Background Noise

I’m curled up on my bed, nestled amongst the pillows of the fortress I’ve built for myself. My concentration has unexpectedly returned to me tonight and I’m engrossed in a book. Occasionally I pause reading to smile to myself; it feels good to have this feeling back, even if it only lasts for tonight. It’s been a long time since I’ve been able to read for pleasure without ending up reading the same sentence over and over again, my mind busy wandering through fears and memories of pain.

At my side lies my tablet, quietly playing through episode after episode of the latest programme I haven’t really been watching. It’s been carefully selected: there’s no shouting or loud noises, just calm talking and the odd few bars of music. I already watched it through once before it made it onto my list of approved background listening, so it’s familiar and I know what’s coming. I let the sounds of the characters’ conversations wash over me as they displace the ominous silence that would otherwise fill the house. The noise soothes the panic that ordinarily bubbles in my chest.

Every so often I glance towards the screen as the notes of closing music begin to play – letting me count time as I reach the end of another episode – before I return my gaze to my book.

This particular book is by one of my favourite authors – or someone who used to be. I can’t remember the last time I managed to read one of her books, which makes this all the sweeter. I watch the way she crafts her tale, note the passages I like, and the way her words make me feel.

My attention is focussed fully and almost effortlessly, which is a rare occurrence. I’m not interested in anything else – I want to know what happens next, how this is going to play out. I’m intrigued by this character, who at first seemed so unlike me, yet whose experiences I unexpectedly relate to in a way that’s breaking through my sense of isolation. I want to know how her story ends, because she seems to be on the same path as me, blazing ahead, showing me the way I might go. I feel a glimmer of hope for my own life rising from each page I turn.

I need to feel hope again.

I’m still racing ravenously through the pages when I notice a pain starting to build in the centre of my chest. It’s not a response to any tension in the book: this is a familiar pain – a pain I’ve felt too much, too often. I try to shake it off, uncertain where it’s coming from – hoping it will leave me alone if I ignore it – but it grows. It demands my attention. It will not be ignored.

I lose my place, try to find it again, but lose it once more before the end of the sentence. I put the book down on the bed and push myself back up to a sitting position.

I know this pain, the breathlessness that’s joining it, the tension in my muscles: it’s the pain that comes when I’m in danger, when my body is responding to a threat. My brain has detected a hazard somewhere. It’s warning me that I’m at risk. It’s calling on me to take action.

The book now resting by my side, I sweep my gaze around the room, closing myself off from the fictional world I was absorbed in and bringing my mind back to reality. I focus on my breathing and listen to what’s going on around me. Where is the threat? What has changed? What do I need to do?

I begin evaluating, but stop myself; I already know the answer. I was already listening to it before I put the book down. The programme playing on my tablet had faded into silence, because my ears were listening to one thing and one thing only: the car engine idling outside my window. I just hadn’t consciously acknowledged it yet.

Even when I have filled the silence with background noise, I am always listening to the background noise behind the background noise. I am always poised to react in an instant. The vibration of my neighbours closing a door; the slight echo of their footsteps on their stairs; the creak of my house settling; the slam of my letterbox; a shout from the street; each car that passes; each car that stops. I notice it all. Adrenaline flows. I ready myself to respond.

I learnt to track the cars passing and approaching my house a long time ago. If I was home alone, then that meant he could re-appear at any moment; and I could not risk being caught unawares. This is no longer a conscious act for me: instead I carry on with whatever else I need to do while my subconscious keeps a careful watch, alerting me with the physical sensations of fear whenever it needs me to engage.

I’m always home alone now, so even though he doesn’t know where I am – and I hope it forever stays that way – I still register each vehicle that passes my house. I still take note of the ones that stop, and what their occupants do next. Sometimes I still run in a panic to the window to check whose car has pulled up.

There is no such thing as meaningless background noise for me.

Reflections

I had this grand plan in the beginning, that after a year I would be able to write something positive and hopeful. That obviously didn’t happen.

I have no profound observations to make, and my head is still not really in a space for writing, but I do want to try and include some positive reflections here on how life has changed for me for the better since removing myself from that abusive situation.

In no particular order, here are some of the things that have made me smile, brought me comfort, or made me feel like I’ve achieved something – basically some of the reasons I’m glad and grateful I’ve had this opportunity and been able to experience the world without abuse:

– progressed from forgetting to turn the lights on to being a fairly confident light switch operator.

– had my first landline installed and have tentatively begun using it to make phone calls, safe in the knowledge that nobody else is listening in.

– have learnt to feel less afraid of food and having to eat with other people around. The thought of trying new foods no longer paralyses me with panic, and this is something I’ve felt increasingly comfortable with doing when I’m alone.

– have stopped trying to replicate my old life and old home, and have begun trying to phase out all the old rules I was meant to follow at home (at least the ones I’ve managed to identify).

– feel comfort instead of fear and despair when I look at my own front door. It still feels nice to be able to come and go as I please without having to plan my route to the door so I can get myself out the house without being intercepted.

– like fearlessly standing in the kitchen, for no reason, and without worrying about anything happening because I’m in there.

– finally finished painting my home in colours that I like, that I chose for myself, and that make me feel calm and safe. (It looks amazing, if I do say so myself.)

– feel able to listen to music or watch TV without panicking about having the volume high enough for me to hear it properly.

– bought my first freezer and spent a very joyous hour in the frozen aisles of the supermarket acting like a kid in a toy shop. Shortly thereafter I declared freezers to be one of my favourite ever inventions. (I wasn’t allowed to use the freezer before. I love being able to. It’s really, truly brilliant.)

– sometimes I get moments at home where I don’t feel like I’m being watched. It’s pretty brilliant when that happens.

– am less terrible at communicating verbally to strangers/professionals.

– have enjoyed being able to make spontaneous decisions to go out in an evening without having to worry about getting in trouble, plan like I’m undertaking a military operation, or prepare for the possibility I won’t be allowed back in the house when I get home.

– discovered the lovely feeling that it is to come home, walk into the house, and not feel immediately afraid. I think I finally understand what people mean when they talk about going home and “chilling out”. I really used to have no idea what they meant when I heard people say that, it was an unimaginable concept.

– went to Bosnia by myself, hired a car and drove around without anything completely disastrous happening. (I still have no idea how I managed to get myself to do that. It’s a shame things have nosedived since.)

– feel more confident about beginning to make my own decisions about things – even if I do have to sternly remind myself “yes, you ARE allowed to make choices” when I begin to panic about having done so.

– love being able to clean without being watched and supervised (and everything that came with being supervised).

– was lucky enough to have the support and encouragement of folk online – generally, but more critically during the many times I was convinced I needed to return to him, or was sure I could not survive another night.

– have had times where I’ve been able to laugh about some of the rules he made me follow, and things he did, rather than only becoming distressed. (I don’t suggest everyone should feel obligated to do this, simply that it’s a relief for me to be able to do this sometimes.)

– have stuck with horse riding for over 6 months now. It’s strange to remember how I nearly cried when asked to get on a horse for the first time, didn’t think I could survive the first hour and had no intention of ever, ever returning – yet now I can (mostly) canter without freaking out, have started doing jumpwork, and have been out riding on the roads (without freaking out at all – I expected to be terrified).

– survived all the horrific – yes, horrific – things that happened after I left.

– am managing to vaguely survive the unleashing of all the suppressed trauma I spent so long running from.

– am very lucky to finally have the support of the mental health team in place, and to have had some brilliant people step up to help me and who saved me when I’d reached breaking point and couldn’t keep going by myself anymore.

There are probably plenty of other things – great and small – that I could list here, but I will leave it there.

Things are still tough for me, and the future feels scary and uncertain, but whatever happens I don’t regret leaving and I will always be glad I had this opportunity to experience this world: where I’ve have the chance to be free and safe, and where I know – and can see – there are a whole lot of decent people.

I am proud of myself for being able to make it happen, although luck had a lot to do with it, and I remain grateful to all the people along the way who have helped me.

It’s not your fault

I spend a lot of time reading – trying to understand more of the world, but also challenging myself to try and see things through other people’s eyes so I can gain new perspectives.

I think a lot of it over the last year has been an attempt to make sense of a world in which abuse is not (or should not be) the normal behavioural baseline for most people and to address some of my uncertainty about finding my place in that world and how to interact with it. Trying to figure out what to expect from other people and what they expect from me.

Lately I have slowly been allowing myself to face up to my memories of sexual violence. I’ve suspended my policy of extreme denial.

In truth, it’s never been a particularly helpful policy: in place of engaging with the memories I have instead been carrying a searing intensity of self-blame and self-hatred throughout my adult life. But blocking it out was the only way I could find to carry on; there were a lot of times in the early years where I felt like I was going to black out when the memories intruded. So I forced myself to bury them. I didn’t know what else to do.

There are two items I’ve read in recent weeks that have tapped into some of the thoughts and ideas I have been trying to reconcile surrounding vulnerability and external perceptions of victims of sexual assaults and abuse.

The first was this article by Deborah Orr concerning victims’ vulnerability. The second was this post by @CISimonNelson, which helped me to appreciate the thought process other people may go through and that lies behind them uttering the words, “it’s not your fault”.

I’d only ever really tried to reconcile that statement from my own perspective – and I kept returning in a circle to: “but it must have been my fault, it wouldn’t have happened otherwise”. It wasn’t an idea I could believe. Not about myself and my experiences.

I ended up spending some time reading legislation yesterday in an attempt to better understand some terms and references I’d seen in a news article. I find the impersonal nature of law helpful at times. It gave me some space to step back from things.

All of which started me on a chain of thoughts that brought me to a level of peace and acceptance I’ve not felt before. It all just began to click.

It was quite a strange afternoon. It went something like this…


I understand what happened to me. I understand the facts of what happened.

I understand that their behaviour was unacceptable.

I understand that it was a crime, regardless of whether anything can be, or is ever, done about it.

I understand how incredibly vulnerable I was and how I was targeted because of that.

I understand how deeply manipulated I had been and that I was being controlled and coerced.

I understand why I reacted the way I did.

I understand that I was in shock, hurt and afraid, and that I didn’t understand what was happening to me or how to escape it.

I understand that my sense of shame and humiliation stems from what was done to me and is not a reflection of my value as a person.

I understand why I never told anyone and why I kept it such a closely guarded secret – even from myself for so long.

I understand why I wasn’t able to stop it happening.

I understand why it has had such a devastating impact on my life, and I am slightly in awe that I even survived it.

I understand why I have always blamed myself, but I know that actually I had no power over the decisions others were making and what they chose to do to me.

I understand that I don’t deserve all the anger and hatred I have been directing at myself. I don’t deserve to be punished and I don’t deserve to feel guilty.

I understand that – even though it still feels hard to say – it wasn’t my fault.

I forgive myself.

It’s still awful, it’s still upsetting, it’s still traumatic to live with – but I do forgive myself.

It really wasn’t my fault.

Falling down

I have been quiet for a while. This is why.


This is a necessarily long post and I make no apologies for that. It also discusses suicide and self harm. I don’t apologise for that either. These are things that need to be said.

It was written contemporaneously, although I am not posting it quite so. When I started writing it was intended as a diary entry to myself only, but became something else, and I think it’s worth sharing – I can’t be the only one affected by experiences like these.

I hope you are able to listen.


Today is very nearly a year since I left/fled/escaped my abuser. I’m not where I hoped or imagined I’d be by now, and for that reason I feel a failure. In many ways I feel like I’m in a much worse place than a year ago. Objectively, although I am now safe for the first time, I have deteriorated significantly.

For this, I feel ashamed and like I’ve let people down. I hate myself for it.

I spent last night in the care of paramedics and A&E staff. I travelled home from the hospital this morning trying to process the blur of last night and the first weeks of 2017. Asking myself what I should have done differently over the last 12 months.

When 2016 drew to a close I had been discharged from mental health services, and had no support. I didn’t even have a GP I could count on. I had visited her before Christmas, distraught and struggling to speak, and she had promised to try and get support in place for me but then hadn’t even called me to follow up as she had assured me she would. She did nothing. And it didn’t surprise me anymore to be promised help and then be disregarded.

It was the final straw.

Before I left my abuser – when I was planning to leave, and the professionals involved in my care were encouraging me to make that leap – I was assured that as soon as I had left various support measures would be put in place and I would be able to start treatment for the PTSD I’d already been diagnosed with. I was told that whilst it would be inappropriate for any of those things to happen until after I left, they would all come together once I had.

I believed it. I made my leap of faith through the flames and landed on the other side, in this strange abuser-free world, expecting help to be ready and waiting. Instead I was greeted by a barren, deserted landscape as everyone hastily began to backtrack.

I was told I didn’t need any help now, as I was through the hardest part. I’d done the right thing, and now all I needed to do was call on my determination and I would be fine. It was just an adjustment period, I was told.

When I cried as I tried to tell people I didn’t understand how anything worked or what the rules were now – or how to live – I was told it was up to me to set my own rules.

I didn’t even understand what that meant. How could I set my own rules if I didn’t know what they were supposed to be or what was normal and acceptable behaviour; what was necessary behaviour and what was a distortion that had been forced on me? I was frightened of being located and I was just as frightened of getting myself in trouble by accidentally breaking rules I should still have been following. I didn’t have a clue what I was doing.

I still remember having to ask at the end of my first week how to write a shopping list. I was panicking and afraid I was going to somehow get myself in trouble for doing it wrong. The way I’d been used to didn’t make sense anymore, but I didn’t trust myself and I wasn’t sure if it was just because I was “crazy” that it seemed that way – or maybe just part of the awful rebellion I was going through by leaving, and really a sign I should go back and resume following the rules properly.

Then I made a decision I profoundly regret: I tried to report my abuse to the police. Not out of a desire for “revenge”, or even any expectation of “justice”, but because I was afraid of what would happen if he found me and I wanted the reassurance of knowing the police were at least aware of the full background should anything happen. I wanted to set the record straight. I had no greater expectation than that they would listen, hear me out and then record what I had told them.

It was a disaster. So much effort and care had gone into giving me trust and confidence in the police, and in the space of a few short weeks it had been well and truly obliterated.

I felt like all the people who’d promised they’d help me – all the organisations and institutions we live our lives expecting to help us when we need them – had betrayed and abandoned me.

My fledgling belief that the abuse was not my fault was replaced with a conviction that it was entirely my fault and exactly what I deserved. And that I should be deeply ashamed of the life I had lived up until that point.

I watched in the news at reports of other people coming forward about abuse and being believed. Being treated with fairness and respect. I tried to understand what it was about me – what I had done wrong – that meant I had received such a different response. I felt the pain of not being believed over and over again with each report I saw.

Of course the police treated me the way they did, I concluded – I had brought it all on myself and it was what I deserved for taking up their time. Of course health and support services turned their backs on me – I wasn’t worth helping and it was my fault for being weak.

I have no faith or trust in any of our institutions anymore. And that makes the world a very unpleasant place to be. I can escape my abuser, but I can never escape that. I feel even more powerless than I did when I was being abused.

But I kept going. I kept trying to find a way forward, to find a way to carry the new traumas along with the old, to find a way to reach towards all the hopes and dreams I’d had for my future when I originally left.

Despite what you may think of me from the things I write about, and how open I can be about how it feels to be suicidal, none of this has been about me “giving up”: it has been an expression of extreme pain in the face of extreme events. It is simply honesty.

I kept fighting, whatever you may think. I pushed and pushed and made a formal complaint and was eventually accepted onto a domestic violence trauma programme for 12 weeks. Where I was repeatedly told I would need long term support to recover, but that none was available. It would be down to me to do alone over the next 3-5 years.

A task that seemed utterly impossible and unattainable: I had already run out of strength. The prospect of spending years struggling on alone, and in this same level of pain and confusion, began to overwhelm me.

Still I kept pushing forward, kept working, kept trying, kept striving, kept struggling – but I could feel my hope dying, day by day by day. Fluttering away from me and out of my reach like leaves caught in the wind; all I could do was watch as it was swept away.

In October I learned that the police had made no records whatsoever of any of the things I had tried to report to them. The only records about me related to my mental health, and the welfare checks that were carried out after I was left distressed and suicidal by the way I had been treated and the experience of being told everything that happened to me was “nothing”.

All that I’d been put through trying to report, and there was no trace of any of it. Just a mental health label, sitting there ensuring I would never be believed by anyone.

I felt myself break.

I stopped writing.

I stopped talking.

I stopped hoping.

I stopped caring.

I felt the shame and self-loathing swallowing me.

2017 arrived and I kept going through the motions. Kept making plans for the future, bought my first IKEA furniture, kept going horse riding each week, kept trying to shape a life for myself. All the while contemplating my own death and wanting nothing more than to bring an end to it all.

I started making plans to die even as I was carrying out plans to live.

The pain continued to build.

I quietly left my house in the middle of the night and started walking. Hoping and assuming that the apparent invisibility that had kept help away from me for all those years when I so desperately needed it would now keep anyone from interfering with me.

I stood at 2am, alone on a bridge, wanting to disappear from the world. Asking myself what I needed to do to be able to keep living, what I could do that night to make tomorrow feel bearable – and unable to come up with any answers at all.

Then the police arrived. And an ambulance.

Four people sat on that bridge with me and told me they were concerned about me and that it mattered to them what happened to me. That they didn’t want to see me come to harm.

I listened to them, shocked at how genuine they seemed, feeling guilty I was wasting their time and concern, and feeling sad that it was already too late.

They followed through though, and in the days afterwards services suddenly seemed to mobilise for me. With an act that I fully expected and intended to go unnoticed, I had unwittingly set off a series of very loud alarm bells and been redesignated as “high risk”. I was on the radar.

The difficulty for me has been that I no longer trust them or believe anything any of them are telling me, and being put through another round of repeated assessments by a new succession of strangers – some of whom understand trauma and abuse and some of whom absolutely do not – has taken me back 10/11 months to what happened last year.

I felt like I was never going to be able to escape any of it. That the nightmare was starting all over again. I wasn’t going to be listened to or helped, I was just going to be judged and blamed while I provided responses for professionals to complete the boxes on their forms before they again told me it was all on me to fix – alone. I would be made to relive it all for them and then be told it was my fault and be abandoned again once the blame-shifting paperwork was complete.

Last night I harmed myself.

I needed it all to stop.

I needed to punish myself for all the bad things I had brought on myself and been unable to handle.

I didn’t want to have to keep explaining to people that it had been abuse, not just an unhappy relationship.

I didn’t want to be alive anymore.

I watched as blood started running out of me much faster than I’d expected and I began to cry in shock that this was what my life had come to.

Then I thought about the things that were said on the bridge that night. Their sense of urgency. The looks on their faces as they said goodbye to me. And I called an ambulance. Something I have never done before and would not have dared to do had it not been for those conversations. Whether they realised it or not – and I know I hadn’t – they left me with a lifeline that night.

Paramedic Paul called me back to assess me and promptly told me off for crying more than speaking and declared “if you won’t talk to me, I can’t help you” (a refrain no doubt often heard directed at those with physical health conditions who are unable to speak).

I sat on my kitchen floor, crying, bleeding, wanting to die, believing I was alone, that nobody was coming, and hating myself for having been so selfish as to have called 999 – and therefore having suggested I might have been worth help, when clearly there was nothing wrong with me beyond being weak and pathetic.

I began to try and work out how to finish what I’d started. It was over.

Then some people dressed in green arrived. And instead of telling me off and telling me there was nothing wrong with me, immediately reacted to my injuries and distress.

On my kitchen floor, crying and frightened, looking at the green-clad pair of knees appearing on the floor beside me, listening in shock to what sounded like genuine kindness in the voice that was telling me I didn’t need to keep apologising… and finally understanding that I wasn’t overreacting, because I really wasn’t okay. But that here were people who cared and wanted to help me.


I may write about last night more specifically at a later point. I’m still overwhelmed by the level of care shown towards me by everyone I met. They were amazing.

For now, I just want to say thank you.

Thank you to all the helpers out there doing their best in difficult circumstances. It does make a difference.

Thank you to everybody who has reached out a hand to me, even if I haven’t known how to reach back or felt that I deserved to do so.

Thank you to all the people shining lights in my direction. I know you’re there even if it still hurts too much for me to look your way.


As was said to me last night (in an analogy I shall no doubt butcher slightly): I’ve fallen down. Pretty damn hard. Now it’s about helping me get back up, on my feet, and onto the first rung of the ladder so I can start climbing my way out of this black hole. I don’t know if I can, I don’t yet feel strong enough to contemplate anything other than the idea of a ladder and people who want to help me climb it, and I don’t want to make false promises or give false hope that I will manage it, but I’m grateful for all the people who genuinely do care and are trying to help me. It’s brought me comfort in moments when I didn’t think there was any left to be had – and that’s enough for me right now.

Here’s to Year 2.

Office Based

I stop scrolling and lean back in my chair, my left hand absently twirling my pen as I focus on the screen. I start bobbing my toes up and down inside my boots, trying to redirect my growing tension into the balls of my feet so my legs won’t bounce up and down with anxiety.

The bored expression on my face remains unchanged as I contemplate the changes I need to make to the report. Images have started moving before my mind’s eye, pulling my thoughts away from my work. I try to brush them away, but instead they leap into vivid focus. Sound joins them in a sudden explosion of shouting that only I can hear.

I start scrolling again, trying to draw my attention away from the scene replaying in my head. I watch as objects start flying around my kitchen. Hear him shouting about the easy life I’ve had as he opens cupboards and slams them again.

I’m struggling to catch my breath as the anxiety reaches my chest. I feel my muscles tighten, the cold sensation as my throat threatens to close up on me. The clawing hands of pain and fear grasping at me. I can’t breathe. I’m not safe. I have to get out of here.

Can’t. Not. Safe. Stop.

I’m going to lose it. I can feel myself tipping over the edge.

Not here. Not now.

I grip my pen tighter.

I’m not scrolling anymore, but I keep staring at the screen. The office around me is quiet as my stomach lurches at the sound of saucepans bouncing off kitchen counters. A jolt of panic shoots across my shoulders. I stifle a gasp.

The screen in front of me is out of focus as I hear myself crying, begging him to stop. Hear him laugh at me by way of reply. The questions of “why?” that filled my head back then clamour for attention again. I feel like someone has just poured icy water over me.

My shoulders are open and relaxed in my chair as shockwaves race up and down my body. My toes are bouncing faster in my boots, but my legs are still. I tap the end of my pen gently against my lips as I wait for the images to burn out.

His enraged face bursts before my eyes. My heart flares in my chest. I feel tears behind my eyes. A knot forming in my chest. I keep wearing the same glassy expression.

I tell myself it will pass. It has to pass. It can’t last forever.

The sick feeling in my stomach begs to differ.

I glance across at my colleagues, still quietly absorbed in their work. Oblivious to the nightmare playing out before me. Worlds apart from me. I envy them.

Memories can’t hurt me. I repeat the mantra. Lamely. It doesn’t feel very accurate.

I sit, the knot of emotions in my chest expanding, unravelling; until all the feelings I had that night are racing hungrily through my body, flooding out any sense of calm. I feel myself inwardly shaking.

I want to cry and scream. I want to plead with the memories the same way I used to plead with him. I just want them to leave me alone. I don’t want to keep going back there.

Eventually the images begin to fade, and the noise ebbs away. I’m left with a staccato of echoes, no longer in synch with the blurred flashes of shape and colour moving before me. A broken showreel that won’t switch off.

I lean forward and slowly start typing again.

Triumph

Recently I did something that terrified me and that I had always felt certain I would never do. I had never had any interest in trying it – for that fairly obvious reason – and couldn’t have imagined a scenario where I ever would. But I did. Somehow I did.

I rode a horse.

A couple of months after leaving my abuser I read an account by an Australian woman who had experienced domestic abuse. She talked about her life afterwards, how she had started working with horses, and the role this had played in her recovery.

I was in an extremely dark, painful, frightening place at that time; I couldn’t see any way forward or imagine reaching a future where I would be okay, where my pain would be bearable and I would be able to live a life that didn’t hurt this way, and where I wasn’t hamstrung by the problems the abuse had left me with. Even though I had never met this woman, and we were very different, I felt a connection to her through reading her story and the struggles she had gone through after leaving. I could relate to so much of it.

I had just been through a series of welfare checks (or “existence checks” as I’ve recently seen them called), but beyond that nobody around me seemed able to offer me any prospect of my pain reducing – or show any sign that a route to achieving that even existed. However, a small glint of hope flickered into life after reading her story. It stayed in my mind.

She had referenced the non-verbal nature of working with horses compared to interacting with people (and psychologists in particular) and the benefits of this. Verbal communication is something I have particular difficulties with and the preceding weeks had brought that into sharp focus for me. I was frustrated and despairing. After all, what kind of future could I hope for if I couldn’t make myself understood properly or understand others correctly? I wondered if there was a way to incorporate what she’d written about into my life. Could I adapt it in some way? Could bringing animals into the equation help me to heal whilst giving me a break from the exhaustion and distress of trying and failing to communicate with people effectively?

There was a slight drawback with this idea in that I’ve never really been much of an animal person, and more specifically I’ve always been scared of horses and therefore stayed away from them. Much as I kept trying to imagine it, I still couldn’t see myself involved with horses the way she was. Hamsters maybe, but not horses. I liked watching them from afar, but I’ve always avoided going near them; the notion of riding one was still not something I even contemplated as a possibility – it was just too far removed from my reality. If I was scared to be around them I was hardly going to ride one. The idea stayed with me, but I didn’t try to pursue it.

Then I saw a group lesson being advertised.

I immediately dismissed it as impossible and turned the page. I could never get on a horse. I couldn’t join a group of people I didn’t know. I wouldn’t be able to do it. I couldn’t cope with something like that. I was too much of a mess. It was too soon to attempt something so ambitious.

But I saved that page. I kept turning back to it. The idea wouldn’t leave me alone. The thought of letting the opportunity go started to annoy me. At the very least I wanted to know what it felt like to be near a horse. This was my chance.

Which is how I found myself sitting in a riding school carpark, putting boots on, but mentally preparing to switch the car engine back on and drive home again. I’d already made it further than I thought I would; I would forgive myself if this was as far as I got this time. I hadn’t even been sure I was going to make it out of the house that morning. It all felt like a mistake. I was over-reaching.

Images played through my mind of the instructor shouting at me for arriving in the wrong clothes, for arriving too early, for being in the wrong place, of him turning scarlet red with anger and sending me packing for wearing the wrong boots. I was useless, I was a failure and I definitely couldn’t do this. I was going to get in trouble somehow. I knew it.

My heart was racing, my chest was tight, I felt sick, and I was on the verge of tears – and I hadn’t even seen a horse yet. All the proof I needed that I should bail while I still could. I was pushing myself too far. I wasn’t strong enough to deal with the inevitable anger that would be directed at me when I made a mistake.

As I stared at my feet, chastising myself for my poor choice of footwear, somebody else arrived. I followed her at a casual “please don’t notice I’m following you” distance, and when she disappeared around a corner I broke into a jog so I wouldn’t lose her – and with her my chance to hide behind someone on arrival.

Once I’d been seen I had to stay. We were met with smiles, and my boots got the thumbs up as “perfect”. Nobody shouted at me. I wasn’t sent packing. There was no anger. No punishment or humiliation. I felt an “oh” of surprise pop into my mind.

We started with the inevitable paperwork, and I sat in pure amazement and relief as we received the most relaxed, informal briefing and introduction to horse riding it is possible to imagine. I started to wonder how I could have been so convinced a few moments before that I’d be met with such rage. It had felt absolutely inevitable. Anger always feels so inevitable to me.

Ten minutes in I still hadn’t seen a horse. I was okay with that though. There were posters of horses. I was listening to someone talk about horses. That was plenty close enough. I listened to them talk and realised as I nodded along that I knew absolutely nothing about horses or horse riding, and this was far more complicated than I had envisaged.

Just as I began to calm down I found myself being handed a helmet. Panic flared again in my chest. I didn’t want a helmet. Helmets were for people who were going horse riding. That wasn’t me. I was still waiting for a chance to run away and escape before my foolish idea got any more out of hand. I was just here for experimental and investigatory purposes.

Of course, I’m not very good at saying no. So I followed quietly and hesitantly out to the yard instead, where I listened in panic, and with growing dismay, as they discussed who should have which horse. I bit my lip and tried not to cry as the first horse was walked towards us.

I felt myself take a step backwards. I didn’t want to be at the front of the group. I didn’t want to be asked to get on a horse. I wanted to disappear, make myself invisible. I could feel panic taking over again. My body was getting ready to flee. I glanced over my shoulder towards the gate. I had a clear path.

While I was distracted contemplating my escape, I ran out of people to hide behind: it was my turn. I was going to cry. Or be sick. One of the two. But I wasn’t getting on a horse. Not that horse standing in front of me. Not the horse whose reins my shaking hand was holding as I stood on the mounting block with tears pricking at my eyes.

“That’s it. Now take the saddle with your other hand…”

I was going to cry. I was going to cry. I wasn’t ready for this. My chest seized up again. Panic telling me to shake my head and refuse.

I was too scared to say no to them. I watched as my hands moved, felt my leg swing over, and lowered myself into the saddle. I was tall suddenly. Completely out of control. And it was too late to escape – the horse was already moving away from the mounting block and we hadn’t been told how to dismount. Despite my best efforts to maintain some form of quiet dignity I whimpered in surprise.

Still in shock and having an out of body experience as I tried to come to terms with finding myself sitting on a horse, we entered the arena. I heard the gate close behind me with a clunk. My stomach lurched. I wanted to get off and go home. I absolutely could not do this. I was going to fail and everyone was going to shout at me.

I surveyed the arena in silent horror as the instructor explained she had set all the cones out specifically for our lesson. Cones? Wasn’t that a bit advanced?

When I had imagined the lesson, it had been walking in a circle with someone else leading the rein. Basically an inland version of beach pony rides for children.

Apparently that’s not what the word “lesson” means.

I was meant to be in charge (I use that term loosely) of my own horse. I had to steer and stop her. There were cones out because we weren’t just going round in circles. I wasn’t just a passenger. (Theoretically.)

I spent most of the lesson alternating between trying not to cry, and panicked laughter as I tried to pretend I wasn’t about to cry.

Not least when my horse ignored my increasingly desperate pleas for it to walk on at the end of the lesson, leaving me stranded in the middle of the arena, forlornly watching everybody else shrink into the distance on their way back to the stables.

I was about ready to try hurling myself off the poor creature by that point so that the lesson would be over. Nothing about this was helping my anxiety. I was clearly as hopeless at horse riding as everything else. This was a disaster. And I was going to be stuck on the horse forever.

As I was preparing to start bawling my eyes out, the horse responded to the instructor’s calls, so I got to leave the arena still sitting on my horse, and returned to the stables where I listened in disbelief to the instructions for dismounting. Just like at the beginning of the lesson I began to panic; and again I wanted to shake my head and refuse. Unfortunately, being too scared to get off a horse is distinctly more problematic than being too scared to get on a horse. Refusing is not really a viable option.

I watched the others, calmed a little with the realisation they were struggling as much as me, and tumbled off before anybody could have a chance to stop and watch me. (If nobody sees me, I’m invisible, and invisible is safe.)

And so I had made it through an entire horse riding lesson, and safely back onto my feet on the ground, without crying once. Not once.

Not only that, but I also managed to convince my horse to change direction, stop, go forward again, and to weave in between cones in the opposite direction to the horse in front of us (i.e. requiring my intervention to stop it just following the horse in front).

I didn’t fall off either. (Unless you count my dismount. Despite the evidence to the contrary, I choose not to.)

Truthfully, it was an intensely anxious hour. There wasn’t any point where I thought “this is fun” or “I like this”. I was preoccupied with fighting off tears and panicking I was going to get in trouble for messing up. That fear is always there, whatever I’m doing. Every time the instructor turned to watch me do something I began to freeze up with fear. Being watched almost invariably used to lead to anger, humiliation and danger; it triggers my threat response even when I’m in situations where I know I should expect to be safe.

Anxiety was a constant companion throughout the lesson, wrapping around my chest and knocking my breath away. Afterwards though, driving home, my face began to ache: I could not stop smiling. It felt great. Amazing even. I’d signed up for the lesson, I’d turned up for the lesson, but I’d never really believed I’d be able to go through with it. I didn’t imagine I’d do so much either. I’d been in such a state of anxiety it hadn’t felt real while it was happening. But it did happen. I had done it.

I still can’t quite believe I did it. It still feels great knowing that I did. I actually rode a horse. I made it through the whole lesson.

When I used to think about the kind of life I might want for myself after I left my abuser, the idea of trying horse riding would have seemed ridiculous and impossible to me. If you had told me back then that I would do this I would have taken it as a sign that you either didn’t know me at all or had lost your senses.

I don’t quite know who this person was who decided I was going horse riding and then made it happen. I don’t recognise her as myself. It’s a strange feeling; I think I’m changing, in ways I never anticipated or planned, and I’m not sure how I feel about that.

This was one of my good moments and it felt like a huge victory for me, so I wanted to share it. The real triumph of this particular little story, and the reason that I delayed posting this, is that I went back for a second lesson. It was still about as scary and stressful as the first one, but they reckon they can teach me “rising trot” if I give it a few more lessons. I’m going to see if they’re right.

Telling

I read a blog today about suicide prevention in young people. It set me to thinking about some things.


When I was 6 I resolved for the first time to try and tell somebody about what was happening at home. I didn’t really understand what that was, or how to explain it, and I definitely didn’t have any idea just how wrong it was; I just knew it was scary, it made me feel incredibly sad all the time, and I wanted it to stop.

None of my mum’s family lived locally, but every couple of months we would make the hour’s drive to spend a Saturday with her parents. My dad never came. My mum would ask of course. She always did. On good days he would sneer at her and walk off. On bad ones screaming and crashing would follow. Either way we went alone, which was the way we did everything. One of many things my mum used to cry to me about.

However, I loved trips to my grandparents’ house, and although I would never have told my mum this, I was always relieved my dad didn’t come. I felt safe there; they didn’t shout at me or call me stupid. I trusted them and I was sure they would care about what I wanted to tell them.

I sat quietly in the car the whole journey there, growing more and more nervous, my stomach twisting into knots as I tried to work out what I was going to say, how to make them understand.

Eventually I settled on telling them: “I feel sad all the time. Mummy and daddy are always angry and shouting.”

That didn’t even scrape the surface of what was going on in our house, but it was all I could identify as definitely being a problem and that I could describe to other people.

I still remember sitting in the car repeating those words over and over and over in my head to make sure I was ready when we got there. I was so determined, but so, so nervous at the prospect of “telling” on my mum.

My stomach is filled with the same nerves even remembering it now.

When we got there we walked through their front door into their hallway and I saw the happiness on my grandparents’ faces as they hugged and kissed us, and told me how tall I was getting. The carefully picked words that I’d been rehearsing so fervently in the car died in my throat. I couldn’t be the one to ruin everything.

I never said a word to them about any of it. Ever. They died a few years ago, blissfully unaware.

The next time I contemplated trying to tell someone that things at home were wrong somehow, I was 16 and my school had just found out I was suicidal. I had the same problem though: I didn’t really understand what was going on at home, I didn’t know how to explain it, and I was afraid of being dismissed.

I got closer to telling someone that time though. Or at least it felt that way. There were a few teachers at my school who went to great lengths to support me, who gave me the courage to talk to my doctor, and who enabled me to finish school – and quite frankly to stay alive. I tried so many times to tell one of them what my dad was really like, but I couldn’t find the words.

So yet again, I never said a word to them about any of it.

My school never told my parents I was suicidal, and I still think that was the right decision in the circumstances. Both my parents were “professionals”, we lived in a nice area, in a nice house, and I’d never shown up to school with bruises – basically we were the kind of family that people still refuse to believe can be affected by abuse. I don’t think disclosing it to my parents would have exposed the truth; I do think it would have led to my dad isolating us even further and ramping up the abuse.

During that time I was once asked – by a medical professional – why I thought I was suicidal. That was the question: “why do you think you’re suicidal?” My entirely candid answer was that I didn’t know. I had no idea what was going on. I assumed everyone lived the way we did, and as I was the only one who was suicidal it had to be that there was just something wrong with me. I had been told many times that I must not blame other people for “my problems” and by that age I was utterly convinced that everything that happened at home with my parents was my fault; I wouldn’t have directly pointed the finger at my dad if I had been asked in that way even if I had understood.

My answer was accepted and I was never asked again. Nobody tried to dig any deeper with me to find out what could have been causing a teenager so much pain that she could see no other way out than to end her life.

But if the right questions had been asked of me? Instead of “why do you think you’re suicidal?” perhaps: “can you describe what happens when you get home from school?”; “what are meal times like?”; “what’s your dad like?”; “are you ever afraid of your parents?”; “what happens if you make a mistake?”; “what rules do your parents have?”; “who decides what those rules are?”; “do they stay the same?”; “is your house quiet?”; “do your parents have any friends?”… There are so many unthreatening questions that could have slowly teased out the truth had they been asked by someone trained in the dynamics of abuse – and who knew what to do with that information.

How different might my life have been. The cycle might have been broken there and then.

Instead I ended up being passed along to new abusers; the abuse intensifying, conditioning solidifying, trauma deepening, suicidal feelings simply a fact of life to me – and all the while without ever escaping the abuser who started it all.

To be able to tell someone you’re being abused, you first need to know and understand what abuse is. It’s not innate knowledge, especially to a child who’s never known anything else. It’s wildly inadequate to simply ask a person “why are you suicidal?” and then leave it at that.

I only found out as an adult – not much more than a year ago – how horribly wrong and twisted my homelife and childhood were. By myself, as a child, I would never have been able to articulate what was going on. Why it was wrong. That it was abuse. I needed someone to tell me. As an adult it took people explaining it to me – gently but persistently – for me to even begin to grasp it.

It’s not enough to just provide emotional support to young people who are suicidal, or to rely on them to be able to neatly explain to us; we need to make sure we have done everything we can to find out the real reason why they have ended up feeling that way – and then we need to do something to change it.

That won’t happen until proper understanding of the dynamics of abuse and coercive control is the de facto position for people coming into contact with young people in a professional capacity. It’s too widespread in our society for anything less.

I think that’s the least our young people deserve.