‘The sexual abuse by my brother had long-reaching effects. I even experienced some of my therapists, at some stages, not believing I had been sexually abused’.
My childhood experiences
Do I forgive some people or past situations? Yes, I have forgiven most but there are still some things I have yet to come to terms with. I have to remember that those times were very different to nowadays.
Both my mother and father had a very strong influence on my life and believed that children were to have respect for their parents and other adults. As far as I remember I never heard my parents or my sisters or brother say “I love you” or “I care for you” – it was always accepted that you would know they did. I had blonde, very curly hair, while most of my family was on the gingery side and straight – I used to get stopped in the street and asked if I was the butcher’s or the milkman’s. I always felt I was different to others in my family. I learned early in life that for everything you did wrong there was a payment to be made, either God or your parents were going to get angry if you did anything wrong.
One evening when I was eight years old my best friend – a neighbour – and I were walking to a local club when we were involved in a road accident. Whilst I was unhurt, she was killed. The morning after the accident I had a bit of a headache and felt a bit ill. Mum said I was allowed to stay home from school for one day but would have to go the next day. Nothing was spoken about the previous night. My mother told me to forget about it. I found out years later that it was her belief that children will know enough sadness and trauma as adults – they didn’t need it as children. It worked to an extent, because on the surface I didn’t think about it.
I didn’t understand that my girlfriend had died, I thought she was missing and no one was talking about it. I tried to forget but there were so many reminders. When I was at school I missed her, she had been the main person I played with and now I hardly played with anyone at all. A few days after her death I saw her mother in the street and she crossed the road so she didn’t have to speak to me. Later my mother advised me not to go over to my friend’s house to play with her cousins. When I did one day, I was told by them that they were not allowed to play with me anymore.
In the same year that my best friend died, two young sisters were involved in an accident outside the school grounds at home time. As I passed the accident scene I heard the older of the sisters speaking to a man. She was being asked if she could wiggle free; she responded by saying that she couldn’t because “my sister is holding my hand too tight and she is asleep.” I recognised the voice. I later learned the younger of the two had died at the scene and older sister died later. Over the next few years my schoolwork suffered badly. I threw some terrible tantrums.
When I was around 10 or 11 years old, my brother, who was 15 at the time, started to sexually abuse me. I believe he picked up on my sadness and vulnerability. My parents saw me as a lonely child who would stay lonely. I wouldn’t get involved in anything unless I was heavily encouraged or forced. The death of my friends was affecting me even if I wasn’t allowed to talk about it and I think my brother picked up on that. My brother threatened me with blackmail. He threatened me with how knowing would cause harm to Mum and Dad and all sorts of problems would happen. He would say ‘I have the latest comics – would you like to read them? If you want to see them you have to come into my room’. I saw attention and I reached for it.
The long-term effects of abuse
A couple of months after my 20th birthday I became pregnant to a then 16-year-old boy. By the time we told our parents and got the court’s permission to marry, my husband had just turned 17.
We had three beautiful children together but my husband, in many ways, became my fourth child. He was drinking far too much and I wasn’t coping. My marriage was unstable, things from the past were worrying me and I began experiencing signs of post-traumatic stress.
I phoned Lifeline to talk about some things in my behaviour that I found worrying. I knew nothing about mental health at this stage but the Lifeline counsellor suggested I go to a mental health clinic, which I did. I ended up going to one for close to 30 years. Over the years I have had different therapists and got different diagnoses: Post Traumatic Stress; Major Depressive; and Borderline Personality Disorder.
So in my childhood I had lost one close girlfriend and two reasonably close all with in a few months of each other, all in traumatic circumstances. I had been involved because I had been standing there, listening or searching. I had a sense of loss each of those times and I wasn’t allowed to go through the grieving process. Only a couple of years later my brother began to sexually abuse me. That has to result in post-traumatic stress. These days, what they do when people are affected by trauma, they immediately send in the crews to talk it out, to alleviate possible future post-traumatic stress. Those supports weren’t around when I was a child, but they are now, it’s recognised.
When my children were still little I began experiencing blackouts. Then the post-traumatic stress came out in full flight. If I heard sounds I was under the table or had to block it out with my hands – no wonder I was classed as loony. I had times when the dreams and nightmares started. I started to re-live portions of my experiences, which were all out of kilter because your dreams are never straight forward, they are basically all messages from yourself to yourself. I went through the whole process of being hospitalised a number of times, mostly voluntarily. I went through self-mutilation, suicide attempts and overdoses, because no one was listening to me – that was my catch-cry: “no one is listening to me.”
The sexual abuse by my brother had long-reaching effects. I even experienced some of my therapists, at some stages, not believing I had been sexually abused.
Confronting my brother
I did confront my brother when my last parent had died. I waited until then because I believed the threats my brother made that Mum and Dad would be upset and everything would go wrong. I waited until they had died to confront him because I would then know I had not caused their deaths. I had kept quiet while they were alive. That’s how things get twisted around in your head – you believe you have to be quiet to protect others.
So when my parents died I wrote my brother a letter and said you were supposed to be my protector, you were my older brother, you abused me, you did this and that. He wrote back and said I don’t remember it that way, he said that I had said that I had liked the comics. He acknowledged something happened but would not acknowledge the extent. His attitude was ‘I didn’t hear you complain at the time’. What could l do?
My experience as a child was that my family didn’t talk about bad things because it may cause more bad things to happen. My brother used the fact that my family never spoke about things openly to keep me quiet about the abuse. After writing to my brother I raised the abuse with my sisters. One of my younger sisters said “yes, he tried it on me.”
I had therapists who didn’t believe me when I told them about the sexual abuse in my childhood because I waited until after my last parent died. The therapists’ attitude was you have been having therapy for years and never raised this before. They never asked and I never told.
I told my main therapist about the sexual abuse after I wrote the letter. My therapist said that in most cases it is only fantasy and not real. I responded with “I know my memories now, it was real, it really happened.” Then the therapist questioned me further and I said “don’t try to talk me out of it, I know what happened and I know it was sexual abuse.” He said “Why haven’t you spoken about this before?” and I said “Because you haven’t asked.” I said “If you don’t ask, I’m not going to tell.” He asked more questions about why I didn’t speak up earlier and I said “Because both my parents are dead now and I can’t hurt them anymore from that blackmail.” That was my coming out really. I was traumatised as a child and that has had an impact on my children’s childhoods.
How I coped
I kept on going because of my children. I learned to speak up and question the treatment I was receiving from the mental health system.
I have written my life story as a way of getting my thoughts out of my head and onto paper. It is a way of communicating my thoughts about what happened and getting things into perspective. It was a way of getting it out of the head going crazy, the heart going crazy. It was written as a private story for me and my children. My children have read it and I have shared it with a few select friends. It shares my views on how my life has affected me and what the future should be.
What I would like to share with others
Women with disabilities who have experienced sexual assault or family violence need support to be able to reclaim themselves, reclaim their own pride, their own independence, and their own self worth in an equal society.
The mental health system needs to improve how it supports women’s disclosures of abuse. As a system it often re-traumatises women by not validating their experience. I get angry at the blatant ill-treatments carried out by hospitals, governments and people in what is supposed to be the caring and guardian professions for their blatant non-caring and at times abusive treatment of the people in their charge. I get angry with government and bureaucratic decisions that disregard people. They are too busy, for the most part, looking out for their own backsides to care for anyone else.
When women with disabilities are mothers and they are in abusive relationships they are not supported. We need to change this. You can’t change your past but you can learn it was not your fault and learn to move on.
I would encourage women to get involved with community activities – help make a difference. I think: how can I use my experience to help things improve for younger women? How can we work together to improve society so women don’t have to experience abuse? Let’s make it a thing of the past, not the future.
I am passionate about people knowing about the forced sterilisation of girls with a disability. Through my connections with mental health I know women who have been forcibly sterilised. I have watched many women with mental health issues or intellectual disabilities with children and I think they are fabulous and very capable. It is clear that people are making decisions about things they know nothing about, they have imposed their values on others. I include high learning people in this. A high education does not give you a value system.
I feel strongly that we need to educate our children at school about what is good mental health and well being. Kids need to learn abuse is not good, trauma is not good, aloneness is not good. They need to learn what depressive attitudes are, what abusive attitudes are. They need to learn about positive relationships and they need to learn how to speak out if they see anything wrong. There has to be hope because sometimes that is all you have to hang on to, there has to be a better tomorrow.