monster so vile that none want to be near me. Problem solved, to my mind.

It’s taken years of therapy to bring back even those piecemeal memories, after flashbacks and nightmares sent me on a downward spiral of Obsessive Compulsive Disorder, anorexia athletica (over-exercising) and starvation. My mouth couldn’t articulate what had happened. Unable to hold down employment, due to the constant need for routines and control born of OCD, I lived off benefits. It only fueled the guilt, as I’ve only ever wanted to be self-sufficient. Not only was I broken, I was bloody useless too. Couldn’t pull myself up, as others had. I saw all other users of the benefits system, as far more in need.

Any emotional or physical appeal that the human race might have had, was crushed. I couldn’t be alone in the same room as my father. That’s how deep the fear ran. Seeing what I figured to be a deep lack of self-control in those around me, I strove to be stronger, mind and body. Strict starvation, punishing exercise. No one would touch me again, or want to.
The upshot of this are a ream of physical ailments long as my arm. Suffice to say, my longevity has been somewhat diminished. This would never have occurred to the girl or her partner.

They weren’t looking for physical attractiveness. It was about targeting vulnerability, about manipulation. Most of all, it was about subverting trust.

This is where we, as writers, have a responsibility to depict the truth. To dig deeper than a plot thread, which absolutely cannot be left dangling; nor can it be stretched tight over a gaping hole that appears to be begging for some dark content. Too often I’ve discovered some gratuitous trigger-fest among the pages of a bestseller, had had that raw nerve touched; have questioned the author’s integrity as well as their intentions. They didn’t see beyond what the incident did for their story; there was no consideration for the person receiving, or inflicting the abuse. They remained a victim. There was little progression beyond what happened in the incident, and the hours thereafter.

The party girl in tottering heels and belt of a skirt, becomes the archetype of looming trouble, as she winds her drunken way home up some anonymous alley. I certainly don’t discredit these random attacks – at the police station where I work, I see and hear enough to know their grim reality. But it’s a commonly-overlooked fact that an abuser is more likely to be hidden in plain sight, in a position of trust. They may well have been a victim of abuse themselves, carrying on the awful legacy. We practice what we learn, use our outlets.

Certainly, there’s no justification for the actions of an abuser. But if you’ve the courage to write from their perspective, the audience will at least have a fuller spectrum of emotions; they will gain insight into the desperately sad self-propagation of abuse.

Refer back to individuality, for not everyone reacts in the same way. For me, the world became a closed envelope. Relationships of any kind simply didn’t factor in. My trust had been broken beyond repair, or so I perceived. I wanted to be quiet inside, to vanish.
Others will lash out. Some may attempt to rationalize what has occurred, projecting their pain onto others. Whatever the fallout, the coping mechanism should segue with the character traits already established, or if a complete personality U-turn occurs, make sure the reasoning behind it is thoroughly explored. Cause and reaction.

I speak from an experience not carried lightly. You don’t need to have been through the same, to depict an accurate reality. Experience develops a thicker skin, while empathy softens the soul beneath. Only try to imagine how your own Universe would come unpinned, through the actions of someone / several someones you invested love and trust in.

And there again – where does the buck stop?

I dreamed of travel and writing in my youth, preferably together. Had a huge map of Manhattan pinned up on my bedroom wall, with points of interest I was determined to visit. I was going to be a journalist, setting my face to the West, which has always called for as long as I can remember.

Twelve years have passed, almost half my lifetime. I am only now coming back towards that light of living, breaking out of old routines, because the only other choices were stagnation of self, and death. The length of time hopping in and out of hospital meant I wasn’t in full-time employment until 2007. This is a sore spot on my CV / resume, something I used to have trouble owning up to in job applications. Over the years, I’ve come to terms with the fact it’s hardly my fault I don’t hold many credentials. But I did decide to do something about it, when the illness relaxed its grip somewhat, post-treatment.

I now hold top mark A Level grades in English Literature, Language and Film Studies. Education is the greatest provider in the world, spurring us on to new heights. I am a catalyst for my own future, an instigator – fighting back against demons, using experience as a tool for communication, not a weapon.

Don’t be afraid to write from the point of view of everyone involved. It drives me mad to find the lazy catch-all of “evil” applied to an abuser, because it doesn’t ask – or answer – questions. It only makes for a 2-D version of something far more frightening. We should never stop questioning.

Speaking out on abuse is about putting trust in people, about seeking compassion. There will always be givers and takers in this world, but this should be relevant to your characters as well as the plot, not for the kick of addressing something darkly gritty for a decent sale.

The choice lies in where the cycle of emotion-action-reaction stops. To work against remaining a victim, in real life and in fiction. Give your character the option of fighting for their individuality. I don’t say this lightly. The happy ending doesn’t come, because nothing truly ends. But we can work towards being at peace with ourselves, and all have a right to freedom of expression – for justification, clarification, or simply to sleep at night. Some years ago, given the chance, I’d have happily poked the eyes out of the man and girl, for what they did to me.

Now, I’d just like to ask what had happened to them, that they felt the need to prolong the cycle of pain.

This site is particularly helpful in terms of research.

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13 Comments

  1. Karen Soutar said,

    What a moving, honest, enlightening piece. Thank you for sharing your experiences.
    I wish all the best for you on your journey forward.
    xx

    • celenagaia33 said,

      Thank you, Karen. It’s taken this long to finally go public after reading some brave accounts on Twitter. This is a point that just seems crucial to put across – the need to talk. Xx

  2. Nillu Nasser Stelter said,

    Rachael, I wish you had had an easier path. This piece needs to be read over and over. Your pain is acute but still you write with such balance, such an even hand. I am in awe of your courage and your insights, and there is no doubt that you are a gifted writer. Thank you so much for sharing x

    • celenagaia33 said,

      Thank you, Nillu. It’s been boiling inside me for years, this secret; something I felt I should be ashamed of. People’s candid natures on Twitter, have really taught me about the meaning of perspective and being open to change. I couldn’t ask for a better support system. xx

  3. The Administrator said,

    Twelve years may have passed, but it’s clear they haven’t been wasted. The perspective you’ve developed is awe-inspiring. It’s people like you who make the phrase “what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger” not so much a tossed around cliche but a statement of fact. It’s also apparent the “monster” mask you put on for some time was nothing but a mask. Monsters are incapable of seeing the good, human, abused, and broken in *all* human beings, including those who perpetuate abuse. It takes an unusually strong soul to do that. A soul that can see past its own pain and strive for mercy, compassion, and understanding. These are lofty destinations, far too difficult for most to reach, and yet you’ve managed to do so after climbing out of the darkest of depths.

    And, as long as we’re talking monsters, I should point out that outside of fiction, I’m not sure they exist. I have a feeling you’d agree with me. Evil is a tough thing to understand, and believing in monsters makes it that much easier. But take away the Halloween costumes, and suddenly we’re confronted with a true challenge. How does one confront or comprehend truly radical or even diabolical evil without running the risk of being dragged into the darkness oneself? I’ve faced my own limits. There are dark parts of the psyche I’ve not wanted to venture past for fear of what it might do to me. Looking at how Kant and others have tried to describe and categorize evil has been helpful, but confronting it in the real world is always a game changer. Not only have you taken this challenge head on, but you’ve used it to become a better writer and, based on the sentiment you’ve expressed here, a better human being.

    It almost seems silly to compliment style on such an important piece, but I’ll do so anyway. Your effortless inclusion of descriptors such as the sheet music “left lying there like a trampled prayer book” are warmth in your dark and chilling passage. Whether through hard work, latent gift, or some combination of the two, you’ve become a geuine storyteller. I would say more on this, but I’m afraid I’d start sounding a little sycophantic.

    If I could offer anything to continue the conversation, it would be the following: I was quite fortunate to get to know a man suffering from post traumatic stress disorder. I won’t relate the hell he went through to emerge with PTSD, as any description I gave couldn’t possibly do him justice. However, on hearing him talk of what led to his trauma, he offered some remarkably understanding and merciful words on behalf of other victims. Someone was trying to comfort him by characterizing the struggles he’d been through as much greater or even more “real” than what nameless others had endured. To this, he responded: Everyone’s trauma is real, no matter what brought it on. Who am I to judge another’s trauma?

    Clearly, he wasn’t interested in comparing sob stories. He was interested in spotting trauma–whatever the cause–and starting the healing. And Rachael, you have proven yourself capable of doing the same, both for victims and for assailants (whom you rightly identify as victims themselves). I hope others will be able to follow your example.

  4. bgbowers said,

    Rachael, thank you for sharing your story. My heart aches for the violence and betrayals that have forced you to withdraw from yourself and the world.
    Why is it that victims always turn on themselves, but not the attacker? Blaming themselves and spending subsequent years shackled by guilt and silence.
    I know what you mean about the abusers being victims in their own way, but I’m not sure that that gives them an excuse. After all, there are many victims who go on to help other victims rather than perpetuate the cycle of abuse. I know that in my life, I have seen a fair amount of ugliness, and, be they victims or not, each one was cognizant of their actions.
    As for your writing…be it fact or fiction, it is utterly absorbing.
    Hugs and kisses xoxo

  5. Annecdotist said,

    What an excellent post! There’s so much bad writing about abuse both in fiction and non-fiction, both from those writing from their own experience (without sufficient detachment/separation) and from those blithely using it as a plot point. You’ve managed to balance an honest approach to your own pain with respect for the reader’s right to make up her own mind about the events portrayed. The only thing I’d say in terms of criticism is to scrap the health warning in the introduction: anyone who is going to be offended by this piece probably isn’t reading anyway.
    Good luck with your writing career – looks like you’ve got what it takes in terms of something to write about (I’m not saying you necessarily need to write about your own experiences but it can come out in other ways) and a beautiful way of stringing words together.

    • celenagaia33 said,

      Thank you for this; such an indepth response, and I do appreciate it. You’re right re: the trigger warning – it’s more an old habit from when I was in hospital, we warned each other about everything. But the world isn’t made up of eggshells.

      It’s been strangely heartening today – the response to this post has been overwhelming. I feel raw each time I put it out there, as though stripping off a wound. But it needs to be done; we have to be so careful, as writers. I had an incident recently while proofreading a manuscript for someone, which was going swimmingly until I came upon the Mother of all trigger-fests. Sandwiched quite neatly into the plot, but blatantly to tick a dark-matter quota, to fill a hole. I sent the whole thing back with a reminder that victims of abuse are people too, not plot points. They took it very graciously, to their credit.

      It just doesn’t occur to people sometimes, that a victim needs to progress beyond being so. Not all of us do, granted; but the point is, they shouldn’t be held back by the fact they’re cut so 2D.

      Anyway. That’s the backstory of why I put this entry out again, and have felt a little voyeuristic of my own past today. Be that as it may, people have been fantastic in their support of both the message and my writing, as you have. Which is all we can hope for, in recovery.

      Thanks again 🙂

  6. Confessions of an Incurable Flirt | Raishimi33 said,

    […] days, they might suffer the consequences. I have woken from nightmares and flashbacks of the abuse which occurred in my teens, and been so out of sorts during the day that a single act of flirtation – from either gender […]

  7. Amira K. said,

    Oh, love. What a piece. What a work. What courage you have to have worked from this injustice. I’m so honored to know you and share in your stories.

  8. Gunmetal Geisha said,

    This is supreme. In content, style, honesty, balance, and so on… It also tells me so much about you — I don’t mean the incident. I mean who you started out being, your green-gold woods and faeries, your tastes and desires… All of your story as a human being is quite remarkable — and you’ve captured so much of it here — as are the conclusions you draw when it comes to writing, plots, and the depth of characters, even the “evil” ones.

    I’m honored to know so much more about you.

    • raishimi33 said,

      Means more to me than I can say, without getting snotty-nosed runny-eyes sentimental. But you know, the honour and the privilege is mine too, hon. You never fail to inspire me x

      • Gunmetal Geisha said,

        I’m equally inspired by you. (I’m also now irritated by my unintended multiple use of “so much!”) x

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