by Larry O’Neill
To write or not to write, that is the question. It is not easy to begin to share, especially with unknown readers. But if an account of what it feels like to be a survivor of prolonged sexual abuse will be helpful to others on the same journey, or to those who share their journeys, then it is worth the risk.
To have experienced the sexual violence of childhood abuse is not without its blessings. A book I read during my recovery is titled: “Strong at the Broken Places” – a good title, because it is true. If a victim lasts long enough to become a survivor, there are strengths that emerge and they are important. One of them, for me, is to be able to share the experience with you in these pages. A second is to be able to reach out in ministry to men and women who are broken but prepared to begin their healing, and it is good to be able to recall quite a few I have been able to connect with therapists and who are now thriving. Sexual abuse inflicts great harm on a child, but the devastation is not necessarily limitless. It can bear the fruit of Calvary: there can be an Easter Sunday.
So, when did it begin for me? The perpetrator was not related to me in any way but gained access to our family. He was present when my sister was brought home after birth. I was on the threshold of my second birthday, dislodged from my role as youngest, vulnerable. By the age of four I was certainly a victim, and it continued for years, despite the presence of caring parents. Abusers are cunning. I was never raped. To say I was sexually molested is not strong enough to describe what happened. I was sexually abused, repeatedly, soiled by the perpetrator’s sexual abuse of me when I was just a child; by his grooming and manipulation of both me and my family; and by his oppressive coercion when I offered the slightest resistance. As I say, I escaped his influence and never saw him again after I left for a boarding school at the age of twelve.
The journey of recovery began in as hazy a manner. Was it in university days when I had weird thoughts of death? I sought help, but all a psychiatrist knew was to offer medication, and I knew I wasn’t sick. Maybe more clearly it began in 1977 at a Charismatic Congress when I found the grace not to wish the perpetrator damned for ever. You have heard of the film called “Inside I’m Dancing.” Inside, as a victim of abuse I was dying. The outer veneer was successful – one of the God-given gifts that supported me was academic ability, so I had my degrees, even with honours. But inside I was dead.
Abuse consigns the victim to an enduring exile. I and many like me know the contours of a Wasteland unvisited by the ‘normals’. I know I ought not use that term, but we used it in the therapy group, always with apology, because how else can one describe the life of a person who is not singled out by a predator, used and cast aside? The normals are the lucky ones. The landscape paintings of the battle fields of the First World War have always seemed to me a perfect description of the desolation caused inside, an inner beauty laid waste, fertile fields transformed to mud fields oozing death and decay.
Did you ever see “Mystic River”? The victim of abuse spends his time watching zombie films – unaware, it would appear, that a half-life best describes his disconnection from true living. Survivors know what it is to have been a zombie.
And survivors know what it is to long to be dead. To be unfit for life. So they have attempted suicide, or imagined it. I know how I would have killed myself, very clearly. By God’s grace, I never had the impulse at my chosen location, close to Skerries.
And then the day came
When the risk to remain tight
In a bud was more painful
Than the risk it took to blossom.
That was when I could no longer cope, and went for therapy. That journey has lasted to today: a year in Dublin, three years in Boston, and a further five years in Dublin, and after six years without seeing a counsellor (although I could talk about what surfaced in my spiritual direction), recently I have begun again, to sort out more current issues.
It has been painful work, but with each step I have felt a growing connection with life, a developing ability to be spontaneous, and to accept personal failure without connecting it to toxic shame. I can share with you without feeling my story soils you. Before I left Boston I found myself able to say truthfully and with all my being the words of St Clare of Assisi, “Be blessed, O God, for creating me!” Up to that point I was convinced I was God’s mistake. That’s what a predator does to a vulnerable child.
As I’ve mentioned, there are the blessings: being strong at the broken places, being able to hear from within the experience of others who are in this wasteland and offer them a route to escape it, being aware of life as fresh and new and worth the living, and being aware, too, of all I have received and that has sustained me: in my family, which provided me with a healthy parallel existence; in the members of my religious family, which has provided deep friendship and support and permission to pursue my recovery.
There are also deficits: having experienced abuse will remain part of my story for ever, a wound that I may well bear into eternal life. I will never know what it would have been like to live a normal life. I will never be utterly free from being ambushed when a painful memory is triggered by some contemporary event – a child crying, a parent telling a child to grow up, the shame of a penitent that is toxic in its origin. Then the sadness returns, perhaps, but only for a moment. The joy of life is now too strong to be overshadowed.
And I am challenged: when I find myself triggered because someone physically resembles the man who abused me, when I find someone crowding my personal space or undermining my freedom, manipulating me, forcing me towards some decision, when the stirring of affection triggers too painfully the memory of betrayal – I am challenged still to grow beyond the past and to live more freely in a present that is ever more fully my own. And to live the joy of knowing – “Be blessed, O God, for creating me!”
Before I left for Boston I spent some time in Limerick and wrote these lines:
As salmon gather at the falls
Before they face the raging crash
Of water from the heights above,
We linger here, and pause, and draw fresh breath
To face the struggles of a heart that heals.
From dawn ’til now we’ve run our race,
We’ve grown together, learned, and worn
A mask to hide the effort from our world;
We’ve barred the gate and kept them out.
We’ve seldom known the ease of care-
Free laughter, easy word, or open mind;
Our stiff-legged gait has blocked the way
To run with others; better to stand back
And watch, and know the pain of being different.
But now the spawning streams are calling us;
Our legs untied, transformed to fins that glide,
Propel us through the waters to rebirth.
As smolt and fry we’ll grow then, you and I,
And reach the ocean, salmon’s wisdom gained.
Larry O’Neill is a member of a religious order and is a spiritual director who recently gained a Master’s Degree in Supervision of Ministry.
Sandford, L.T. (1991) Strong at the Broken Places: Overcoming the Trauma of Childhood Sexual Abuse, London: Virago Press