*trigger warning. Deals with abuse, suicide, sexual abuse*
I’ve been alone my whole life.
If you know me, you will call me out on this statement.
You will see my hugely supportive social media friends.
You will see my husband who I met at Uni, still by my side nearly 30 years later.
You will see me going out for breakfast, lunch and a coffee with my local friends.
You will see me hanging out with my child.
You will not see a lonely person.
But what you see is only part of me. That version of me is a construct, developed when I was 18 and left home.
Underneath all of that is “Little Dawn”, the child version of me.
Up until 4 years old I had a loving, nurturing life. I only learned this in the last few weeks after reconnecting with a cousin at my mum’s funeral. I have no memories of that time. That’s not unusual, of course.
It makes a lot of sense. What happened after that age was unrelenting and often traumatic. That I can connect and love now is thanks to those critical years being so stable.
Between around 4 years old and 9 years old my world changed dramatically. My mother left suddenly, and was replaced with a stepmother who hated my brother and I. Not only did I lose the love of my mother, it was replaced with beatings, neglect, and starvation. There was no love. I got hit for crying.
I adapted and learnt to survive by shutting down. I stopped ‘doing’ emotions. I stopped speaking out. I isolated myself from the need for connection. At 2 years older than me, my brother would have been more aware of what was going on. It would have hit him harder. I now understand why he ran away at 16. He has never recovered. This is also something I have understood more as a result of my conneciton with my cousin. I lost everything that made me feel safe and loved, with no understanding of why.
When I first told my cousin about what had gone on in those years where she had no contact with me, she described it as horrific. When I took my abuser to court, both the prosecution and defense barristers referred to this period of my childhood as horrific. I was shut down, unable to experience it fully. I thought I was making a big deal out of nothing. Clearly the opposite is actually true. I know that now.
My mother fought to regain custody of her children, and a few years after she left, we started having visits with her. By then she was a stranger to me. And I was cut off.
Then at around 9 years old my brother and I went to live with my mother and her new man. There was a year of sunshine. There was no fear. Food was plentiful. And there were even elements of that loving, nurturing time that I started off life with. I used to sit on the floor near my mother and she used to stroke the hair back off my forehead. I was loved and I was connected.
Then it all changed in a moment. I know my brother was starting to have some behaviour issues. I guess that’s no surprise really, after what we’d been through. One day, my stepfather caned him as punishment for these issues. My mother and I stood and watched. I was confused. I couldn’t understand why she would let this happen after everything we had been through. I couldn’t understand what my brother could have done that would justify him getting beaten for it. Any progress in regaining the happy, confident child I used to be, disappeared in that moment.
I said nothing and I shut down again.
I was alone again. Alone in my hurt. Alone in dealing with stuff. Unloved and unsupported.
Then, at around age 10/11 we moved back to Anglesey. My stepfather was at home more. My mother was really ill (she was disabled having had a form of spinabifida and then a series of botched operations, and then she also developed Chron’s disease). She was in pain a lot and took most of the day to get herself together enough to get up. My stepfather was cruel and controlling. While there was no violence there was always the threat of it. I had a very real sense of what that meant from my early years, so I complied. I survived. I kept my head down and did what I was told. We had to do his ironing (perfectly or we had to redo it), make his packed lunch for work (butter right to the edge, at least 2 ingredients) and loads of other things. While I complied my brother rebelled. All the focus was on him. I was left to get on. There was no love and no nurturing anymore. My mother was caught up in her own stuff, and any spare capacity went on my brother.
When my stepfather started abusing me, it was just another thing. By now I was feeling like a ragdoll. Used in whatever way people needed me. Cast aside the rest of the time. But I guess there was still a part of me trying to keep the connection. Trying to be loved. Trying to feel like someone cared.
At around 12 years old I told my mother about the abuse. She got really cross with me. She later told me I sobbed and begged her to take me away from that, to put me into care. She didn’t listen, instead she told me never to talk about it again.
I’ve learnt more about this from my cousin. I couldn’t understand my mothers’ reaction. Many years later, when I was in my early 30’s and had some counselling, I talked to my mother. She said she believed me and had watched out for me after the disclosure. It was clear she didn’t ‘get it’, but she at least acknowledged the truth. Then in 2015 when I took my abuser to court, she told me she would do anything, but didn’t corroborate my story with police. What I couldn’t understand is why it was better to let the jury think she didn’t believe me, than read out the statement she gave. If she didn’t believe me, why couldn’t they read out the statement? What I learnt is she thought it was just “inappropriate playfighting” and so she thought that standing on the other side of a closed door while he was in the room with me was ‘watching out for me’. Meanwhile he was still abusing me. Letting the jury hear this would have undermined all my evidence. So I get it now.
This whole scenario of telling my mother, her reaction, and the abuse continuing was too much for me to deal with. It was like being abandoned all over again. There was no one I could turn to. It was all on me. My brain protected me from the next few years. I have no memories at all. It is totally blank. When I reconnected with one friend that was my best friend at school, Rebecca, I had to ask her what I called her — Becky? Becca? I had no idea.
My brother ran away when he was 16. I didn’t have a good relationship with him. Our experiences growing up didn’t bring us closer together. In fact, he joined in with everyone else, hating me, not wanting to be near me, and even hitting me. And yet, when he ran away and left me behind to deal with everything, I was mad at him. He also abandoned me.
By the time I was in my late teens we had moved again and the dynamic had changed. My mother was now dependent on me for physical and emotional support. The abuse had stopped but it wasn’t like there had been an announcement. The possibility was always there. I’d been playing the game since I told my mother. Going through the motions, keeping my head down, and doing what I was told. After all, the only way to live with that level of fear and abuse when you have spoken out is to diminish it. So I dialled it down in my brain. “If others don’t see at as that bad, it can’t be as bad as I think”. And the survival strategy I had developed in the earlier years kicked in.
A conversation with my friend at 16 years old opened the floodgates. The things I had been trying to deny all came back to mind as fresh as if they had just happened. The 4 year blank remained though. It was overwhelming and unbearable. I had no one to talk to. I knew noone would hear me. No one cared.
I became consumed by planning to end my life. I wouldn’t be able to take pills because there was someone home all the time. I didn’t have the internet to research other options. So I collected my mother’s strong painkillers and planned to kill myself when I got to uni.
I didn’t want to die. I just didn’t want to live. I wanted the pain to end.
When I went to uni, I sat with the bottle of pills but didn’t take them. I realised I could walk away from my childhood. I could be whoever I wanted to be.
That was when adult Dawn was ‘born’. And Little Dawn was locked away deep inside in a dark prison.
Therapy in 2011 freed up Adult Dawn to be happy and connected. I learned to be present and live my life. I appreciated my family and friends. And all was good.
Except all along there was a lonely, abandoned, hurt version hidden deep inside. I dreaded anyone seeing that version of me. She was evil, disgusting, wrong, and unlovable. Not a single adult had cared for her growing up. If only people knew, they would hate me as much as I hated myself.
I thought I had sorted myself and all was good. But I knew I still felt wrong. It stopped me being authentic.
Talking to my cousin changed everything. She showed me that early version of me — a little Dawn that was loved and loveable. If there was a time before , then it could only be that circumstances changed things. It wasn’t something wrong with me. She showed me that horrible stuff had happened to me, and it wasn’t my fault. It wasn’t anything wrong with me. She showed me love. She cared. She has always shown me a positive, loving view of Little Dawn.
And as she has, slowly but surely little Dawn has come out of the prison, and has begun to integrate into my adult identity. And as this has happened I have stopped thinking there was something wrong with me. I’ve started to accept just how traumatic and horrific those 12 years of childhood were. I have realised how awful it was that I was left alone to deal with it all.
And I’ve started to realise how amazing it is that I am here, typing this now. I have an amazing supportive husband. I have the most brilliant child who counts as by far the best thing I have done in my life. I have a job where I use what I’ve been through to help others every single day. I am capable of love, connection and compassion.
And I did all this on my own. It was me.
I didn’t realise how little self-worth I had until I started on this journey. Being confident, capable, able to connect without being paranoid — all seem like qualities of a solid person. But I have had no self worth at all. Because all along I had this hateful version of me buried deep in the darkness inside.
But no more.
She is here with adult Dawn.
And it is scary as hell! I have had many meltdowns over the last couple of months, including yesterday when suddenly I felt incredibly vulnerable and exposed. I felt like I’d regressed into the child version of me but now I was front and centre in my present life.
But my cousin was there as she has been every step of the way these last couple of months. Caring about me. Loving me. Unconditionally accepting what I am struggling with.
I have a LONG way to go. I almost have to re-learn how to be myself. I have to accept feeling vulnerable. I have to find safety in the connections of friends and family. I have to be aware when I am falling into darkness again, and learn how to be caring in those times, rather than cruel and repeat the patterns that were done to me.
When I started therapy with Trevor Silvester in 2011 it felt like everything in my world changed in ways I couldn’t have dreamed were possible. Before my mum died, I was trying to accept that everything was fine and I was good enough now. I was trying to settle. But this feeling there was something wrong with me was nipping away at me.
Right now, it feels like this phase of my journey is even more transformational than those first steps in 2011.
I am scared. I am vulnerable. I don’t know who I am any more. I have a lot of work to do. But I am one version of me now. And I am more at peace than I have ever been