March 28, 2003
"A Legacy" by Liz
This piece, first appeared on this site in October 2002 and has since also been published in The Irish Times and The Furrow.
With all the recent fallout from the Prime-time programme, I am listening to what sometimes sound like hollow apologies, and people talking about “incalculable damage to victims” etc. and I am left wondering does anybody apart from those who have been actually abused really know what they are talking about. I have never seen an article about the legacy of, or the long-term effects of childhood sexual abuse.
I have recently started visiting this website, which is run by people who have been sexually abused for people who have been abused. Apart from the personal support I find here and the validation for myself in hearing other people’s stories, what I have found most surprising is the similarity in the feelings of the people who visit and contribute to the site. I find it hard to imagine that a group of people who would experience any other traumatic event in common would have such an identical set of feelings. It seems sufficient to mention on the website that you are having a bad day and within a short time you are in receipt of a number of messages of support from people who can describe in detail, possibly better than you could yourself, how you are feeling and what you are experiencing. As someone said to me recently in an e-mail “when we read each other’s writing, it is like reading a page out of our own book.”
I do not presume to describe anybody else’s feelings because ultimately each person’s experience is unique. But I question the ability of people who have not been personally touched by abuse to really understand just how horrific is the legacy.
My next birthday will be my fiftieth. I was severely sexually abused when I was three and four years of age. Forty-five years later, I am still dealing with it. While I refuse to define myself by my abuse, it is a huge part of me, has had a monstrous affect on my life, and regardless of how determined I am to do otherwise, it sometimes does feel as if it is all that I am.
To those who do not know me very well, and I include here my family, I probably appear to be a very normal person experiencing the usual ups and downs of everyday life. But inside me is a very different reality.
I sometimes feel that the inevitable end to my life will be suicide; the only things to be decided are the how and the when. How many people could you say that to without frightening them? Yet this for me is normality. I am not depressed. But I need to know that if the pain of my experience ever gets to an unbearable stage, I have a way out. I repeat, I am not depressed. I am upset today because of all the media articles on the subject of abuse, but I don’t feel any nearer suicide today than I did a month ago.
I live alone because I find safety in my aloneness. I could not imagine myself other than living alone. I need safety. Apart from the immediate trauma of my sexual abuse, one of the things I lost was my ability to trust. Through my experience as a child, the world became an unsafe place. All my ideas of protection and safety were shattered and have never been repaired. I have had counselling – excellent counselling – and have gained hugely from the experience. I certainly would not be thinking this never mind writing it if I had not had counselling. I even considered becoming a counsellor – and haven’t dismissed the idea completely. But I find the intimate contact with people that counselling entails difficult to deal with.
In fact, I find any type of intimate contact with people difficult to deal with. Actually it doesn’t have to be intimate contact at all. Contact with people is difficult – full stop!!! If I were to look for a diagnosis, I probably have social phobia. The idea of going out socially terrifies me. I do have some very good friends who know my story and fully accept me as I am. I found myself recently unable to go to a fiftieth birthday party for a very good friend. But she understood that meeting for lunch was much more comfortable for me and that’s what we did, and enjoyed it. While I don’t want a hectic social life, it would be nice to have a real choice. Yes, I’m sure there is probably help available out there for this particular problem, and I may well look for some, but I mention it merely as part of my story.
I have never felt able to tell any of my family about my abuse. To my knowledge my parents were not aware of it at the time. Certainly it was never mentioned. My mother is still alive, as are my brothers and sisters and we have a superficially okay relationship. But in reality I feel extremely isolated and excluded from my family. It is as if they all belong to a club that I am not allowed to join. This is in no way to place any blame on them. How could I expect them to understand or support me in something of which they are completely unaware? Why don’t I tell them? We are back to fear again. In order to talk to any of my siblings, I would need to feel strong enough myself to take any possible reaction they might have - disbelief, rejection or whatever. Given that I don’t feel close to them anyway, what have I got to lose? I don’t know. Perhaps superficial contact is better than no contact at all. Do I know that that is what would happen? No, but I am afraid it might. Recently I have been thinking that perhaps my fiftieth birthday present to myself might be to talk to some of my family about my abuse, but who knows?
There is inside me an anger, a rage that frightens me sometimes. Outwardly I am extremely placid, but believe me I am angry. Do I have a focus for this anger? No!! In the past I directed it at myself and have hurt myself in various ways. Always very subtly so nobody ever knew. On a couple of occasions I was hospitalised, but again always had a plausible story to explain the injuries. Looking back on these episodes, apart from the self-loathing which they portray, I think sometimes the emotional pain was so bad that if I could inflict a greater degree of physical pain on myself, it somehow overshadowed the emotional pain and was more bearable. Now I can rationalise this anger more easily and haven’t hurt myself for a few years. I think that having told my counsellor about the self-harming, the shame was so great that it
has kept me from doing it recently as I feel that I would have to disclose it.
The fact that I do not have children is a source of great sadness to me. I doubt that I could have sustained a relationship with a man, so I probably would have been a single parent. Would I have been a good mother? Who knows? Would I have damaged children of my own? I don’t mean sexually, because if I even conceived of the notion that I could possibly harm even a hair on a child’s head, I would kill myself immediately. And I mean that sincerely. ……..But would I have inflicted emotional and psychological harm on my children? Would I have behaved in such a way as to cause them to resent me, or even hate me? I don’t know. Sometimes I tell myself that this might have happened but I think perhaps that it is just a way of consoling myself for the fact that I don’t have them.
So how do I live my life? As I said earlier, I live alone and in my aloneness I find safety. For me safety is paramount. If you met me would you realise all this about me? NO! I would probably appear perfectly normal.
I write this to try to portray in some kind of concrete way what is part, and I mean just part of the long-term effects of childhood sexual abuse. I do not presume to speak for anybody else apart from myself. But I feel that the potential damage done by abusers needed to be portrayed in some sort of a tangible way. Do those who are apologising have a clue of what they are apologising for? It is not something that happened back then. Childhood sexual abuse is NOT an event. It is an ongoing life experience.
Can I say that my life would be different if I hadn’t been sexually abused? No, I cannot. I can only say that this is a part of my life AND I was sexually abused. Do I know that my life would not be like this had I NOT been abused?
NO, I do not. Because I do not know, cannot know, Nor will ever know what it is like NOT to have been sexually abused.
Posted by paul at March 28, 2003 05:38 PM
That is an astonishing account, and those of us who have not experienced abuse like this can only be in awe of the outward equanimity & dignity of most who have suffered this kind of abuse.
There is no doubt that Cardinal Connell should, right now, hand over the files & archives of the child rapists who wear the collar of the Catholic Church. Anyone who has seen the cartoon in today's Sunday Independent, by Tom Halliday, will wince at it's accuracy, even if we're not yet actually seeing all of the paedophile priest led to squad cars in handcuffs. In the cartoon, Halliday's Garda has his cap peak as far down over his face as possible. This is symptomatic of the kind of power the Crozier has/had over the State-instituted police force.
Bruce Arnold, for so long the journalistic equivalent of mogadon, for me, really awoke from his slumber on saturday, in the Irish Independent, and told it like it was. The articles in the Irish press, in total, the next day was rightfully in this vein.
There is a concept in law called 'mute by malice'. It refers to a court room situation, primarily, but, in the broader sense, it refers to deliberately staying silent when you know that you can speak up for justice. The bishops are hiding behind Canon Law, even now, at the end of October 2002. They make abstruse noises about their own internal way of 'dealing' with 'paraphilia', or somesuch semantic nonesense. The sense reel when one reads that Cardinal Connell 'gave up his glass of red wine with lunch' as a personal penance for the carnal abuse of kids by his priests. Presumably, with this money saving, he was able to bolster his 'Dioscesan Reserve Account', otherwise known as the slush fund whose monies were deployed to give to the offending priests to buy the silence of the latter's victims.
I believe, in the mid-ninties, when there was a paedophilia problem in the Scottish Catholic Church, their press officer, a priest, was asked by a journalist why they had bought more insurance for future victim's payouts, and he responded that, 'Such is the mood out there, that it is only good house-keeping'. This astounding attitude, with this specific choice of words, points-up perfectly the fact that this big Boy's Club, the Roman Catholic Church, should absolutely get rid, now, of the concept of celibacy, and permit female priests.
Because, if it doesn't, it will always attract low calibre candidates, with proclivities and appetites that are less than healthy.
I know someone, related by blood, who is an Opus Dei priest. In a pub in Dublin one Christmas, someone who knows the his extended family a bit more than I do, felt comfortable enough to say that the former 'used to be into cross-dressing; definitely had a period where he'd been seen on a few occasions wearing a dress. Oh yeah, that was well known.' Now, if I made the same casual comment about another person's cousin, I would expect struck in the face. But there was no reason to disbelieve this. Insouciant pub slander, or utterly true? It was left to me to decide. So, I says to this person that, 'The person in question is an Opus Dei priest.' They replied that it made sense, because 'He was always a bit of an oddball.'
As it happens, I got to speak with the priest in question, my relation, and determined very quickly, from my first conversation with him in 15 years, that I have more in common with a Peruvian banana farmer with this priest.
My point? It is absolutely and utterly unnatural to have an all male club like this, and attract totally normal people to it ranks. Would I ever broach the subject of accusations of cross dressing with him? Not at all; I'd be supremely embarrased.
Living in the USA for a while in the early 90's, I was watching a talk show, which I think was 'Geraldo' (Geraldo Rivera's show), and the subject was child abuse. On the phone - not in the studio - came the voice of someone who purported to be an abusing Catholic priest, broadcast to the studio audience, live. I cringed, because the voice was Irish. Who was this priest? How did it come about that he was in the USA? The interviewer said that he was undergoing treatment here in the US, and that he was contrite and sorry for his sins. But at no point did he say that he was part of an institution which was failing its flock, and that there should be women priests, and that this period of reflection had compelled him to arrive at the conclusion that the Roman Catholic Church structure attracts people like him to its ranks, along with their shielders and apologists. Where is that priest now? Was his 'treatment' successful? Is he one of the recidivists? Who knows?
The Irish Catholic Church should come out now, and give names, dates and details of money payoffs. It is not good enough that the media fire has been allowed to die down on so many succssive occasions. Even in Australia, when details came out in Alan Gills book 'Orphans of the Empire', of horrific abuse of kids at the hands of Christian Brothers in W. Australian orphanages, there seems to have been a collective ennui which has descended over much of the media there.
This really is a silent holocaust, and if it takes the selling off of Church assets to properly compensate the victims, then so be it. But the thing that makes most people shudder is the notion of dispossessing this venerable institution of half of its material wealth, so that even the 10,000 women, still alive, who were processed in the Magdalene laundries ( of a total of 29,000) can be compensated. Who really wants to see Churches razed to the ground to make way for blocks of luxury flats? No one is asking for this. But what they are asking for is total transparency on the part of the bishops to a full State enquiry.
Perhaps then can we get rid of the mentality encultured into my elderly father, who, in the early 70's, was moved to say, as we pulled out of a driveway, once, 'That young lady you just met brought terrible shame on the family, by having the baby you were introduced to just now, out of wedlock.' My mother, in the other seat, 'Tsk, tsk-ed' her oppressed assent to my father's words. They sought to do-down, in my eyes, this very nice young woman to whom we are distantly related. I was 11 years old at the time. I was later to learn - much later - that at about the same time that these words left my old man's mouth, a 'religious' Brother in Ballina was raping altar boys.
We, as a society, need to examine ourselves, and change so many of our attitudes.
You are a wonderful and brave woman. You write eloquently and intelligently.
Please do not feel lonely and do know that you are thought of.
This is the first thing I have read on this site and I don't know what to say really. I identify with it in so many ways. I'm just in the process of coming to terms with the fact that I was sexually abused for years when I was younger, and it is the first time I have really read anything that I can relate to, that I feel relates to me and that expresses what I can't express at the moment. And for the first time in months the extreme agonizing loneliness has eased slightly as I realize I'm not the only one and I'm not going as totally crazy as I thought!!! Thank you.
I wrote the above article. Thank you for your comments about it. I am glad you found it helpful, though I am sorry that you are in a position to be able to identify with it. I think many of us here can identify with the agonising loneliness and the feelings of going crazy that you describe. If you would like to email me you may do so through the One-in-Four office.
Take care and please don't hesitate to get in touch if you would like to. Will be thinking of you.
Just to let you know, the comments come from 2 different Cares! - I made the first comment.
The strange thing is, this site is new to me as well, and your writing really touched me.
I am just beginning to address something that happened to me. I've started counselling, and although it is difficult, I believe it will be a huge help.
Just to let you know, the comments come from 2 different Clares! - I made the first comment.
The strange thing is, this site is new to me as well, and your writing really touched me.
I am just beginning to address something that happened to me. I've started counselling, and although it is difficult, I believe it will be a huge help.
What a tremendously honest piece of writing! I read it, and could identify with so much of it: the loneliness inflicted for so long, the outward appearance of living life well, the constant companionship of suicidal thoughts. With even the best of intentions, people can't really know what it's like to live life after being abused: for myself, the feeling was of being an outsider, like a hermit in a vast desert, while I functioned well professionally in my work and on the surface others could not have known my inner truth.
When you ask do those apologising have any idea what they are apologising for, you really touched on a deep truth: and those who ask for forgiveness need to travel far and deep into the place of hurt to begin to understand what they are asking forgiveness for. But what you have written might help them to begin to imagine what it is like -- your honesty, your insight, and your courage come through so loudly.
Thank you for what you wrote: I hope that at some point you can break the isolation. These pages are a tremendous help in that regard, and I look forward to being able to visit the OneinFour office when it opens....
You are truly a very brave person, both in writing this piece and in living your life. I congratulate you on that.
You also show us how the trauma of sexual abuse continues throughout your life and how ridiculous are those people who say "it's all in the past, so forget about it" or believe that any amount of money can be compensation for the troubles faced daily. You articulate very well how difficult it is to deal with something so large that you know it will be with you for the rest of your life, but at the same time you don’t want your whole life to be defined by it.
However, I also see your message as an (elegantly understated) cry for help, especially in regards to breaking free of your isolation and staying free from depression. You have moved like many of us from victim to survivor, but are not a "thriver" yet. I would like to offer a few ideas from an external viewpoint, also of someone who lives with the effects of trauma and tries to do a little bit each day to keep moving forward.
I would encourage you to use your counselor and other support groups available to you to really help you – you speak of having had a good counselor before, and I hope you are still seeing somebody now, because you need at least one strong advocate on your side for now and a good while into the future.
You speak of your desire to break through your isolation with your family and others – you see that because your family isn’t aware of your wound, you live in a superficial relationship with them, yet you are rightly afraid of the repercussions and difficulties in making them aware of the real you. And you’re right, it won’t be a piece of cake, but it would be a great present to yourself whenever you feel able to make the first step in talking to them about the real you. They may withdraw for a while, may even say a lot of nasty things, but in the end will probably come through for you, and you will have a far-healthier and better relationship with them - and will certainly have a better one with yourself.
You also talk of your lack of hope for the future – although you claim not to be depressed, there is a little bit of “the lady protests too much”. You also have every right to be a little down right now. You have been able to accomplish a lot in dealing with your abuse, yet have now come to another crunch time in your life, and are unsure about your future.
You are a little stuck and frustrated, and you want more help. You certainly need more help than you are currently getting, whether from a counselor or other support groups. If you also need medical help over the next while, there shouldn’t be any shame in that – there are some very good drugs are there for, to be used by people like us.
One other idea – a lot of trauma is contained in the body. Although you probably rightly don’t like being touched much yet - you could try doing other things that make your body feel healthier – yoga is fantastic (or try feldenkrais too), swimming is good, lots of time in a beautiful area of nature can help too.
As you know, nobody has a magic bullet here - you like most people are high-functioning and going about your life in a fairly normal way, yet suffering the effects of a big wound and with a lot of emptiness.
You show us how, even though we were wounded a long time ago, we live with the trauma each day. We need a lot of help in getting through this and living our lives, and shouldn’t be ashamed to demand it. I see you as a wonderful, positive and brave person, and I wish you continued strength to sustain you in this journey.
Thank you for your description i dont feel quite so alone this minute.i am glad your still in the world today even if was just to make me feel like someone, without an alterior motive, gave me a hug. this is my first visit to the sight i am glad i found it. i was abused for all my childhood and have been described as having been institutionalised and i thought i was just being loyal to family!, we were like the waltons from the outside. the superficial relationships with parents etc. is dehumanising every meeting. i dont believe i am depressed either and my wonderful gp says i definetly do not suffer from depression, but then i learned early to be a good actress, and i am on antidepressants just so so sad and empty and tired of not seeing justice been done or truth been named naievity. thanks again take care
Thank you for writing that, im so angry the abuse has effected your life to that extent
I sobbed as I read your powerfull piece, it was very brave of you to write it. It give so much clarity about the damage that is caused. Maybe good people will read it and finally start to react in the right way, so that proper healing can begin, and no more time or peoples lives are wasted.
I wanted to say something but what I wanted to say seems so pitiful and pathetic and futile.
The enormity of it is so stark, CHILDHOOD ABUSE IS AN ONGOING LIFE EXPERIENCE.
You want to trust, you have no trust!
You want to be intimate, but you have fear!
Normality is fiction.
To tell yourself that you were not to blame seems so very inadequate.
Forgiving yourself for what others done to you is not easy either.
Yet time and time again it is trivialised, minimised.
Thank you for sharing this with us. It is an amazing article that has touched me more than words can say. I know this will help people realize the depths of the damage done to us and that it is something that will alway remain with us. Your words are so powerful and moving.
Hi Liz. Sincere congratulations on the publication of your article 'A Legacy' in the Irish Times today. It is an outstanding piece of work. You deserve all the accolades that go with it. As I have already said to you there are too many people writing 'about us' and it is great to see our opinion represented so truthfully and with the utmost dignity in a public forum. Thank you for doing that. May its publication be the beginning of something new and wonderful for you in your life. Take care...Georgina
Hi Liz, Congratulations of your achievment today. I had read this piece before but seeing and reading it in the Irish Times today brought another reality to it all. What you say is so real and meaningful to all of us who have been abused. I hope your words will wake people up to the legacy of abuse and that it will no longer be seen as somethin 'to be got over' and forgotten about. Well done and Thank you. Take care. M
We could not have said it better,
with sicere and warmest best wishes
Thank you so much for sharing yourself so wonderfully in this article. For me, it was awe-inspiring. It touched a part within me that just came alive again... I can experience periods of confusion as the lack of support in my family is overwhelming ... but your article helped get me in touch with the truth within me... the truth which empowers me so much... I can empathise with you, your feelings of suicide, of the difficulty of being intimate with an other person, of trust being lost... I myself am blessed to have a wonderful man in my life but it has taken me 6 years in the relationship to begin to trust him ..from your article, I see that learning to trust again is a life-long experience ... being open and learning to love myself is a life-long experience .. I am so glad you have taken the time to write about your life as it have so obviously helped so many people and it has really helped sort something out within my self.
Thank you once again
Literate, lovely, lonely, longing, that's our Liz.
Thank you for your help in vocalising how I feel!
Liz, I did not read this when the original post came out. I did not know of One In Four then, which was very unfortunate for me. Since I have become part of the support network, I can truly say, I am a different person. I realize I am not alone. My pain is shared by others. I am listened to and believed. My spirits are lifted by caring people when I am not doing well in my healing.
Thank you for sharing the part of your life so long hidden from everyone. So long suffered by you alone. It was written beautifully, by a beautiful, special person.
Your words speak volumes to the thoughts of many at OIF. (((((Safe hugs from your "sister-in-pain"!)))))