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Author: Paula Kavanagh

A Deeper Understanding of Childhood Sexual Abuse is Needed!

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You cannot change something if you are unaware of its existence. Awareness of a negative situation, attitude or belief is the first step towards making positive changes.  Our intention is and always has been to help improve the lives of victims of sexual abuse.  To achieve this, we need to help people understand this crime.

Is there a difference between the way men and women view sex and sexual abuse?  Is this difference a contributing factor preventing the necessary supports and laws being put in place to tackle sexual crimes?  Could it be down to a complete lack of understanding of the magnitude of damage that sexual abuse causes for its victims and how the ripple effect impacts us all?

How Bad Does It Have to Get?

We have given this issue a lot of thought and remain completely lost as to why no one other than victims of this crime, seem to realise the necessity and urgency around putting the appropriate laws and supports in place. What can we do to change this? The sheer numbers involved in this crime is horrifying enough, add to that, the fact that it is a worldwide issue.  This should be enough motivation for world leaders to act.  They don’t, and we need to find out why.

It’s like the housing crisis.  We all think the situation is unforgivable and shouldn’t be happening. But there it is, families are suffering, and our leaders do nothing.  What needs to happen for things to change?  How do we help those in positions of power to see, that like the housing crisis immediate action is required? Unless something is done around improving how we currently view and treat sexual abuse crimes, we will all suffer the consequences.

Need for Understanding

We understand that sexual abuse is a very difficult and complex issue. We also know that it requires a willingness to listen to a subject that most would prefer to ignore. But further understanding is needed. Sexual abuse is not simply a sexual act which takes place without consent. It is so much more than that.  It is this very misconception that we believe leads to lack of action in addressing and implementing the necessary changes that are badly needed. This lack of understanding we feel is also present in our court rooms, resulting in poor sentencing for those who commit these sexual crimes. If we are to move forward, we must have open and honest discussions with our legislators.

Delving Deeper

We think part of the problem is that sexual intercourse means something completely different to men and women.  For men, it can appear to be simply a pleasurable physical act. Some men can enjoy the act of sexual intercourse with no emotional attachment to the woman they are with. That is not to imply that sexual intercourse has no emotional meaning for men, it can and does mean much more if it is with someone they love.  However, as the male genitalia is external, the very act of penetration can be perceived that the male is in control and dominant.

For most women, there is an emotional connection before sexual intercourse takes place.  For intercourse to take place it also requires the woman to allow someone to enter her body. This can often be interpreted as the women being submissive.  Allowing someone enter your body appears to be much more emotionally significant to a woman than to a man.

This difference in how sexual intercourse is viewed and experienced by men and women is very important when considering poor sentencing for sexual crimes. We feel that in some cases, judges and men in general don’t see rape the same way women do.  If judges or those who serve on a jury feel that the crime of rape is nothing more than a non-consensual sexual act, then they will pass judgement in ignorance of the impacts on the victim.  The judge may feel sorry for the victim, even empathetic towards her, but no apparent acknowledgement or understanding is shown for the long-term damage of sex crimes and this is itself adding to the suffering of the victim.

Lasting Damage

It is difficult to explain the damage caused to a human being who has been sexually abused.  Words seem inadequate and can hardly capture the sheer magnitude of the damage felt. Speaking from our own experience and listening to other survivors we understand that all sexual crimes leave similar scars.

Our experience of childhood abuse left us devastated. The abuse disrupted our development and increased our likelihood of experiencing other sexual assaults.  We all felt substantial distress and displayed a wide range of psychological symptoms, both short- and long-term.  We felt powerless, ashamed and have struggled to trust others in our lives.

Through our learning of how the abuse affected us we feel confident to say that our childhood experience of sexual abuse was so damaging to our psychological development that it can be compared to a virus. The virus spread to our brain and negatively altered every cell, thought and behaviour. Victims themselves can struggle to understand the level of damage caused by the abuse they experienced. Recovery required a complete reprogramming of all thoughts, feelings and beliefs we picked up throughout our life.

In the short-term, collectively, we exhibited regressive behaviours such as bed-wetting, sleep disturbances, eating problems, asthma, behaviour and/or performance problems at school, and unwillingness/inability to participate in social activities.  Long-term we suffered with anxiety, ill health, depression, anger issues, anxiety attacks, insomnia, and self-destructive behaviours such as excessive use of alcohol and cigarettes.

We each experienced fear and anxiety in response to triggers which popped up without warning. These were simple things like smells, sounds, expressions that reminded us of our abuser or something that was said innocently.  We experienced difficulties forming relationships and indulged in inappropriate sex or avoidance of sex altogether.

We felt anger at our abuser and our mother who failed to protect us. Worse still we felt anger at ourselves for not stopping the abuse.  We felt betrayed and powerless.  We often felt stigmatised by the shame and guilt and internalised responsibility for what happened to us.  We were re-victimized as our self-worth was very low and at times, non-existent. Due to the abuse we felt worthless and abnormal and held a distorted view of sex and love, and we all at different stages in our lives felt suicidal.

Why aren’t we Horrified at the Numbers

It is globally recognised that this is the most under reported crime.  Because of that and the outdated statistics, a gross underestimation of the real figures that state that one in four women and one in six men are sexually abused before they reach the age of eighteen.  Based on these figures imagine one in four women and one in six men across all socio-economic backgrounds are living with the previously stated impacts. It is also important to understand that alongside all those victims are the abusers.

All these victims are currently living every day with the damage of their abuse and we are all, without exception, impacted.  Even though victims may not come forward with their abuse for many years or for some never, they are acting, parenting and socialising out of that damaged self every day.

A New Vision

Can you possibly imagine how it would feel to live in a world where this heinous crime was eradicated?  A world where no one ever again had to go through the pain and suffering that goes hand in hand with sexual abuse.  We all have a responsibility to make that a reality. It’s time to ask yourself …. can I do something about this?

The Kavanagh Sisters-14th June 2018

How Do we Fix Our Broken People?

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Sexual Abuse is accepted across the world as being the most under-reported crime and here in Ireland we are no different. With our current population and our seriously outdated statistics, we can estimate that 1 in 4 women and 1 in 6 men have experienced some form of sexual abuse in their past. That means there are at least 900 thousand citizens currently living with the impacts of abuse. Now take into account that the abusers are out there too. Based on these figures we also must realise that for every victim there is an abuser. We would all like to think that we would recognise a child abuser if we saw one. That we can pick them out of the crowd based on their creepy look or their odd behaviour. But those stereotypes are simply that, stereotypes. The fact is, child abusers are not monsters, they don’t walk around with signs saying ‘abuser’.  They are able to include themselves in our lives and our children’s lives because we trust them. An abuser can have many victims but let’s take a conservative figure of an abuser abusing 2 victims, that means there are 4.5 hundred thousand sexual predators living amongst us. As horrific as these statistics are, we reckon that at best, half of our population are directly impacted by abuse and all of our population, suffer the secondary impacts of abuse victims and perpetrators living within our communities.

Unlocking the Memories

As victims of child sexual abuse, we understand just how difficult it is for victims to open the doors they hid their memories of abuse behind.  However, without unlocking your memories of abuse, those memories will be the fuel that drives you forward or keeps you stuck. Though those memories or emotions can be on an unconscious level, they are most likely the force behind every decision, relationship and dream you have for yourself and those around you. Until you are able to open those doors and look into the dark spaces you will continue to live your life as a victim, which not only affects you but all those around you.

Tell me Why?

Offenders can only continue with their behaviour if they remain in the dark about the impact of their actions on their victims. As a victim myself, I wanted to know why my father did what he did, and I desperately wanted him to understand the damage he did to me and be truly sorry.  It wouldn’t have taken away the pain of what was done but, if I had any chance of understanding the ‘why me?’ element of the abuse, it might have helped me heal a little and find forgiveness for myself sooner.

A Reason to Look?

Why would an abuser look? We need to give them a reason to explore the why and how they do what they do.  Seeing into their dark places will provide them with the answers to the questions they hide from themselves. How we view rapist, sex offenders and paedophiles as less than human, monster’s or creatures that deserve neither compassion nor understanding serves no one and certainly is not helping to stop their offending.  They, like victims need answers if we are ever to stop abuse.  Simply placing them behind bars is not the answer. Offenders absolutely need to be punished and suffer the consequences for their actions and the lives they have destroyed. Their punishment will allow the victims to feel vindicated, heard and most importantly believed.

Make it Stop

Surly we all want abuse to stop, for suffering from this act to stop. We have no choice but to find solutions to stop abuse, to show those who commit these atrocities that they need to stop. You will never change anything if you do not understand why you do it and what impact you are having on someone’s life. If that is to happen we have to stop seeing sex offenders as separate to us, but rather people within our communities that are damaged and need repairing. Probably more importantly we need to have support and help available throughout the country to prevent abusers ever getting to the point of action. There has to be a better way as clearly what we are currently doing is not working.

New Measures

Today 6th June 2018 the government announced that it is considering new measures, including electronic tagging, to tighten restrictions on sex offenders after they are released from prison. The tag would be dependent on the risks that sex offenders pose on the community. The released sex offenders will also be required to be finger printed, photographed and register with gardaí within 3 days of their release from jail and provide any change of address.

A New Approach

We must stop with our reactive response and begin by treating the cause and not simply the symptoms.  We don’t even do that adequately enough, the scant service provision and cost of attending therapy along with long waiting lists further inflict pain and suffering on the victims of these crimes. We must begin by providing balanced solutions that help all those impacted, victims and perpetrators alike. We must stretch ourselves and see past the behaviour that destroys lives and look at the person behind them. Only viewing sexual abuse from one angle will not change the outcomes. The ones committing these crimes are the only ones that can provide the answers that we need. We need to provide treatments that will prevent these heinous crimes occurring in the first place.  

 “If you keep on doing what you’ve always done,

you’ll keep on getting what you’ve always got.”

W.L.Bateman

  Isn’t it time we fixed all our broken people. Paula Kavanagh- 6th June 2018  

Germaine, Germaine, Germaine!

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Like most women and men who have experienced rape, we read Germain Greer’s call for punishment for rape to be reduced with anger and disbelief.

Sadly, this is not the first time reduced sentences in rape cases has been an issue, as every day within out court rooms, judges, juries and those that are either defending the accused or prosecuting them fail to understand the complexities of the damage that rape does to its victims.

What makes it even more upsetting is the fact that Germaine herself is a victim of rape which could lend weight to the argument that victims should just ‘get over it’ as though it is a common cold. As this is the type of thinking we are trying to change through education and understanding this crime, she is doing a great disservice to women throughout the world with these words.

Germaine adds insult to injury by saying that rape should be viewed as ‘non-consensual, lazy, careless and insensitive’. This is clearly a woman that has chosen to never explore her own rape and how it has influenced her thoughts and behaviours. Rather than deal with her own ‘stuff’, she is suggesting other rape victims move on and forget it ever happened, with no consideration to what the experience has done to them physically, psychologically and emotionally.

Greer goes on to say “You might want to believe that the penis is a lethal weapon and that all women live in fear of that lethal weapon, well that’s bullshit. It’s not true. We don’t live in terror of the penis … A man can’t kill you with his penis.”

I’m sorry to say that a penis is and has all through history been used against women as a very powerful weapon. We believe that what Greer is saying is very dangerous at a time when we are finally putting women’s issues at the top of the agenda.

We simply don’t understand how a woman who experienced a violent rape can speak about it in this way.

For victims, the effects of rape can be devastating. They feel substantial distress and display a wide range of psychological symptoms, both short- and long-term.  They feel powerless, ashamed, and distrust others. The abuse, if it happens in childhood, disrupts their development and increases the likelihood that they will experience other sexual assaults in the future.

In the short term they can exhibit regressive behaviours such as, sleep disturbances, eating problems, behaviour and/or performance problems at school/work and unwillingness to participate in social activities.

Long term they can suffer with anxiety, self-destructive behaviours such as alcoholism or drug abuse, anxiety attacks, and insomnia.

Victims feel fear and anxiety in response to triggers which pop up without warning. These triggers can be simply things like smells, expressions that remind them of the rapist or something that is said innocently.  They can experience difficulties in forming relationships and can either indulge in inappropriate sex or avoid sex altogether.

They can feel anger at the rapist and those around them who failed to protect them. But even worse still they can direct anger at themselves for not stopping the rape as it took place.  They feel betrayed and powerless and often feel stigmatised by the shame, guilt and take on the responsibility for what happened to them.

They are now likely to have a higher rate of being revictimized as their self-worth is either low or non-existent. Due to the rape they feel worthless and abnormal and hold a distorted view of sex, and without intervention they can become suicidal.

We believe if this was known and understood by the masses, we would have a better chance of making appropriate changes to how sexual abuse is viewed and dealt with.

Thank you, Germaine, for making the argument for the importance of dealing with your ‘STUFF’.

The Kavanagh Sisters -31st May 2018

Consistent Sentencing for Sexual Perpetrators

The call for mandatory life sentencing for anyone that is found guilty of a sexual crime was put to the Minister for Justice and Equality, Charles Flanagan, TD, on the Claire Byrne Live show on RTE on the 31st April,2018. He responded by saying “I’m not a fan of mandatory sentencing, it’s been proven in the past that it hasn’t achieved what it’s been designed to do as a deterrent. He then stated that he was looking into setting up yet another committee that we fear will again 1. Take too long to set up and 2. Nothing will get done as a result. This is a disappointing and unfortunately typical response from our government representatives.

When you read the horrifying statistics around the reporting of these crimes and how few cases make it to court we must ask what we can do differently. Back in September 2017 the Dublin Rape Crisis Centre stated in their submission to the Policing Authority that less than 10% of those who are victims of sexual offences will report it.  And of those who do report, the attrition rate between report and prosecution is one of the highest of those studied in Europe.

The submission went on to say that in three out of four cases, victim and perpetrator are known to each other including those who have suffered abuse as children.  The relationship that victims have to their abuser is a major factor in why victims struggle to come forward and report the abuse. Add to that, the horrendous treatment victims experience in court, the ridiculous sentences perpetrators receive, and it is surprising we even have 10% coming forward.

In a report published by the Irish Times research, which analysed every rape offence conviction in the Central Criminal Court between 2013 and 2015, they showed that the vast majority, 70 per cent, of offenders received a partially suspended sentence. This is so offensive to victims and unacceptable to those that have shown the courage to come forward.

Examples of this injustice are that on the 18th April, 2018 in the Dublin District Criminal Court Judge Nolan handed down a 5 year sentence with 3 years suspended to Karl Walsh who plead guilty to sexually abusing his five year old cousin over a course of six years

Again, on the 24th of April, 2018 is was reported that a priest that had a previous conviction for sexual abuse received an 18 month fully suspended sentence after pleading guilty to all charges, by Judge Óonnabháin in Cork Circuit Court stating “Given his age and the level of his rehabilitation, I see no point or purpose in imprisoning him at this stage”.

What is a victim of rape or sexual abuse, or indeed any member of the general public to conclude from these sentences?  What message do they receive?  It is this pathetic sentencing and the constant reduction in those already poor sentences, that causes so many victims to lose all faith in the legal system and rethink if they should even bother coming forward and putting themselves through the ordeal of reporting their abuse/rape.

We also ask why a perpetrator gets an automatic reduction in their sentence if they plead guilty. If we have to look at each case individually then this assumption that victims in all situations do not want their day in court is misleading and unfair. If you put your hand up and say ‘yes I raped that child’ how does that automatically mean you should get a lesser punishment for the lifetime damage you have done to your victim.

We must also look at the bigger picture when it comes to mandatory sentencing as it will not be appropriate in all cases.  Sexual crimes occur on a spectrum of abuse, anything from a person exposing themselves to a child to the serial rapist. It will never be a one solution suits all situation.

Also, a mandatory life sentence of 15 years for sexual predators on its own is not the answer and will not change the epidemic of sexual abuse in Ireland. We believe that if the mandatory life sentence was linked to compulsory treatment programmes it would go some way to making a difference and move us towards a justice system that is actively trying to rehabilitate not merely punish. Without treatment programmes, we may be simply kicking the problem further down the road which does nothing to address the issue. However, if the abuser simply attends treatment and does not engage or fully participate then they should risk the possibility of losing privileges and any chance of early release.

We also need to have a much wider discussion around the entire justice/legal system and how it appears completely ill equipped to deal with crimes of a sexual nature. In a recent article published in the Irish Independent on 28th April, 2018, Ms Justice Ní Raifeartaigh said the Supreme Court has said that rape offending should be punished with an immediate and substantial custodial sentence but that there was no information about sentencing in past cases. She went on to say “One judge’s substantial could be four years, and another’s could be 14 years. It’s somewhat bizarre that an area that is so sensitive has so little in the way of guidance for a trial judge.

Lack of justice for victims of abuse has been demonstrated on an almost daily basis calling for a complete overhaul of a system that still looks at defending and prosecuting sexual crimes in the same manner as other crimes.

Each year the DPP get to decide which cases they will bring to court, and those decisions are understandably based on what they believe are winnable cases.  It is utterly bazaar that barristers and lawyers do not have to undergo specialised training around sexual crimes. If you do not fully understand for example that the effects of childhood sexual abuse and just how the damage can last a lifetime, how could you possibly argue a case in front of a judge and jury (who also has no training in this field).

Those arguing on behalf of the victim have a responsibility to become fully informed of the psychological damage that sexual abuse causes its victims. It is abhorrent that they do not insist on this training as a matter of course. Unfortunately, we live in a country where accountability for poor or disastrous decision that impact people’s lives is never addressed.

We challenge anyone who works with, supports or comes in contact with victims of sexual abuse on a professional basis to read our books ‘Click, Click’ and ‘Why go back? 7 Steps to Healing from Childhood Sexual Abuse if you really wish to be informed about the lifelong damage that sexual abuse causes to its victims.

We must ensure that the victims at the centre of all these cases are provided with the best possible support/treatment. People are waking up and demanding long overdue change to way sexual crimes are managed and responded to.  It’s time we spoke up and said no more.

The Kavanagh Sisters

Is 2018 Really the Year of the Woman?

There is hardly a day goes by without a new or historic case of child sexual abuse hitting the headlines along with considerable coverage of the #timesup and #metoo campaigns, you would probably think that the answer to that question above is yes.

The Right to Speak Up

This year marks the centenary of those brave women who fought and finally won the right for women to vote. Oprah Winfrey’s powerful acceptance speech for the Cecil B. Demille award at the Golden Globes, 2018 was inspirational as she announced that the ‘Time was up’ for abusers with particular reference to powerful and brutal abusive men. She went on to commend all of the brave women who came forth and told their story.  Mentioning celebrities speaking out about their abuse has ignited and bolstered women everywhere to finally come forward and speak out. All of this would appear to suggest that 2018 will be a year when women finally take control of their lives and careers.

Is it a Cause for Celebration?

This all sounds very positive and encouraging. However, just because women are speaking out and finally telling their stories of abuse does not necessarily make it a cause for celebration.

As survivors of sexual abuse, we understand the level of courage it takes to simply type the words ‘Me Too’ or join campaigns like #timesup. Our concern is what happens when they do?  For many women their secret has been hidden or buried for many years and now they can’t go back.

Do we have the resources to deal with the number of victims emerging through these campaigns?  What happens to them after they speak out? Where do they go with their pain, confusion and hurt?

No Political Interest

There is no evidence of our politicians showing any great concern or interest in this issue.  Once again, we appear to be waiting for men in positions of power to do the right thing.  What is holding them back?  How can they not see the value in putting in place the necessary resources?  What has to happen in order to acknowledge that this issue will not go away and requires men to become part of the solution and not the problem.

Something has to give, and things will only get worse if the current stance of turning a blind eye to the underfunded, overburdened minimal services that currently struggle to meet the demands placed upon them. Services like the Rape Crisis Centre, One in Four and The CARI Foundation, currently have long waiting lists and their CEO, s have to spend an inordinate amount of their precious time fundraising just to stay open.  It would appear that in Ireland the stance has been taken that it isn’t really anything to do with us and that it is an American celebrity issue.

Taking Responsibility

Although we didn’t have the back up of such campaigns when we were prosecuting our father, we do know the turmoil in our lives when we spoke up and tried to deal with the sheer devastation that came with it.  The memories came flooding back quicker than we could process and for most of the time it felt like we had been hit by a truck.

We who encourage victims to speak out must share the responsibility to provide these brave women with the answers, support and help they so badly need. We also must be mindful not to place undue pressure on women who may not yet be ready to speak out. Waiving anonymity may be a step too far for some and we must honour everyone’s process.  Sexual abuse may be in the media much more than ever, but headlines die as quick as they arise.  Unless there is a celebrity involved the story doesn’t even last 24 hours.

If a victim is lucky enough to receive justice through the courts, what then?  The offender may be placed in prison for a few years, which also seems to depend on the mood of the judge on the day.  The sheer lack of understanding around the impacts of this crime not only on the victim but their families, communities and society are demonstrated all too frequently through grossly inappropriate sentencing.

There remains no pressure on the judicial system to educate themselves on the impacts on its victims and although we can appreciate that all cases are not the same, are we to simply look on as injustice continues through the courts sentencing procedures.  Have we no recourse?  Have we no rights? It would appear that judges are accountable to no one.  Why are they not listening to the people they are there to serve?

We are aware there are many treatment programs available to perpetrators, but none appear to be mandatory.  How can that work? How can things ever be different or produce better outcomes for the public.

These are just some of the real concerns we have around the current outpouring of pain in the world. Particularly on this little isle of ours. We are sure we are not alone when we urge everyone to get on board and do whatever you can do to ensure that women’s pain does not become sound bites and that it does in fact become the year of the woman.  It is time for change……

The Kavanagh Sisters – 23rd April 2018

Child Abuse and PTSD

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Talking and writing about our childhood abuse and how it impacted us, were key to us gaining a greater understanding of thoughts and behaviours that we had as adults, and that we hated.  We didn’t know that these thoughts and behaviours were actually disorders that were researched and understood by many health professionals. These disorders or conditions developed as a direct result of the abuse we had each endured as children and some still impact us today.

Mental and physical health issues like depression, anxiety, poor self-esteem, headaches, backpain, and panic attacks are just a few. We would find it difficult to identify any area of our lives that wasn’t altered or damaged as a result of our abuse. However, it is extremely unlikely that we would have ever fully accepted that we were not responsible for causing these problems, if we had we not gone back and picked our lives apart.

With that in mind we continue researching and working on ourselves. This blog is about Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) and we hope that it helps make sense for those of you who suffer from this particular disorder and those that support them.

What is PTSD?

PTSD is defined as a mental condition that makes it difficult to regulate emotions. It is said that individuals who have suffered childhood sexual abuse and repetitive or prolonged exposure to trauma can develop any number of conditions and disorders.  Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) is just one of them.

Most of us will have heard of PTSD and we associate it with soldiers following a tour in a war-torn country. We don’t tend to connect it with adults that have suffered child abuse, and this is probably because as an adult, the symptoms of PTSD can mimic other disorders like, depression, anxiety, hypervigilance, problems with alcohol and drugs, sleep issues, and eating disorders, all making it difficult to diagnose the condition. PTSD often develops in children that experience any form of prolonged trauma. The list below outlines some of the conditions that drive the development of this condition.

PTSD can develop in children if the following conditions exist:

  • If the child feels threatened.
  • The relationship of the child to the perpetrator, the closer the relationship the more likely the child will experience PTSD in later life.
  • If the child feels alone or abandoned by their caregiver.
  • If the child feels guilty or responsible for the abuse.
  • The child’s physical and emotional short-term response to abuse (i.e. if the child’s heart rate escalates, this will increase the likelihood of developing PTSD as an adult.

PTSD is grouped by the following types of symptoms:

  1. Re-Experiencing.
    1. Re-experiencing, or reliving, the traumatic event.
  2. Avoidance.
    1. Actively avoiding people, places, or situations that remind you of the traumatic event.
  3. Hyperarousal.
  4. Negative Thoughts and Beliefs.

These symptoms show up in the following ways.

  • Trouble sleeping / bad dreams / flashbacks.
  • Fear of dying, anxiety, or depression.
  • Loss of interest in activities.
  • Regular physical complaints such as headaches or stomach-aches.
  • Extreme emotional reactions.
  • Irritability, anger, violence.
  • Difficulty concentrating.
  • Increased vigilance or alertness to their environment.
  • Avoiding people or places.

For us, PTSD is not just another collection of trivial words and symptoms put together for dramatic affect.   They are real symptoms that as survivors of child sexual abuse, we have dismissed for far too long believing we were just hypochondriacs’ or plain mad. It is also understandable why PTSD can be difficult to diagnose as the symptoms can be associated with many other conditions. It is for this very reason that understanding how abuse impacts the human psyche is vital if you are to recover.

It would be very difficult for those of you who have not been abused to try to image the levels of fear a child feels being raped by an adult. It is all the more difficult when you understand that in most cases it is an adult the child trusts and loves. You might get a glimpse of the fear by trying this, Close your eyes, imagine your in bed and a loud sound wakes you up,  you can hear sounds downstairs. You know no one else should be in your home, but you hear the sounds of presses opening and closing. You contemplate if you should go and investigate, and then you hear footsteps at the end of the stairs. 

That can only give you a tiny sense of what it is like growing up in a home with an abusing parent.

It is impossible to live with that level of awareness or fear on an ongoing basis, so children learn to dissociate or compartmentalise their experiences in order to cope with daily life. These suppressed emotions are what cause various mental conditions and disorders to develop later in life. I doubt that any victim of trauma can escape the occurrence of mental health issues and with PTSD like other mental health conditions there appears to be no cure other than a combination between medication and therapy. I believe that if you work through your abuse and fully understand the origins of your thoughts and behaviours you will be in a much better place to control the symptoms and live a much healthier life.

We strongly recommend researching and writing as an approach when you begin your own healing journey. We also believe that if we had a book with the information that is contained within our book ‘Why Go Back? 7 Steps to Healing from Childhood Sexual Abuse’ we could have been spared years of unnecessary pain and suffering. We know that anyone suffering from the impacts of sexual abuse will benefit from the learning we have gained. We also want to spread a clear message of hope to other victims, that there is life after abuse.

If everyone understood abuse and its impacts, people would better comprehend why it can take so long for victims to come forward and speak out. It may also help people appreciate why it takes so long to recover from this horrendous crime.  With understanding would come the desire to provide the necessary resources and demand the changes in policy and practices of the judicial system. The more everyone understands how sexual abuse impacts its victims the more compassionate we will all be towards each other.

Paula-8th April 2018

Child Abuse and Anxiety/Panic Attacks

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Anxiety and panic attacks have been linked to childhood trauma, but it is by no means the only cause. Panic attacks can occur due to number of conditions including social anxiety, post-traumatic stress disorder, drug use, depression, and a number of medical problems. They can either be triggered or occur unexpectedly. However, children that experience trauma are more likely to have increased anxiety and depressive behaviours which they can endure well into adulthood, making those adults less capable of coping with stress.

Joyce and I have both suffered from panic attacks, and although, for Joyce, they are a thing of the past, I unfortunately on occasion still struggle with them.  I hope that this blog will help others who also suffer with these awful attacks, to gain a deeper understanding of the fear that surrounds them. It is important that you know that you are not crazy, and you can manage them with awareness and support.

I have thought about writing a blog on this subject for some time now but I hesitated for fear that simply writing about it, would bring on an attack. I experienced my first anxiety attack when I broke my leg a few years ago.   That forced confinement brought to the surface feelings of helplessness and dependency. At the time I didn’t really understand what was happening and over the next few months I became more and more anxious.  I believe it was this recurrence of anxiety that resulted in my first panic attack.

My panic attacks came out of the blue, my lips began to feel strange and because I had bell’s palsy in the past, I was afraid it would come back again. This was followed by a tingling sensation running through body. My heart began to thump out of my chest and I felt like I couldn’t breathe. The fear built up so rapidly that it took complete control of my thoughts. The overwhelming feelings that I was about to die or have a stroke was terrifying. My imagination brought images to my mind of at best, me lying dead on the floor alone or being taking away by ambulance to a mad house.

Now I would consider myself a rational and logical person and I can tell the difference between imagination and reality quite easily. However, when I am in the middle of a panic attack nothing can tell me that what I am feeling is not real. I am absolutely convinced that I am going to have a stroke, or more likely I am about to die.

What scares me most is the place I felt safest is no longer available to me, my mind. I am most comfortable in my head and it is also where I retreat to when I’m stressed or worried. My fear around having an attack can make it difficult to focus on my work and this causes more stress. It becomes a vicious circle.

It is the actual fear and anticipation of an attack that drives my anxiety.  I am sure that I have even brought on an attack by focusing on the fear. However, lately I have tried meditations and mental exercises to talk myself down and they are working for me while I work on uncovering the underlying cause of the attacks.

This may sound strange, but I am grateful for the panic attacks because they have forced me out of my head and into the moment. I have always found when I’m stressed or worried, I get ill or have physical pain.  The panic attacks are just another way to look at what is going on in the background. I believe they will stop when I understand what they are trying to tell me.

Childhood Trauma

For those of us who have experienced trauma as children it is most likely that the triggers to panic attacks have their roots in the past. It is also likely that the fear is subconscious. Fear is only powerful when we do not know its origins, it loses its power if we understand where it comes from.  Exploring childhood trauma with a professional can uncover the root cause behind the fear that drives panic attacks.

In the meantime, if you understand what is happening inside your body when having an attack, it may help to stop it before it gets going.

I read somewhere that it only takes three minutes for adrenaline to fill your body and cause a panic attack. That also means that you will have three minutes to stop the adrenaline before the attack takes hold. To stop an attack, you must interrupt the messages of fear going to your brain.

During my last attack, I tried the steps below and it did stop the attack before it got hold. It didn’t remove the fear but at least I wasn’t controlled by it.

I am aware that it’s both the anticipation of the attack and the thoughts during the attack that do me the most harm.

Following these steps was most helpful to me:

This is the one that really worked for me – Scream in your head STOP over and over until the panic stops. (I can’t tell you why this is effective but it definitely stops my attacks.)

Try to relax, I know how difficult this is, but it is the first step that will allow you to stop the messages going to the brain telling you that you are in danger and prevent the release of any more adrenaline.

Focus on your breath, breathe in and out to a count of 7, then 6, 5, 4, 3, 2, 1. Make the breaths as deep as you can, this can be very difficult, but it really will help so persevere.

Think of a place, person, or thing that you associate with being calm and relaxed.

Scream in your head ‘I’m fine’ ‘I am ok’ ‘Nothing bad is going to happen’ the louder you can scream the better.

Repeat your own positive messages to counter what you normally say during an attack. The point is to stop you repeating the negative fear filled messages that make the attack worse and last longer.

When the attack has passed write a list of everything you fear in this moment, it is necessary to dissect these fears.  You may discover the similarities in your present and your past fears.  Understanding your fear removes its power.

This takes time and practice, but I found it helped me.  Once you can deal with the symptom’s you will be free to begin to focus on the underlying cause.  You need to know that a panic attack will not kill you. Use them to understand yourself and you will come out the other end stronger.

Paula – 28th March 2018

Decision to Prosecute: What I wish I knew back then.

We have been asked on many occasions what advice we would give to anyone thinking about bringing charges against their abuser. The decision to prosecute or not is a very complex and personal choice. It certainly was not a decision we took lightly, and I was not aware at the time of just how difficult the legal process would be.

I now understand that the legal process is harder than it needs to be, but I hope that by sharing my experience, and in hindsight what I would do differently today, might be of some help to other survivors who are undertaking this life changing course.

The Decision

For me it began with the decision to report my father to the police. This was done with a collective agreement amongst all the family. It was not taken out of bravery but more because we felt there was no other choice. I am grateful that I was spared the experience of being isolated and alone going through this process, as I am aware that it is not the case for many victims.

Speaking Out

Making a statement to the police was terrifying to put it mildly.  I was driven by the need to ensure my father did not return to the house. I was enraged that it appeared that he was still in a position of power and I believed that it was only a matter of time before he came home and continued living as if nothing had happened.

If like me, you had never spoken about your abuse then ideally the first time you are ready to talk should not be making a statement. I would recommend that you call one of the support agencies and get support before making a statement.  If I could do it again I would have someone with me while giving the statement, a counsellor if possible. Make no mistake it will still be an awful experience, telling a complete stranger your story will never be easy, but the reward is that you finally tell your truth and begin taking your life back.

Following the making of my statement, the lack of information and complete exclusion from the process was both frustrating and hurtful. We didn’t realise when making our statements that the decision to prosecute meant we handed it over to the state and we were no longer needed. The decision as to whether or not the case made it to court would be made by the DPP and we had no say in the outcome of that decision.

Surplus to Requirements

Discovering we were now considered surplus to requirements, devastated all of us.  We were hurt and frustrated at the lack of involvement. Waiting for a decision from the DPP seemed to take forever. This left a lot of time to question if the decision was the right one.

I convinced myself that the case would not go ahead because not only did the abuse take place so long before we made statements, but my father’s age might also be a consideration. I believed he would return and everything would be worse than before because he now knew that he was untouchable.  I found it difficult to relax or sleep during this time. I felt constantly on edge.

When the DPP finally made the decision to proceed and prosecute my father we remained excluded. My father eventually pled guilty, so we were not even required as witnesses. It was very difficult to accept that our lives would be discussed in a room of strangers and we were not part of that process. I deeply resented that others had the power to make decisions about my life and once again I was powerless.

Time to Prepare

Looking back now, I really appreciate how long it took for the case to come to court. I needed time to attend counselling and build up my strength to be able to face him in court. One of the biggest obstacles I had to face at the time was my absolute fear of him and my inability to stand up for myself in his presence. I felt so ashamed for what happened to me and believed I was responsible for it. I felt that everyone would be disgusted with me. I really struggled to see the help that was on offer.

I still feel it is sad that I felt like this. If it was any other crime I don’t believe I would have taken responsibility.  For example, If I was physically attacked or robbed I wouldn’t think twice about telling everyone what happened to me.

My advice to anyone undertaking this journey is to get professional help and take all the support available to you whether it be from your friends, partner, family and/or professionals.   I knew even back then just how fortunate we were that as a family we all stood together. I cannot imagine just how traumatic this process is to go through alone.

Counselling will support you through the process and your growing awareness about how your abuse impacted your life can only add strength to your resolve as you navigate through the legal system.

Support

If family members do not support you coming forward to deal with your abuse, it may be helpful to know that each member of the family can experience abuse differently. Although other members of your family may also be victims of the same abuser, they may not be ready to face it.  Some may have no memory of the abuse at all.  In certain cases, victims block the memories in-order to survive and the memories can lay dormant for years until a crisis such a death or birth triggers it to emerge.  You will have no control over how others behave so it is important that you put all your energy into building yourself up to be able to cope with the challenge ahead.

Becoming Informed

When you finally hear about your court date I would strongly recommend that you insist on a meeting with your Barrister. You need him/her to provide you with the details of what you can expect on the day, how the hearing will run, in what order and who will speak. Ask if not offered, to read all the statements made including your abusers statement as this will help you prepare for what will be read out in court. Listen carefully to what the Barrister says about the possible outcome of the case. Your Barrister might indicate that your abuser may receive a small sentence, walk free, or get a suspended sentence but either way it is all down to the judge on the day.  Best thing is to prepare yourself and remember the outcome is not the most important thing here. You having the opportunity to tell your story and shed the blame will happen regardless of the outcome.

For us, we only met very briefly with our Barrister on the day of the hearing. His obvious discomfort when talking to us and his avoidance of any eye contact made the meeting both difficult and upsetting for everyone. When he offered us the opportunity to read our fathers statements I was horrified not only by its contents but that we only get to see it five minutes before the case whereas he saw ours immediately. The language my father used indicated that he knew us and our personalities which proved he studied how to manage us for so long.  I honestly wouldn’t have given him credit for that.  I guess up to that point I believed that his abuse was not so premeditated, and he didn’t have any awareness of who I was. Unfortunately, none of us had any time to process this information as five minutes later we asked to wait in the lobby until our case was called.

Final Preparation

You can get strength on the day by having someone to support you, if not your family, friends, or partner use a professional. I would strongly recommend you take advantage of the professional agencies court accompaniment services. (The Dublin Rape Crisis Centre 1800 77 8888) or (One in Four 01 662 4070). These services will help you to be aware of the practicalities on the day i.e. the layout of the court room, the location of both Barristers, where your abuser and you may be seated on the day of the hearing.

This might seem of little importance on such a traumatic day but for us having never been inside a court room and only going on what we seen on TV programmes, to find on the day of the hearing that our father was sitting on a bench not four feet from us was so distressing words cannot express how it felt.

To make things even worse when the Barristers spoke they used a lot of legal jargon that I hadn’t got a hope of understanding. If I was to go through this again I would definitely have someone with me that could explain what was happening.

I believe that if you make the decision to go down this road, no matter what the outcome, you will not regret it. While the whole process is difficult it is worth it. Remember it is never wrong to speak up and tell the truth and take back your power.  You’re a survivor not a victim and placing the blame for what was done to you where it belongs is an act of kindness and compassion to yourself.

 

Paula – 22nd March 2018

 

New Revolutionary Treatment for Childhood Trauma

I just watched a ‘CBS News- 60 Minutes’ (March 11th 2018) programme in which Oprah Winfrey reported on how trauma plays a role in childhood development.

Within the report Oprah spoke to Tim Grove a clinical director at ‘SaintA’ (an organisation located in Milwaukee, Wisconsin who finds shelter for some 2,000 abandoned, neglected and abused children, most of whom have suffered childhood trauma.) Tim spoke about how SaintA are helping the children with a revolutionary approach to treating children who have suffered trauma called ‘Trauma Informed Care’.

Why is this New?

To say I was floored by the report would be putting it mildly. I couldn’t believe that this new revolutionary treatment is ‘New’ and not standard practice across all child treatment programmes.

Tim spoke about how they are treating children who present with difficult behaviours, juvenile delinquency, poor performance in school or out of control anger by first focusing on the person’s experiences before trying to correct their behaviours.

Again, I still can’t get my head around what was the normal way of treating a child with these difficulties before now. Surely it makes sense to look into the why? of a child’s problem before you look into the what? of a child’s problem.

Highlighting Trauma

In our book Why Go Back? 7 Steps to Healing from Childhood Sexual Abuse’, we talk about the importance of fully understanding just how your abuse (trauma) affects every aspect of your life. We are constantly talking about how if you are to overcome abuse, you first need to understand its origins and impacts.

I applaud Oprah for bringing this to the attention of the masses, for it is a step in the right direction. We could all benefit from a greater understanding of just how trauma affects how individuals behave and express their hurt.

Impacts of Trauma

According to Dr. Bruce Perry who also took part in the programme “If you have developmental trauma, the truth is you’re going to be at risk of almost any kind of physical, mental and social health problem that you can think of.”

Throughout our childhoods and as a direct result of the daily trauma we each suffered, we found everything difficult, relationships, social interactions, attending school, even carrying out the simplest of tasks that appeared to be effortless to our peers, took real concentration and effort for us to complete. We constantly felt lost and confused and were shrouded in self-hatred. All the time blaming ourselves on what had happened to us.

It was only as adults after spending years trying to put the pieces of our lives in some kind of order and through a lot of research, we found all the answers were out there we just needed to know the questions. We could have saved years of pain and suffering if those professionals that we did come into contact with used this form of treatment.

The Why? not the What?

This way of looking at a condition, behaviour or problem is to me the most practical and caring way to treat a person. It simply makes no sense to spend thousands on rehabilitation programmes if you do not first ask the question WHY?

Children of all ages regardless of their circumstances act out of what they feel even if they are totally unaware of those feelings at the time. Asking them Why? instead of What? just makes sense. I am astonished if it is the case that the first place explored by any professional is not ‘what is the driving force behind the child’s behaviour’.

All of our professional bodies that treat, manage, inform or teach children should see this form of treatment as the way to provide a space for children and adults to feel safe and heard. This is something that should not be new but common practice. If we are ever to make positive changes within our communities, we must first provide appropriate supports for those that need them.

If those within the professional bodies are not using this approach i.e. Trauma Informed Care or at the very least not asking why? before what? then we are in trouble. Providing a child with a safe place to go and allowing them to feel heard and seen is the very least that we can do.

Making a Difference

It only takes one person to make a difference in a child’s life. Just one person who cares for a child and gives them attention or a safe place to go. It is not difficult to change the direction of a child’s life. It is the small things that change how we feel about ourselves.

Unfortunately, it is for this very reason that predators are way ahead of the professionals. They understand just how and when to provide the child with attention and use it as part of their grooming of a child. Trauma-based care can prevent children being further victimised by those who exploit and harm them. It can give children the voice building strong resilient survivors and heal wounds.

In my opinion many of our social ills come down to the unmet needs of victims and the unwillingness of those who could make a difference through funding or appropriate legislation caring enough to actually do something. We under-fund those organisations that have any hope to helping people and we fail to educate those that get to pass judgments leaving them without the necessary understanding of the true cost of the impacts of abuse on our society.

 

Paula – 12th March 2018

Perfectionism- A way of dealing with Childhood Trauma

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Is it bad that I am a perfectionist?

I can say that I would have been very happy to describe myself as a perfectionist as I saw it as a person who was good and wanted to do their best. I was often teased for the way I did certain things in the house. I ignored this believing that I was doing things right and they are just too lazy to bother. I never saw it as a negative way of being in the world.

Dr.Brené Brown says perfectionism is one of the three main ways people protect themselves from getting hurt. She says it is just a form of armour and connected to your sense of shame and fear of not being good enough.

She explains that we use perfectionism in areas of our lives that we feel most vulnerable. It is driven by the belief that ‘if I look perfect, work perfect, live perfect I will avoid or minimise criticism, blame or ridicule’.

Where did it start for me?

When I was in school I would ask Joyce to write my homework in my copy because her writing was tidy, and my copy stayed clean. My writing was sloppy, and my copy was always dirty from using my eraser over and over again.  Over time I began to copy her writing, partly so I wouldn’t get caught out, but mainly because I was so embarrassed at my own handwriting.

When I began working in the family business making soft toys I was so obsessed with keeping my work space clear. I became very stressed if my bench was untidy, I had nothing on the surface that was not immediately needed and the tools I needed e.g. scissors and chalk had to be placed just right or I found myself feeling tense, getting headaches or physical pain in my body. At the time I didn’t make any connection to my physical symptoms.

When I played basketball, I would come home and wash everything I had on. I was convinced my clothes needed to be scalded clean to remove any trace of personal odour.

I ironed everything I wore, pants, socks, bras and even washed my runners and removed the laces and ironed them too. I also spent a lot of time making sure the laces went back into the runner without creasing them. I knew this was mad, but I felt so ugly on the inside, so my outward appearance had to be perfect enough to distract from anyone noticing me.

OCD and Perfectionism

I developed a number of conditions in my teens which I was unaware of, I just thought it was my way of doing things. I was obsessed with cleanliness and doing things in a particular order. Because of this everything took longer as I had to repeat the task three times to ensure I removed all the dirt.

When I cleaned my bedroom, I had to do it in a particular order, removing all bedding and hoovering the bed and floor at least three times in case I missed anything. I would then remove my clothes and put them in the wash before showering and scrubbing every inch of my body with a nail brush to make sure I got rid of all the germs I imaged were on my skin.

I hated my life and the only thing that helped was my love of basketball. I created a completely different me with the basketball group. Although I was obsessive in the sport, training every day and often getting up at 6 am to run drills, I also slept with my basketball beside me. To me this seemed perfectly normal because I convinced myself it was necessary in becoming a good basketball player

Perfectionism Made Me Miserable

In college and in my working life, striving for perfection in everything I did put me under tremendous pressure as what I was looking for was impossible. I hated that I was an all or nothing person, so if I made a mistake and wanted to avoid criticism I just quit the task I was on at the time, making some excuse why it couldn’t be completed. I was so anxious all the time and convinced that I was incapable of doing anything right. I was constantly waiting for someone else to realise that I was stupid and sack me.

I pushed myself to work harder than my colleagues. No matter how busy and overloaded I already felt, I never said no to anyone asking me to do something, I even volunteered myself for extra work knowing it was impossible to meet my deadlines. I didn’t want anyone to know I couldn’t cope so used to take the work home and stay up most nights to get it completed.

I put myself under so much pressure to do things perfectly and did not tolerate mistakes. I became increasingly ill, developing rashes, headaches, sinus problems, and allergies. I struggled more and more to sleep often returning to work after two hours sleep if I was lucky. I’d stare at the wall wishing I wasn’t so much of a coward and willed myself to just end it all.

How to I stop being a perfectionist?

The more I find out about how and why I developed the need to be perfect the more I recognise how unachievable and unnecessary it is. Through researching for ‘Why Go Back? 7 Steps to Healing from Childhood Sexual Abuse’ I had to explore the various conditions and disorders that I developed as a result of my childhood trauma. This information has armed me with the knowledge I needed to make the necessary changes. I could see the energy I was devoting to overthinking and overdoing any task I took on.

This will sound like a contradiction but, how I minimise my need for perfectionism is, I don’t try. I accept that this is something I do and don’t use it as another way to tell myself that I have failed or something else to hate myself for. Now when I start a new project I start at the end. I ask myself what I am trying to achieve and who am I trying to please.

My desire for perfectionism is driven by my need  to be right and my belief that others can’t do the work as well as me.  This often stops me asking for help when I feel overwhelmed. This behaviour only feeds my perfectionism, but the more I recognise this in my behaviour the more I can challenge it.

Believe it or not my dogs really helped me because they don’t care if  the house or car is spotless or that I want everything to be perfect.  They do their own thing regardless and accept me just as I am.

Dr. Brené Brown stated that the difference between perfectionism and a striver is the idea that you are doing something for the approval of others. I do the perfectionism less and less and the striver more. This has resulted in me improving in my belief that what I do, I do to the best of my ability and that is always good enough.

15th February 2018 – Paula

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