Earlier this year Erin Delaney revealed on Facebook a secret she’d kept from almost everyone.
As a child she suffered physical and emotional abuse and severe neglect. The neglect had significant consequences, including a fractured skull from falling – which was only picked up when, after she vomited at school the next day, a member of her extended family intervened and took her to hospital.
Published in The Guardian
The emotional abuse included both parents telling her at different times that the other was dead, or that they weren’t her real parents; the physical abuse – the hitting, the kicking – depended on their drug use and moods.
“It was,” the 36-year-old Sydneysider says now, “a challenging journey through life. I never felt safe and I never felt grounded. You grow up hating yourself and thinking you caused it and you deserve it.”
Wondering if she’d lose all her friends once they “knew the truth”, the usually articulate and witty writer withdrew. “I knew it would impact how people thought about me and I was terrified,” she admits. “I began to doubt myself and believe no one would be interested, that someone might use it against me somehow.”
Delaney had always felt like she had two different selves: her secret, real self and a superficial, public persona cultivated to blend in. “I want to hear my real voice because it’s been silenced for 36 years.”
Her decision to post her story was inspired by a Guardian article about the widespread misdiagnosis of trauma survivors and her desire to educate people about trauma.
She attributes internalised self-blame, hurtful reactions and dehumanising labels from professionals for why she kept silent so long. She first told her story to the daughter of a Christian family she was staying with as a teen and was reprimanded. At 18, she attempted suicide. The psychiatric registrar told her to do it properly next time. “That pushed me back into my shell for years,” she says.
Delaney, who suffers from complex post-traumatic stress disorder, says society treats different medical conditions unequally. “One of my old school friends had cancer a few years ago and everyone offered to help, while my emotional injuries are a source of shame and isolation.”
Many people have since shared their own secrets of abuse with Delaney. “What broke my heart was it was all in private messages,” she says. “They were too scared to share it openly. I want to take the power away from my abusers and the only power they have over me is my silence and shame. To adult survivors, don’t let the fuckers who stole your joy keep stealing it even one more day.”
Kelly Humphries, a 37-year-old Queensland senior police constable, went to the police about her uncle’s sexual abuse when she was 19, but she didn’t speak publicly about it till her 30s. She has written a memoir, Unscathed Beauty, about her recovery.
“I want people to know they’re not on their own,” she says. “There’s so much happens behind closed doors [that] nobody ever talks about. I’ve always known since I was a child I didn’t want it to happen to anyone else.”
Humphries, who worked in child protection for six years, first spoke out about her abuse at Toastmasters in 2015. “It was a bit controversial for them but I think they recognised the courage it took. It’s hard to know how people are going to respond when you’ve had an experience like that but I’ve grown in the process of sharing and writing, reaching out to others and others reaching out to me.”
She recommends having a support system and good self-care practices when sharing traumatic information. “You don’t have to tell everyone but it’s important for the people who matter most in your life. People can’t support you if they don’t know what’s wrong.”
Disclosing has enabled others to share their stories, including her mother. “She revealed to me that it’s happened to her as well. She hadn’t spoken about it ever. All of a sudden, people start making disclosures and it doesn’t become shameful any more.”
Dr Cathy Kezelman, president of the Blue Knot foundation, a national organisation helping adults recover from childhood trauma, says Australia’s royal commission into institutional responses to child sexual abuse had found it takes an average of 24 years for people to speak about their abuse. “Some never do,” she says. The Blue Knot helpline has received calls from people disclosing for the first time in their 70s, 80s and 90s.
“We have a society that hasn’t wanted to hear about it,” she explains. “As we saw in the royal commission, a lot of people giving testimony spoke about trying to speak out as a child. Many were punished, they weren’t believed and their concerns were dismissed or minimised.
“Thinking about abuse or neglect of a child is inherently discomforting for us all. Often people hearing the disclosure don’t know what to say. Counsellors with insufficient training, despite the best of intentions, can retraumatise victims.”
It takes a long time for victims to process and recognise what happened to them was abuse, Kezelman adds. “They are often abused by people supposed to care for them. Some people don’t remember their abuse, or only parts of it. And often they haven’t made connection between the struggles they’re having in their life and what happened to them as a child.”
Mellita Bate, a manager and counsellor with Interrelate, provided support to victims coming forward to the royal commission. She says the insidious nature of the grooming process is behind why most people keep sexual abuse bottled up inside. The egocentric nature of children feeds into self-blame. “Most perpetrators start touching just a little bit inappropriately to see if they can get away with it and to work out if that child has the capacity to tell an adult,” she says. “When they start to perpetrate the abuse they use threats and emotional blackmail.”
Another disincentive for disclosing abuse is the pain of reliving it. “We have in our human nature a way of dealing with trauma by just holding it locked away somewhere,” Bate says. When people do disclose, it’s for various reasons in different environments. Triggers, such as the #MeToo movement and royal commission, and the desire to obtain justice, are common motives for finally speaking out, she says.
It’s especially hard to disclose sex abuse if you’re male. A 2014 paper by Sydney Law School found males are much less likely than females to disclose child sexual abuse at the time it occurs, take longer to disclose, and make fewer and more selective disclosures.
Craig Hughes-Cashmore, chief executive of Survivors and Mates Survivors Network, a not-for-profit assisting male survivors of sex abuse, frames the discussion around gender stereotypes: “Women are victims and men are perpetrators; men don’t cry; men don’t seek help,” he says.
The added fear and confusion about sexual preference adds to their silence. “The bulk of perpetrators are male, so if you’re a boy and are sexually abused by a same-sex person and you have a physical response, you’re left very confused about your sexuality,” he says.
Hughes-Cashmore was himself abused as a child. It began in his early teens when his parents were going through a separation and a friend of his father’s moved into the family home.
“He was a friend and a work colleague of my father’s,” he says. “So it was nice to get that attention. My dad had met a new woman and my mum was freaking out. It kind of suited them for this guy to take an interest as well because they were trying to piece their lives together.”
Of his experience, he says “your own sexual development is taken from you and that’s a really horrible legacy to be left with. We [survivors] didn’t have that exploration thing kids talk about, the first kiss and that sort of stuff is denied, and I don’t think we talk about that much but I think it really, really sucks if your first experience, like mine, is being raped.”
Apart from the destruction of natural sexual development there is the damage done to mental and emotional development.
“You’re talking about interrupting the development of the brain of a child and their education. It’s a major rewiring of the brain that can often leave people in a perpetual state of alarm, a heightened sense of who’s around me, what’s happening and constant vigilance. I was like that for years and depressed and suicidal because the world wasn’t safe, and everyone had an ulterior motive and who do you trust?
“Trust is a massive issue for people who’ve been abused. Because often these people were people we looked up to and admired.”
More damaging than sexual confusion and a potent reason for long-held silence, says Hughes-Cashmore, is the abiding belief that victims are more likely to become sexual predators themselves. “It’s kind of demonising victims.”
Regardless of gender, associations with mental health instability and the view the victim didn’t do enough to stop the abuse is another obstacle to potential sharing of the subject. “This shows a lack of understanding on the behalf of the public about the grooming process and the power imbalance between children and adults,” Hughes-Cashmore says.
Owing to their own sense of shame, many survivors expect judgment from society, he says.
One man who found the strength to speak out is Adam Savage. The 40-year-old Newcastle resident was sexually abused by two older teenagers and a Catholic priest. It took him until he was 37 to reveal it.
In 2016 Savage drove past his abuser’s house with a friend. “I said, ‘That was the house where the two brothers abused me,’” he recalls. “It was really impulsive. I’d completed enough healing where I found the inner strength to speak my truth.”
After that, Savage reported the abuse to police, then told family and friends. In 2017, as part of his healing and to get the perpetrators to confess their crime, he met them to ask why they had abused him. This resulted in them pleading guilty in court.
Savage kept the abuse to himself for years owing to denial, guilt, shame, fear and trust issues. “I didn’t love myself and I didn’t want to burden anybody else. I self-medicated with drugs, alcohol, sex and rugby.”
For Savage, speaking out has been about healing, justice, forgiveness and helping. “I believe communication is key with all forms of trauma. The three individuals stole my power and it was time for me to get my power back. That will form my legacy – communicating and speaking my truth to empower others. This has been a long journey, a lot of hard work, many tears and a lot of inner reflection. I can honestly sit here right now and say I love myself from the heart for who I am.”
Hughes-Cashmore says: “We’re just coming out of an age where this was incredibly taboo as a subject. People’s response to disclosure is often key to people’s recovery.” A 2018 study found social support buffers the negative risks associated with child abuse including suicide, health problems in later life and a reduced lifespan.
On the downside, Hughes-Cashmore reveals discrimination can be real for child abuse survivors. “I’ve helped men who have absolutely been discriminated against when their employer find out they’re a survivor.”
Ultimately, the need to share oneself often prevails. As Blue Knot’s Kezelman sums up: “We all want to be heard for who we are, survivors particularly, because it is so traumatic and has affected the trajectory of their life so incredibly.”
By Linda Moon
Published in The Guardian
01 July 2019