From Silhouette to Songbird: Surviving Childhood Sexual Abuse

I was the one in the shadows, blending in with the wallpaper hoping no one would notice me. The silhouette quietly hiding, too scared to open my mouth and when I did speak, it would be anxious chatter of a child, covering up fear with humour, a deflection of the truth.

I grew up in a non-orthodox Jewish family. Although not religious, I attended synagogue regularly, my parents looked upon as respectable and to the outside, we seemed like a typical Jewish family. It couldn’t have been further from the truth. Behind locked doors, we bore a secret that no one spoke about. My dad was sexually abusive towards me and other family members as well as being physically violent towards my half-siblings. It also led to my half-brother sexually abusing me from the age of four until I reached the age of ten.

For so long, I wondered what it was like not to wear the heavy anchor of shame around my neck as a survivor of childhood sexual abuse. I remember discussing this at a later stage with my Rabbi, that I felt like I was a sinner for not honouring my parents, and would anyone believe a respectable Jewish man to be capable of committing such heinous crimes or judge me for being complicit with the sexual abuse from my half-brother, without question?

At the time, I couldn’t connect the dots to my emotional and mental state growing up. I never realised the impact of the sexual abuse, neglect, abandonment, or how it would affect my mental health. I was hypervigilant, highly anxious, experiencing flashbacks, and convinced I was being punished for being a ‘bad person.’ From the age of eight, I had a constant desire to overdose and self-harm; I assumed my anger and rage were part of my personality. I didn’t believe I was lovable and pushed away anyone that dared get close to me, whilst at the same time, was crying out for someone to accept me for who I was. I took all the anger I was too scared to show as a child, from all the controlling, bullying behaviour against me and acted the same way, but to the extreme. I had no idea I was suffering from complex PTSD. I spent much of my adulthood trying to reconcile what happened to me with various professional counsellors and psychiatrists telling me it wasn’t my fault.

I wanted to believe them; I really did. I read the self-help books, I also kept telling myself it wasn’t my fault. But did this ring true? No. Instead, I carried around a secret burden that I couldn’t eradicate no matter how hard I tried. It followed me wherever I went. As a parent, as a wife, and a person living in a world where I felt silenced and misunderstood without ever knowing why.

It was 2016 when my previous counsellor suggested I start a creative hobby as an outlet. So, I reluctantly joined a choir, leading to singing lessons, taking up drama and writing to improve my lack of confidence. To my surprise, I loved it! With the support of my drama teacher, she encouraged me to discover my life through the power of writing, providing a safe space to explore my emotions. I wrote my first poem the day after my dad died. Writing was my creative tool to express the bottled-up feelings, anger, and pain that I had struggled to articulate over the years.

Poetry has been one of my therapeutic mechanisms of helping me find my voice again and a way of dealing with the emotional scars of trauma. My poems share a part of my journey with some of the difficult feelings around my sexual abuse, the shame, low self-esteem, abandonment issues, struggles with complex PTSD, disassociation, and fear. But I also write about my strength and empowerment of taking back my voice.

I grew up thinking I was a sinner for loving my abusers. That I deserved what happened to me for not fighting back or saying no. It has taken me over 40 years to finally acknowledge that what happened to me as a child was never my fault. That I no longer need to keep quiet. Singing, drama, and writing my poetry book about my journey, have given me a voice from an entity of silence. I will never allow anyone to push me back into a corner, forgotten. My story is mine to share with others to give them the strength to know there is light on the other side. Everyone deserves a voice and a right to be heard. I am not only meant to survive but thrive and speak my truth so others can take hope and comfort they are not walking through the storm alone. Today, I am no longer the silhouette, but the songbird!

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Elizabeth Shane
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