woman at summit

Overcoming abuse, and how people can represent safe space

A personal perspective on why safe spaces matter, written by an overcomer and VOICES supporter. Trigger warning: this account contains details of upsetting experiences and abusive behaviours.

woman at summit

Overcoming abuse, and how people can represent safe space

A personal perspective on why safe spaces matter, written by an overcomer and VOICES supporter. Trigger warning: this account contains details of upsetting experiences and abusive behaviours.

Like many little girls, I worshipped my father. My early years, in a succession of RAF Married quarters, often in exotic locations, were pretty nearly idyllic & my dad was the charismatic centre of attention, an RAF Officer with the sort of active affectionate engagement with his 6 children that was almost unheard of in the late 1950s.

Imagine, then, how I felt as I grew older & I recognised that his love, which I treasured so much, could evaporate in a heartbeat. How could this person at the centre of my childhood universe, the architect of gorgeous made-up bedtime stories, the singer of songs, the man whose feet I balanced on as we polkaed joyfully around the kitchen & instigator of oh so many childhood adventures, suddenly erupt like a volcano & lash out. What he retrospectively described as necessary punishments were in reality just displays of white-hot rage.

I can remember “freezing” when I heard that warning note in his voice – I no longer felt safe. His was a brutal temper & one of my greatest sources of pain in my childhood, as much emotionally as physically. You could be daddy’s girl one minute & flying across the room on the end of his fist the next. I felt utter confusion around who this ’other’ father was, something that dogged our relationship all his life. The violence didn’t happen every day, or even every week, but during lengthy periods of relative tranquillity, there remained my dread that his demons weren’t far away. I never felt safe.

My father had a military mindset that informed every aspect of his life & he ruled us with what today would be recognised as coercive control. In retrospect I think he was less volatile in our early years because we were all collectively in his thrall & very biddable, never questioning his authority. But as we grew & that changed, so did he. I think he saw the instilling of fear as a means of restoring control & order, but what he actually created, at least for me, was constant tension & anxiety.

He, unwittingly I now think, created an environment where it was OK for my brothers to terrorise me for their own entertainment & they did. In the early years, there were what my mother called “no real harm done” episodes, like pegging my only doll on the clothesline & decapitating it with the garden shears, or mutilating my lovely lacy bedspread, handmade for me by my grandmother. In later years they graduated to using my head as a toilet cleaner or joyfully capturing hornets & manhandling me to sit on them.

There were multiple situations when they would take or destroy my stuff. Wellingtons were filled with worms or dead animals, but their favourite trick was terrorising me with scaly creatures or hiding them in my bed. I once found a live grass snake curled around the stone hot water bottle that had clearly been there all night. 50 years plus later I am still plagued by ‘snake’ nightmares, with my husband patiently combing our bed for snakes, worms & entrails until my hysteria abates.

Yet my father described all this as “horse play” or “teasing” & said I needed to do more to stand up for myself. Once in a storm, they trapped me in a cow shed when the farmer brought the cows in for shelter & I was in genuine fear of being trampled to death. My pleas for help where ignored & afterwards I was told to “kiss and make up” with my brothers. It meant that while there were undeniable long periods of happy stability, I was on edge for much of my primary school age childhood. And the lack of compassion & the indifference shown by my mother to my childhood self probably did as much harm as all their antics put together.

Once I reached puberty the physical punishment largely stopped, to be replaced by a drip, drip, drip of emotional abuse. My father strictly controlled the teenage social life I might have had, criticised my appearance & my friends. He mocked my academic struggles at the frankly third-rate military school on the base. As each of my brothers reached 13, they went off to Boarding school but even though I begged to become a Boarder too he would not countenance it, even though the RAF would pay.

In his view I was “a seed pod”, destined to be a mother & therefore a proper education was unnecessary. I would never amount to anything & would learn all I needed by staying at home with my mother & much younger brother. If you are told often enough how useless you are that is how you start to feel. We came back from a 3-year tour in Cyprus when I was 17 & to finish the same A level course, which was not available in Wales, where my father was posted, I went to live with my mother’s sister-in-law Pam. It was like stepping into a warm bath after a lifetime of cold showers. I had found my first Safe Space.

Pam had an absent husband, but she had two teenage sons at home. Still, no one took or spoiled my stuff, no one hurt or humiliated me. We’d always had a good relationship, with me spending much of the summer holidays with her when we were in England & us doing a lot of fun domestic things my own mother had no interest in – elaborate cake making & copying clothes designs from teen magazines & making them, the latter with some hilariously variable results.

But with my family abroad so much of the time there had been limited opportunity for us to grow really close. That quickly changed when I moved in. She shared her own problems with me, treating me for the very first time as a person whose views & opinions mattered. And she listened to me as I poured my insecurities out, always believing me & never judging. She taught me that it was possible to prove my father wrong by actually revising instead of moping & I did. She also helped me get a Saturday job, so I had savings & could consider living independently.

She also quickly recognised the insecurity that lay underneath my carefully crafted & honed ‘sunny’ persona – designed to protect myself. Growing up in this domineering household I constantly tried to please & placate my father because as long as he was laughing & smiling, I was relatively safe & it had become my default, even though inside I so often felt crushed. Slowly but surely, she encouraged me to believe in myself. I felt safe. I began to let my guard down and recognised I didn’t have to live within the limitations laid down for me.

Her support did not end there. After I had left home (see Postscript) she always made time for me, even though her own life was increasingly problematic. She was the one I turned to when things were going wrong, when I needed to talk things out and when I needed advice and support. As my career flourished, she recognised my new ‘I’m now in charge’ persona as my necessary protection against any more hurt & always saw through it to the still struggling child within & provided the emotional support that child needed.

She made my friends her friends despite a 20-year age difference. She also supported my choice of life partner in the face of fierce opposition from my father, recognising that he would (as he has now done for the last 50 years) provide a much-needed permanent Safe Space for me. And she helped me gingerly reconcile with my father, not least because he was terminally ill & despite everything, I still loved him dearly. She knew him leaving this life without us doing so would damage us both. And eventually she gave the same support & love to my own children that she had given to me.

So, that’s my Safe Space story. I was lucky enough to set out on my independent life in an era where state & charitable support was available much more readily than it is today. So, I did not spend too long sleeping in a Bristol telephone box or woman’s hostel or on strangers’ sofas. With the benefit of 50 years’ of hindsight, I know without Pam I would likely have taken a very different & darker path & I would not have thought I was worth anything better. Having an actual person believe me & believe in me gave me the courage to take the first steps away from an abuse setting on my own.

Why does any of this story matter? While these things were a long time ago, I hope it illustrates that sometimes it can only take one or two people providing that Safe Space to turn your life around. Finding somewhere (or someone) where you are free of criticism, judgement, harassment or other emotional or physical harm can help gain confidence that there is a way out.

Postscript

I briefly returned home once my exams were over, with enough confidence & resolution to leave my family home for good. On the afternoon I finally plucked up the courage to flee, my father discovered me hastily packing a rucksack. He hurled not just the contents but me across a room with enough force to collapse the sturdy iron framed RAF issue bunk bed on the other side of the room. One of my brothers was downstairs revising & watched incredulously through the kitchen hatch as my mother, seemingly unperturbed by the din of the bed collapsing & the accompanying resounding screams, simply carried on offering tea to the visiting Station Commander’s wife.

I eventually dodged my father for long enough to pick up my bag & flee. As I ran down the road my father followed me out. He screamed after me “You will never amount to anything, you are an idiot, you can’t look after yourself, you couldn’t even get yourself work on the “Woolworth’s Pick & Mix” counter because you can’t add up. You’ll be back!”

He was so wrong on all counts.

Quotation marks

This service has saved my mental health and has provided a safe service whilst helping with coping mechanisms for the future.

- Lena

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