I moved to the Jesus Fellowship Church with my siblings when my parents joined in the 70s. I was around 3 years old. I was a naturally shy child and being uprooted from my secure home and thrust into a lively and loud church obviously caused some distress and insecurities. However this was compounded by having all of my personal belongings such as toys taken from me. I have very few memories from before my family joined the church and one of my first very clear memories is having my comfort blanket taken off me. In addition my parents went from parenting me and my siblings to having more and more responsibilities for others in the church and so the reassurance and comfort which would naturally ensure a young child coped with such a lifestyle change was not forthcoming.
I also had to cope with 4 house moves and 3 different primary schools in quick succession over a couple of years as my parents were moved from house to house to ‘fulfil their ministry’ and ‘help build the church’. I remember feeling constantly terrified, stressed, anxious, and even depressed. There was never an explanation as to why we had moved, why we kept moving, why I had lost my parents, why I had to live with other people, why I had lost everything. Any bond and attachment to my parents was broken. I found out years later from my parents that I cried and sobbed all the way to school every single day for most of my primary schooling; my mother tells me I was inconsolable and would cling to her hysterically.
I remember a deep underlying feeling of immense sadness from such a young age which I was never able to understand or equate to a particular incident. I have a very vivid memory of praying one night that I would die in my sleep as I felt so unhappy and didn’t want to live like that. I was 6 years old. I always had an underlying sense that something was very wrong, but as a young child I couldn’t work out what or why. I never prayed again and I never had a faith as I believed that if there was a god he wasn’t worth knowing or believing in if it made you so unhappy.
As a child I was exposed to risky adults most days. The church was so intent on helping and saving the poor and vulnerable that no thought was given to the most vulnerable who they were duty-bound to protect; the children who were born into the church or brought by parents through no choice of their own. I had to share a bedroom with mentally ill and unstable adults; many a night I would wake to find someone walking around the bedroom or standing over me shouting. I was threatened with a gun around the age of 12, and left in a room with a crazed man who a few days later brutally killed a family. At the time my friend and I told an adult there was something wrong with this man; no one took any notice. My sleep suffered as a result of never knowing what would happen next. I lived in a constant state of high alert, never able to rest or relax.
School, which should have been a safe place, became yet another trauma as we were told to embrace and face persecution. Bullying was common place, compounded by being forced to miss school trips, dress differently, being taken out of school when anything remotely fun took place such as around Christmas or the last week of term. Additionally there was rarely time to complete homework, nor was this encouraged or supported. There was no time, support or provision for progression of natural talents and abilities. This instilled feelings of never being good at anything and having no pride or sense of achievement. The isolation and bullying which took place at school ensured there was no chance of confiding in teachers or ‘outsiders’ and at that time the robust safeguarding reporting procedures that now exist were not in place. I remember one teacher being very concerned about my welfare and often asking me if everything was ok and trying to find out why I always looked so tired and sad.
An older teenage boy began to sexually abuse me around the age of 12. I was terrified but had no one to tell or confide in; I instinctively knew I would not be believed as I was a child, a female, unseen, unheard, a nobody. I began to think this abuse was normal behaviour, maybe it happened to all children. Shortly after this abuse began another teenage boy became aware of what was happening and took advantage of this by assaulting and abusing me with the threat of “if you don’t do what I want I will tell everyone what you’re doing with the other boy”. He was particularly violent at times, often pinning me down and ripping my clothes when I fought against him. And so began a ritual of weekly, sometimes daily abuse. I dreaded going to school where I was bullied, I dreaded coming home to face more abuse.
Not long after, a senior leader also began to show interest in me. He was always there, watching me, touching me, on his own with me. He seemed to follow me around from house to house taking a special interest in my ‘welfare’. This abuse continued for a number of years until I left the church.
I moved into a different house from my parents when I was a teenager. Looking back this was very wrong but as a result of having no relationship or bond with them it was seen as quite normal to want to move away from them. They knew nothing about me or what I had experienced; they were totally brainwashed and controlled by those holding all the power. For many years I blamed them for not stepping in, not protecting me. However I now see that they too were victims of a controlling environment and at the time thought they were doing what was right.
I started to see someone romantically who was also a member of the church. Although this was a natural, normal and legal friendship and romance this was forbidden and many times we were both humiliated in front of others as a form of punishment. The leaders went to great lengths to ensure we were not able to see each other including moving him to other houses and moving my parents and our family from their home. This friendship I believe saved me as although I never told him at the time what I had been through (abuse from the leader was still ongoing), he just seemed to get that something was very wrong. We used to meet up when we could and just spend hours and hours talking. It was the first time I had ever really talked to anyone in depth about anything. The first time I had truly felt care and love from someone.
One time we met up during an evening; I arrived back at the house late and was caught by a leader and his wife. They challenged me and so began the usual accusations, discipline and retributions. During this encounter something happened, something changed and somehow they became aware of or had the insight to look into the reasons behind my behaviour. I don’t remember exactly how it happened but they asked me directly if I had been abused. I nodded and told them the names of the two boys. They went on and asked if there were others. I froze as this person, the leader, was well known to them and he continued to visit the house where I now lived. I was unable to say his name but they knew as they asked me directly if it was him. Why? Had he done it before? If they knew why was he allowed to remain a leader? Why was he allowed to be near children? I remember them both sobbing with me. I felt a sense of relief, if they were this upset and distraught it must mean something will happen, something will change, maybe now I could begin to find some peace, begin to heal. However nothing changed. My parents were never told. I don’t remember the subject being discussed again and as far as I know the leader was never challenged; if he was I am unsure what the result was as he continued to be a leader, continued to visit the house where I lived.
I left as soon as I could after this; luckily I had recently found a job outside of the church which meant I could support myself although I could only afford a tiny room in a shared house. I left with nothing but I was free.
I look back now and am immensely proud of what I have become, what I have achieved. I have a good job as well as my own business. I went to University and achieved two degrees. This came 20 years later than it should have. My chosen career path was rejected by the church at the age of 16 as it was not deemed suitable for a girl/woman. This meant that I had to retake GCSEs before I could even consider applying for further education and University. I was the oldest in all of my college and university classes; I made up stories as to why I had left it so late.
My potential earnings and career advancement are obviously seriously impacted by missing out on so many years. However I can truly say that I am happy, I am successful, I have a good life. I now work to protect the vulnerable in society, particularly children. I will never walk on by without speaking out; nothing is more important than protecting the innocent.
My family are unaware of most of the traumas I experienced and I feel immensely lucky that I have been able to build a relationship with my parents. I will never get back the years that were stolen from us but we are making what we have now count to the best of our ability.
This however doesn’t make any of what I experienced less relevant. I am still unable to sleep well, I struggle to be with other people, I get very anxious, and I hate any conflict. Raised voices, arguments, even normal calm disagreements cause a very real physical reaction in me due to the exposure I had as a child to unstable mentally ill adults and the aggressive assaults I experienced. As a result my health has suffered; I continue to be on high alert all of the time. I cannot cope with people coming into my home, I jump when the phone rings, I still often feel unsafe.
Being a parent brought fresh anguish as how do you love and care for a child when you have no experience to base it on? I swing between being too controlling to having no control whatsoever. I never feel I am good enough. I use laughter and sarcasm to cover my pain and experiences. I have never ventured down the counselling route as I am too scared as to what may be uncovered. For sure I have some sort of post traumatic stress disorder but I’m not looking for a diagnosis, I feel I can cope, I can manage most of the time.
No one in my life now knows anything of my past. Some would say this is unhealthy, but this is how I survive. My abuse does not define me. I am resilient, I am not a victim, I am a fearless warrior, I am strong, I am brave, I am courage, I am the ultimate survivor. My story is silent no more.
For those saying “get over it”, “stop blaming others for your problems”, I urge you to listen to our stories. You won’t ever fully understand what we went through but you can start by really truly listening to our experiences. Do not attach your own agenda. Don’t blame survivors for surviving. We deserve respect, compassion and recovery. If you blame the victim then you stand for the perpetrator.