This is me; this is my story. But of course, it’s not just mine. This story has happened to and continues to happen to many people. The details may differ but the impact is often the same.
At best, feelings of shame, confusion or lack of self-worth. At worst, lives blighted by mental and physical illness, self-harm, misuse of drugs or alcohol. Failure to meet their potential. A failure to thrive. If you relate to anything in this post, I hope you are reassured to know that you’re not alone. Negotiating your way along this journey can feel insurmountable but it’s not. There is always a way through.
When I was a child I didn’t tell my mother what was happening to me. That was a mistake because what was happening got worse.
When I went to school, I sat quietly and got on with my work, keeping my Secret inside me. That was a mistake because my Secret was distracting and I slipped behind.
Then I went to university and pretended that I was like everyone else. That was a mistake because my Secret meant I wasn’t like everyone else and the effort was too great. I woke up one morning to find that I couldn’t get out of bed.
When I asked for help because I’d missed two weeks of lectures, that was a mistake, because they didn’t see my Secret, they saw me as a waste of time, a drain on the system, that I would never achieve and told me to leave so they could give my space to someone else, someone grateful, someone better than me.
So I left.
That was a mistake.
As I left university, I could see my future. It was like standing at the top of a hill and surveying a beautiful and interesting looking town, lit up with a million sparkling lights but as I walked away, along a second path, the wrong one, I glanced over my shoulder and watched my future shrink smaller and smaller until I could hardly see it anymore and it hurt, possibly more than anything had hurt before. My instincts were screaming to go back, sort this out, hide better, never ask for help, get on with it, get my degree, be stronger, get back on this first path, the right one, but I didn’t because I didn’t know how to, and that was a mistake.
So I clawed myself a new life and a fast track qualification but it wasn’t my future, it was a mistake. I wore a mask when I faced the world and that was a mistake too, because people thought I was one thing, when I was quite another. My future was still sitting at the end of the first path, the one I’d stepped off and I couldn’t get back to it because my Secret blocked me at every turn. It was the weight on my chest and the ball and chain around my ankle. It was the glass wall between me and the rest of the world, it was the hand clamped over my mouth. It was the black in my heart and the stone in my stomach. It was the the racing pulse, the illness and fatigue, the anger and fear. It obliterated me until my Secret became me and I became my Secret. I disappeared and watched myself from afar, sleepwalking through my life.
I wasn’t really there at all.
It was frightening to not be me and it made me angry. I was angry with myself and that was a mistake because my anger made me hurt myself and play with life and death.
I didn’t care for my body and that was a mistake. I made lifelong scars on my skin, each one an attempt to dispel anger, to feel something else, anything else, to punish myself for not speaking, for walking away from my future and for not being strong enough.
I controlled the parts of myself that I still could. What I ate, my weight; 8.5, 8, 7.5,
made me feel I had the ability to change myself after all, but that was a mistake because my Secret was still there so I tried purging it instead. It didn’t go away so I drowned it in alcohol. I tried to blot it out with drugs, (unwisely prescribed) and that was a mistake because my Secret always found a way back and it was bigger and stronger than ever, fuelled by the shame of the drinking and harming. It had grown twice the size and now it was too big to keep Secret anymore and it was noticed. That was a mistake because some people judged me and put labels on me. Other people tried to treat my Secret, but they could only treat what they could see. I tried to reveal my Secret and that was a mistake, because these were the wrong people and they only had interest in the behaviours and didn’t want to hear it so they didn’t listen.
My future, that still sat behind me, at the end of the first path was now so small, it was just a tiny dot. My new future, the wrong one, the one that stared me in the face was very clear to me then. It was mental illness, medication, sympathy, lack of respect, institutions, appointments and a short life. It was death, suicide probably, and that was surprising because I knew that I was still inside me somewhere, I just had to work out how to find me.
When after all of these mistakes I found the right help and the right people to tell my Secret, I found myself on a third path. That was the biggest surprise of all because the possibility of another path had never occurred to me.
It was a rocky path and I tripped up often, sometimes slipping back to the second path for a while, but because I knew the third path was there, I scrambled back up and continued on my way until one day, everything began to make sense.
I found a way to tell my story and when my Secret was spoken, my heart turned from black to red and I was released from my glass cage, my head felt clearer and I felt lighter, unshackled, unmasked and free.
The most surprising thing I have learnt from the mistakes I have made is that they were never mistakes at all. Each one was part of a journey and taught me what I needed to know before the third path became visible.
So now I am standing, high up on the hill and as I survey the beautiful town and the sparkling lights before me, I see that my future didn’t go anywhere, I just had to go on a long detour to get there because the first path was blocked. I stopped and picked up a few hitchhikers along the way and they will walk beside me as I continue along this journey. They are called empathy, understanding, strength and determination and as the third path begins to merge with the first, I am stronger with my new friends than I ever would have been without this detour. Determination pushes me to join forces with others like me and to influence change, in the way that only I can, because of all the mistakes that I made along the way.
In a nutshell, the most surprising things that I have learnt on this journey are;
How much one can endure.
How blinkered most people are to an other’s pain.
How quick people are to judge and label at face value.
How we can turn adversity into opportunity, if we burn it as fuel for our journey rather than our self-destruction.
How we never really lose ourselves, even when we are so broken by circumstance, whilst we continue to breathe, we continue to live, and there is always a way forward.
Written shortly after contributing to The Truth Project: The Independent Inquiry into Child Sexual Abuse. (IICSA)