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Surviving sexual abuse


For almost a decade Hannah* was supported by Mayo Rape Crisis Centre (MRCC) towards her recovery from sexual abuse and violations that started when she was just eight years old and didn’t finish until she was 18 years old. Now in her early 50s, and leading a successful professional life, she tells Áine Ryan about her harrowing but now hopeful story.

I was abused by five different people, and one of them was a priest. I suppose for me as an eight year old, I thought it was normal behaviour and that it was happening to others and all part of growing up. Basically, the sexual abuse destroyed my childhood. Just to say too, I come from a large family, where there was alcoholism. These people (abusers) were in positions of trust and authority. [Here Hannah talks about three of her abusers.]
My first abuser lived in the area and used to help me with my homework. He would bring me outside and put me on a block at the back of the house (because I was small) and he would masturbate on my tummy. He would give me money and sweets to keep ‘the secret’. One of his brothers must have witnessed him abusing me at some stage because I have a memory of him saying: “Leave the girl alone.”
The second abuser was a relative who groomed me and carried out the abuse in the TV room or sometimes brought me away in his car.
I was babysitting children for a family relative when the third abuser raped me. His wife was in hospital after giving birth to a baby and after visiting her, he returned home, put on a blue movie and raped me. I didn’t say ‘No’ and I froze and allowed it to happen. It wasn’t a violent rape but it was totally pre-meditated by a man who I held in a position of trust. I was just the babysitter. I remember he insisted I go to the toilet afterwards to ensure all the sperm left my body.

Suicide attempt
THREE weeks later I tried to commit suicide and ended up in a coma for two days. I got a firm talking-to from my family and was told to pull myself together. They passed off my hospitalisation as sunstroke.
I left home at 17, returned for a while and then left again. I always tried to better myself with night classes but had many relationships and became sexually promiscuous. I became involved with a man who was twice my age and subsequently discovered he was married and a drug user. I became pregnant by him when I was 20 and had an abortion, as I could not face the consequences of my family knowing. Deep down I knew I was in bad company and that if I had a child with him I knew my life would be ruined and I would have to continue some sort of attachment to him.
Many years later I returned to my home area and made a life for myself. I soon realised that by living away I had been trying to escape my past but that now I was faced with it again. Many challenges now faced me by being in the company of two of the perpetrators, and the effects and memories of the abuse became overwhelming.
Also, around that time the media was reporting a lot about institutional abuse, and I realised I was one of the statistics they were referring to.

First visit to MRCC
I first visited MRCC after a bereavement that I found difficult to cope with. I was feeling suicidal. As an adult survivor I had been living with the memories for a very long time and could no longer keep the secrets. I was in my early 40s and my health was beginning to suffer. I was having panic attacks and my relationship with my husband was deteriorating. I found intimacy a struggle and was having flashbacks of different painful memories.
I had also developed a non-substance addiction and subsequently spent four weeks in rehabilitation (I struggle with this addiction to this day and I continue on a recovery programme). All of this was compounded by my struggles with shame and low self-esteem.
Around this time, I read an article in the local newspaper about a case in which the victim’s experiences felt similar to mine. At the bottom of the article was the phone number for the rape crisis centre and I made a call.
In the beginning I didn’t know how badly I had been abused as I was struggling with a lot of different behaviours and didn’t know where they were coming from, until I started my journey through the counselling. Within three weeks I had an appointment and as I shared my story, an awareness began to develop. Initially I was counselled twice a week, then once a week and then every fortnight. I attended the centre for five years consecutively and then on-and-off for another three years on a bi-monthly basis.
I clearly recall my first reaction was one of relief that I was being listened to, believed, coming to accept the abuse was not my fault. Importantly too, there was no judgment, and I was learning to build up trust because this story didn’t just slip out of me. I was grieving for the loss of my inner-child, correcting dysfunctional behaviours stemming from the abuse. I felt years of unspoken shame that led me to re-victimise myself and also punish and abuse myself.

Escaping isolation
AT last, I was coming out of isolation and realising I was not alone in the situation. The effect of the sexual abuse was like scar tissue and the counselling helped me to live with it.
To be used an an object to satisfy somebody else’s need is an overpowering violation and not a feeling that goes away easily. I still get the smells associated with my abusers and this can trigger me to disassociate from my body, which can trigger my addiction.
While I never went public about my abuse I did confront three of my abusers and openly told my family. It consequently caused a division in the family since one of the abuser’s was a relative. Some of my family believe the abuse happened and some have chosen to turn a blind eye to it and are not talking to me anymore. I was emotionally blackmailed about my past and deemed a troublemaker always looking for attention.
I kept going back to ‘the empty well’ of my family because I wanted to be included but felt rejected. I have grieved their loss and don’t have a very close relationship with them anymore, but today I am in acceptance of this and have let it go.

Benefits of counselling
I now have a better understanding of myself and others and have opened up new ways of living and seeing life. I have taken personal responsibility for my own life and let go of what I cannot control. It is all still very challenging and is a lifelong process. I cannot change the past, but the counselling has given me the courage to change my future. I was a victim when I went into the centre, but I am a survivor now.
When I went there I didn’t have the money to pay for the counselling, like lots of other people who use the service, and they provided the service free-of-charge. I am so disappointed its funding has been cut because such Government cutbacks have a real impact on victims like me.
I will always be grateful to the centre for the everlasting positive effect of the counselling. Mayo Rape Crisis Centre transformed my life. It provided me with a safe, confidential and anonymous opportunity.
I do hope my story reaches others who have experienced sexual violence and that they take help as I did.
I did not have the strength to go to court, so this story is my hearing, and further healing for me.
A difficult road often leads to a beautiful destination.

* Hannah’s real identity has been changed to protect her privacy.

‘Our role is to listen, to believe and to encourage’
The Mayo Rape Crisis Centre offers people who have experienced sexual abuse and/or rape  belief and acceptance of who they are. In our 21 years of working in this specialised area we have witnessed the profound healing effect on a person when they are met with belief in a safe space, free from shame or judgement. This is the very thing which will empower a person to begin to identify what they may need in order to begin their journey of healing and recovery from the experience of sexual violence.
We are passionate about creating a safe listening space that allows a client’s story to unfold at their pace. It is not our role to question the details of a person’s story nor to be investigative in any way in terms of looking for evidence. Our role is to listen, to believe and to encourage a client to take responsibility for their own needs and well being.
MRCC is a specialist service in the area of sexual violence, and we believe this is what is required in order to facilitate the healing of this deeply wounding crime which is so prevalent in our society.
Not everyone who has experienced sexual abuse and sexual violence will use the services of a Rape Crisis Centre but those who do will be met with experienced , competent and compassionate counsellors who will provide them with the information, support and guidance needed to recover.

Club Stars supports MRCC
The Mayo News/O’Neill’s Club Stars ceremony takes place in Knockranny House Hotel, Westport on Friday next, December 11. All proceeds will be donated to the Mayo Rape Crisis Centre and Cystic Fibrosis West. Tickets, costing €60, are available from 098 55104.