When I was 14 years old I lost my mind. Nope, not the normal ‘teenage thing’, I’m talking about losing your mind to the point where you’re afraid you won’t ever get it back again. Seemingly overnight, I had turned from a well-behaved and well-adjusted girl full of promise into a crazy mess. I couldn’t make sense of this back then and I struggle to explain it even now.
I can tell you the facts: That I was unable to sleep at night. That I messed up in school. That I started to cut myself. That eventually I ended up as a “school-drop-out”. That they have a special office for those of us in the local job centre; it’s at the very end of the hallway and I think they should re-name it into the ‘you have fucked up and we won’t help you out’ office.
But these facts feel random. Like collateral damage, a consequence rather than the problem. So what was the problem then? Well, see there it gets complicated…
The only thing I knew about it back then, is that there was this deep dark rabbit hole I would fall into without ever reaching the ground. And I knew that, once I was falling, I was falling endlessly. I knew that my mind and my body were so filled with some indescribable mix of pain, fear, and horror that I was afraid I would explode. I knew that in some moments I would have done anything to just make it stop.right.now. I knew that cutting myself sometimes helped, as sometimes it helped to listen to goth music, or to watch a David Lynch film, or to go running until collapse, or to just wait for the first daylight. And I knew that I was hiding all this from family, friends, the world – quite successfully most of the time.
Teachers started asking questions: “Why didn’t you turn up for the exam?” “Where is your homework?” and “What is wrong with you? Do you realise how many people wish they had your potential?!”. Some were worried. Others annoyed. Some called me lazy, immature, arrogant, spoilt, or just crazy. Many were disappointed. What could I have said to them? That I didn’t have time for my homework because I was busy falling down an endless rabbit hole…?
I pictured the men in the white coats coming to lock me away for ever, and instead started thinking that this was just adolescence and everyone else somehow was better at pulling themselves together. Or that I really was lazy and spoilt, as there was nothing bad enough happening in my present life which could explain me going that crazy.
But adolescence passed and the rabbit hole stayed. Eventually I went back to school, graduated as the best of my year and went on to university on a scholarship for the ‘highly-gifted’. You could say I finally got the pulling-my-self-together part right. Still, after exams, others went partying, and I went falling. It took me years and a lot of struggles to understand what was ‘wrong with me’. It took a lot of support from educated people in my life to make the link between my current craziness and an experience from my past. And when I finally understood that the reason why at the age of twenty I was still messing up my now pretty perfect life was the sexual abuse I had experienced as a child more than a decade ago – it made all the difference, and eventually it also made sense.
Why was it so difficult to make that link? Well, for a start, no one had ever told me that abuse creates a time bomb which can explode in your mind at fourteen and make you feel like falling down an endless rabbit hole whenever you’re trying to sleep at night. To people around me, the abuse seemed like a thing from the past, non-existent as long as you don’t talk about it. If sexual abuse in general was ever talked about, it was something that happened to ‘those people’, you know, these really messed up kids from really messed up families. Well you can guess why I didn’t jump up saying “Oh yea, and to me too, by the way!”. Truth is, it does happen everywhere, to all kinds of people, in all kinds of families (or groups, institutions, etc.). And usually we survivors can’t make sense of the abuse as well as of the aftermath. And usually we don’t make sense to the people around us either. Instead, the trauma we experienced has left us with an infinite number of pathways into craziness.
This is why we might be really smart but mess up our education and career. We might be seeking help desperately but have no idea what for. We might be kind, fun and sociable people but sometimes just disappear for days, weeks, or months. We might get drunk, take drugs or cut ourselves. And what seems utterly self-destructive, for us in fact might be the only way to survive the next moment, the next night, the next day. We might try to forget that it ever happened, throw ourselves into work, compensating, overachieving, manically running from the wave. And we might seem totally normal, even strangely perfect, until we are alone in our room and the wave breaks. We might be intelligent and sensible people but occasionally go out and have random sex with random people, getting ourselves in dangerous situations. We might become so overwhelmed by unbearable feelings that we attempt to take our own life. We might feel an incredible need to tell someone – anyone – about the sexual abuse, but are afraid that the sky will fall down if we do. Whatever path we end up on, whatever coping strategies we’re stuck with, many of us are lacking the words, the understanding, and the support to make sense of it.
Last year I watched the documentary “Chosen” in which three brave men share their story of sexual abuse in a boys boarding school. When the credits ran down the screen and the tears ran down my face, all I could think was: Had I only seen this film when 14 – it would have explained EVERYTHING, instantly. These men are from a different generation, different country, very different background, yet every word they said felt like they were speaking from my soul. I have never felt more understood. This generation of survivors who started speaking about their abuse – often only late in their life, often for the first time after their parents had passed away – allowed me to understand myself and find my words. I am lucky, that at the age of 27 I have managed to make it in my life and out of my misery. And I want to use my words now to speak, so that maybe a fourteen year old girl will understand why she is falling down that rabbit hole. And so that teachers, friends, and family can understand it and help her out.
You too will know a survivor of sexual abuse, even if you might not know it. We might be your clients, your colleagues, your friends, you students, your relatives. We might sometimes seem crazy and complicated, but the ways in which you can support us are very simple:
Have an open mind. Include the possibility of sexual abuse in your concept of the world. Be patient and don’t judge us. Listen to us and let us know that it’s ok to talk about our experiences.
It will make all the difference, because when one survivor finds the words, others will feel they make sense for the first time in their life.