Patricia Debney, aged 12
At the age of 11, Patricia Debney's father began to sexually abuse her. Here, she shares a part of her story, with the hope of helping other women who have experienced the same.
I am 11 years old, and my father and I are sitting on the small sofa in our kitchen. My stepmother is out, and – although I don’t remember – I’m guessing my (half) siblings, both younger than me, are in bed.
There isn’t a television in this room, so I’m not sure why we are there. Homework? But I do remember what happens next: he asks me if I’ve started my periods yet. I am mortified – I haven’t. I have only just started wearing a crop top trainer bra, but here I’m in pyjamas.
He wants ‘to see how you’re growing’, and wheedles me into lifting up my top so he can look at my developing breasts. Again, I am mortified. I remember staring at the short, colourful curtains in the room, trying to disappear into my head.
This event marks the beginning of my father’s sexual abuse of me. Over time, the abuse becomes frequent, involving many adult sexual acts. Throughout, I know what he is doing is completely wrong. I hate it. But I tell no one because he says ‘this is our secret’, and implies that the whole family will fall apart if I let him down and say anything.
The abuse lasts for around four years. I don’t remember when it stopped, or how it stopped. But by 16 I am looking for ways out, and at 17 I move in with my mother, forced to leave the only family I had ever known.
My story is not rare. It is not uncommon. In fact, children’s charities estimate that at least 1 in 10 children is sexually abused, 90% of them by a perpetrator within the family fold. There are an estimated 11 million survivors of Child Sexual Abuse (CSA) in the UK alone.
My abuser groomed me, and claimed to ‘love’ me. He flattered me, told me how ‘special’ I was, and was never violent. This is a typical pattern, for abuse committed by family or friends. This behaviour creates a coercive hold, and in turn establishes a silence which feels impossible to break. As a victim, I was convinced that what was happening to me was my fault – I must be encouraging him somehow – and that I had no choice but to carry the shame, and the feeling of being dirty and different. I had no idea who to turn to, and thought I was the only person in the world this was happening to. So I buried it all, turned my attention to the rest of my life, was successful in school and with friends – and didn’t tell anyone until I went away to university.
When I did disclose the abuse at age 20, things felt much worse before they started feeling better. The sealed box I had stuffed those years into – along with my rock bottom self-worth, the shame and disgust – opened up, and the contents almost overwhelmed me. But I was lucky. I located good help in the form of therapy, and I had somehow made good friends who supported me. I was in regular therapy for several years, and finally emerged with some tools which helped me deal with the trauma I now understood would never completely leave me.
Patricia Debney, late 50's
I am now 58, and very happy and fulfilled in my life. I became a writer and teacher, and have been fortunate enough to meet and marry a man who loves me unconditionally, and who, over time, has come to understand the impacts of my past on our lives. Thirty-five years into our marriage, we continue to learn and grow, and watch our amazing children thrive too. I have had many further experiences of therapy, and even now continue to link aspects of what I sometimes struggle with in my everyday life directly to the abuse and neglect of my childhood.
Living with the fallout from Child Sexual Abuse is a fundamentally unfair burden. CSA is NEVER the fault of the victims, never. And yet survivors must live with it all, year after year. Sometimes living with it is devastating, and survivors turn to self-harm, suffer breakdowns, attempt suicide, and struggle to form healthy relationships. The list of damages – physical and psychological – goes on and on. My father was never reported, despite an early therapist and my stepmother ‘finding out’ what he had done. He was never held accountable. And I discovered many years later that I was not his only victim; he also abused his sister when they were young.
I have written a memoir about my abuse, and now run a blog about CSA. I also belong to a community of survivor-activists via Twitter, all of whom campaign to raise awareness of CSA, and work toward developing policies and trauma-informed care of victims and survivors. We have each other’s backs.
Above all, we aim to break through the terrible silence and stigma surrounding CSA. Abuse can ONLY occur in this silence and secrecy. By dismantling the stigma, by telling our stories and welcoming others, we begin to ensure that survivors are not alone, and ultimately that Child Sexual Abuse is not so distressingly rife. We begin to ensure that children are safe to be children, and that perpetrators are brought to justice.
If you or someone you know is affected by Child Sexual Abuse, there are so many resources and so much help available. Safely breaking your silence is the first step. Please seek the support of trauma counsellors and the survivor community. We are here for you and those you care about.
National Association for People Abused in Childhood
The Survivors Trust
National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children