Reviewed By Cara Swanston - Registered Member MBACP Adv. Dip.
My Experience: Living in the Shadow of Sexual Abuse
09 February 2024
At just 14 years old, Martina, our “My Experience” writer's life took a dark turn as abuse began, leaving her with an overwhelming sense of guilt and shame.
In the mid-nineties, at just 14 years old, local woman Martina's life took a dark turn as abuse began, leaving her with overwhelming guilt and shame. As she struggled to make sense of her feelings, she felt trapped in a new identity defined by fear and secrecy. Their abuser, a family friend and neighbour, haunted her daily life, and speaking out seemed impossible.
“It was the mid-nineties, and I was 14 years old when the sexual abuse began. I remember thinking that from this day onwards my life would never be the same again. I knew once the abuse began that the young teenager who enjoyed all the teenage things was gone.
I remember the sick feeling, alongside the confusion and shame. Feelings that I would adopt into my everyday living. The transition was instant, and what innocence was left, had dissolved in a nanosecond.
I can still clearly imagine myself letting go of my teenage hand, as I faded away.
I began grieving for the ‘old’ me, the teenager who enjoyed life so much. No matter how many times I would try, I could never make sense of what happened or how I was feeling.”
Many people who have experienced sexual abuse share feeling a burden of secrecy and shame. This can be even more so, when the abuser is known to the victim.
Martina said “My abuser was my neighbour, a policeman, someone I would see every single day in life. And every single day all the negative emotions would come flooding back when I saw him, it seemed like I would never be free from them. I was incredibly angry, yet sad too, because this man was a family friend, and now I had ruined that too.
I was now fearful of the abuse being found out, and what the consequences might be. I felt like I had no control over my own life. The shame and guilt I felt made me feel sick and I convinced myself that I was to blame.”
When we have experienced a traumatic event in our childhood years, we learn ways to cope. Oftentimes, these coping strategies follow us into adult life. Be honest with yourself about unhealthy ways of coping that you may be using, like binge eating or drinking for example, get curious about the need they may be filling for you, and then explore healthier alternatives to meet that need.
Speaking with Martina she shared how her coping strategies as a young person became challenges as an adult, “When I was young I learned unhealthy coping strategies like, that food was my ‘best friend’ and gave me comfort. And that alcohol dulled the lingering sense of shame and helped mask my low self esteem. These became issues that followed me right into adulthood and mostly made me feel worse about myself. I knew deep down that I had to do something to release myself from this cycle. I wanted to be happy and content, didn’t I deserve that?
I knew that to start feeling different, or “better” that I would have to do something different.”
Breaking Free: Unburdening Myself to Loved Ones
Opening up about your experiences to someone you trust, a friend, family member or counsellor can really help. There are many private therapists & charities that have programmes, support groups or counselling that are specifically for those impacted by sexual abuse.
Martina said “I still felt shame and guilt for all that had happened, and I still didn't feel able to share what happened to me until much later on in life.
I started with confiding in my husband who I trusted implicitly. It was difficult. Sometimes when I talked with him about my experiences I felt overwhelmed with emotion, other times I felt so disconnected nearly like it was someone else's story, but mostly it felt freeing and helped me process my past.
When both my parents, and my abuser had passed away, I then felt comfortable enough to talk to my siblings about what happened. Talking to them gave me the strength to contact the counselling programme at my work, who were able to set me up with a counsellor in my area.
This was the first time that I saw my future begin to look brighter, and I began to believe that I had nothing to feel guilty or ashamed about.”
A Brighter Path: Counselling and Healing
Many survivors of sexual abuse are deeply affected, often experiencing depression and mental health issues. The impact of this can be compounded when they feel unable to share what happened to them, and get support working through the complex and overwhelming memories and emotions. Getting professional help from a counsellor or therapist, can really help with this, as was Martina’s experience:
“Going through counselling helped me to learn how to connect the dots, see and understand where the depression came from, and why it is here, how I can better cope with my feelings. I learned that becoming aware of my challenges and facing the past, rather than avoiding the uncomfortable feelings actually helps me to be a lot kinder to myself too. Reminding myself that some days I will feel stronger than others, I won’t always feel this way - these feelings do pass. Personal therapy has helped me to look back at events that have taken place in my life, and see them ‘separately’ and to understand them ‘separately’. Rather than it being like juggling balls inside my head, or wrapped up into everything that I am. It is a part of my history, a part of me. But it isn’t all of me. My experience with counselling, helped me to understand that given the right tools, life can still be enjoyable and I can thrive despite the past.”
When we have experienced trauma in our past, it can be hard to distinguish between the present and the past. Learning how to use mindfulness, breathwork or grounding techniques to hack your nervous system and take control of those negative thoughts when you need to, can be healing and help overcome the after effects of trauma.
Martina learned about Mindfulness and Grounding Techniques online, and now she tries use them to ground herself and get present, when negative thoughts arise.
“I have learned to be present in the moment, how not to feed my thoughts, which before would have spiralled out of my control. When negative thoughts do appear, I am better able to recognise them, and actively engage in self care or an activity that feels nurturing giving myself grace and understanding in those moments. It wasn't always easy to deploy these tools in the moment, but I got better at it and I found that the negative physical and emotional triggers I experienced occurred less and less.”
“What I have learned through all these experiences and events, is that I am a very resilient human. Although I may have times when I feel low, or experience anxiety, and at times have low self-esteem, I know why this happens.
I can accept now that these feelings may revisit me from time to time, but with help I have learned to manage it. I no longer need to be defined by my past trauma.”
It can be really daunting to face traumatic past experiences at any time in life. But, if the experiences occurred in childhood it may feel like a can of worms you don’t want to open. Firstly, our brains weren’t fully formed and mature enough to comprehend what happened to us and often we didn’t have the support to work through our thoughts and feelings. It’s not surprising that we would bury them away, or turn the blame towards ourselves.
If you have experienced sexual abuse in childhood, that you feel like you haven’t really dealt with, but maybe feel like it is still holding you back, here are some helpful ideas for you to explore -
- Recognize Your Resilience & Embrace Empowerment: Acknowledge your strength in overcoming adversity. You are so brave and can help yourself to break free from your past and take control of your future.
- Speak Your Truth & Seek Professional Help: Open up about your experiences to trusted individuals. Find a counsellor, there are many private therapists & charities that have programmes, support groups or services that are specifically for those impacted by sexual abuse.
- Address Unhealthy Coping Mechanisms: Be honest with yourself about unhealthy ways of coping that you may be using, like binge eating or drinking, or other addictions. Get curious about the need they may be filling for you, and then explore healthier alternatives to meet that need.
- Embrace Mindfulness: Learn how to use mindfulness, breathwork or grounding techniques to hack your nervous system and take control of those negative thoughts when you need to.
- Be Compassionate & Nurture Yourself: Treat yourself kindly on days when emotions are overwhelming and engage in self-care activities to alleviate emotional distress.
- Understand Your Mental Health & Triggers: Keep a diary or journal to help you recognise triggers and to unearth the origins of your mental health struggles. Join support groups or talk to others with similar experiences so that you can share insights and understanding in your journey to recovery.
Acknowledging the need for change, and understanding the impact of your past experiences, can empower you to reclaim your sense of self and lead to better well-being.
Seeking support is not a sign of weakness, but rather a sign of your strength and resilience. If you choose to embark on a journey of healing, know that you are not alone. Whether through self-help resources or professional support, you can find the right help, at the right time.
Organisations that support those impacted by abuse
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I was physically abused by my Father
I had to break the cycle of violence, seek professional help, and embrace self-discovery to heal and reclaim my life.