Our Stories: Susan's* story about her experiences of abuse

Publish Date: 29/06/2016

**This Page has content warnings for abuse, including domestic and sexual violence, incest, drug and alcohol addiction and prostitution **

As part of our campaign: 'Lesbian and Bisexual Women & Abuse', Susan* tells us about her experiences of abuse.

The second half of the 80s involved a lot of disruption for me, moving repeatedly, family breakups and some other weird stuff that is a whole different story. So in 1990, at the tender age of 5, I felt very lucky to have been invited to go and live with my mum and her new husband. He’d be my new dad, and we’d all be together like a ‘proper family’. And for the first year we were, I felt safe and wanted and so happy to be there. But if a 6 year old can have a weak spot, this was mine, for with the happiness came a fear of being sent away again, and it was this desperation that was successfully exploited.

What started out subtly as gentle occurrences, such as having to share a bath or rub in cream, fairly soon progressed into situations that I found terrifying and so excruciating that all these years on, my body still has moments, where it briefly re-lives the pain.Sex. Rape. Abuse. I had no words in my vocabulary at that age that allowed me to name or understand what was happening to me, and even if they had have been, I would’ve been too afraid to have used them, not through fear of being hurt, but of being sent away again, for breaking up my new family, the one that despite everything, I was still desperate to stay a part of.

I didn’t know that this so-called family time was wrong but I also knew that it didn’t feel quite right. Around the age of 8 I started telling people that I wanted to be a boy and tried desperately to refuse wearing anything other than black baggy boys clothes. Thinking that if I didn’t wear bright colours, then I wouldn’t be seen, or looked at, as if black clothing was like wearing an invisible cape. However, I wasn’t a child struggling with gender identity, I was a girl, who in her child-like way, thought that if she were a boy, she wouldn’t have to look after her daddy and his friends in this way.

As the decade continued, the situation stayed much of a same, but I did not. I became very adept at playing roles, wearing different masks for school, friends, and of course at home. By my early teens I was running on autopilot, was incredibly shut off and despite being frequently challenged by teachers and friends on my home life, I continued with the denial and pretence. I’d started using drugs, not socially but alone, before I got home, to help deal with the abuse and before school, to help me keep up the front. I didn’t know who I was anymore and the pressure was building. By this point I felt very little towards my dad, no anger, no fear, no love. The biggest feeling I had towards him was probably one of duty and obligation. On the other hand, I had started to feel what I can only describe as pure rage towards my mum – for allowing it, encouraging it. Handing me over. For using me and my body, as a softner when rejecting any advances: ‘no I’m not in the mood, but here take my daughter instead’. It was all eating me inside and I was really scared that the strength and intensity of these emotions would continue to grow without letting up. I wasn't sure that I'd cope with that. So I left. I walked out one day and never went back.

It was an impulsive decision, with very little thought given as to what I’d do in the long-term. Staying with friends stopped being an option very quickly, firstly due to my secret drug habit and secondly due to their parents talking of making practical steps, such as a call to social services – not something my 14-year old self had any intention of agreeing to. So I ran from the hurt, and then I ran from the help, and to any outsider looking in, it may easily have appeared that instead of improving my situation, I had merely entered into a new stage of the nightmare. For the next few years I did nothing except focus on getting through the day. I was sleeping rough, injecting heroin and selling both my body and my soul. But I didn’t have to pretend to be someone that I wasn’t. That doesn’t mean that I knew who I was, both trauma and drugs had left me an empty shell; I was emotionally dead, just drifting and barely existing. Yet the sad truth is that this felt better than dragging myself through life whilst living at home.

Although I often felt freer than I had before, it certainly wasn’t all plain sailing. I quickly developed a street sense, which alongside wit, cheek and a convincing, false confidence, got me through most encounters with punters on the street. Ultimately though, I was still, behind the front and bravado, a teenage girl, trying to set and stick to boundaries, with a group of men who would operate with a take much, pay little ethos whenever possible. I was stuck in the cycle of selling sex to buy drugs, having to take more drugs to cope with selling sex, then having to sell more sex to pay for the extra drugs. It seemed a hopeless situation, which along with the fact that I believed my value and worth as a person was determined by how much someone would pay me for sex, made my desperation and vulnerability pretty obvious. I experienced violence, assaults, theft, all of which I dismissed as occupational hazards. Although extremely detached for the most part, there were a few incidents that penetrated my numbness. On one occasion, fairly early on, one man told me of his relief that he found someone so young out on the street – seeing me meant he ‘wouldn’t have to sleep with his niece’. The sense of responsibility I felt after that was immense. A couple of years later, a regular punter told me that he didn’t want me anymore as I was too old. I was just short of 17.

These years weren’t all bad though: It was whilst homeless that I figured out my sexuality. Forgetting that people were asking a young me, if I was a lesbian before I knew what the word meant, and that I had some big crushes on Heather Peace in London’s Burning and Nikki from Bad Girls (how predictable!) I did hold huge worries that my newly acknowledged gayness was merely a symptom of my past. If that hadn’t have happened, would I have been straight was the question rattling around my head. You see my sexuality was mine. It was new. Exciting. It was part of me that I was still holding on to; protecting and keeping safe from any outside hurt or pain. At that time I’d have struggled to accept that something I had embraced about myself, was actually a by-product of a situation and circumstance for which I only felt shame, filth and disgust. I’d have been devastated. Eventually I figured that whilst it’s possible that those experiences may’ve stopped me feeling sexual attraction for males, they wouldn’t have then caused an attraction towards women to develop.

That’s not to say it’s straightforward though: whilst the abuse may not have influenced my sexuality, it has certainly impacted my relationships. Until my first same sex relationship, all my sexual encounters had been either non-consensual, or prostitution. Regardless, my approach was the same: emotionally switch off; hope it’s over as soon as possible; use enough heroin to block it out; forget about it; repeat and so on. This kept me relatively together. It definitely kept me alive. Unfortunately, it was pretty engrained behaviour and I was unable to stop it creeping into loving and safe relationships. Trust. Intimacy. Letting go. Being present and vulnerable – these were all ridiculously hard for me and despite giving me both time and patience, my partner needed, wanted and deserved much more than I could possibly have given at that point. We tried so hard to work things through.

On a day-to-day, superficial level, I appeared deceptively okay, but when it came to the depths of emotion that committed, intimate relationships require, I think we both underestimated just how screwed up I was. We parted on good terms (and are still best friends) but I was left feeling broken, a failure, unlovable and damaged beyond repair. I then entered a relationship with a woman who confirmed all of those things to me on a daily basis. She stopped me from seeing people unless she was present, and I could have no friends independent of her. She had no interest in whether I was with her and enjoying sex, or whether I was shut away in my head, as long as she was getting her needs met.For me it was all very mechanical and I didn’t love her, so other than the relationship seeming like some form of self-harm or punishment, I have no idea why I stayed as long as I did. I did learn however, that I need to be comfortable in my own skin, before I can be comfortable with others.

Seven years have now passed since that relationship ended and things have changed considerably. I won’t lie and say everything is wonderful – would anyone have believed me if I had? I am still affected by my past, and at times it can be really difficult. But it’s no longer a constant battle, nor am I completely debilitated by the trauma anymore. With decent therapy, some good people in my life, and the benefit of time, I’ve found the real meaning of value and self worth, I have a purpose and interests, and most importantly, I have hope. I’m able to look forward and I dare to dream. To me, this is progress.