Moving On

In 2012/13 there were 23,663 recorded sexual offences against children across the whole of the UK.

In 2006, HEAL was awarded the Queens Award for Voluntary Service and several of us were invited to Buckingham Palace for tea with the Queen.

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Awarded to HEAL, 2006

Our service was saving the statutory services a fortune and the irony, that while the NHS, including Psychiatrists & Psychologists and Social Services were regularly making referrals to us, we were receiving no funding from them and were struggling financially. The cost of our entire service would be similar to the salary of one senior nurse.

The ever increasing demand and growing waiting list and being a parent was beginning to tell on my mental health.

Professionals often state that between 3-5 years is the maximum you should work solidly without a break in the survivor field. I had now been at HEAL for 9 years and my entire workload was abuse. I knew it was time to find something new, I was beginning to feel burnt out.

It was tremendously difficult to tell the members of my decision to leave. I gave plenty of notice and we worked on loss and abandonment a great deal.

I feel huge pride in the work the members, volunteers, trustees and myself did at HEAL. The courage shown by our members was awe inspiring and I felt highly privileged in working with those survivors and in the programme we developed together.

I was totally speechless and crumpled when it was announced that they had clubbed together to have a star named after me. I felt so humbled that these heroic people would think that much of me, to do something so special.

My Star, John Wills: Taurus 5h25m01s =24degrees57'36"
My Star, John Wills: Taurus 5h25m01s =24degrees57’36”

I had been thinking for some time what I could do if I was to move away from Survivor work. I had always loved nature and the outdoors. In my childhood and youth, I had used nature to escape from the abuse and regularly visited Hackney and Walthamstow Marshes. I would often see Kingfishers, Herons, Foxes and (the non-native and irresponsibly released) Red-eared Terrapins on my journeys.

I began to think, if I had used nature to help in my healing, then maybe others could also benefit. This was confirmed to me one day at a HEAL session. People were really low and we began to discuss things we had achieved or always wanted to do, many of the ideas revolved around experiencing nature and before long peoples moods changed dramatically. Just talking about nature was helping!

The idea for Greenpath Ventures began to develop.

I discussed the idea about starting a new charity offering bushcraft and other outdoor activities to adults with mental health issues with a few colleagues and friends, and to my utter disbelief, people thought it was a great idea!

I embarked on Bushcraft Insturctor Training at Plumpton College in East Sussex, passed the course and we formed Greenpath Ventures. I also wanted to further my experience of the outdoors and undertook Arctic Survival training in Sweden.

Me in the Arctic
Me in the Arctic

We formally launched Greenpath Ventures as a registered charity at Essex County Hall in May 2008.

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New Start?

Sexual abuse statistics vary between countries and reports, but are consistently alarming: Research indicates that up to 36% of girls and 29% of boys have suffered child sexual abuse; up to 46% girls and 20% boys have experienced sexual coercion.

(The 57th session of the UN Commission on Human Rights)

We left London with a huge sense of relief, moving away would give us the chance to start again without many of the old ghosts.

I secured a role working for the NHS in administration and also became a volunteer on a crisis helpline.

I remember being interviewed for the telephone role and I was asked if I had any personal history of mental health. I began explaining what had happened, “I don’t understand why any child would keep abuse a secret”, was my interviewers response. “Wow!” Not a great start I thought. Thankfully, this person was the exception and my colleagues on the helpline were a tremendous group of people.

Shortly after this I saw an article in the local paper regarding a community group looking for volunteers to help with a support group for adult survivors.

The group was called, HEAL (Helping Everyone Abused Live) and was kindly given the use of a room by the local MIND. At that time it may have been the first and only group in the UK to work with men and women together, regardless of the the type of abuse suffered. I called, an interview was arranged and I was taken on.

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 HEAL, Helping Everyone Abuse Live

The first meeting was very memorable, I was the only man in the room with about 5 women and was viewed with a huge amount of suspicion and even a little hostility. “Why do you want to volunteer?”; I was challenged immediately, when I said that  I had been abused myself, the atmosphere changed completely. “It must have been worse for you, being a man” was the response. “Not worse, but maybe different”, I responded.

HEAL offered a weekly support group where people came and shared what was happening with them and how they felt. For a number of reasons, the Co-ordinator left and we held a crisis meeting. It was put to me; “Unless you can take it on, the group will have to fold”. I had never trained in group work or led many sessions, but couldn’t see these survivors left with no support, so I took on the role.

The first thing I did was to ask the members what they wanted and needed.They felt the weekly support group was not working and that they wanted to have some direction and focus to the sessions. Jointly, we set up a monthly schedule, with different activities such as discussion groups on topics decided on by the members. Over time this gradually developed into more and more structured workshops and the open support group was actually dropped by the members themselves.

We struggled with low numbers for sometime, then suddenly, numbers began to increase and at times we would not have enough chairs, with people needing to sit on tables. Now men came as well and we were working at maximum capacity.

We needed to make the decision to expand. We became a registered charity, secured more funding and opened our own premises.

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Tudor House, the home of HEAL

Momentum continued to gather; we were now also actively involved in training staff from other agencies in working with survivors.We went from one group a week to four, which included a drop in, a Carers/Supporters Group and a Creative group, which culminated in having our own exhibition.

We now had a 2 year waiting list to join our groups, with nearly 120 people on it at anyone time.

HEAL Creative Exhibition, Colchester 2006

HEAL Creative Exhibition, Colchester 2006

…and paraphrasing, the immortal words of Ernie Wise, here’s a poem “what I wrote” for the exhibition:

didtheangles

Personally, my life was also about to change, as I discovered I was going to be a father!

The Counselling

“Research continues to indicate a concerning number of children and youth, between 60–80%, withhold disclosure until adulthood suggesting that many children endure prolonged victimization or never receive necessary intervention.”  Ramona Alaggia, 2010.

My plan of 6 weeks of counselling, fell apart very quickly.

It was only when someone had been willing to listen to me that I realised just how much I needed to talk. The first 6 weeks flashed by and we had the review; both my counsellor and myself agreed to continue for as long as I required.

I cannot stress enough just how important it was to my recovery to be in control of how long I needed. So often now counselling is time limited, often JUST 6 weeks. This approach is so dis-empowering, immediately the survivor has the control taken from them and they are once again faced with little or no choice and control.

I know resources are limited, but to ask victims of abuse to open up and reach some level of resolution with such limited interaction is almost always asking too much. I also know that many services are unable to offer longer due to rationing, but there must be a better way. I am also often puzzled why people come up with arbitrary number of weeks, why 6, 10 or 12 weeks? Recovery for survivors MUST be led by them,recovery is about EMPOWERMENT and that means giving the victim CHOICE, CONTROL and POWER over their own future.

I was warned by my counsellor that things often get worse before they get better during the process and he was right. Revisiting the abuse opened me up more than I could have ever imagined.

Flashbacks increased. For those of you who are unaware, flashbacks are not just recalling memories, it’s much more like reliving them, you are not in the present, but back in the actual abuse. I also recovered more memories of being violated and that indecent photos had been taken of me. How had these been used? Who had seen them? Where were they shown? Just how much more there was to come I just did not know or if I could cope.

The old defence mechanisms started to kick in; minimizing the abuse and it’s effects. I tried to rationalise the past; “I had deserved what had happened”, but my counsellor would not relent; he threw challenge after challenge at me. “What would I say to another victim who had said the same thing?”…”Why then am I saying something different to myself?”.

What became clear was that my abuse and therefore my abuser was still in control of my life and that I was still living in fear and as a victim.

I can recall very easily a piece of homework I was given:

“I want you to do something nice for yourself”, the Counsellor said.
“Okay, I can do that”, my reply.
“…now the tricky part..”, my Counsellor continued”…not because I’ve asked you, but just because you’re worth it and for no other reason.”

I went back the following week having  been unable to do it. I didn’t deserve anything, simply for the reason I felt worthless and was full of self loathing; I even despised the child I had been and thought of him as pathetic and weak.

I desperately needed to give back the responsibility and the blame to the abuser. The guilt I had carried for the abuse was not mine, it was his. The shame I had been carrying for all these years, was not mine it was his .

As this process went on, the anger at being burdened with these issues and the injustice grew, I struggled with these feelings, they seemed overwhelming. In the past I had released or suppressed them with drinking/drugs or self-harming, but I was no longer willing to use these strategies and I wanted and needed to face these demons.

I didn’t realise it, but thanks to the the counselling, I was beginning to gain self-worth for the first time. I hadn’t deserved the abuse; what was done to me, was wrong.

My counsellor helped me understand that the “little me”, the abused child, had done the very best he could at the time, with what he had and that rather than hate him, he needed my love and understanding. “What would you say to him now, if you had him standing in front of you?”, my Counsellor asked. I collapsed into tears of sadness and pride at the courage that little boy had shown; protecting his own Mother, Father and family from the truth and in carrying the burden of the abuse all on his own, for so long.

This was a time of great confusion, all the old messages and lies I had been living with no longer rang true. What was I left with? It challenged my actual identity; if I was no longer going to be a victim of abuse, who was I?

The Work Begins

I do not remember how or where I stumbled across the details about SurvivorsUK, I think it may have been trawling through the Yellow Pages.

Finally, the help I needed
Finally, the help I needed

I do remember calling them and speaking to a female volunteer who actually listened and invited me to call back. After a couple of calls, I was asked if I’d be interested in one to one counselling or group work with them. After all my previous attempts had been shot down and had my experiences minimized by the professionals, I wasn’t sure if my abuse had been bad enough or if I was really that much in need of help.

We arranged for me to visit one of their co-ordinators to discuss what options would be available. Everything seems so blurry now; people really caring about the abuse, listening to me and wanting to help….why had it taken over 15 years and so much effort for someone to finally take me seriously? Was it too good to be true, would these people also let me down? I was filled with fear and anxiety at the prospect of opening up again, but went along anyway…what had I got to lose?

I met the co-ordinator who was very relaxed and open, he thought group work wouldn’t be a good option for me at this time and that I would benefit from individual counselling and he had the very person in mind.

I met my prospective counsellor for an assessment on both sides. He was completely frank and honest with me, explained that he was also a survivor and gay, I was asked if that would be an issue for me as my abuser had been a man. I could not believe it, I was being asked and given choices. I had no problem, felt at ease with him and the counselling started. It would be for an initial 6 weeks then a review, there would be no cost and I could go along as long as I felt I needed.

I had thought a great deal about the issues I would need to address; anger, guilt, fear, loss. It would take me about 6 weeks to get through that lot I thought, so that would be okay.

I went every week for the next 3 years.