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My first meeting with my counsellor I had strong mixed emotions. I desperately wanted to find some inner peace, I wanted things to be different. I was exhausted with life. If I am honest though, I didn’t hold any faith at all that 18 hours over a period of time could, or would, make a difference.  I was scared of being honest about my true mental state and cautious of opening up floodgates that I had held for 20-25 years. I was not sure I could cope. There was simply too much that had been bottled up over such a long time.

I had been gang raped at the age of 15 by 6 men who finished the barbaric attack on me with some vicious violence and then left me unconscious. I recall being petrified. I recall the urgent surgery to stop the bleeding, I felt raped again medically.  I was so scared when I came round fully in hospital about the trouble I was in.  I ran away from hospital in a terrible state vowing it would be my secret.  I was a child and I couldn’t cope with the trauma or the physical injuries or mental torture inflicted on me. Not long later, I became anorexic and started self-harming as a result. I planned to die. As soon as I could, I left home and put myself into multiple dangerous situations with no self-respect. Prior to leaving home a man who was giving me comfort took my liking to be held as an invitation of sex with him and his best friend. I didn’t say no though the pain was unimaginable. I was worthless and going to die, so what did it matter? Leaving home my need for a hug and vulnerability meant I fell into what I now understand to be sexual grooming with an older man and I allowed myself to be violated beyond comprehension over a period of a year by tens of men older than my father who forced me into physical sexual activities that were deeply disturbed and unimaginably degrading. As if this was not awful enough my brokenness seemed to attract more of the same, everywhere I went, and I used sex to communicate or to just get the physical closeness I craved. By 20 I had become so broken, so full of shame, so isolated and so confused that it was touch and go what the outcome of my life would be. There had been failed suicide attempts possibly because I had such strong survival ingrained into me from the night my childhood was stolen.

Aged 21, I met my soul mate and fell in love with a man that became my husband and is still with me today. However back then I realised I had no social skills, no relationship skills and little self-confidence and no self-esteem. As a drama student I realised I needed to become a character so I developed a persona in order to live. I felt so long as I was “playing a part” I could get through life. Gradually, over time, there was nothing of me left, just a persona, a shell. I was growing in age, but trapped emotionally as a 15-18 year old. Emotionally stuck and unable to process further my eating disorders ranged from anorexia to overeating to habitual non- binging bulimia as my control and release. My window of tolerance was so narrow and emotionally I would be frozen and unable to react or I would over react in a sensational attention seeking drama centred way at all cost. Relationships with peers collapsed quickly (if they ever even started) or entered what I now understand to be a drama triangle of high, all-encompassing emotion which left me feeling rejected and traumatized.

Fast forward 20 years and all the performing to keep a persona had driven me to new levels of exhaustion. Still haunted by daily flashbacks of the abuse I couldn’t let my mind calm. I couldn’t sleep for longer than 4 hours at a time. If I stopped for any significant time I would experience such severe flashbacks and panic attacks that I sometimes ended up in A&E. My other A&E experiences were from internal bleeding from Mallory Weiss tears as my weakened oesophagus couldn’t cope with the bulimic episodes.  I had tried eating disorder therapy but I knew my issues went much deeper and until these were resolved I didn’t have a chance of recovery. It was becoming scary as my electrolyte balance was frequently out, leading to even more severe panic attacks and strong heart palpitations. I stopped going to A&E and would hide during them. I was convinced bulimia would kill me, which as a mum and wife in a happy relationship was a devastating reality.  I had so much to live for but I could never be present and alive… I felt like a dead woman walking. I was getting through day by day, but not truly living. All this was hidden from anyone’s eye though, as my persona battled on.

Aged 41 I found faith in Jesus …or maybe He found me. I tried to go to bible study in a home group; people who cared, realised something was wrong. I confided in one person who could see the past trauma had never been dealt with and was affecting every fibre of my being. This led me to a charity (B@ttitude) that put me in touch with a therapist from Life centre. I felt ready, but sceptical. I was scared the counsellor may cross boundaries leaving me in a worse state (this had happened with my GP the only other person I confided in with heart-breaking consequences) and I felt it would take me a long time to be able to trust someone at all.  I was also scared that if I revealed how broken I was she would go to my GP, that they may call social services and I would lose my child. I wanted the opportunity to release, to get better so badly, I knew I had to have faith. I had read on the Lifecentre website the cartoon by Nina Burrows – it explained me to a “T” and for the first time I acknowledged that this was how I felt. It made sense. I felt confident I was going to be looked after by Lifecentre because it was clear they understood how I felt, so maybe they would understand me.

I need not have worried so much. The counsellor was so calm and so kind. The first session she asked me to draw a timeline of all significant events in my life, which was powerful and emotional.  I started to relax in her presence.

I could talk about problems in childhood and we spent a few sessions exploring emotions of how I felt after the initial rape and why I had to keep it secret. It felt safe to talk about this, but it took time for me to be able to open up more. She reassured me that I didn’t have to talk through the timeline in an order, that it was simply a framework.

Taking the feeling of having to talk about the abuse off the agenda for a while was needed as it was too hard at first. About a third of the way through I wanted to quit counselling as we were unravelling deep emotion and I was not coping well in the week between appointments. The flashbacks became severe and I needed to talk about things but I couldn’t, I didn’t have the words. I told the counsellor this and she gave me coping tools to keep me safe. She taught me some breathing exercises and mental imagery to apply before getting into a panic attack.  It sounds mad to anyone not unravelling years of abuse, but I was starting to feel emotion again and that over spilt into feeling everything. Eventually I was able to explain about the sexual attacks by writing down some verse which I could read to her, I was then able bit by bit to share more. I explained my sex life was non existent due to the intense pain unless I was utterly drunk. So much so that I lied to my husband when trying to conceive so we went through IVF which was marginally less traumatic than having to have sex.

For me, the most important thing my counsellor could do was to keep assuring me was that there was no physical contact, that it was confidential, and that under no circumstances would any boundaries be crossed. At times my pain in talking was so hard, I desperately wanted a hug, or for her to at least hold my hand. The worst thing she could have done would have been to do this. Instead I am deeply thankful to her for teaching me ways to self soothe, to care about myself, to love myself and to remove the need for that emotion by processing how I felt differently. Instead of meeting a physical in the moment need, she equipped me with tools for life. Instead of me becoming dependent on her (or anyone) to satisfy that need, she taught me how to do it myself and to take control back. It’s something I am incredibly grateful for.

By the time I got to week 12 I had already changed in my behaviour, thought process and how I felt towards myself beyond recognition. Still learning to deal with things, still repackaging, still hurting, but it was like I was being reborn. I could be myself, the persona slowly disintegrating and it was like waking up and every day being new. Life was exciting and I felt authentic and real. I was weaning more away from the bulimia from week 6 and by week 14 I had been free for 2 months. It was around this time I started to feel a personal breakthrough.

Dropping the sessions to fortnightly was so right, I could pull away from the weekly dependency I had started to have, and was in danger of forming attachment to my counsellor. This was also a fear and being able to talk about it openly, to be able to process the feelings and understand them made me feel safe and normal. Now after my final session I know precisely how far I have come.

I had been too embarrassed to share some physical issues with her before my last but one session, but in that I was able to share I was finally seeing a gynaecologist to deal with the huge internal scarring that was as a result of the gang rape. I had managed to see my GP some weeks before and face internal examinations that I hadn’t been able to do previously effectively.  It dawned on me this was real progress, and I had done so well to get this far.

What seemed impossible had been possible. I was free finally from all the self-hatred self-flagellation, I was free from shame and anxiety. I was me, I could look at myself and see me for a beautiful and intelligent person. I thought the whole caterpillar into butterfly thing that Lifecentre uses in its logo was a bit corny, but now I see that is exactly how I feel. I have been reborn, and life is brilliant.

I am so grateful to my counsellor at Lifecentre who has given me a safe place to let go of trauma, a safe platform to talk about my emotions and a place in which I could find out who I was.  It’s not been an easy process, it’s been tough and hard, but these 18 hours have been the most life transforming, the most importantly significant in my life. My counsellor gave me space and time, she supported me, she helped me unravel the mess and helped me repackage it back together. She has been amazing.

I can now accept what happened to me because I have processed it differently. I feel a huge amount of compassion and love for the teen that was abused, and I don’t berate her any longer, I accept her and love her and admire her for coming so far in life.

In my last session my counsellor showed me my ‘Goals’ form that I completed in my first session. I read what I had written as a goal – “To remove what is unacceptable within me”. I was shook to the core. How had I been in such a state that I could write that about myself.  WOW. Deep long intake of breath as I saw that I had entered this process exhausted, tired of life, ashamed and not coping – and look at me now! Fully alive and awake living in the present, valuing myself and not just liking, but loving myself. I care about myself and am happy in my own skin. Happy to be alive again. My soul reborn.

I don’t know if I will need Lifecentre again.  I am aware that there are things that may still come up in time, and I am aware there are some things I’ve not talked through because of the timing not being right or it being insignificant at the time. However I have made such monumental progress I feel its right to end for now, safe in the knowledge the door is always open if needs be. I am about to undergo surgery to fix some issues preventing me from having a sexually fulfilling relationship and after that I feel confident to take my journey to the next level by getting some Psychosexual therapy to look at how I am now – the past fears fully behind me.

To say thank you seems impossible. My counsellor empowered me and gave me the tools to change myself, and that is the greatest gift another human can give. If you are reading this, I hope it gives you the courage to call Lifecentre. I pray that if you can relate to how I felt, or the experiences I shared, you will get the help you so rightly deserve.  I pray that fellow men and women that may feel like a broken spirit come to know that emotional and physical healing is possible, and finally I pray that you, like me, can find through therapy a peace that enables you to claim back who you really are so the rest of your life can be lived in freedom from your past.

Thank you Lifecentre for empowering me to reclaim my future.