My first experience of counselling wasn’t great. Around 20 years ago, I had recently gone back to my job as a financial controller after having my first child. I was in my office, working on a spreadsheet when the numbers started jumping out at me. I ran into the main office, shouting that the numbers were attacking me. I was sent home and told to see my GP.
I begged my GP to just put ‘stress’ on my medical records, in case any hint of mental health problems should affect my career. I didn’t think to tell him about the neglect and mental, physical and sexual abuse I’d experienced for the first 15 years of my life. Back then, I didn’t know it was relevant and I still felt deep shame about my childhood.
My mum had left the family home when I was seven, due to domestic violence. I took responsibility for looking after my siblings, and my dad remarried a neighbour. That was when the physical and mental abuse started. We turned up to school unwashed and hungry, so police and social services were in our lives.
At age nine, I was sexually assaulted by someone outside the family. When I was 11, my mum regained custody of us, after my dad was convicted of sexual offences and sent to prison. But she had remarried into another domestically violent relationship. At age 15, I was sexually assaulted by someone inside the family. I now know there is generational abuse within my family on both sides, a cycle that I am determined to break.
I left school and home just before my 16th birthday, went to college, then got a full-time job and studied in the evenings and weekends to qualify as an accountant. Work was my survival response and still is. I told myself to just work, work, work, to build a better life for myself where I would be safe. By 28, I was married with a child and a nice home but, when I should have felt safe, that’s when it all unravelled. My brain couldn’t reconcile the love I felt for my child and the abuse I had suffered within my family. On one occasion, when I was changing my son’s nappy, I suddenly started hurrying; I became scared that people would think I was spending too much time on the task and was ‘abusing’ him.
At work, I had always kept my head down and got on with my job. I didn’t socialise and I certainly did not talk about my shameful, dysfunctional childhood. I did this for 15 years and was successful, or so I thought. With hindsight, the signs of mental and physical distress were always there, showing up in many ways – as isolation, underlying anger, hypervigilance, high anxiety, bulimia, chronic constipation and osteoarthritis.
My GP referred me for six counselling sessions with a general therapist, to deal with my ‘stress’. The counselling sessions were all the same. I sat in a chair, the counsellor said very little, I cried my eyes out and I left. I hated feeling vulnerable and out of control during those six weeks and felt angry and confused. I thought I could do a better job myself and started to research the impact on mental health of abuse and trauma.
Around this time, I took a job as financial controller at Priory Hospital Hayes Grove, an inpatient mental health facility in Bromley. As I spent time around psychiatrists, counsellors and inpatients, I became aware of the role past abuse often plays in addictions and eating disorders. I was using exercise and holistic self-care strategies to help manage my emotions, and I qualified as a Pilates instructor and health and wellness coach. In 2012, I left my job at the hospital to focus on my health and wellness business. I also started writing a book about my life and the strategies I had used to manage the impact of my childhood.
I thought I was in a good place and writing the book would be cathartic, but it destabilised me and I began to struggle. I knew I needed some support, but this time I made sure it was trauma-informed. I found a suitable practitioner who was also a survivor. Because of this, we built a trusting relationship in a short space of time and were able to explore very challenging events in a way that allowed me to feel empowered and grow from the therapy.
That lasted six months. Then, after a break, I started weekly sessions with another trauma-informed therapist who, for the past four years, has continued to help me overcome my sense of shame and anger and develop my self-acceptance. It has also given me the confidence to get involved with the Independent Inquiry into Child Sexual Abuse, by joining the Victims and Survivors Consultative Panel (VSCP). Part of the inquiry is the Truth Project, a platform for survivors of abuse to share their experiences without judgment. We are in control of what we share and can have a say about what needs to change in the systems that have failed us. It’s not therapy, but I have worked with other members of the VSCP to ensure it is trauma-informed. This includes ensuring that facilitators are trauma-informed and that survivors who share their accounts feel comfortable and safe when they do so.
The VSCP is consulted on all areas of the Inquiry’s work. We bring expertise from our own lived and professional experiences, both as survivors and as providers of services, which many of us are involved with on a daily basis. Working in this sector, hearing survivors’ experiences and fighting for our rights can be exhausting, triggering and traumatic. I need to be able to offload the impact both from a personal perspective and to prevent secondary trauma. Having trauma-informed therapy enables me to do this work and has also helped me cope with four years of involvement with the criminal justice system, as I fight to bring my family abusers to justice.
My brain can become overwhelmed because of the chronic toxic stress I have been under since I was a child. I try to remain grounded in the present but my brain often flips between the past, present and future. If I see, hear or read something, I can become triggered. It is crucial to have someone who can help me manage my emotions and untangle some of the situations I find myself in. I can express my feelings and the therapist will explore them with me. I can then process them. I believe that I will be working on myself for the rest of my life, but this is not a bad thing. I have grown tremendously as a person and I am extremely proud of who I am today and what I have achieved.
Chris Tuck is a member of the Victims and Survivors Consultative Panel for the Independent Inquiry into Child Sexual Abuse. She advised on the development of the Truth Project. She also founded Survivors of Abuse, a charity that aims to empower adult survivors to transform their lives holistically through mindset, nutrition, fitness and stress management. Chris is also the author of Breaking the Cycle, a handbook about overcoming abuse. www.survivorsofabuse.org.uk
Survivors can find out more about the Truth Project by visiting www.truthproject.org.uk