What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger!’ Does this apply to male survivors?

Is it true what they say? What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger! I often wondered about this? Especially during some testing points of my life, it certainly didn’t feel like I was stronger from the experience. However, according to German philosopher, Friedrich Nietzsche, the notion that people can build up their strength from going through difficult experiences is true. The idea is to express optimism in times where in reality things seem hopeless.

As human beings, it is inevitable that we will suffer at some point in our lives. For some people unfortunately, this is more so than others. Nevertheless, where there is suffering, there is also opportunity for happiness and contentment. It is therefore a unique humanistic quality to not only recover from such difficult times but to flourish and grow from the experience. This ability has been coined ‘Post Traumatic Growth’ (PTG); a process experienced as a result of the struggle with a major life crisis or a traumatic event. There have been many psychological studies that have looked into PTG and found that many survivors of cancer, war and life-threatening incidents reported transformation in specific areas of their lives after their traumatic event. Typical changes survivors described were improvements in their relationships, a greater appreciation for life, new opportunities, a greater sense of personal strength and spiritual development.

The idea that we are able of transform ourselves in the face of adversity and live better lives is something that has interested me for many years. Having worked clinically with people who have suffered sexual abuse, this made me think about the potential impact of PTG on their quality of life. Much of the focus around sexual abuse tends to cover the damaging effects and long term negative impact. It is the recognition of strength and resilience that is often missed; how they have coped, how they managed to get themselves through each day, how they were able to form relationships despite the difficulties in trusting others, how they picked themselves up and carried on. It’s the persistent and continual steps of resilience that gradually results in growth. This gives me hope and highlights the beauty of humanity, especially how incredibly durable we, as human beings, can be.

As a trainee psychologist, I am learning the value of being part of someone’s growth journey.  For me it is the most rewarding aspect of my role. It is the stories of how people have coped, survived and remain determined in the face of adversity that I find truly fascinating.


To feel their struggle and witness their progress fills me with confidence that growth after trauma is possible. Whilst we tend to admire those who are ‘strong’ and ‘resilient’, in some cases, this idea is skewed and ‘strength’ is often viewed in those who do not seem to be affected by the adversity, perhaps those who don’t show emotion or talk about their difficulties. We are learning that this is not always the case and actually those who experience PTG are those who may struggle with their emotions, who express their pain and ‘carry on’ regardless.


This idea is often a challenge for males.  Society conditions us to believe men should be tough, unemotional, and certainly not be victims of sexual abuse. Therefore, for many male survivors, trying to fit with this masculine concept many influence their experience of growth. I have asked myself, is it possible for male survivors to experience growth in a society which promotes masculinity? I believe the answer is yes. The male gender role is evolving and warmth, compassion and sensitivity are key masculine attributes.


The more we accept and recognise males as victims of sexual abuse and the struggles they face, the less stigma male survivors will feel in disclosing their experiences and getting the correct support, and the more opportunity there is for growth.

Post traumatic growth after sexual abuse is possible. However, we know this is not always possible for everyone. It is therefore vital we learn more about the processes involved and how growth is developed. The need for more research in this area is undoubtedly essential. The more we understand the processes involved in making this happen, the better placed we are at supporting people in their growth journeys. If we could find this out, bottle it and sell it, the scope for transforming people’s lives is huge. Growth and resilience is what we need to pay more focus to.  It gives us hope, brings people together and shows us our unique worth as human beings.

Hazel Lewis (Student Clinical Psychologist University of Liverpool)

Email:  hlewis@liv.ac.uk

Twitter: @malesurvivorsresearchUK

Facebook: male survivors research UK

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Reflections on the Current State of Online Counselling

“Rather than fight how people reach for help, let’s optimise how they actually heal online” 

Emily Sorensen 2017


Online counselling has been around for decades, but it is only just becoming better known in the public. Some leading providers are Talkspace, BetterHelp and Breakthrough, but these are just the tip of the iceberg – and only of the all-in-one platform type.

You see, as a counsellor, you have many options and difficulties if you’re brave enough to venture into e-therapy. During therapy training, you rarely learn how to practice online or get online clients. Traditional counselling diplomas only cover face-to-face work and the important skills of the counselling itself. But transfer that onto video, voice and messaging scenarios, and you get a whole new set of legal and practical considerations to address.

Let me explain some of these challenges.

Verifying a client’s identity

UK-based counsellors can take clients from most of the world and still be insured. However, American and Canadian counsellors can only serve clients residing in their region. This is difficult if the therapist hasn’t got a way to verify the other person’s identity, so they’re faced with taking a risk every time they’re not sure. It’s the same for everyone who are not qualified or set up to help children (most counsellors in the UK). And when you’ve got a suicidal or at-risk person, your ability to send for help depends on whether you recorded their address and contact details prior to facing the critical situation.

This exemplifies why it’s important to have clear procedures, communication and a means to record information, should you need it for insurance or emergencies.

Face-to-face versus online skillsets

Even the best face-to-face counsellors can struggle to make an impact online if they’re not good at communicating through a screen. It doesn’t matter how many diplomas or titles you have – if you’re uncomfortable with video, sound too cold or bot-like over messaging or can’t type well enough, the other person will perceive that.

For example, emojis are a visual language more and more people use to express complex emotions. You can use that to prevent misunderstandings that can easily occur in messages between strangers. Video sessions have the benefit of facilitating body language – but you’ll still need to sit somewhere with good lighting and talk clearly to prevent misunderstandings.

There are other knowledge- and skillsets that arguably all online practitioners should learn to call themselves proficient. For example, people are more likely to blurt out their deepest issues right away online compared with meeting face-to-face. And people are more flaky online, so it takes a tactical set-up to make clients stick to their appointments. Planning for those things helps cushion the effects that would otherwise impact on treatment success.

Setting boundaries

Online practitioners will eventually be faced with suicidal clients, because many people reach for their phones when they’re most vulnerable. Counsellors can either obtain the necessary training to deal with this, or communicate clearly before or at the beginning of a relationship when they’re available, messaging schedule and where to get immediate help if needed outside work hours. Especially in asynchronous counselling (e.g. email counselling), setting rules for when and how a counsellor replies is essential to maintain their work-life balance and a sense of treatment structure.

Setting up a virtual practice and what it means for marketing

Counsellors now have several pathways to providing online counselling. They can choose to apply for all-in-one platforms like Talkspace, which offer all the payment-processing, messaging and video technology they need – but at a cost. All-in-one platforms are great for counsellors who want someone else to handle their marketing and tried-and-tested procedures, because the platforms are spending lots of money on this. But counsellors usually pay a high cut from their earnings to fund this, and platforms often decide on the therapy price to make it simpler to market.

For more autonomy, counsellors have to decide on their own video, scheduling and payment processes or pay for a B2B service that customises a solution for them. In these cases, they’ll need to spend their own money or time on marketing, as otherwise they won’t reach new people to counsel. Alternatively, they can work for established charities and organisations – like Survivors West Yorkshire – which offer virtual counselling for males: Ben’s Place.


Technical and privacy issues

Working online carries with it a risk of technical failure. It doesn’t matter what “reliable” software you use – Skype, VSee, FaceTime, etc. – it won’t work if your network connection or devices are not suitable. You need to set up the best circumstances for all sessions and communicate clearly to the other person what to do in the event of failure. With a clear plan B, you can reduce the impact of a failed session substantially.

There’s also the highly debated issue of data privacy and whether technological services that own your data (e.g. Skype) are trusted enough for therapy. You’ll need to decide for yourself where your priorities lie: what compromises are you willing to make to accommodate convenience?

The future of online counselling

That said, all counselling modalities have their unique challenges. When you’re following technological developments and people’s natural user behaviours, you’re leaving behind outdated approaches and meeting people where they are today. There’s this fear among some counsellors that online therapy could kill traditional in-person therapy, but this is simply not true. The online route opens new pathways to treatment for people unable or unwilling to seek face-to-face help, while many other people continues to need or prefer in-person help. Therapists are simply helping a wider range of people by offering online counselling too.

If we all put our minds together, we can work out the best ways and rules applicable to internet-based counselling internationally.

Emily Sorensen
Founder and Director

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‘Why are we waiting for them to fall apart?’ – working towards a trauma-informed West Yorkshire and world

Reflections on a well-attended multi-agency event to consider ‘What would a Trauma-Informed Community look like?’

Despite the brilliant blue of the Autumn sky and the vibrant atmosphere of the bustling college campus outside, I found myself genuinely excited to settle down for an afternoon in a darkened lecture theatre among over 130 colleagues in Bradford one Tuesday during early October.

Organised in part to mark Safeguarding Week – and falling coincidentally just two weeks after the Office for National Statistics (ONS) published a report revealing that people abused in childhood are more likely to be abused as adults – the time could not have been more apt for professionals across a range of sectors to come together to consider what a trauma-informed society could look like.

Introduced by Yasmin Khan, CEO of specialist domestic abuse charity Staying Put and co-founder of new initiative I-RAP: Giving Every Child a Voice, the event used the ground-breaking, breath-taking and award-winning short film RESILIENCE: The Biology of Stress & The Science of Hope to kick-start participants’ thinking and discussion. And that it most certainly did.


RESLIENCE Director James Redford (son of actor Robert, if you’re interested in that sort of thing), has said his intention in creating the film was ‘to make this science digestible and relevant to everyone, and to showcase some of the inspiring individuals who are putting that science into action’, and he’s undeniably achieved both.

The science he refers to of course is neuroscience, specifically around the impacts of childhood trauma and toxic stress on our brain development and wider health. When the first research into Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs) was published nearly 20 years ago, its findings about the strong links with long-term health issues – ranging from depression and substance misuse to heart disease and cancer – were considered controversial.

But now the effects of ACEs are widely recognised and RESILIENCE shines a light on the movement of inspirational doctors, social workers, educators and communities committed to reducing and preventing their individual and societal impacts – a movement that is gathering momentum in the United States, and, as it turns out, on this side of the Atlantic too.

Dr Warren Larkin is the Clinical Lead for our own Department of Health’s ACEs programme, as well as a consultant clinical psychologist and visiting professor at Sunderland University.

While my fellow attendees and I continued to absorb the powerful hour-long film, he led us through a presentation of key research findings – from Bellis et al and the World Health Organisation (WHO) among others – about the prevalence and impact of ACEs, and told us what’s happening closer to home to address them.

Among the striking studies he highlighted was one carried out by Kessler et al on behalf of the WHO in 2010, involving 52,000 participants, which found a staggering correlation between the incidence of a whole range of mental health problems and the number of ACEs a person had encountered.

Dr Larkin stressed that ‘waiting to be told’ about adverse childhood experiences doesn’t work, and he wasn’t the first or last person to remind the room that the question we should be asking of people is not ‘what’s wrong with you?’ but ‘what happened to you?’

It was with this very much at the forefront of our minds that we progressed to the question and answer panel chaired by former Chief Crown Prosecutor for the North West of England, Nazir Afzal OBE, renowned among many things for his work on the child sexual exploitation case in Rochdale (and portrayed in this year’s widely acclaimed BBC television drama Three Girls).

Panel members themselves represented a true wealth and diversity of knowledge and expertise in the specialist fields of domestic abuse and sexual violence, and included: Bob Balfour, founder of Survivors West Yorkshire and Ben’s Place and co-host of the event itself; Jane Gregory, Co-ordinator of Bradford Rape Crisis, Trustee of Rape Crisis England & Wales, and member of both the Bradford and West Yorkshire Domestic & Sexual Violence Strategic Boards, as well as a colleague of Bob’s in the specialist West Yorkshire Sexual Violence Action Partnership (WYSVAP); Shabana Hussain, fellow member of the West Yorkshire Domestic Violence & Sexual Violence Strategic Board and Service Manager at Staying Put (Bradford); Duncan Craig, core founder of the Male Survivors’ Partnership (MSP) and CEO of Survivors Manchester.

There was a lot of energy among the audience in the tiered seating of the lecture theatre as they considered the overarching question, ‘what would a trauma-informed community look like?’ and fed the panellists’ discussion.


After a brief introduction from Nazir, during which he reminded attendees that sexually exploited girls in Rochdale and elsewhere were targeted by abusers precisely because they were traumatised, specialist midwife Rachel asked the first question from the floor: ‘How does the panel think being part of a survivors’ movement builds resilience?’

This prompted some vital discussion of how grassroots, community-based and survivor-focussed specialist agencies have provided safe and trauma-informed spaces for decades, albeit using different language to describe their work with survivors. And Jane Gregory voiced the understandable frustration that it has taken ‘men in suits with scientific qualifications’ to repackage and present what survivors and those who work on the frontline with them have been saying for years for it to be taken seriously.



This chimed with the concerns of Jo, a Rape Crisis ISVA (Independent Sexual Violence Advocate) I spoke with in a break who felt that none of the research findings on the scale and impacts of childhood trauma on, for example, adult survivors of child sexual abuse, came as a surprise to her as a frontline worker, but that the medicalised language of ACEs wasn’t compatible with the holistic and empowering approach of a feminist service like hers. Jo also feared that the scientific approach threatened to dehumanise and reduce survivors’ to an ACE score that didn’t reflect the diversity and individuality of their lives or experiences.

But while it was clear that more progress needed to be made towards finding a common language to ensure survivors and those working with them and in their interests could be, as Jane put it ‘mutually understood’, it was clear that panellists and audience shared so much in terms of values and objectives, beyond any differences of approach.

Bob Balfour, for example, voiced his optimism that ACEs could provide a pathway to new understanding of how we deal with a whole range of social problems, but was also clear of the need to be extremely careful in how the science is applied, to ensure it’s never turned against those it should be able to help and support. He also pointed out how the US has managed to situate its conversations about childhood trauma and toxic stress in the community itself, rather than simply among scientists and academics.

There was also a recurrent and important theme of prevention among participants – the reminder that not only must we address the impacts of trauma but also its causes; that it’s not enough simply to treat the outcomes of adverse experiences like sexual abuse, we must also do all we can to prevent them. This was all the more poignant against the backdrop of the unprecedented and ever-increasing demand for services highlighted by Shabana Hussain and Jane Gregory, among others, that the latter attributed to ‘a stunning epidemic of sexual violence.’

Overall, there was food for thought aplenty and I definitely left full. In terms of take-home messages, it was impossible to pick just one. But Yasmin Khan’s final assertion that austerity must no longer be used as an excuse for inaction won’t be forgotten in a hurry, and nor will Bob’s belief that ‘partnership is the only way we’re ever going to deal with trauma.’

Katie Russell

Freelance Journalist and Charity Development Consultant



*  special thanks to Cohen Cramer Solicitors for sponsoring this article


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Lobbying for social change from a place of vulnerability

Brene Brown

It’s been an interesting 17 years of activism. I have spoken to over 3,000 sexual violence survivors, male and female, since the publication of Lost in Care (2000), Sir Ronald Waterhouse’s report into abuse in children’s homes across North Wales. We’ve had nearly five years of almost daily disclosures of new sexual abuse scandals. However, it’s still challenging for decision makers to see the logic in proactively responding to the cross-cutting issues sexual violence generates for society.

This resistance often seems to be reinforced by powerful vested interests who wish to maintain the status quo. Such interests often take and voice the view that the storm will pass and we will soon be able to return to normal operations, or else they rush towards the available funding despite having no history of or skills in supporting recovery from a place informed by sexual violence trauma and gender.

However, we are seeing major shifts in service capacity, skills and social insight. Savile and the Independent Inquiry into Child Sexual Abuse (IICSA) might seem like the beginning of something new; however, I would suggest that these events are just a rather visible leap forward in a very complex cultural conversation that has been taking place for decades, if not centuries. In 2007, I wrote that We live in the 21st century and the time to deal with the issue has arrived – otherwise increasingly it will be dealing with us.

A View From Inside The Box II – Matrix’ (2007)

I had no idea how that warning would play out. However, it seemed clear to me that at some stage it would play out on a large scale. My warning was given in the hope that leaders and decision-makers would take note and start to prepare. The IICSA will hopefully evidence what was happening at all policy levels across state decision-making at that time. We need to unpack that to drive long-term attitudinal, cultural and policy change.

Any continuing denial of the seriousness of what is unfolding in our culture illustrates what Dr Judith Herman called the ‘unspeakable’. However, such a lack of strategic vision will not stop sexual violence disclosures increasing as our society is truly freed of its silence around sexual violence.

Dr Who quote

We’ve seen abuse within sport reported in the media very recently, and the Armed Forces Cadet Service is facing a recent scandal. I would argue that the shift across society to a new paradigm of trauma-informed awareness is already well advanced in its momentum. However, as Kuhn notes in his book ‘The Structure of Scientific Revolutions’, resistance is part of the process, but it will, thankfully, be futile.

The shift can’t be stopped, but it will be a ‘street by street’ cultural battle, as we move from a paradigm that looks for ‘what is wrong with people’ to one that asks, ‘what has happened to them’ completely altering the balance of power for many professions. Survivors West Yorkshire will publish a series of blog article on Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACE’s) science in the near future.


If decision-makers take the time to listen to the more-than-plentiful evidence, they will see the amazing possibilities of a society built on trauma-informed understandings. Such a shift could produce outcomes for societal wellbeing that are transformative.

Once the shift has taken firmer root, we will see professional models of all kinds adopting trauma-informed approaches to understand many of the health and social issues seen across our shared communities.

The stories that position victims of sexual crime as bad, mad or sad, and limited in number, will no longer strike society as real, if they ever truly did on an unconscious level. Sexual violence survivors are simply human beings creatively adapting within a complex cultural landscape of shaming and silencing around their lived experiences – a landscape that is often full of negative responses if they dare to disclose their abuse. Child abuse (in all its forms) can be argued slows down our cultural evolution.

It’s in everyone’s interests to bring about change. However, as IICSA demonstrates, that change is often born in chaos. It is up to us all to respond positively and proactively if we really want to protect children from sexual crimes.

The denial of trauma from sexual childhood abuse across all sections of society has allowed predators to hunt freely across many diverse hunting grounds. Time and time again, it is sadly demonstrated that leaders refuse to see what is clearly playing out in front of societies eyes. inquiries all over the world, across differing cultures, are increasingly showing that such avoidance by leaders is a global behaviour. You can trace current denial back to Freud and his denial of his clients’ sexual violence disclosures, and most likely, some suggest, to his own childhood abuse.

The stories we tell ourselves to keep our cultural or personal shame hidden create a legacy of untold horrors for our children.

The silencing that stops us from seeing the true prevalence of sexual abuse traps children, and the adults they become, in lived psychological prisons of distress.

Sometimes, when we are lost – we find ourselves and our voices.

Survivors West Yorkshire just published its final report in its A View series (‘Connecting the Boxes: Coming Home’) You can download it here.

Survivors are coming home.

Society will only cope well and avoid inflicting more harm by becoming trauma informed; however, regardless of society’s denial and fears – for home we are bound.

Author: Bob Balfour MBPsS, Founder and CEO, Survivors West Yorkshire


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Ben’s story

Ben's place

Ben's StoryBen’s grooming and sexual abuse happened from the age of 11 to 14. As part of the initial grooming process, he was encouraged to perform sexual acts with other young people – male and female. The abuse occurred both one-to-one and in groups. It’s suspected the abuse was filmed and sold on the Internet.

This was all for the entertainment of Ben’s groomer, who rarely had sexual contact with the young people himself during the entire period of exploitation. The groomer supplied drugs and alcohol and encouraged a sense of rebellion in the young people who took part in the sexually exploitative activities.

During this time, Ben demonstrated a number of difficult behaviours including truanting and theft and also attempted suicide several times.

Did anyone try to help Ben?

Ben’s parents became aware of the grooming and sought help from the authorities. Social services declined to intervene because Ben told them the groomer was his friend and denied any exploitation was taking place.

As a result, social services decided that Ben, who was by then aged 12/13, was exploring his sexuality, and they logged the contact between Ben and the groomer as consenting. His parents were labelled as challenging and they were ignored. The more they challenged social services, the more the label was reinforced. The police declined to intervene as Ben would not make a statement (this occurred prior to 2004, when the relevant legislation on grooming contained in the Sexual Offences Act 2003 took effect).

Subsequently, Ben’s groomer took the step of handing Ben over to a contact of his in exchange for payment. This contact sold Ben’s sexual services to a large number of abusers up and down the country, threatening Ben and keeping him drugged to ensure that he complied. Ben was missing from home for a week before police found him at an address in Manchester and rescued him. At first, Ben denied to the police that he been forced into these encounters, but he later told the police the truth and explained that his abusers had threatened to find and punish him if he didn’t ‘stick up for them’.

What happened to Ben after that?

Ben received little emotional support, and in the following years he became addicted to street and prescription drugs and also made further attempts at suicide. He engaged in lots of sexual activity with both males and females, sometimes for payment. He contracted HIV via one of his longer-term relationships. He refused to discuss the abuse with anybody and was seen as challenging by most agencies that attempted to engage with him.

However, with support he did lodge a claim with the Criminal Injuries Compensation Authority (CICA). A compensation payment of over £100k was agreed. However, the final amount was reduced by 25% because Ben disclosed in his statement that he had used drugs to numb himself during the group ‘orgies’ in which he was raped by large numbers of men; this was seen as a criminal act by CICA, who applied the associated 25% penalty to his tariff.

The compensation Ben received from CICA was mostly spent on other young people in his peer groups – buying them drugs and expensive designer clothes, for example.

Ben’s mother challenged the CICA reduction and also went on to successfully sue four of the abusers convicted in the case for damages, with the goal of making it clear how devastating their crimes had been.

What contact did Ben have with statutory services?

Ben was unable to secure long-term employment and cycled through a range of mental health services, collecting a variety of diagnoses. On occasion, he was sectioned. However, he still found it hard to explore his victimisation and was reluctant to even use the words ‘sexual abuse’.

Shortly after his 23rd birthday, after one of his abusers had been released from prison and had got in touch with him, Ben became extremely distressed. He entered a mental health unit – at first voluntarily, but he was sectioned after attempting to hang himself there. During this period, there was a change in Ben’s presentation. Whilst still challenging in his behaviours, Ben now spent his days telling anybody he could about his experiences of being sexually exploited, asking ‘How would you feel if that happened to you?’ He lobbied his psychiatrist to place the media cuttings from the trial of his abusers on the front page of his file – ‘so everybody would know why he was distressed,’ he told staff.

On the day following this request to the psychiatrist, Ben took his own life. His request for the media cuttings to be placed on the front page of his file hadn’t been supported. During his inquest it was disclosed that none of the staff had received any training in responding to sexual violence survivors’ disclosures. Ben’s psychiatrist stated that he didn’t believe it was necessary as they were trained to deal with mental illness. However, he did acknowledge that patients with histories of sexual exploitation required specialist support and that Ben had been seen by a borderline personality disorder service the day before he took his own life.

Author: advised by Ben’s Mum

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Finding our voices: Surviving, thriving and writing

Finding our voices

Lately I’ve been thinking about what it means to find my ‘voice’, to speak my own truth.

I’ve been working on that for a lifetime. (That’s 43 years and counting.) I’ve still got a long way to go but I’m learning fast.

Me, CSA and voice

All the childhood sexual abuse (CSA) survivors I’ve known, including me, have often found it hard to speak truthfully of what life is really like for us. Here are some of the reasons in my case:

  • I was trained in silence by my abuser (a member of my extended family).
  • It’s damn hard to speak of an experience that is so wounding and (still) so stigmatised.
  • I can end up protecting others by acting like nothing serious has happened to me, and by repeating the party line: everything’s okay, I don’t need any help, no one has to face this.

Maybe that sounds familiar to you.

Of course, I’m not completely defined by the fact that I experienced CSA. But even I when speak of other things, my outlook is that of someone who’s been through this crucible of abuse and recovery. My voice won’t sound like other people’s, and I don’t want to impersonate them anyway.

Ultimately, if I’m subtly forbidden to speak of this significant part of my life, my whole self will be compromised.

Voice and empowerment, chicken and egg. When I feel more powerful, I speak my mind more often. And as I tell the truth of myself to one person, then two, then three, I feel more powerful. I come to realise that I matter, and I develop the knack of stating what matters to me.

If my voice is strong and truthful, I can use it to change minds in a packed room or to comfort myself in the still of the night. Both count.

Where writing fits in

There are so many ways of developing voice. Your route might be painting, or going to therapy, or teaching maths – everyone’s different. But writing suits a lot of people, whether we write journals, novels or blogs, and whether we let others read them or not.

I’ve been writing ever since I knew what words were and long before I knew what I wanted to say. I asked for a typewriter as a present when I was six, after the CSA had already begun, and my parents kindly gave me a second-hand Olympia. (How I enjoyed thumping away on those keys! Patchy as my earliest output was, at least I always got a good workout.)

So I sometimes read books about writing. Lately I’ve been enjoying Writing Alone and With Others by Pat Schneider, who founded Amherst Writers & Artists. I’m also fascinated by Around the Writer’s Block: Using Brain Science to Solve Writer’s Resistance by Rosanne Bane. Some of their insights got me thinking about the survivors who write – those survivors who choose to commit their truth to paper or pixels.

What do survivors need when writing?

Everyone who is brave enough to write down their thoughts and feelings needs the following things, and I think survivors of sexual abuse and violence need them in spades.

#1 Writers need to be patient with themselves

Let’s not buy into gung-ho ideas about what ‘real’ writers do and how they write every day, come what may. On that score, I agree with the author of this article, ‘Writing Begins With Forgiveness‘. As Pat Schneider notes, ‘The roots of a useful discipline lie in understanding ourselves, and that is a gentle matter’.

Roseanne Bane unpacks the scientific background. If we want to write and somehow can’t, she says, it’s because of resistance. She explains why:

The limbic system is the part of the brain that ‘provides the capacity for emotion and relies on the fight-or-flight instinct in response to threats’. It’s the bit that takes over when we’re afraid. Sometimes it does and we don’t notice what’s happened – we think we’re still in control and making rational decisions. So, when life doesn’t go to plan, we berate ourselves instead of blaming the true culprits, which are the subconscious forces of resistance.

Bane says that if your attempts to forge ahead through self-discipline are thwarted by resistance, ‘You are not weak-willed, thin-skinned, oversensitive, underdisciplined, or lazy. You are reacting to a subconscious awareness of a potential threat’. And if anyone lives day to day with an internalised sense of threat, surely a survivor of an experience as traumatic as sexual violence and abuse does.

In the rest of her book, Bane presents practical ways to address resistance. These mainly involve removing the threat by promising yourself you’ll do no more than a certain amount of writing (or preparation for writing) at a time, no more than a few times a week. It can be five minutes, three times a week – whatever doesn’t feel scary. You build from there.

Schneider says, ‘Not being able to write is a learned disability. It is almost always the result of scar tissue, of disbelief in yourself accumulated as a result of unhelpful responses to your writing’. (I’d go further and say it can result from unhelpful responses to voices raised in any form.)

Schneider echoes Bane in asserting the potential for positive outcomes: ‘Those wounds can be healed, those blocks can be removed’. She also quotes the writer William Burroughs: ‘There is no such thing as willpower. Only need’.

Need and fear. Get past the fear, and we can raise our voices, meet our needs.

#2 Writers need to believe that what they have to say will be worth hearing

Schneider writes, ‘The first and greatest fear that blocks us as writers is fear of the truth that we may discover … [but] where there is fear, there is buried treasure’.

It can be a long road from having our personhood so fundamentally disregarded as it is when we are sexually victimised to knowing our own worth and being able to bring our unique selves – our treasure – out into the light. When we do, it does us good, but it also benefits those around us. As Schneider says, ‘If we valued the voices of those who have been denied a voice, we would have a canon of literature so much more diverse, interesting and humane than the canon we do have’.

One of Bane’s first invitations in Around the Writer’s Block is this: ‘Freewrite for ten minutes about what resistance has cost you as a writer and what it has cost your community. What opportunities have you lost? What dreams have you delayed? What stories have you left untold; what images and insights have you left unshared? What problems could your writing help solve?’

I accept that survivors are as diverse as any other social group and that having been a victim of CSA doesn’t guarantee anyone a fine character. But I do notice that many within our ranks deeply understand how vital integrity is, see through false idols, and know exploitation when we encounter it. Between us we have many interesting and powerful things to say, and our silence deprives society of the chance to learn from us.

#3 Writers need support

Writers need the same support as anyone else seeking self-expression, and we need it even more when we have emotional wounds to heal. Schneider says, ‘Find and keep in contact with other writers/artists who can provide you with an intimate community of support, give you honest critical response, strengthen you, and encourage your work’.

Writing as a way of life

Here are a couple more quotes from Writing Alone and With Others:

– ‘Silence is as political as breaking silence.’

I don’t interpret this as pressure to share our writing with others, or to do so before we’re ready. ‘Breaking silence’ might simply mean being honest with ourselves for the first time, perhaps in a private journal. But writing gives us choices: if we decide we want to, we can drip-feed our written insights into the wider world and become agents for change there too.

– ‘Writing is my primary spiritual discipline.’

It’s a discipline that can be difficult to develop, especially when life has delivered some hard knocks and our voices are shaky or even absent, but it’s worth it because ‘Writing is inextricably linked to working on one’s own inner life and outer relationships’.

To summarise, it’s a question of using writing, in whatever forms we prefer, as a path to justice, citizenship and wholeness.

Final thoughts

The jazz musician Miles Davis put it best: ‘Man, sometimes it takes you a long time to sound like yourself’.

Well, your time is your own, so take all you need. And if it’s taking you a long time to find your voice, it doesn’t actually mean you’re falling behind. Behind who, exactly?

As I’ve been recovering from CSA, I’ve sometimes felt as if time has been stolen from me, time that I’ll never make up. But the older I get, the more truly I believe that the deeper development required to heal from trauma and despair is worth more than any shallow keeping-up-with-the-Joneses. Ultimately, survivors who seek healing aren’t behind on any of the measures that actually count. Our value is all intact and waiting for us to voice it.

Our voices, found and honed through our writing or in whatever ways we prefer, are the gift we give back to life.

Author: Sally Moss (@SallyL23)

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