Earlier this month, I was honoured to have been invited by Jane Mulcahy to speak at her even on ACEs awareness in Cork.
If you’re interested, you can listen to her recording of the entire session here.
(Content Warning: References to Child Sexual Abuse, link to graphic piece on the effects of Child Sexual Abuse)
It’s been an interesting few weeks. As some of you may know, there is a Fear Nua* in my life and I’m enjoying all sorts of things that, for many people are ‘normal’ but for me are beyond any experiences I’ve had to date. It’s all good, though. It’s all good.
I’m not about to gush about him, because he is a far more private person than I am – and I respect that – but also because so much of what’s going on is private and personal to us and to the third entity that is our relationship.
I will, however, say this much: I’ve been learning an awful lot from him. One of the biggest lessons I’m learning is my own value, my own right to be, and my own right to be who I am. I’ve also been crying a lot more than usual, but they have been happy, and / or healing tears. Like last week, when I suddenly had a thought that had my eyes leaking; I’d resigned myself, years ago, to the thought that I would die without ever knowing the love of a good man, without ever knowing what it would it be like to be in a relationship with a man that wasn’t abusive. I really believed that I would die without being in a relationship where I was valued for who I am – or that I would ever be with a man who enjoyed being with me, rather than one who merely wanted to possess me, and crush me. Now, I know that’s not true. And, oh! The joy of that. The absolute fascination with being with someone who values my ideas, my opinions, my thoughts, my mere presence is something I know I can’t adequately explain.
A few days after we met, he mentioned, in the course of conversation, that he had been researching how to be with a woman who had trauma as a result of child sexual abuse. He wanted to know how best to react, how best to treat me, taking my history into account. Reader, you could have knocked me down with a feather. Never, ever, ever, has a man I’ve been with, or even a man I’ve been married to, shown the slightest bit of interest in finding out how they could make being in a relationship easier for me. I knew, then and there, that he was A Keeper.
Then, yesterday, he presented me with the bracelet you see pictured above. It’s a safety device, and I’ll explain why. Having already read this piece, he was anxious to work with me to ameliorate the effects any way he could. We were making progress, but then he had an idea. He reminds me that I have chosen him. That I choose him, repeatedly, every day, every hour, every moment that we are together. That I could choose to walk away, but I am choosing to stay because I am choosing him. As he is, likewise, choosing me. He needs me to feel safe. To know that I am safe with him, everywhere, all the time, no matter what. He would prefer if I stayed present when we’re together, because he is no threat to me, and I need to know that, and be able to remember that, and remind myself of that any time I feel I need to.
This bracelet serves that purpose: by simply seeing it, I am reminded of him, reminded that I am always safe with him. Touching it has the same effect, and – if I move my wrist slightly – the tags you can see chime gently, providing an aural reminder. As my friend Jane Mulcahy noted, tweeted to me ‘It’s v lovely & delicate, H. Like affection, intimacy & trust.’ I think she put it perfectly. This piece of jewellery has the added bonus of being beautiful. A bit like himself, really.
*In Irish, Fear Nua (pronounced Farr Nooa) means ‘New Man’.
The first week of August was World Breastfeeding Awareness Month, but in the US, the United States Breastfeeding Committee has declared the whole month of August Breastfeeding Awareness Month. In honour of that (not in the least because I didn’t blog about the issue during the first seven days of August!), I wanted to share a few thoughts on breastfeeding after child sexual abuse (CSA).
While so many of us want to breastfeed, and spend our pregnancies imagining doing just that – and, indeed, preparing for it, it’s not always that easy. Aside, altogether, from the issues and difficulties that many women without a history of CSA encounter, there are additional difficulties that may manifest if the new mum such a history. I’ve enumerated a few of them here:
It’s not all bad, though. For many women with a history of CSA, managing to breastfeed successfully can be an hugely healing experience for women. It is a(nother) example of her body ‘behaving’ properly; of her body doing what it’s supposed to do.
If you are supporting a new mother who has a history of CSA, there are things you can do to help:
The transition to motherhood is a monumental one for every woman, but it can be harder for those of us with a history of CSA. Ditto breastfeeding. Being sensitive to the possibilities can make the experience so much easier, and empowering, for these women.
With more than 25% of women reporting that they have been sexually assaulted, every midwife and birthworker will encounter a survivor of child sexual abuse (CSA) several times in her / his career.
Not everyone who has been abused will disclose to their midwife. Given that, I advise midwives, and other HCPs to treat all women as survivors until, and unless, they are told otherwise. There are a number of reasons why a woman might be fearful of disclosing to her midwife: Depending on where she is in her recovery, the woman may feel guilty about the abuse – victim-blaming is so common in society that it’s not unusual for a woman to feel this way. Often, we feel that we need to protect people from our reality, and don’t want to upset or shock our lovely midwives. There is also the additional concern that we will be labelled as ‘difficult’ or ‘needy’ or ‘defective’.
A survivor can also feel that her trauma will be minimised, misunderstood, or ignored. She may also worry that she will be told it ‘makes no difference’ or ‘it’s not relevant’. This is particularly likely if she has had these reactions on previous occasions when she has disclosed.
Pregnant women may also worry that their history of child sexual abuse will be recorded on their charts, viewed by many other people and discussed without her knowledge or permission. These days, with a mandatory reporting obligation on caregivers, women may be concerned that their abuse will be ‘broadcast’ and that they will be called upon to revisit it with other agencies. The stress of this may be something they don’t want to think about – especially not while they are pregnant.
Sometimes, a pregnancy might feel like the first time that a woman’s body has done something ‘right’ or ‘normal’, and the woman may be striving really hard to be treated as ‘normal’ throughout her pregnancy. There is always a possibility, too, that the woman may not have disclosed to her partner that she has a history of CSA. She may also be afraid of bringing up the emotional pain and stress of her abuse by mentioning it to her midwife.
Women may already have experienced reactions that left a lot to be desired with regard to the amount of empathy they were met with. Whether or not her midwife will be empathetic or knowledgeable is hard to tell on first meeting her. It can feel like a huge emotional risk for a pregnant woman to disclose her history of child sexual abuse to a stranger, even if that stranger is a medical professional. If a woman doesn’t get a sense that her information would be treated sensitively, indeed, that she wouldn’t be treated sensitively upon disclosure, she may feel safer keeping that information to herself.
(If you are a midwife or birthworker interested in learning more about how to support women who have been sexually abused, check out the details of this course, which will be available in May: http://bit.ly/2E9Be9p).
Last month, I wrote the first part of this ‘series’ in Forgiveness. If you’re interested, you can read that entry here.
I wrote about what I think forgiveness isn’t. I ended the piece talking about peace – and how those of use who have been hurt (and are generally called upon to forgive) need, and deserve peace.
Here’s what I have learnt about forgiveness in recent months, though – bearing in mind that I have researched this from an academic point of view, as well as engaging with people who work in law enforcement, and others who are dedicated to reform, here and abroad.
My ‘aha’ moment around forgiveness, though, came when I was talking to a financial coach, Karen McAllister. Funny how the answers you’re looking for don’t necessarily come from the source you might expect them to. Anyway, talking to Karen about forgiveness, I realised that my version of forgiveness was not about exonerating the transgressor, but about reclaiming the power that I was settling on them.
Let me unpack that, and explain what I mean. At this juncture, I’m going to go backwards for a little bit, and look at the etymology of the word ‘forgive’. To forgive means to grant a pardon, and a pardon is to ‘pass over an offence without punishment’. ‘Pardon’ has its roots in two Latin words: ‘Per’ (which means ‘forward’ or ‘hence’) and ‘Donare’ (which means ‘give as a gift’). To forgive, then, is ‘the granting of the gift of, henceforth, not punishing an offence’. Forgiving, then, in the traditional sense, the way I wrote about it last month, essentially gives the forgiven a free pass, while not doing an awful lot for the forgivee. To me, that reinforces something else I mentioned last month; that the only person we need to forgive, in that sense, is ourselves.
To come back, now, to the idea of forgiveness as a reclamation of power, I think that is the manifestation of forgiveness of the self. The person who has damaged you, who has trespassed against you, is not given a free pass, but you reclaim the power that they have stolen from you.
Perhaps the easiest way to do that is to use a real-life example. My eldest brother, Nigel Talbot, sexually abused me for most of my childhood. He is not remorseful, and though he has said ‘sorry’ in person, he has continued to abuse me in other ways, and he has also continued to abuse other women – sexually, emotionally, and financially. My forgiveness took the form of a letter to him. Initially, I was going to send it to him, but – thinking about it – I realised that, to do so, would still be giving him power. I would still be expressing a desire for him to do something / to be something that he could choose not to be. What I need to do, for myself, is to call back that energy that he holds while I don’t forgive. The forgiveness is about me, not about him.
In any event, I know that if I did send a letter to him, his wife would keep it from him.
If you would like to read that letter, you can do so here.
This was the first of many such letters I’m writing, and with the penning of every one, I am feeling stronger, and more self-reclaimed. It’s definitely something I’d recommend, and if you do it, too, I’d love to know if it works for you.
About a month ago, I posted on Twitter using the ‘Me Too’ and ‘Maternity Care’ hashtags. Quite a few people got in touch to say that they found the advice I offered useful. A number of women contacted me privately to say that they found my tweets validating and reassuring. A few fathers also sent me messages to let me know that they witnessed the mothers of their children experiencing issues around their treatment and they realised, having read my tweets, that these reactions and issues were directly related to the abuse they had suffered as children.
In the hopes that these words will reach – and help – more people, I’m posting them here, as well.
I offer workshops based on trauma-informed care to birth workers, based on my own experiences, and my academic research, (and the fact that I was Ireland’s first practicing doula!). If you’d like details, please get in touch.
There are a number of erroneous beliefs – otherwise known as myths – with regard to survivors of child sexual abuse. I’m going to take a look at a handful of them here.
Myth: Male victims of abuse will ‘grow up’ to become abusers themselves.
Unfortunately, this myth is so widespread that men who are abused worry they will, in turn, abuse children. Just like everyone else, however, abused people know right from wrong, and we are aware of the concept of personal responsibility. If someone who was abused chooses to abuse another person, in the full knowledge that what they are doing is wrong – that is their choice, their decision, and they must be held responsible for it.
Myth: Boys are rarely abused unless they are ‘weak’ or ‘effeminate’.
This is another harmful myth, and it can serve to gag boys who don’t want to disclose their abuse for fear of being thought of as ‘less than’ real men. While it is true that more girls are sexually abused than boys, the fact that they were abused does not reflect badly on them. Abuse only reflects badly on the abuser and those who stood by and did nothing to stop the abuse from happening.
Myth: People claim to have been sexually abused because they are looking for attention and want pity.
Fewer than 2% of people of people who claim to have been sexually abused were not. It is far more likely that people who were abused deny, or never disclose the fact. Many (most?) victims of sexual abuse minimise the effects of the abuse on them.
Myth: Children are resilient and if people remember childhood abuse, they will get over it quickly.
All people – not just children – are resilient, but this should not be used as an excuse to harm children. The truth is that the damage done by childhood sexual abuse cannot be undone. Victims can be helped, they can be taught coping strategies, they can learn that the abuse was not their fault, but there is little to suggest that they ever completely ‘get over’ what happened. Much less that they do so quickly.
Myth: If there is no violence involved, then it’s not really abuse.
All abuse is violent. Just because there are no bruises or tears on the skin does not mean that abuse has not taken place. The most painful of bruises are the invisible ones. Abuse takes place when informed consent is not given. Abuse occurs when an older person asserts power over a child. Abuse occurs when a child is treated as an object, rather than a person deserving of respect.