Having had the go ahead from the surgeon to undertake the trip to the Amazon, I now needed to plan it.
I decided to go with Randall Adventure Training for my trip to the the Amazon. They’re an American company and are globally recognised as being one of the best jungle survival training companies in the world.
I called my friend Guy, who I met on the Arctic survival course and asked if he fancied a trip to the Amazon, “Yes!” he replied, so we booked our places and went for it.
Mike and Jeff who run the company are hugely experienced and have travelled and explored much of South America.
This really was a survival course, we took no food, no water, no spare clothes or shelter. We had a fantastic time; it was a real challenge and I couldn’t believe I was there! In the Amazon! Only 2 years ago I could hardly walk and now I was chopping my way through the jungle.
At the end of the 10 day course, I had literally hundreds of bites, in fact, the instructors had never seen anyone bitten so much and my back appeared in an American survival magazine! What fame! I put it down to having British blood, so much more appealing than American.
There were many highlights, seeing and holding a boa and a sloth, building jungle beds, firelighting in the torrential rain, learning to use a machete, drinking from a water vine, seeing a myriad of insects, “simply” experiencing the jungle and while floating down the Amazon, on our personal homemade rafts, having fresh water dolphins come up and swim along side us.
But, what I truly learnt from this course, is to say “yes” to things that come your way, and…not to simply wait for those things to happen, but to make them happen! I could have put so many barriers and reasons for not going; my mental health, my abuse, my spinal injury, money, time away from work and family. I took a huge leap of faith and had a wonderful and life changing experience.
I am blessed with having a really supportive wife, family and colleagues, who rather than put obstacles in the way, encouraged me to go (but, maybe they really just needed a break from me! 🙂 ).
People ask me what is the thing I find most scary and frightening on expeditions; the answer is simple; the flying. I simply hate flying.
I am delighted that through my work, I have been able to go on to use these experiences and talk to community groups and schools and show that you do not need to be super human to undertake these types of challenges and hopefully inspire other people to follow their dreams.
Greenpath Ventures was doing tremendously well, referrals were coming in, we had built up a really good solid relationship with our funders, I remember one in particular, who said we were “inspirational and one of the best projects they had ever funded”. We had even found a permanent home for our bushcraft courses!
We had been so lucky to find Ivy Farm on Mersea Island, 50 beautiful acres at the mouth of the Colne Estuary and Ralph the owner couldn’t have been more supportive and encouraging. After a couple of months of seeing what we did he even decided to join us as a trustee!
I had a history of back trouble and noticed it was becoming increasingly difficult to walk any distance. Following the trip to the Arctic, I knew I was in serious trouble.
I was now always in pain and finding it more and more problematic to walk even short distances, just 30 meters would seem to take forever. Any bending was agony, I couldn’t carry or lift anything, I had pins and needles and constant sciatica down my left leg.
The first doctor dismissed it as a pulled muscle and examined the wrong side. I changed my doctor. There was a dramatic difference. My new GP, took me seriously and immediately started to investigate the cause of the pain.
I had X-rays, MRI scans (the first of which was lost), several lots of physio. The physio didn’t help so I was referred to the pain clinic. I was now given spinal injections, more physio, a T.E.N.s machine and my pain medication was increased; I was now on morphine patches, Subutex as well as codeine, paracetamol, ibuprofen and heat packs, all with no avail. I was totally exhausted from the medication and being in pain.
Finally, I was referred to a spinal surgeon, Mr Blackman at Colchester General Hospital.
“Did you know you’ve broken your back?”, my consultant asked and then continued. “You really have 2 options; stay on the medication to manage your pain, but which will have to increase in time or to have surgery to fuse your lower spine”.
“If I don’t have the surgery what will be the prognosis?”, I asked.
“To be honest, you’ll most probably end up in a wheelchair and be on pain medication for the rest of your life”.
That came as a thunderbolt, “Okay, if I have surgery, I expect that will be a fairly small operation and most likely be key hole won’t it?” I asked hopefully.
“No, it’s a major operation, we’ll open you right up. First we’ll go through your stomach and pin your spine from the inside, then flip you over, open your back up and do the same again. You’ll also be given a bone graft. It will take about 5 hours and it will take about 2 years to recuperate fully.”
“Right”, I squeaked in reply.
“I have to tell you about the possible side effects” the consultant continued, “although they are rare, they could include; death, incontinence, impotence, paraplegia, a permanent limp, drop foot and nerve damage”.
I didn’t really have a choice I thought, I could hardly walk now, running GV was becoming impossible. I decided to go for the surgery.
The cost of mental health problems to the economy in England is estimated to be £105 billion a year.
Centre for Mental Health (2011), The Economic and Social Costs of Mental Health Problems in 2009/10.
Greenpath Ventures (GV) works with many professionals and organisations, who simply “get it!”; being outside and involved with nature is good for both your mental and physical health. Here’s some further information to confirm it! MIND Ecotherapy.
However, it’s also very sad to say, the idea of offering people with mental health issues the opportunity to undertake bushcraft is not meet with enthusiasm on all sides! When we first started out and people asked what the individuals would be doing on our bushcraft days, and I explained; “firelighting, foraging, learning to use cutting tools, archery and maybe even shooting”, quite a few professionals were very skeptical and sometimes even hostile.
Here’s an example of some of the things that were said to me:
“The activities are too dangerous for them; you can’t let mental patients use knives and fire”
“They have a history of arson, so don’t show them how to start fires”
“We (as in the clinical staff) are responsible for them, they can’t come, they may have an accident”
“We (as in the clinical staff) have to look after them and ensure they are safe”
“They self harm, so shouldn’t be shown how to use knives or axes”
“They have mental health problems, what would happen if people heard they had been shooting airguns?”
Now, I do understand some of the concerns and the reasoning behind some of these statements; I tried to explain that everything we did was under supervision and that we carried out risk assessments for every session, but sadly in the minds of some professionals, clients with mental health issues could not be trusted enough to attend our courses.
This smacks to me of sheer blatant discrimination against adults who actually have “mental capacity”!
Everyone has the right to make his or her own decisions. Health and care professionals should always assume an individual has the capacity to make a decision themselves, unless it is proved otherwise through a capacity assessment.
Individuals must be given help to make a decision themselves. This might include, for example, providing the person with information in a format that is easier for them to understand.
Just because someone makes what those caring for them consider to be an “unwise” decision, they should not be treated as lacking the capacity to make that decision. Everyone has the right to make their own life choices, where they have the capacity to do so.
The clients wanted to come, we were having fantastic feedback and the outcomes were exactly what clinicians would want. People were saying they felt responsible and trusted, it was improving their confidence & self-esteem and their mental health was improving. Regularly, people were saying our courses should be offered by the NHS as they were helping so much. How awful, that regardless of all these positives, people were often being denied the opportunity to attend because of the preconceived ideas of some health care professionals. So much for all the hyperbole of “client led services”.
This also smacks, to me, of encouraging “learnt helplessness”; when clients were on our courses professionals would continue to treat them as incapable of looking after themselves, telling them to put their jackets on because it was raining. How was this approach helping people learn to become more responsible for themselves? People were often being treated as helpless and this is itself disempowering. Very simply; we treated people like adults and they responded as adults.
Nevertheless, GV was on a role! Including going into schools we were working with over 1,000 people per year, everything was going well. We had been members of ATTEND, from our very beginning and we were invited to be a showcase project at their AGM at Westminster Palace, London.
Funders and partners were describing our charity as “visionary” and “inspirational”.
Unfortunately, I was about to get some bad news which would dramatically affect GV.
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.
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.
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.
We formally launched Greenpath Ventures as a registered charity at Essex County Hall in May 2008.
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.
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.
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:
Personally, my life was also about to change, as I discovered I was going to be a father!
“The victim to victimizer theory of sexual abuse receives repeated attention in the professional and popular literature.
It appears that in the mind of the public and unfortunately in the minds of some professionals, all offenders are victims and being a victim is a direct cause of sexual abuse.”Murphy and Smith, 1996
Child Sexual Abuse Perpetrators who report being sexually abused as children typically range from 20-30%.(Hanson & Slater, 1988; Freund, Watson & Dickey, 1990; Murphy & Smith, 1996)
Contrary to popular belief the majority of CSA Perpetrators have not been sexually abused.
“Childhood Sexual Abuse” An Evidence Based Perspective (Fergusson & Mullen, Sage 1999)
The counselling looked at every aspect of my life and it became clearer and clearer to me that my identity and the way I lived my life was as a victim. I was still living with the fear of being abused and in fear of my abuser.
I came to realise that the abuse had fundamentally distorted my development as a person; I had grown up as someone who needed to protect themselves from, rather than enjoy, the world. The abuse meant I saw people and situations firstly as potential threats, I had grown up being always hyper-vigilant and constantly on the defensive. Living this way was exhausting.
The longer the counselling went on the angrier I became, the sense of injustice and wrong that was done to me finally surfaced.
The next stage was, perhaps, the beginning of the end of the process.
I had given back the responsibility of the abuse and no longer felt shame or guilt over what had been done to me, I had accepted and now knew that what he did was abuse and was wrong, I even had the embers of self-worth. What came next was to look at loss and to grieve for what I had lost and for what might have been.
It took some time for me to gather the courage to even begin to think about what the abuse had cost me. Below are just some of the issues I needed to acknowledge and grieve over:
Loss of childhood
Loss of innocence
Loss of naivety
Loss of opportunities for happy memories
Loss of some memory
Loss of opportunity to develop a natural curiosity about the world
Loss of opportunity to enjoy the world, rather than fear it
Loss of healthy social interaction without suspicion and fear
Loss of nurturing relationship with self
Loss of innate Self-trust
Loss of innate Self-belief
Loss of innate Self-worth
Loss of opportunity to develop my sexuality naturally
Loss of relationships, including that of my father
Loss of time and energy spent on the abuse, rather than on positive things
Loss of education and improved work prospects
Loss of opportunities
This was a period of huge sadness. I cried a great deal. I grieved.
How could I get all these losses back? The simple answer; I couldn’t; I had to let them go.
I also came to the conclusion that my recovery could not be based on regaining the specifics of what I had lost, but to reclaim the essenceof them.
I could and would build my self-worth, self-trust, self-belief I could and would build better and healthier relationships for myself I could and would go back to college and educate myself I could and would make new opportunities for myself I could and would learn to enjoy the world and be less fearful.
I was moving on from being a victim of abuse to a survivor.
I began to think about life after the counselling and what I could do. Throughout my life people had seemed to trust me and I was a regular confidante for family and friends. My abuser had given the reason for abusing me as being too nice and too caring. Perhaps, I thought, I could also reclaim these qualities and use them in a positive way to help others overcome the issues they faced, I talked this through with my counsellor, who agreed.
I took the decision to start training as a therapist.
Those who have experienced serious childhood trauma such as physical, emotional or sexual abuse may have twice the rate of cancer, heart disease and chronic bronchitis than those who have not had such trauma.Dr Ron Acierno, Behavioural Medicine, 1997: 23 (2) pp53-64
Self Harm ~
79% of people who self-harmed had histories of childhood trauma.Van der Kolk et al. 1991 & Robert Anda, “Adverse Childhood Experiences”, American Journal of Preventative Medicine, 1998: 14 pp245-258
Adults who experienced childhood abuse are 12 times more likely to attempt suicide than those who did not.Vincent Fellitti
People often ask me “Didn’t your Mum and Dad know about the truancy or the drinking or drug taking?” One skill that abuse gives you is the ability to keep secrets and hide feelings; I had hidden sexual abuse from 8 years of age, hiding the drinking, drugs, truancy and mental illness was a doddle. I had even learnt how to forge letters; no one had ever picked up on the forged letters and signatures to and from school!
The drinking had begun in my mid-teens during the truancy and I had some good times; I think I must have been among the top tipsy visitors to the free museums in London and regularly visited the British, Geffrye and London. I would spend hours walking around central London and if I had chosen a career as a Black Taxi Cab Driver I would have had a head start with “The Knowledge!”
In my previous update, I told how I had tried to get help from the NHS and had been totally let down, now I sought help from another source.
My family had always been Church goers, in fact my brother, who I’m very proud of and close to, is a Minister and Team Leader in the Midlands. Surely, I thought I would get some resolution and understanding of the abuse through the church. I had myself been going regularly for several years and had a period of relative stability, I had even managed to get to college and clawed some “O” levels together. Before long, the “old demons” began playing their mind games again. This time I would seek help from the Church rather than the health service, I expected more empathy and understanding than previously experienced.
With a huge amount of fear I disclosed my abuse to a senior Minister, his angry response…”You’re making too much of it, you need to pull your socks up!”….almost word for word the same as the GP. My second attempt to a female minister, rare at that time, and her officious response; “I think you’re making excuses for your behaviour and making far too much of it”.
Again, my abusers words came back to me, “…no one will believe you, you’re making too much of it” and once again, he had been proven correct. Well, if he had abused me because I was too nice and what he had said before was true it was time to change. So I thought, out with the nice guy and trying to seek help, instead I became the archetypal angry young man; resentful, fearful and looked for refuge in drinking and drug taking.
It was shortly after this that my father was diagnosed with terminal lung cancer.
Up until the abuse I had been my father’s shadow and had been inseparable from him. One of the worst results of the abuse for me was the irreversible damage it did to my relationship with my father. It began with my utter shock and disbelief that neither my father nor mother could see what was happening and come to my rescue. Surely they were my protectors and should have known and be able to see what was happening week in, week out, when I was sent to stay with the the abuser each weekend. The second result, and perhaps worst, was when I first disclosed to my family.
One evening I crept into my older brothers bedroom and told him I had a secret and that he couldn’t tell anyone. As soon as I had finished telling him what was happening, he said he had to tell, he did exactly what I had prayed and hoped for. We went to my mother, who said we needed to tell my father. We were a traditional family and dad was the head of our household.
I was a nervous wreck, shaking and quivering, I told my dad what had happened. “Are you sure?” he asked, “You must be mistaken, ***** wouldn’t possibly do something like that”. My world collapsed, never before or since, even during the very worst of the abuse, had I felt so alone and abandoned. At that one moment my relationship with my father was changed forever and we would only really bridge that gulf on his deathbed…but, even so, I am so thankful we did.
It would take me years of therapy and also becoming a father myself to understand why my dad had responded the way he did. The abuser, had not just sexually abused me, he had abused my father’s trust, my mother and father, my family and all those who placed faith in him. I can now understand and appreciate that the last thing you want to believe and hear is that your child has been sexually abused. You would prefer to think the child had simply made a mistake, you would prefer to believe the trust you had placed in another person to take care of your child had not been cruelly abused and your own judgement of a person who claimed to be a dear friend was correctly placed.
Now the drinking and drug taking became out of control and by my early twenties I was both an alcoholic and drug addict caught up in a vicious spiral of uppers and downers. I would take speed to get me up in the morning and to the pub. The added bonus of speed meant I could drink even more – the down side, I couldn’t sleep and so needed to take other drugs to sedate me. This cycle went on and on for several years damaging both my mental and physical health. I became more paranoid, aggressive and had dramatic mood swings, I developed major kidney pain, heart palpitations and lost a huge amount of weight.
I went to the doctor who sent me for an ECG and echo-graph of my heart, the nurse asked me if I was an athlete as I had an enlarged heart muscle which was usually found in high performance athletes. In fact it was a result of taking the speed for so long and putting so much strain on my heart.
The self-harming that had begun during the actual abuse escalated dramatically during my teens. It had begun with head and face butting walls, I now punched walls and objects and broke a knuckle. At that time I also cut myself and to this day I do not sun bathe, I avoid swimming and taking my shirt off in public due to the scars I have on my stomach. I began to put myself into more and more potentially dangerous situations in attempts to self-destruct.
My drinking and drug taking was out of control and I was on a course of destruction that was clearly the result of the abuse, I had sought help numerous times and been either refused, ridiculed or dismissed as self-indulgent or attention seeking. I did not know where to turn or what to do, I had finally resigned myself to living with the guilt, the shame and self-loathing that was my life.
National Commission of Enquiry into the Prevention of Child Abuse, October 1996
One million children are abused in some way each year, 50% of those abused (now adults) never reported the abuse.
In 67% of cases the abuse started before the age of 11years.
In 50% of cases the abuse lasted 2-18 years.
Unfortunately, my own story is so, so similar to that of many other victims of child abuse.
Aged about 10 years old, photo taken by my abuser
My sexual abuse started when I was 8 years old and went on for the next 5 years. It was only disclosed to my own family and the perpetrator was never prosecuted.
My abuser, photo taken by me at Beachy Head
The person who abused me was a senior civil servant, my father’s supervisor, highly regarded in the literary world, public school educated, wealthy; a “model” of respectability.
The results of the abuse took many forms;
Education and Leaving School
I went from being in many top sets at school to almost complete truancy, many of my teachers didn’t even recognise me when I occasionally “popped in” for a look around to see what was going on. The result was I left school with one “O” level in Art and that was only because I turned up for the exam and knocked out a drawing on the day.
The ’80’s in the UK was a time of high unemployment, and with no real qualifications I simply went on the dole for the next 2 years while I battled my declining mental health.
My mental health problems started during the abuse.
The deepening anxiety meant I began to develop Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (OCD) around 9 years of age and this progressed throughout my teens and early twenties, sometimes it would take me 2-3 hours to get outside the door after checking and rechecking every door, window, gas tap and light switch numerous times. One thing that many people who do not suffer from OCD don’t appreciate is, that it is not just the physical rituals that are debilitating, you also have ruminations and mental rituals which are just as crippling; reciting number sequences or going over and over what you have done and trying to remember every sequence of a day, absolutely convinced you have done something terribly wrong or forgotten something of major importance.
The depression began when I was in my mid teens and at 16, I finally summoned enough courage to seek professional help and went to see my GP. I remember very clearly being petrified about talking about what had happened and fearing not being believed. With a dry mouth, I opened up to my doctor, who listened for about a minute and then told me;
“Pull your socks up and get on with your life, all this happened to you in your childhood and you should be over it by now”.
At that moment everything the abuser had told me came true. He had said that no one would listen or believe me and that I was making too much of it. If he was right about that, then logic told me he was right about all the rest; I had deserved the abuse and it was my fault. The reason my abuser gave me for the abuse was that I was “too nice”, “too innocent” and “too trusting”, he had done it for my own good, to help me become more worldly.
The depression continued to worsen and at 18 I was put under a psychiatrist for depression and anxiety. This professional was supposed to be very good and highly competent, she asked me was there anything I needed to tell her, I explained about the abuse in a very quick and off hand way.
She asked me, “Do you think it has affected you?” “No” I replied, testing her to see if she would challenge me and not allow me to get away with it. “Then just forget about it” was her response.
Shortly after I took an overdose.
When she came to see me in hospital, she was very surprised, “What are you doing here, I thought you were doing really well”, she said. I stopped seeing her soon after and found an alternative way to deal with the effects of the abuse.
The next blog, will look at my drinking and drug addiction.