By Bethany Sharp
Lying on the long grass in the parkland of Severndroog Folly in Shooters Hill, I spoke on the phone to a strange woman about the events of childhood sexual abuse. I didn’t want to take the call at my house-share in case anyone overheard; I trusted that the wind wouldn’t carry much of what I was saying to any of the dog walkers or mothers with toddlers. I had chosen the place carefully. When there’s a blue sky above and the heads of grass seeds swimming into view above, it is easier to talk factually about these things than you might imagine.
That’s the trick though. There will come a point in the life of most sexual trauma survivors where you will need to report on what has happened to you, and you will need to be clear, concise, unemotional and reassuring. I have, I think, perfected the art of reporting on the circumstances of my abuse, as though I were an old-school BBC newsreader. Yes, something terrible has happened, but there’s no need for alarm; it is far away and there’s probably nothing you can do about it anyway… and now the weather.
I was trying to persuade the woman on the other end of the phone that I would benefit from therapy. My initial phone call to the NHS helpline had been a couple of weeks before, and I had thought the case was pretty straightforward: I had been sexually abused for two years when I was aged three and four – potentially before then, but my lucid memories do not extend earlier – and I had never sought help for this before. In my mind, there was no doubt that I was who
these services were for. I was told however that I would need to be assessed further to see whether I could even be considered for treatment. So this is what this phone call in a field was for. To explain myself.
I was asked if these memories had been repressed. No, I had just never spoken to anyone about it. I was asked if I had ever reported it to the police. No, because I was aged three and four, and three and four year olds do not tend to have agency. I had attempted to speak to the police further when they attended an incident of physical violence, but as they had not believed that the physical violence had taken place, there seemed little point in giving them more reasons
to look at me kindly and ask whether I might have been mistaken because I was a child, and children do not always understand what is happening to them.
The woman on the end of the line was placid. They must hear this plenty, I thought. Then she said something unexpected. What I had told her was very unusual, she said. She wanted to make sure that they could help me. She said that to consider me further, I would need to attend an in-person assessment in order to determine whether I would be given therapy through the NHS. I agreed.
After the phone call, I lay on the grass for a very long time. I wanted to make sure I was ok, and to my surprise, I was. The process to get help was more complex than I had expected, but there was progress, and I had little doubt that this was the start of my recovery.
The result of the in-person assessment: I was not granted help, because I was not currently suicidal as a result of my experience.
Many months later, after ringing charities and being told that their waiting lists were closed, I was suicidal.
By that time, I’d moved borough and had to begin the process all over again. I went to the GP. They had a different system there I was told. Go to the receptionist. Tell them that the GP said to make an appointment. The receptionist said they couldn’t make the referral without me telling them why. I said I was depressed. They said they needed more detail. I said I didn’t want to say in front of a waiting room of people. They said in that case I couldn’t have an appointment. So I told them. They made the booking. By the time I’d walked home I had a voicemail saying that they had lost the record of my appointment and that I would have to come back and rebook. I
What I haven’t mentioned yet is my Selective Mutism. Google it.
One suicide attempt later, I went to my first therapist. When I cried in the first session and couldn’t stop, she asked why I was so upset. When I asked whether I could have an appointment every other week instead of once a week because I felt I couldn’t cope with
handling this experience so frequently, she said she was sick of people asking her that, and that if people weren’t willing to put the work in, they couldn’t expect to help themselves.
The second therapist was very calm and looked like a candidate for the Liberal Democrats. I rather liked her.
Under the second therapist’s ‘specialisms’ she had listed ‘childhood sexual abuse’. I moved away from my BBC persona and adopted a more Channel 4, Jon Snow approach to the account. I assumed she could take it. She told me that it was shocking and upsetting. I did not
tell her that I already knew this and had been shocked and upset by it for some decades.
The final straw for her and me was the day I couldn’t speak. I’d told her about my Selective Mutism and that I expected it would affect my speech at some point during our sessions. I said I may be able to carry on, but that I would need to communicate through writing. She said she hoped this wouldn’t happen. The day I had to write, she said the therapy would not work if I was not able to speak, as though therapy was some branch of magic which only worked through
incantation. She said she wouldn’t ask me any new questions until I answered the first question without writing. So we sat in silence.
The result of asking a question and giving the person no means to reply is the equivalent to asking a question and holding your hand over their mouth as you demand an answer.
I did not complete my course of therapy.
Another suicide attempt later, I was desperate. I wanted to die, but I did not want to die, but I wanted to die, but I did not want to die. I went to a walk-in clinic in Angel on a Sunday.
The on-duty doctor had evidently been sitting seeing patients since Nye Bevan’s formation of the NHS in 1948. At some point they had placed a computer on his desk, and perhaps popped a pair of glasses onto the bridge of his nose when his eyesight faded back in 1973, but this emaciated white haired man had not yet been given a hearing aid, and SHOUTING was the only way forward for this consultation.
I wanted antidepressants. Strong ones. He asked why. I said I AM DEPRESSED.
I wasn’t trying to be funny; when you’re a Selective Mute being forced to yell, you have a more limited approach to vocabulary than usual. He had the humanity to laugh.
Justifiably, he asked why I was depressed. BECAUSE I WAS SEXUALLY ABUSED AS A CHILD.
He said that I wasn’t depressed, I “obviously” had Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. He asked why this wasn’t on my notes if I’d told professionals about this before. I said I didn’t know; no one had ever described what I’d gone through as trauma. He said he’d put it on my notes so people would be able to treat me properly in future.
The drugs he gave me to try did not work – or rather, they had a such a strong reaction that I stopped feeling suicidal in the same way you would if you were about to jump to your death in a lake, only to be unexpectedly attacked by a bear before you leapt. My survival instincts kicked in and I fought for all I was worth.
That’s ok. He’d said that they might not suit me and to go back to a GP and try other things. I didn’t. Or rather, I tried a lot of other things. Alternatives, by-ways and books about PTSD.
He was angry and shocked in that appointment, but not at me or the frightening experience I had brought into the room – why should he be? Childhood sexual abuse is not uncommon. We should know that by now. Instead, he was angry at the failure of the system he worked in, and did a small thing to try and help.