As a child, how do you deal with being sexually abused if you don’t understand what has actually happened to you? Katerina* tells her complicated, moving story of being sexually abused as a child. As told to Maira Hermann Zeh
The NSPCC released some new statistics on child sex abuse yesterday. According to the charity, which fights for the rights and wellbeing of children in the UK, there has been an increase of 13 per cent in the number of sex offences against four to eight year olds.
The figures, obtained by a freedom of information request, show over 6,000 children have been sexually abused in England and Wales in 2016/17. But this is not an isolated incident, child sexual abuse has been featuring prominently in the news of late, the issue taking centre stage during Pope Francis’ visit to Northern Ireland.
Healthista was recently contacted by a reader who wanted to share her story of child sexual abuse with our readers. We have respected her anonymity by not using her name or identifying factors and here call her Katerina.
We have chosen not to edit any aspects of Katerina’s story as we felt it was important this be told in her own voice.
Trigger warning: the following story contains graphic descriptions of sexual abuse.
‘When I was about 8 years old, possibly younger, I used to live in a small village in the countryside of Brazil. I had a really happy, plentiful, nourishing childhood there. Well, in general. But all that happiness, all that love, all that bliss became overcast by a cloud of darkness that would come to affect every aspect of my life.
‘I was sexually abused by one of my heroes, one of my dearest cousins. You are probably asking right now ‘how old was he? Was he roughly the same age as you? Because if that is the case, then he probably didn’t know what he was doing either.’ No he wasn’t. He is about ten years older than me. So yes, he absolutely knew what he was doing. I, on the other hand, didn’t.
‘I was not raped, there was no violence. Well, not in the classic sense of the word, there was simply an abuse of power that manipulated me into giving up my innocence, not spontaneously but voluntarily as I did nothing to stop it.
‘As much as I may feel ashamed nowadays for what happened, I was just a child allured by the physical pleasures of an action I had no grasp of yet. No, not at that age.
‘And once I had been violated over and over again for a good few years but felt drawn and addicted to the pleasurable sensations I got from such despicable acts, I even enticed my abuser to violate me every once in a while.
‘Whenever I stayed at my great-aunt’s house, I had a whole bedroom all to myself. And in the middle of the night, once everyone was fast asleep, he would come to my bedroom, as quiet and nimble-footed as a cat, like a Shadow Man. I would always know he was coming as the bedroom door creaked slowly ajar and his head would pop in to check the coast was clear.
‘A few years later, I moved to Belo Horizonte, the capital city of my state in Brazil. But I used to go back to my village almost every weekend to visit my relatives who still lived there. I remember to this day, as clearly as if it was yesterday, the day my mother and I went to her aunt’s (my great-aunt) house for a family luch to celebrate her birthday.
‘The whole family was there, including my cousin, my great aunt’s son. The joyous occasion meant everyone got a little – not to say a lot – drunk and so, I erm, I took the opportunity to see if I could entice my cousin to erm, well you get it.
‘I saw he was talking to some friends in a separate corner from the rest of the family so I went there and gave him a suggestive look as if to say ‘let’s get a room.’ I know, it’s difficult to fathom how on Earth could a 10 year old child know how to give a man a suggestive look? To be perfectly honest, I have no idea, it is almost as if all those horrible events imparted upon me some innate sex super power.
‘I then slowly walked away, towards my great aunt’s bedroom where there was a double bed and I knew was empty. I looked discretely back to see if he was following me and, BINGO, he was.
‘I laid myself on the bed and lowered my size 4 jeans a little to make things clear and easy for him. The door then opened slowly and just a little at first, he was checking to see if I was alone. He came in and pulled my pants down. No need to describe things any further I guess.
‘I knew I was doing something wrong, what I didn’t understand was the extent of the damage that had been inflicted on me. Surely it wasn’t that bad, it felt good, I wasn’t hurting anyone so surely it wasn’t that bad.
The pain of growing up
‘However, as I grew up I began to understand the gravity of the situation. Having an extremely religious family, my father’s family is an all practicing, all devoted Christian family, didn’t help either. It was all about repentance, self-abstinence, self-sacrifice, self-flagelation and, above all, self-preservation and no pleasure, especially of the sexual type.
‘That together with the social protocols of a retrograde, small-village mentality only compounded on the internal battles and demons I was fighting. At some point, my brain just shut it all off and buried all those horrendous memories from my earlier childhood deep into my unconscious mind. I forgot about everything, it was as if part of my memory had been completely wiped out.
‘As I went through my teenage years, I had these occasional flashbacks, where these pictures would just suddenly come into my head and stop as suddenly as they came. They weren’t complete memories, the flashbacks didn’t play in my head as movies, as fluid memories of the past, they were just isolated images, photos of those horrendous moments.
‘I thought I was being disturbed by the devil, I felt disgusted because I thought I was developing a sexual desire for my cousin. I felt ashamed and that corroded me to my very core. I kept on thinking ‘you are digusting, how can you feel that way about your cousin?’
‘Then, during a casual chat with my mum where we were just having a nostalgic talk about happy times in Brazil, she started talking about an occasion where I had mentioned to her that I used to really enjoy playing doctor and nurse with my cousin.
‘I don’t know why but that triggered something in my brain and the memories just rushed back, like a flood, and I felt I was drowning. I suddenly stopped talking and just lay on the bed. My mother thought that was strange, I just told her I was getting a little tired and needed to close my eyes. She carried on chatting and I tried with all my might to contain my tears. Then I thought to myself ‘there’s no point doing anything about this right now, go to sleep and think about it tomorrow when your head is a bit clearer.’
‘Six months passed before I was able to tell my parents about what had happened to me in my childhood. I hid it for so long because I had no idea how to tell them or I the repercussions those memories would have on the family. Our family was very closely knit but could it survive the impact of such horrendous events? I was completely lost and had no idea how I would deal with it. I was lost, alone and confused.
‘The agony of having to hold those memories back until I had an actual plan on how to deal with them started affecting my behaviour and probably even my personality. I was 22 and studying Biomedical Sciences at Kings College, London when the memories returned and it completely disrupted my studies. I had to take a year off because my mental health had completely deteriorated.
Confusion turns to anger
‘I started having these extremely explosive events where I would just lash out at my parents for the smallest things. Those became gradually more frequent and more extreme until one day, during an argument with my parents I just started regurgitating horrible words.
‘Then suddenly, in an involuntary outcry for understanding, the truth came out of nowhere, without a thought or regard for my parents. I did it in the most horrible way, I didn’t try and soften the blow and I certainly didn’t choose the right moment. Was I a bad person? I know I sound like a horrible human being and, perhaps I am – or was – but, in my defence, those were extremely exceptional circumstances. Regardless, I felt like s**t afterwards.
‘As soon as my parents heard it all, their first reaction was to question me. And obviously, that only antagonised me even more. ‘How dare you question me? I am the victim here, NOT him!’ And I broke into tears, they came so hard and so fast I thought I was going to drown, literally. I could taste their saltiness at the back of my throat to the point where I started choking on them altogether. I didn’t know whether to talk, choke or hiccup. Or drown. I think at that point I would probably have chosen to drown. Anything to stop the pain. Not MY pain, but that of those around me
‘After a very very very long grilling from my parents, who were obviously extremely distressed may I add, they stopped questioning me and my mother phoned my aunt straight away. They didn’t want to talk to her, oh no, they were going straight for my cousin.
‘It was actually kind of cool (and slightly worrying I must admit) to see my mother speaking to my aunt when she picked up the phone. She was as cold as ice given the circumstances (sorry, cool, healthy cucumbers doesn’t quite cover it) and spoke to my great-aunt briefly and casually, as if nothing had happened. She then asked to speak to my cousin. Then the fireworks would fly but and it wasn’t pretty.
A lioness protecting her cub
‘My mum started the conversation as any other normal conversation would. Then she went for the jugular ‘so, my daughter has just told me that when she was about eight or nine, you sexually assaulted her. What do you have to say about that?’
‘You might be surprised to find that erm, well, he denied everything. Okay, maybe that’s not that surprising. He still does. But I have made my peace. I know what he did but, more importantly, HE knows what he did.
‘And at the end of the day, I can sleep with my conscience clear, I can walk with my head up high. But he, well, he will have to look at himself in the mirror every single day of his life and live with the knowledge of what he did. The truth is the truth and it hurts because you cannot run or hide from it. It resides within you. And that truth will forever live within him. Regardless of the lies he told the world.
The legacy of my past
‘But obviously I too have to deal with the repercussions of my past even though I was not to blame for what had happened. It took me a long time to be able to talk openly to the team of counsellors at my university and my first attempts were vastly unsuccessful.
‘I know, you might be wondering why I didn’t talk to a psychologist or a more specialised mental health team. I tried, but I would have to wait a long time for an appointment so I went for the next best thing I could get, the university’s student support network.
‘And to be fair, they were really good and at that point I wasn’t ready for anything overly sophisticated, I just needed to talk to somebody who was completely detached from me emotionally and could see the bigger picture to help me understand what had happened to me and how it had and would affect me. I went to the first few appointments but every time I did, I felt like I was scratching open a very painful, very sore wound and wasn’t allowing it to heal so I stopped for while.
‘While on a holiday trip to Brazil a few months later, I went to see my doctor, just for a quick check up. He had been my doctor for years and had saved my life before from an illness I had developed in association with an eating disorder I suffered from that nearly killed me so I trusted him completely. I called him my guardian angel.
‘He recommended I see a psychiatrist friend of his, one of the best in the country back then. He had suggested him before to help me deal with my bulimia but I never went, I hated talking about my complete lack of self-control with regards to food. What a loser I was.
‘On my first appointment, I explained to him everything that had happened, how I was raped over and over again for many years and, to my disgust once I had realised what had happened to me, how much I had actually enjoyed it. I felt dirty, unworthy, like the worst specimen of human kind or rather, unkind.
‘Once I finished, he said to me ‘well, from what you have told me, you were not raped. For starters, there was no penetration. But most importantly, there was no violence. Well, not in the sense of a violent attack. His acts were obviously an act of violence but not in the usual sense. What you described here is a case of sexual abuse but not rape. What happened here was an abuse of power, not rape. He took advantage of your young age and lack of understanding of the circumstances that accompany the act of sex. In other words, you consented to the act from the perspective that you said yes but at the same time you didn’t because you were not aware of what you were consenting to.’
‘Those ‘alleged’ professional observations made my blood boil. I thought he was actually taking my then-rapist’s side. I didn’t come back, I felt almost as if I had been violated for a second time, this time psychologically.
‘But after some deep, careful soul-searching, I came to the conclusion he was right. And regardless of whether I would have preferred to have been ‘raped’ or ‘sexually abused’, my psychiatrist certainly got rid of one of the darkest clouds hanging over my head, the guilt for the pleasure I felt during those horrendous events.
Adaptation can come from a life of solely good experiences but true evolution requires trouble, pain and adversity. As much as one can learn valuable lessons from good experiences, it is the painful ones that will truly teach you life’s most precious teachings
‘How did he do it? Skilfully. He told me that children are probably the most sexually uninhibited human beings because they are not restricted by the rules and impositions of society and its social protocols. That means that they will easily succumb to their most primitive, most primeval instincts such as hunger, love and indeed pleasure. It’s really all about evolution of the human species and how kids are, in essence, the closest version of our most primitive selves. And in that respect, it’s all about instant gratification.
‘During the worst periods of my eating disorder, I also oscillated between periods of depression and normality. Well, at least to a certain extent considering that nothing feels exactly ‘normal’ when you live with an eating disorder.
‘I have to admit that, weirdly enough, until all those memories had surfaced, I had felt like a failed human being because I could see no reason why I would. I had a great childhood, my parents were the best parents a child could wish for, they provided me a really wonderful life so there really was no reason why I should feel so depressed.
‘And whereas those memories at least had provided some perverted explanation for the periods of darkness, I found myself fighting yet another demon: how much of my personality is intrinsically mine and how much of it is a product of my being sexually abused? And this became an even more fundamental question: how long would those events haunt me until and I would I ever be able to transcend them?
Forgiveness, building bridges and destroying walls
‘When I returned to the UK, I tried to get a psychologist to keep the treatment going but, yet again, things took an awful lot of time. Whilst waiting for the appointment to come, I had the chance to sit back, reflect and grow. It was a period I spent a lot of time by myself, self-searching, self-learning and above all, adapting.
‘No, during this period I didn’t just adapt, I evolved, I became almost a new species. I was able to do things I thought I would never be able to. You see, as you can imagine, my parents didn’t speak to my great-aunt for a very long time. They weren’t able to forgive her for calling me a liar and neither was I. How could she? Not only that but my mother’s entire family questioned me and doubted me about my allegations against my cousin. That was extremely hurtful and the family dynamics completely melted down.
‘However, with time, and growth and indeed, with the evolution I had been through, I realised one thing: I had to forgive my family and especially my great-aunt. How could I punish them for something they were completely innocent of? They didn’t abuse me, my cousin did. And as hard as it was for me, I had to understand why they questioned me. Can you imagine what it must feel like having you son or nephew be accused of sexually abusing someone? No, not someone, a child. Once I understood that, I was able to forgive.
In this life, rather like a butterfly, I went through a dramatic metamorphosis. And on the other side of this transformation, I came out like a phoenix and from the ashes I was reborn. I was reborn stronger, fiercer, tougher but above all, fairer
‘I remember as clear as day the first time I spoke to my great-aunt after all that had happened. It was during my cousin’s wedding. No, not HIS wedding, another cousin’s. She came up to me slowly and very timid, as though approaching a tiger. She stood in front of me and I looked at the floor I still don’t quite know why. Perhaps I was too embarrassed for breaking up our family or maybe I just felt like it, I don’t really know. She then took my right hand, held it tightly between hers and she stared right into my eyes as if she was looking right into my soul. Her eyes began swelling up with tears and her lips were shaking. The words wanted to flow out but couldn’t.
‘So I took the next step and embraced her. I held her tight and whispered to her ‘don’t worry, I forgive you. Please forgive me too for all the pain I put our family through, I was young and simply didn’t know how to deal with the whole situation. Perhaps if I had been older and wiser when the memories flooded back I would have dealt with things better. Please forgive me.’ And we broke down into tears and held in each others’ arm.
‘My cousin was there and he saw us. I don’t know what he thought and to be perfectly honest, I no longer care.
The definition of ME
‘After such a long time I am proud to say I have moved on and he no longer dominates my thoughts. Something else I have come to accept is that I, the person I am, the essence of me is simply the result of the combination of all experiences I went through in my life; the good and the bad, the best and indeed the worst.
‘So as much as I would obviously have preferred not to have been sexually abused, the reality was that I was. And as much as that has an influence on the person I am today, what truly makes me who I actually am is what I decided to do with it and the type of person I would become as a result of it. In other words, not the type of person I would become because of it but rather who I would become in spite of it.
‘When I arrived at that conclusion, I was even able to forgive my cousin. Not completely, I don’t want him back in my life. But I no longer resent, I no longer hate, I just feel absolutely nothing. I am completely indifferent, I feel just numbness towards my cousin. And this indifference brings a peaceful stillness inside me that I believe has allowed me to become a better person, a better version of the person I would be if I hadn’t been through all that I had.
‘I have never had a long-term relationship – I used to think this was a consequence of my adverse childhood experience. I no longer allow myself to think that even though this may quite well be the case. I now choose to think I simply had a different focus in life. I love studying, I love the acquisition of knowledge, I call myself a knowledge junkie. I never used drugs in my life but the very act of learning gives me such an adrenaline rush I am guessing I get a similar kind of high from it.
‘But I feel like I am now ready to find someone to be by my side, someone to care for me and spoil me. And someone I can care for, and love and spoil. I am finally ready to find my other half. Not my better half – that is mathematically implausible. Halves are equal quantities, one is not bigger or better than the other, they are equal and complementary. They mutually strengthen each other’s weakness and I am finally ready and excited to be on the search for mine.
‘After much growth and maturation, I have finally come to the conclusion my purpose in this life was indeed to learn and to eventually evolve.
‘Adaptation can come from a life of solely good experiences but true evolution requires trouble, pain and adversity.
‘As much as one can learn valuable lessons from good experiences, it is the painful ones that will truly teach you life’s most precious teachings.
‘In this life, rather like a butterfly, I went through a dramatic metamorphosis. And on the other side of this transformation, I came out like a phoenix and from the ashes I was reborn. I was reborn stronger, fiercer, tougher but above all, fairer’.
*Not her real name