As I begin to start my AYSE in as a children’s social worker I have written down some reflections, based on my personal experience of childhood abuse and social work involvement.
I was let down as a child by many professionals; social workers, police, doctors, mental health services and teachers. My signs of distress due to abuse ignored or overlooked, and the needs of my parents prioritised. As a very soon to be ASYE social worker I am determined to listen to children. Listen to them with genuine interest, validate their worries, and not dismiss cues for help as ‘difficult/challenging’ behaviour. Children behave in a way which reflects their experiences and context, no child is responsible for asking for help. How can we expect that of children experiencing this, when as adults sexual abuse is still such an uncomfortable subject to address (myself included!)?
Remembering your childhood should be a good thing, but for many, more than most realise I am sure, it is not. Personally, pretending mine was different, or not real, has always been a way to manage. In fact, speaking about my childhood is an extremely difficult thing to do. As a child I was mostly mute amongst other ‘bizarre’ behaviours (yes, that is how I am described at aged 9/10 in my recently requested social care files). I have always denied and kept my history hidden, but with the recent help of a therapist I have started writing some of my experiences down. This is helping quite a lot and I am beginning to come to terms with my own story (30 ish years late!).
I know as an adult what happened to me for many years of my childhood was not my fault, I was a child so why do I accept and let myself feel the shame, embarrassment, disgust and everything else negative I feel relating to my experiences. I ask myself this a lot, I would never feel this way towards another person, but for whatever reason I do towards myself. The truth is, to me it is still disgusting. The flashbacks/memories, however these are supposed to be termed, tell me this. I am stuck with this shame, the people that did this made sure of that.
For me the most difficult part is to believe/accept this is even me. More often than not that girl I see, what happened to her, is not even me. I know it is now, I have been working on this! It is my reality. All my life I have worked hard to separate myself from this, the memories, the pain, the smells, the feeling; all of these experiences that come when I least want them.
At times I find it painful for people to even look at me, the worry that people will find out what happened and how this makes me ‘look’. Like its written on my face the things I did. I don’t want to be that person who experienced abuse. It’s almost as if she is stuck at that age, still a child in my memories and not a real person. That stubborn, strong little girl, who secretly was crying. She couldn’t speak or share what life was like, she didn’t let anybody see her cry. Nobody asked her, or maybe they did, and this was pushed aside like so many other memories. If I think about her now, I wish I could tell her it would be ok, that she would get through this, I want to cuddle her and take her away from it all.
It is a sad story and maybe I shouldn’t be the person I am now; about to start my first year as a qualified social worker. That seems unfair when so many other people are still trapped in their past, buried by it. I feel bad about this, almost like a fake. There is nothing special about what I have done to manage the effect of my experiences, it really all comes down to ‘situational luck’. I was ‘lucky’ to have met a stable, quiet, predictable partner, who was the opposite to all other men in my life. I was ‘lucky’ to have my perfect children. Or maybe it was moving away from it all and keeping myself to myself, separating myself from her. I have been working on this recently, how I have separated myself from my past. This is supposed to be ‘dissociation’ as part of complex PTSD, but to me it is a skill which has served me well at times, although admittedly not in very helpful or wanted ways! But does it need to be a disorder?
I don’t want a disorder, so why should I have to. If anything the idea of this just adds further shame and embarrassment. It shouldn’t I know, and I do not dismiss mental health difficulties, but I do not agree on labelling a person who has had to grow up around abuse with a disorder. Let’s think about who really is ‘disordered’, my first thought would be the perpetrators! I don’t have a suggestion right now for alternative narrative around victims of trauma, but surely one which adds to shame, guilt and embarrassment is not helpful and just serves to further oppress. To say those who experience abuse are ‘disordered’, means there is something wrong, something broken. I know this may come from well-intention in mental health services, but language and the meanings attached to it are important. Having that written down fills me with worry about how I might be judged, as a person and a professional.
For me now what I think is most important is to be listened to, to be asked what happened without judgement. No label needed, just a listening ear. As difficult as it is, I want people to be brave enough to be uncomfortable, its not nice but it was my reality and so many others too. I don’t want sympathy or anyone to feel bad or sorry, or suggest I am something I am not. I am not a ‘warrior’, ‘brave’ or ‘resilient’.
Unfortunately for me I grew up with a mother with severe mental health difficulties, who I had to protect from a ‘father’ who was physically and sexually abusive to us all. This was our life, how it was. Part of a family where sexual abuse was systemic and a ‘way of life’ from grandfather through to father. To call me a ‘survivor’ or ‘resilient’ would detract from other people who have experienced abuse and are not seen as ‘resilient’. Fragile, vulnerable and weak, this is the opposite to ‘resilient’; by using these terms this is what is suggested. That is wrong. Furthermore, using superhero terms like ‘resilient’ and ‘warrior’ suggests that a person can control or direct their response to trauma, adding blame to those who are not able to be a ‘resilient warrior’.
I defy anyone to experience years of sexual abuse and come out of it feeling like a warrior emerging from a triumphant battle. This is wrong, sensationalist and serves to help others feel better about another’s trauma, like there is some sort of happy ending. There isn’t, each response is individual, and none are right or wrong, better or worse. It’s a case of surviving trauma in the only way you can.
As a social worker I think this is important: consider that those children who push you away need you the most, be curious and remember that if a child’s voice is not heard, it can be observed – keep looking and don’t give up on them. Be there, sit next to them, play football, listen to music, be silly, prove you are not going anywhere, that you will wait. Expecting a child to trust an adult, when those around them cause them so much pain, takes time.
I am just beginning my social work journey and I cant wait to work alongside the most amazing children and their families.