How a Teacher Saved Me From Childhood Abuse and Suicide
By the time I was 14, I had been exposed to parental alcoholism, domestic violence, neglect, emotional abuse and occasional physical abuse at the hands of my mother. I was self-harming daily and had survived a suicide attempt. The catalyst for getting free of that situation was a teacher who took the time to find out what was wrong — who didn’t take “I’m fine” as an answer. Given my mental state at the time, that teacher quite possibly saved my life.
I’ve only recently started to be able to make disclosures about the abuse I suffered to the people around me, and the unhelpful reaction I’ve had from several family members has been: “Why didn’t you say something at the time?” This is a really horrible form of victim-blaming. As if I needed another voice to add to the one in my head, already saying that if only I’d have been braver, some of those things wouldn’t have happened to me. But really, why isn’t the question being asked: “why would a mother treat her child that way in the first place?”
For me, the idea of disclosing the abuse I was experiencing to a trusted adult — or “telling,” as I used to think of it — could sometimes be an all-consuming daydream. I used to fantasize about what it would be like when I finally found the courage to tell someone, and then everything would get better. But to me, that’s all it was — a daydream. Because I’d actually already “told” before. And nothing happened.
I was about 8 years old, and my life then consisted of a constant conveyer belt of intoxicated adults (mostly men) stumbling in and out of the family home. Between the shouting, arguing, partying, drinking and loud music every night, I was in a constant state of high alert, always scared that the unpredictable behavior of any of these adults could bring me or my baby sister to harm. Worse, though, were the times they would go out drinking all night and leave me and my sister alone in the house. At that age, I did not have the capacity to care for a 2-year-old, and I knew it. I was constantly terrified that one of multiple situations (from fires to intruders to a simple accident) could mean we could be hurt or killed, and there was nothing I could do about it.
So, I told someone. I told a close family member what was happening — that I was scared. They spoke to my mother and she acted sorry I was upset, but also lied and told them I was overreacting — she’d only left once or twice while she went to the shops. But of course, she’d stop since it was affecting me. Actually, what happened is she carried on doing it, but would humiliate me in front of her friends, calling me scared and a baby; I was making a massive drama out of nothing. She sat with her drinking buddies, laughing about how she couldn’t leave me for one second without me “telling tales.” I felt embarrassed. Ashamed. I internalized the idea that all “telling” did was create more pain. I had poured my heart out and it hadn’t changed anything. So, that meant I probably was overreacting. The things I felt and was scared of weren’t valid, weren’t worth attention. That feeling is something I still struggle with to this day. When I have experienced severe depression and suicidal thoughts, there is something innate inside of me that doesn’t let me reach out because I can’t truly believe my feelings and pain are worth anyone else’s time. Even on the edge of suicide, there is still the little voice in my head that tells me I am being a drama queen.
Fast-forward six years and the abuse has only gotten worse. I am self-harming every day and have made an attempt on my own life. One day, a teacher asks me if I’m OK and I tell him I’m fine because that’s the only response I know how to give. I go to leave and he stops me and asks me again. And the floodgates open. I open up about my mood, my home life; I don’t mean to, but I can’t stop myself. I’m in so much pain that once I start talking, I can’t stop, even though I’m trying to.
Once I’ve finished talking, the immediate feeling that hits me is panic and fear. Something bad is going to happen now. The school will talk to my mother, and she’ll tell them I’m telling stories and they’ll believe her and then the abuse will get worse and I don’t know how I’m going to survive it. But that doesn’t happen. I am believed. My fears and thoughts are validated. I get support. I get out of the situation and I survive.
By no means am I undamaged. I still struggle with depression and self-harm and suicidal ideations and I am being assessed for post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). My husband and a group of close and trusted friends are fighting a constant uphill battle to convince me I can be loved unconditionally, and my experiences are real and valid. Most days I struggle to believe them, and I’m not sure I ever truly will. But I survived.
So, my message to anybody who thinks someone else is struggling is this: don’t take “I’m fine” as an answer. You might be worried about a friend or a loved one. You might be an adult who has responsibility for children in some capacity and you have concerns. It doesn’t matter what the issue is — abuse, mental health, substance misuse. People who are struggling have a whole multitude of reasons why they can’t easily talk about their problems. “Telling” is hard, so show them that, when you ask them how they are, you mean it. Show them you actually want to know the answer, and are prepared to support them whatever the answer is. Because it might just save someone’s life. It did for me.
Photo by Kaan Oruç on Unsplash