Sophie’s Story - Finding My Voice After Childhood Trauma

New York, September 2018. I was in a restaurant with a friend, as the hearing for the new Supreme Court Justice played on the TV in the corner. We had gone out so as not to watch the upsetting proceedings being broadcast everywhere we looked. But watching it out of the corner of my eye, I suddenly had a flashback.

The flashbacks lasted for days. I couldn’t sleep, I felt nauseous all the time, I could barely see because of the images flashing in front of my eyes over and over again. I couldn’t stop crying. I didn't understand what they meant.

It took several therapy sessions to untangle what I was remembering and realise the truth. I had been raped on multiple occasions between the ages of ten and twelve by a friend of my family. He was my parents’ age. I remember seeing him at events or parties, having to greet him “politely” in public when inside I was terrified. I remember being assaulted while groups of people, my family included, talked and laughed down the hall in another room. My brain had blocked out the trauma. Years later, it had allowed the floodgates to open.

It took me over a year to actually use the word rape when referring to my experience. It is a terrifying thing to admit. In some ways, the admission was freeing. I realised I had been unknowingly dealing with PTSD since the incidents. But the realisation was also traumatic. Violating. Confusing. There was so much shame, anger and grief. In many ways, I lost my childhood. Child abuse destroys your self worth. It makes you suddenly, irrevocably different to the other children around you in a way you do not understand. I could no longer relate to my friends. It silenced me; I did not have the words or understanding to explain what had been done to me. It is still hard for me to think how young ten really is. I was still in primary school. I hadn’t gone through puberty yet. I was a child.

I found extra layers of confusion when coming to terms with childhood abuse. I found it hard to admit what had happened at first, when I couldn’t yet fully ‘remember’ it, even though I had a knowledge of the trauma stored in my body. I felt powerless; the option of reporting doesn’t seem viable, over a decade down the line. And I am processing trauma that happened to a body that I am not in anymore. My body when I was ten is vastly different to my body now, as an adult. I do not remember what it is like to live inside that ten year old’s body. And yet I am processing trauma that happened to that different person and body, from the person that I am now. There is a distance. And yet the trauma still feels close and deep and painful. It is a complex and often confusing dichotomy.

Slowly, I told a few people close to me what had happened. I was lucky that people were mostly kind and heartbroken at what I had experienced. Some people wanted to know why I hadn’t come forward sooner. Some wanted to confront him, to tell the world before I was ready. I had to fight to process and share my story my way. Of course I understand it’s a horrific fact to learn about someone. But it is also mine to share (or not) as I see fit. Yes, I am angry. Yes, part of me wants to shout it from the rooftops. But I am also scared.

I tried to speak up and tell my family at the time, but I didn’t have the vocabulary to describe the abuse in a way anyone would understand. But it was made even harder by the fact that my family and everyone that knew him thought that he was a fun, funny, charming man. It didn’t even occur to them that he could do this. Recently, I realised that abusers do not only groom the child; they also groom the adults around them, the wider society, specifically so that no-one could ever believe they would do such a thing. They purposefully make it easy for people to dismiss any warning signs a child portrays. With abusers, the ‘nice’ or ‘fun’ personality they project is all smokescreens. But where there is smoke, there is fire.

Since I started coming to terms with my story, there have been multiple prominent discussions about child abuse in the media and the world. I am glad that people are finally shining light on these abuses that have taken place in the shadows for decades. But with my story a secret, I struggled when these were discussed. It added to my fear and frustration. When people tell me that they don’t believe that high profile perpetrators of child abuse are guilty, or that the allegations do not impact their estimation of that person, to me it says that their convenience is more important than survivors. It says that if I told them my story, they might not believe me, or they might make excuses for my abuser. It tells me that they do not see how that filters down in society and creates a world where child sexual abuse is brushed under the rug. A world where what happened to me is possible. A world where adults turn a blind eye, abuse is allowed to continue and justice for children is rare. Child sexual abuse is more common than any of us like to think and when your first impulse is to make excuses instead protecting survivors, it will continue. When you do not believe other survivors, it makes it scarier and more dangerous for people like me to speak out. We must have the same energy for all survivors.

I know that my abuser will not be brought to justice in a legal way. Speaking out is the only power I have. I was scared to admit that I am a survivor because of how it would reflect back on me; whether I would be looked down upon or blamed, whether I would even be believed, whether people would confront me or make excuses for him. He had the arrogance to believe that I would never reveal what he did, that I would be shamed into silence forever. But I realised recently that nothing is more important than owning my story. I don’t want to be weighed down by this secret. By the shame he gave me to carry. It is too heavy. It should not be mine. I want to be free. I want to take the power back.

I am an actor and a writer and I love what I do. So I wrote a screenplay. A story that isn’t mine, but is partially based on mine; a story of an adult discovering and remembering trauma they endured as a young person. It was liberating, to describe in words and in images what the aftermath of such abuse felt like. Then I decided to produce it. It felt urgent; important, that I made it. It felt like a way of speaking out and raising awareness. During the process of making the film I connected with One in Four, a charity which supports survivors of child sexual abuse and trauma and they agreed to endorse the film. Having these experts validate my voice and experience was empowering. I specifically hired an all-female crew and ended up sharing that I had written from experience. We had respectful, open conversations. Everyone was committed to making the set a safe place. The energy, support and positivity I felt during filming was unprecedented. I got to step into a character and honour her story, her strength and her struggles; and in doing so pay homage to my own.

I was also adamant that the film did not include any graphic images. Assault scenes sensationalised or romanticised in media does not move the conversation forward in a positive way and is only triggering for survivors. In fact, the perpetrator is never seen on screen in my film. He does not have his story told. He does not deserve it. The film centres around two women, and tells a story of female friendship and the strength women find in each other. It is a story where women are listened to and where their pain matters, told through a female lens. It is also, crucially for me, a film where the women’s stories are never questioned. I wanted survivors, myself included, to have a voice where we weren’t second guessed, shamed and denied at every turn.

Art allowed me to be visible. It empowered me. It allowed me to feel strong, to fight for myself, to let people in for the first time. I truly believe that art can change the world. I believe that having authentic stories of abuse and trauma on our screens can change people’s perceptions. It is part of how I choose to fight for myself and for other survivors. And I can honestly say that expressing my experience through film is one of the most positive steps towards healing and owning my story that I have ever taken.

The power of telling my story is the discovery of a community, the ability to strengthen others by finding my own strength. Survivors have an incredible power when we come together. I am passionate about empowering other survivors. I want to fight for change, so that future generations of children will not experience what I did. My hope is that by spreading awareness, we can create a world where survivors feel safe to speak up, and where family and teachers will be able to look out for vulnerabilities and investigate children’s behaviour or accusations so they can be better safeguarded. I am so grateful to be an ambassador for a platform like I Am Arla who do such incredible work to connect and uplift trauma survivors.

I am done letting him have power over me. I am done letting him take away my voice. Today I begin honouring the promise my therapist in New York asked me to make, way back when I was first remembering my rapes: to never let him win.

To ten year old me: It is not your fault. Have hope. You will find your way. You are stronger than you know.

Sophie x

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