Trigger warning: This article contains descriptions of incestuous abuse which some readers may find distressing.
My first memory of anything sexual in nature is my step-father pulling down his trousers and asking me if I liked what I saw. I was around 8 to 10 years old. I stood in the doorway feeling shocked, scared and very frightened.
Often, he would get into bed with me, drunk and naked. I always pretended I was asleep. One time, my mother, ill with depression, walked in to find him naked laying in bed with me. She said, “I hope you haven’t laid a finger on that child,” but then, she walked out of the room.
I knew then I could not ask her for help. She was scared of him due to the numerous beatings he doled out to her – something that triggered the beginning of her mental decline.
He told me several different things to keep me terrified: that he would kill my mum; that these were things I needed to know for when I had a boyfriend; that he would beat me if I told anyone. On occasion, he would pay me afterwards.
Amongst the sexual abuse there were beatings: being dragged out of my sleep by my hair for something he had made up; being put on the doorstep, naked, as a teenager and being forced to hide in bushes so that no-one would see, totally humiliated; watching as he tried to strangle my mum until she foamed at the mouth; watching as he raped her.
I witnessed a lot of sexual violence from this man and it had a profound effect on me. I felt literally gagged with fear at the time.
From the ages of 12 to 15, my mother became so mentally unwell she spent very long periods of time in psychiatric wards, leaving me the eldest of four children, at home alone with him. The sexual abuse became more frequent as he didn’t have to try and sneak into my bedroom. On New Year’s Eve in 1983, my mother committed suicide by drowning herself in the Thames.
I was now alone with this monster.
With my mother dead, I was now raising three other children, 9, 10 and 13, the two youngest being his. I remember feeling like I was now his wife as that was the role I was fulfilling.
I truly hated this man – I knew what he was doing was wrong. He might not have pushed my mother in the Thames physically, but he did mentally.
One night, I took a bread knife from the kitchen, climbed the three storeys to the top of the house where he was sleeping, and held the knife against his throat. But I couldn’t kill him. I don’t think fear stopped me, I just didn’t have it in me.
A turning tide
My periods started and I began to worry I would become pregnant. We had a social worker who came to the house periodically when my mum was ill, so I wrote her a letter telling her in a sentence or two what he was doing. I walked to her office and handed it in to reception and left.
The following day I got a message to attend the social services department and suddenly I was surrounded by lots of male police officers. Someone said I was going to be examined. I thought, “No, not again!”
I refused the examination as I was too scared, scared that he would kill me for telling. I don’t regret this decision – I think the police could have been handled me more sensitively. It was the 1980s and I wasn’t supported properly at the time.
I was placed in foster care a long way away from him and my siblings. Happy as I was to be away from him, I missed my siblings a lot. My foster parents were nice but I couldn’t relate to them – they were strangers. I felt very alone.
I took my first overdose at 16. Nothing changed.
I was placed in a flat at 18. Living in a flat on my own compounded my issues, there were a lot of drug users in my block of flats – drugs were a way of life. I began smoking weed which exacerbated my already fragile emotional state. I felt like I was going mad. I finally took myself back to social services and sought help.
I am Mary, a survivor
Good fortune smiled on me. I was referred to a therapeutic community and underwent intensive psychotherapy. It saved my sanity and my life. I did not take any medication. It was me that got me well, with tools given to me from the mental health professionals.
A pivotal moment in my therapy was when I finally realised and accepted that it wasn’t my fault. I remember feeling light, unburdened and happy when I realised this. I realised it was OK to forgive myself. I allowed myself some peace from believing it was all my fault.
I cried almost every day for those 2 years. I felt like I was drowning in my feelings – they floored me, they overwhelmed me, they battered me and I felt suicidal. But I learnt I didn’t have to act on these feelings, that they do pass, that there are better days, that there is a future for me despite the damage and the trauma. To this day, I find crying a useful tool in releasing my emotions.
At 27, I married and had 2 girls.
At 41, I decided to go to university and follow in my mum’s footsteps. I had always wanted to be a nurse.
I’ve been a mental health nurse now for three years and, apart from my children, it’s the best thing I could have ever done.
Talking to someone saved me, kind words saved me. I would remember those kind words on bleak days when I wanted to kill myself. Being busy, working and having goals saved me too.
I also have my mother to thank for being here today. Her suicide ripped my life apart, the loss of her literally changed my world forever. But her suicide prevented me from doing the same, as I could not put my daughters through what I had gone through.
My message for other survivors is this: don’t give in to fear and, when you’re ready, face it and get help. Don’t give up – there will come a point where it won’t consume you anymore, bringing with it hope for the future.
My life is OK now. I am no longer scared. I am an incest survivor.
As for the monster that abused me – he is still alive and well, and that’s OK too. I have decided not to hang on to any malice, for my own sake. There’s a lot of hatred and twisted feelings that I could fall back on, but I don’t want to become that sort of person.