The birth of my daughter was the most incredible, wonderful experience. It was the first time I’d ever felt proud of myself. But, within days, this idyllic scene was invaded by demons from my past and I began to have these absolutely devastating, terrifying experiences.
As someone who was subjected to organised, ritualised abuse throughout my childhood that I’d never disclosed to anybody, I survived as a child by managing to keep the abuse separate, in another world. I think lots of children do this. Dissociation is still not understood properly and acknowledged for its importance. But when I became a mother, it was much harder to keep these worlds apart. They ended up colliding in this catastrophic way, and I ended up in a psychiatric hospital.
Bear in mind that the people who abused me, like many who abuse children on an industrial scale, were very sophisticated in grooming and terrorising us to ensure we didn’t speak. I’d been told I would be killed, that people wouldn’t believe me, that people would think I was mad and that I’d be locked up. These are very powerful and frightening things to say to a child. And then, when I ended up in a psychiatric hospital, guess what happened. The first person I tried to tell some of the things that happened to me as a baby was a psychiatrist. And he said, ‘Jacqui, we have lots of people in here who describe these kinds of experiences, and when we get their families in and we all talk about it together, they realise this is just part of their illness.’
How fucking crazy-making is that? I am sitting there, telling him these horrific things happened to me, and this psychiatrist is saying to me: ‘No, those things didn’t happen to you. It’s your illness, and here’s this label that we are going to stick on you.’
People say to me: ‘When you came out of hospital, how did you recover?’ I say: ‘Without psychiatry.’ And that is totally true and a sad indictment of our mental health services. I’d been out of hospital a few months when I was lucky enough to find a therapist who did believe me, who did believe that people do terrible things to children and who also knew that people are more than the terrible things that have happened to them. For me, it was like finding gold.
What people want is to be believed and acknowledged. It’s that simple. Judith Herman writes about the importance of safety, remembrance and mourning for what is lost when you are recovering from trauma.1 People like me, who have been utterly betrayed by the people who are meant to be protecting them, may need to do a lot of testing of this relationship with the therapist. Is this person really safe? Are they going to be able to see who I am? Are they really going to be able to bear to hear what I have to say to them? Are they going to be able to see beyond all this distress to who I really am?
You vacillate from feeling nothing, from these very numbed-out states, to feeling flooded with emotions you don’t understand. And for me, what is different when you have a therapeutic alliance, an empathic witness, a safe space, is that you begin to feel the feelings in connection to the actual events, to the real losses, and that is when the healing occurs, because you feel the feelings of grief, loss, rage, disgust, horror, whatever it is, in a way that makes sense. And that is wholly contingent on having a healing relationship, because most of the traumas I am talking about were interpersonal violations, so the only thing that could help was a healing interpersonal relationship.
When I stopped allowing psychiatrists to define my reality and found what I call an empathic witness who would walk alongside me and bear witness to what happened to me; when I got to speak my truth for the first time in the presence of another who was committed to hearing it, that was when I started to recover.
Jacqui Dillon is a writer, activist, international speaker and trainer. She has personal and professional experience, awareness and skills in working with trauma and abuse, dissociation, ‘psychosis’, hearing voices, healing and recovery. Jacqui is also a voice-hearer.
This article is based on her chapter in a new book, Drop the Disorder!, edited by Jo Watson and published this month by PCCS Books
Members and subscribers can listen to this article on the Therapy Today podcast
1. Herman J. Trauma and recovery: the aftermath of violence – from domestic abuse to political terror. New York, NY: Basic Books; 1992.