By Elizabeth Shane
Look up. Two simple words that were once said to me and resonated. I never realised until
recently, that I have spent nearly my whole life looking down. Looking down through shame,
through fear, through self-loathing and feeling too vulnerable for people to look into my eyes
and heart in case they see the darkness I felt.
I am the youngest of five children, three from my dad’s first wife, who he divorced.
Due to her severe mental health problems and child neglect, the three children were placed in
foster care from a young age and tragically their mother committed suicide. My dad took
custody of them and moved in with him when he married my mother. She hated them from
day one. From the time I was born, I entered a world not only full of hatred, but also physical,
emotional, and sexual abuse. From a young age I had no idea my dad had started sexually
abusing my siblings and at that time, he had also began abusing me. I was never completely
sure until a few years ago when I began to get flashbacks and memories of the abuse after he
died. I was filled with such conflicting emotions from the grief of having lost my dad, but
also loving and hating him at the same time.
When I was three or four my half-brother began to sexually abuse me as well, up until
the age of about nine or ten. I don’t know how but I knew it wasn’t safe to show any emotion
or tears in front of my parents. Both were cold, detached, emotionless and extremely critical,
angry, people, especially my mother. She suffered from severe post-natal depression after I
was born and seemed to vanish from existence in my world, except when she was physically
and emotionally abusive towards me. I was petrified of both parents and could feel the anger
and hatred aimed towards me from my mother, just for being born. Even though I feared my
dad especially as I didn’t feel safe around him, I was desperate for him to love me and would
do my best to make him smile and win his approval. I never gave up hope even into
adulthood and would be rewarded in snippets, with memories of him reading me to me which
was the only positive memory I can recall between us.
When I started school, I looked down even more. Feeling different from the other kids
I thought they would see the abuse in my eyes if I looked up. I became a complete loner and
would walk around the playground on my own thinking I was a rebel by swearing out loud. I
became a target for other children to bully me for being different; they didn’t like how I
looked and was often beaten up. I never had the kind of relationship where it felt safe to tell
my parents anything as I knew they would blame me so I could never tell them what was
going on at school. I went from being bullied at school to going home and being sexually
abused by my half-brother. The highlight of my childhood was food with all my fond
memories relating to places I visited and what I had eaten.
I never spoke of my sexual abuse until I started secondary school and had watched a
TV programme where they had spoken about abuse and realised things that had happened to
me were not supposed to. I only told the basics to a few close friends but at the time it was
like reciting lines, I felt so detached from what I was saying. They didn’t know the emotional
shame behind how I felt. I never could tell them some of the sexual abuse felt enjoyable, that
I craved the attention from my half-brother and what I thought at the time was love, which I
was so desperate for. I could never share that I felt special and important at times from what
happened. The shame from this felt bigger than the actual abuse and knew this was something
I felt too humiliated to speak about, which also made me feel like an evil bad person that
would be punished.
Around the age of ten, my half-brother moved out. My whole world dropped, I had
lost the only person who had even noticed me in the house and now had nothing. I started to
experience a lot of suicidal thoughts and kept praying for my life to end and not be kept alive
into adulthood. I had the beginning of an incredibly conflicting relationship with God
thinking he was testing me with all these horrible things I was experiencing and that I failed
by not listening.
The abuse continued at the hands of other men. My uncle molested me when I was
eleven and the age of fourteen, this happened again with the boss at my first ever job,
molesting me on a regular basis. I began to wonder if I had a big neon sign on my head
saying I’m available to be abused. I had to endure this for the whole time I worked there
without saying anything to my parents yet again, as I still thought they would blame me and
was too ashamed to mention anything personal to them. I silenced myself even more, pushing
down everything I was feeling most of the time. When feelings did come out, they were
extremely self-sabotaging and full of anger and hatred towards me and the world. When I
turned eighteen my dad was arrested on suspicion of rape against my half siblings, but they
pulled out and never went through with pressing formal charges. At that time, I hoped the
police would question me too as I had decided I needed to tell them what happened but didn’t
think they would believe me, so bottled out once my dad got released. I continued to look
I never realised the impact of my abuse until I was married. I took all the anger that I
was too scared to display as a child from all the controlling, bullying behaviour shown
against me and acted the same way but to the extreme. I had no idea at the time I was
suffering with complex PTSD and a form of OCD. After 9 years together, we tried to have
children through IVF which resulted in a failed miscarriage. I was beyond devastated and
blamed my body and myself for the miscarriage. Fast forward several months and we decided
to adopt a child. Nowadays, getting a new job probably would have been less stressful and
cheaper! Going through the adoption process kicked off my PTSD to the extreme, after
reading the social workers interpretation of my life where she said I had suffered trauma. Did
I? I had no idea I did; I thought this was just my life and the only one I knew. Well, the rage
came again overnight. I thought I would explode; I just knew I had to confront my parents
and tell them. Well, that conversation went down well! Not! My dad called me a liar and my
mother couldn’t understand why I didn’t tell them and why did I move back home if they
were such awful parents? We were still going through the adoption process at this point and
had to hide it from the social workers as they would have stopped us from going any further.
By the time we adopted our son, it was two years from applying and having to hide all my
PTSD symptoms from them.
I struggled from day one to be a mother and not to feel like I was evil. I became
paranoid being around him, I would get flashbacks cleaning him and would get such intrusive
dark thoughts, I began self-harming. I knew I needed to try and deal with my trauma; it was
affecting my life with our son and was so scared of abusing him I went to the police. I knew I
had to speak my truth and finally reported my half-brother after thirty-four years. The police
believed me and did their best to try and get my half-brother arrested but as he lived abroad it
was impossible to extradite him due to the statute of limitations expiring. But he knows I
looked up and spoke the truth.
During the whole process I have been in counselling and still am. At the time, my
previous counsellor suggested I needed an outlet for my anger rather than smashing plates
and said how about joining a choir! I said no way, I had no desire to sing in front of people, I
didn’t even sing in the shower! She nagged me until I finally went and joined one. And it was
the start of a continuous positive life changing journey. For the first time I felt like I could
look up and have a voice and kept going back each week. When they had their first concert, I
sang with two other ladies. I knew next time I wanted to shine on my own and do a solo! My
choir teacher at the time also suggested I should have vocal lessons (not quite sure what she
was hinting at)! But I did, and that’s when I met my amazing inspirational singing and drama
teachers who have got me to where I am today.
I keep persevering on my journey to find myself despite suffering from extreme
anxiety, PTSD and OCD around lots of things. After twelve years of being in an office job, I
finally said that’s it. I handed my resignation in January 2020 to explore what else is out there
for me and how I can contribute positively to help other people. I had no idea I would enter in
a global pandemic with the coronavirus which affected me like it has for so many others.
My mental health nose-dived from day one of lockdown, after spending months at
home, I felt so lost. I had no direction, I had no confidence again, nothing to offer anyone and
my mental health struggled so much. After reaching my lowest point last year I had the
opportunity to go on a short family holiday to the coast. I have never felt such a connection to
the sea as I did at that point. I gave all my emotional pain to the power of the ocean. What
came back was clarity. Not only was I meant to survive the storm but walk through it with
my head held high, with acceptance and recognition of my own inner strength.
Through the support of my drama teacher, she encouraged me to discover my life
through the power of writing and gave me a safe space to explore my emotions. I began using
it as a tool to process some of my painful thoughts and feelings through poems. Poetry has
been one of my mechanisms of helping me cope with some of my emotional scars left from
childhood sexual abuse and to find my voice again. It is quite terrifying and scary to open my
heart so publicly with my poems as I’d never imagined sharing these, but it feels the right
time to do this.
Since then, my confidence started to grow. My proudest moment came when I selfpublished my poems, Silhouette of a Songbird, written about my journey through abuse, to help support others who have experienced similar trauma. I hope by sharing my journey, it gives help to others to know they are not alone. To this day, I have continued to look up.
*We have added ‘Silhouette of a Songbird’ to our Resources https://isurvive.org/helpful-resources/books-you-may-find-helpful/
Hello, I just wanted to reach out and send you a message.
I am an adult survivor of Childhood abuse. I suffered extreme depression, I was a self-harmer, and I suffered from an eating disorder. I never thought hope was possible, I never thought I would be able to live a normal life, or even achieve any dreams. I started my journey of healing quite a number of years ago. It has taken me many years to begin to find hope and to achieve some healing in my life. I never thought it would be possible, but I have. I have come through the other side and proven to others and more importantly myself that it is possible.
I want to speak out about what happened. I no longer want to be silent. I want my story to encourage others. I know all too well what it’s like to be in a dark place, to believe there is no hope. I want to be able to encourage those who are still in a dark place, who still struggle. That it is possible. Yes, it is alot of work and it is hard. But it is so worth it. If I can encourage but one person with my story, then it will be worth it.
There is hope. Life is possible. You are stronger than you think. You are alive for a reason.
Thank you for reading.
An Author’s Dark Past as Inspiration
By Nicole Arlyn
I’m writing this from my kitchen in Brooklyn. It’s nearly December, and the afternoon is dark, cold and rainy. My baby boy is asleep in the next room. I’m making tea, trying not to clank around too much and wake him.
I used to get up, make tea, and write all morning starting at 6:00 a.m. Every day was like that. I’d get right into work writing—no phone calls, no emails, no people. I’d put a little makeup on, take a sip of tea and a breath, and then I was off into fantasy, into words and visions and adventure. Into life. Off writing for eighteen hours with a break in the middle for walks or the gym.
It took me seven years to write the Sadie books. They started out as one massive, handwritten manuscript that filled an entire suitcase and many notebooks full of backstories and character biographies and poems, doodles, and other books—all intertwined.
And now… My life has so completely changed from being the single, no-responsibility-for-others actress/writer woman with a pen in her hand and a suitcase who goes all over and writes all over. Now I have a home in Brooklyn with a baby snoring away in the room beside the kitchen.
And now that they’re all out there—all twenty-six novellas—it makes me wonder, “Am I okay now? Have I finally healed?”
(caution – may trigger)
In my home town on Long Island, it was really important to fit in. It was really important to have friends and a normal home life. To be like everyone else. I kept it hidden, this strange thing I was.
I had visions. The first time I remember experiencing this was one night when my parents were violently throwing plates and screaming at each other in the kitchen. My mother was screaming that my father was cheating on her and that she was throwing him out of the house. I had a fever that day and listened from my bed, under the covers. Though my head felt clogged, my heart raced. I knew my father was leaving us—this time for good.
But then suddenly through their fighting came a sound like music, the most harmonious melodic chorus of angels singing, coming closer and closer and saturating the room with this beautiful sound. It swept through me. It was so loud and full that I started to feel good despite the fever, like I was made of air. Like I was spirit. I felt love through that sound. And beauty. I knew I belonged to it and where it came from. And I knew, sure as hell, that I did not belong to the fighting.
When I was about nine years old, my then-divorced mother remarried a man I considered a monster. He was emotionally shut down, very cold and distant, and yet when he drank, he came alive. And he drank a lot. A lot of vodka, specifically. He moved in with my mother, my brother, and I, moved into our little white house and I was very scared of him. He was a big guy with red hair on a balding head and bad skin. He was like a broken pipe spouting sewage into our sweet, clean home. Hairy and mad. Mad all the time for one reason or another. He always looked at me funny—well, when he did look at me, which wasn’t often.
My room faced the front of the house. He used to come in there in his fucking white undies, look out the window, and stare toward the streetlamp. The light coming in would silhouette him so he looked like a monster in my eyes. And I would peek out from the fortress of pillows I kept around me, smelling his hissing vodka-breath and listening to his abuse.
“Who’s paying the bills around here, brat? I own you. You’re a brat. You’re spoiled. Are your tits ever gonna develop?” He would say all that as if it were a private thing between us.
He would come close and sit on the edge of my bed, and I’d feel the mattress sink under his weight. One time he grabbed my foot. It was harmless enough, but that one touch scared me so much that The Sugarspear Chronicles blossomed from it. Just his breath and that one touch. It was all inspired by that night, that threat, and the many nights and threats that followed. The terror riveted my imagination and sent it running, running off into the sky.
Off into the sky and off into many dark places I went, living my life recklessly and insecurely for years to come. I made things look okay on the outside, just like my mother taught me. I made myself look attractive, had lots of friends and talents, danced, acted, wrote. But writing was the strongest place where I could truly express truth, even if only in glimmers. Now when I look deeply, I see that I was often behaving erratically and rebelling due to the pain I felt from my father leaving me, and then how, because of that, I landed in the hands of this monster. I was searching for ways to fill that emptiness inside. That hole.
When I was going to school in Paris in my early twenties, I was crazy into my sexuality and one-night stands and all kinds of destructive escapades. When I was back living in the East Village, I got involved in the drug scene. So after trying to destroy myself across two continents, I ended up waiting tables and going to acting school, and that was when I picked up and moved to LA. There I rediscovered the passion I’d had for writing, the same one I had when I was that little girl writing every day in her backyard under the weeping willow tree.
Eventually I realized I needed to focus on writing the books wholeheartedly, without anything else going on. I disappeared to a flat in Devon, England, to write. It was peaceful there and serene every day, a green valley on the estuary of Salcombe, a wee town on the edge of Cornwall. I took walks and listened. My mind brought me visions of mighty angels flying around amidst chickens and sheep and moors. I often sat at the edge of the English Channel, writing.
I stayed up all night in my kitchen with the black, English fields outside my window, and I woke up each morning to cows mooing. It was bliss and still is. I felt I was born to do this job; it’s as easy and comforting as slipping on socks. I could finally search and discover and dig out what was inside: A girl named Sadie Sugarspear.
– Nicole Arlyn
By Pete Walker, M.A., MFT (Therapy for and recovery from childhood trauma, abuse and/or neglect)
I believe the foundation of my recovery work is in all the time and energy I have put into reawakening my instincts of self-compassion and self-protection. I have a fierce commitment to being loyal to myself – to being like a kind mother and a protective father to myself no matter what.
As my own recovery deepens, I notice that whenever it needs a boost, I frequently find myself invoking my inner child visually as sitting on my lap, and I tell him much I love him. I often feel myself wishing I could go back into the past in a time machine and rescue him – and bring him back to live with me in the present. I tell him there’s always a place in my heart for him, and that whenever he is suffering or struggling with some difficult aspect of an emotional flashback, I love him even more and feel a huge desire to go back in time and protect him from the outrageous unfairness he experienced.
This is a true and personal story of my life from victim to survivor. Not everyone knows my story, therefore I shall be known as “Chiquitta”.
I was born in Canada but my parents came from Guyana, a country in South America. They came to Canada for a better life asacid attacks were occurring in their homeland. My parents have an age difference of 13 years with my father being a lot older than my mother. My mother was a housewife who later worked at a bank. My father was a high school teacher.
I have 2 brothers, 1 sister and am the oldest daughter in the family. This was a curse; my parents were extremely strict with me and rules had to be followed. My brothers and little sister were given the rights and freedom to do whatever they pleased. The teachers would call me “a pleasure to teach”, for I was a quiet student. However, in reality, I was shy and scared to speak up due to an abusive home life. My father was an alcoholic; putting liquor in his morning coffee, drinking a case of beer during the week and a bottle of rum on the weekend. It got to be a routine; with my father binge drinking on Fridays and my mother packing her bags to leave us kids behind, so she could go to my grandmother’s house to seek refuge. She would return to false promises made by my father once again; until the next time, which was every weekend.
Visits from the police were a regular occurrence at my house, as well as talk of divorce. My father would take the boys and my mother would take the girls. When my father drank alcohol, he became a monster like Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. Hence, I grew up with fear and insecurity. I was mentally, emotionally and physically abused by all family members in my household. My father would take off his leather belt to threaten to beat me, or my mother would take a wooden handed paddle with her in her handbag when we went out of the house… just in case she needed to use it on me. Why me? Why not the other siblings? My mother later told me that she had no choice but to “put up” with my father’s abuse. Where was she to go with no job, no money of her own and four children to look after? In retrospect she had my grandmother, but there was a bad stigma connected with it. People would talk, and what would they say? My father demanded perfection everywhere. Outside looking in, we looked like a perfect family but little did the public world know that living hell reigned. School was the only stability in my life. I had no friends and was petrified to make any, for I never knew what was waiting home for me.
I later ventured outside of my house in search of a peaceful, happy, normal life. Instead I was further abused; sexually molested by my family doctor, my cousin on my father’s side of the family, and my cousin on my mother’s side of the family. The cousin on my mother’s side of the family sexually molested me when I was 11 – 12 years old. When I was 12 years old he raped me. I still remember the sight of blood running down my thighs. I fought so hard, but it wasn’t enough. What was an innocent game of hide and seek was his opportunity to touch and hurt me. After he had his “turn” with me, his friends would have their “turn”. I had nowhere to go for help. I wanted to call the police and put my cousin in jail but, with the abuse going on inside my own house, my father would be the one behind bars, and, however worse my situation was, it would have been even worse for my mother, my siblings, and me. All the abuse took place in the dark. Up until today, the dark still scares me to death.
By the time I became a teenager I developed anorexia and bulimia. First I would starve myself then “pig out” then relieve myself with extreme exercise or laxatives, never throwing up. This vicious cycle started at the same time that I was being sexually molested by my cousin. Later on, in my senior year of high school, I was bullied and physically threatened by a girl who did not like me at first sight because I was not of white skin. She was mixed race and she was being bullied herself by others; thus I believe she took out her anger and hatred on me. It so happened that her mother was an associate of my uncle’s in the real estate business. My uncle intervened, the girl apologized to me and later she was transferred to another school.
During my adult years I started associating with the “wrong crowds” of people. I became promiscuous, starting drinking alcohol and smoking marijuana, in order to escape reality and cope with the abuse going on inside my house. It was also during this time in my life that I was diagnosed with anxiety and depression. This depression led to several suicide attempts.
I got pregnant, had an abortion and later ran away from home hoping never to return. I had been gone for about a week when I realized that I had an orthodontic appointment. That is when I saw my parents.
They started chasing me. I went home with them only to be made false promises, just like my dad made to my mom every time he drank alcohol and raised hell. Too many times I heard, “I am sorry” and “We will change” but it was just talk. Nothing did change.
Later that week I came home from a party to find my parents waiting up for me. I was choked and almost strangled to death by my father. If not for my brothers rescuing me, like they used to rescue my mother, I would now be dead.
I then moved out of the family house to my own apartment, where I felt free. I started binge drinking and would invite men over to have sex with me and get drunk. On occasion, I would drink so much that I blacked out. The next morning I would realize that something sexual had occurred because of the used condoms around my bed and the ropes tied to the bed posts and to my wrists. I had been gang raped, vaginally and anally. The condoms, excruciating pain, blood and soreness were the proof.
I then moved to a city within Canada where there were jobs aplenty for secretaries. My parents moved to be near my older brother. I had no choice but to leave my past behind. I was not going with my parents; I had endured enough abuse as it was. My sister moved with my parents. My remaining younger brother stayed behind. Not only did I find a job and a place of my own but I found my future spouse. I got married but a couple of years later I unfortunately had a miscarriage. I never wanted to have children when I got married; but never knew why. Three years after the miscarriage I had a daughter and then, two years later, I had a son. My children are the lights of my life that give me the will to live when at times it feels like there is none.
I then cheated on my husband and had several affairs, both in person and on the internet. Enough was enough. My husband and kids were on the verge of leaving me and my abusive behaviors behind for good.
Thanks to therapy over the years, I have managed to almost completely heal from all the abuse that I suffered. The best decision that I made was to move away and start life over again away from my parents. As far as my male cousin is concerned; he married, became abusive to his family and is currently in a wheelchair in a drug/rehab center. Karma says, “What goes around comes around” and for all that has happened to him he truly deserves.
My father has never apologized for his abusive behavior to any of us. He is an old man now. Chances are that he never sought help and never will. I never had the precious gift of virginity to give my spouse for it was taken from me. Thanks to therapy, and the support of other incest survivors, I know that there is hope, joy and life. The only good lesson that I have learned about my past is not to do what was done to me, but to do right by family and friends. Yes I have had my ups and downs but for the most part, it is positive. I thank God for giving me such a normal life now, so much so that I pinch myself from time to time and wonder if it is actually real.
Thanks for reading my story.
Just know that if I can go from being a victim to a survivor, anyone can!
I was born in Melrose Park, Illinois on a cold day in November 1978 to a young woman not willing or ready to have a child. I would be told later in life that I was supposed to be an abortion, but the hospital called my grandma instead of my mother to give her news of the pregnancy; thus my mother was “forced” to have me. Looking back now, I think I spent my childhood paying the price for a hospital nurse dialing the wrong number.
–Excerpt from Why Me? by Sarah Burleton, CreateSpace Independent Publishing Platform, 2012
My name is Sarah Burleton and I am the New York Times Bestselling author of my child abuse memoir, Why Me, and the spokesperson for Prevent Child Abuse Illinois. Looking at me now, one would never guess that I endured such a horrific childhood; a childhood full of extreme physical beatings and mental abuse at the hands of my own mother. One would never guess that my own mother pushed me into an electric fence and watched me writhe on the ground in agony. One would never guess that my beloved animals were murdered cruelly at the hands of my mother for her own sick enjoyment. And one would never guess that not once in my life did I hear my mother say the words “I Love You” or feel her arms wrapped around me in a loving, warm, motherly embrace.
One would never guess this about me and my life because I made the conscious choice at a very young age to not let my child abuse define me. I refused to walk around like a victim and wear my child abuse as a badge for the world to see and pity me for. As many of you can relate, the last thing a child abuse victim wants is pity from people who have no idea what we have had to endure. We don’t want anyone to know what we have been through because there is a shame attached to child abuse, a sense of self-blame as if we deserved to be beaten or called names. Personally, I would bottle my emotions up inside and put on a tough façade to everyone around me, masking my true feelings of pain with sarcasm and aloofness.
When it became too much for me to bottle up my emotions any more I opened my laptop and poured out my life story into a Word document, self-published it and fell over the day I found out my little book had made the NY Times. Being on the list was great; however the most rewarding part of my job has been traveling and speaking to adult survivors, CPS workers and foster children. I realize that there are many of “us” out there, thousands of us who have been hurt by people who were supposed to love and protect us the most. But I’m here to tell you that we are not victims; we are survivors. We are here today because of our will to survive and our determination to overcome the demons from our childhood. Each of us has the power to use our horrible pasts as stepping stones to our bright, positive futures and as examples of how not to act. Every story matters and every voice should be heard. I love you all.
Edit: October 12, 2016
Please note that this article was first published here on isurvive and later on GoodTherapy.org