Lockdown through the eyes of Havant sexual abuse survivor
Lockdown has been tough for all of us, but undeniably so for survivors of abuse. For many survivors, the introduction of face masks and restriction of social freedoms has triggered memories which they desperately want to forget.
Most of us are blissfully ignorant of all this. However, for Pauline Sharp, of Havant it’s a very real battle she fights every day. She says: ‘If you see me walking down the road, I could be Joe Bloggs going about my own business and in the main, that is the case.
‘However, I would like to open eyes to how it is for someone who has survived a childhood of abuse and how lockdown has impacted my mental health with CPTSD (Complex PTSD).’
And Pauline’s passion for photography has opened her eyes to a world without anxiety and worry in the past year. This hobby has acted as a coping mechanism during lockdown.
Pauline, 58, was abused by her parents and others from the age of three. ‘I was ritually abused, so I would be taken somewhere called the chamber. There would be chanting. It would be like a ceremony,’ she explains. ‘I grew up in Stubbington in an ordinary house on an ordinary street. Nobody would have suspected a thing. That’s the case for a lot of survivors – nobody really knows what goes on, especially during these lockdowns too.
‘It was mainly my father but my mother was complicit and knew what was going on.’
Pauline says she was ‘indoctrinated’, told by her abusers that she was at fault and was there to serve them. ‘They said that if I told anyone what was happening, people close to me would die,’ she says. ‘When that happens in your life, you live in fear. I’ve lived like that all of my life and still do sometimes because of what was put in my mind.’
At 22, Pauline escaped her parents for an au pair job in Canada. However she sought comfort in food, often binge-eating, and self-harm. ‘I hid behind my fat body and used food to hide the pain,’ says Pauline. ‘I started binge eating when I came back from Canada but I reached my heaviest, of 24 stone, in 2016. It got to a point where I needed to start respecting my body. Survivors struggle with self-care because they think they’re worthless.’
When Pauline returned from Canada, she moved to Southsea and began getting her life together. ‘Those memories never go but I lead the best life I can. I like to show that you can survive through adversity,’ says Pauline. ‘I started working in a factory and met some friends. They taught me how to swear, how to socialise, how to act in a friendship group – I had never had that before.
‘They brought me out of myself. I missed out on a lot of things as a teenager and I grieve for those missed opportunities.’
It was through a mutual friend that Pauline met her husband, Christopher Sharp. It was love at first sight and Pauline remembers the night vividly. She says: ‘We went out on a blind date at the Churchillian pub on Portsdown Hill, on January 9, 1991. I knew as soon as I saw him I was going to marry him. We were engaged six months later and got married in 1992. He is my support system.’
The couple had their son in 1994. Pauline calls him her ‘miracle boy’ because she never thought she would be able to conceive after the abuse. ‘I lost my daughter when I was 14. She was conceived through abuse. I had a memorial service for her in November 2019 and it’s only recently that I can discuss what happened to me,’ explains Pauline.
Pauline had two breakdowns, one in 2007 and another in 2009. Until this point she had not told anyone apart from her husband about the abuse.
She recalls her first breakdown happened at work and she had returned from a holiday in Egypt the month before. ‘In Egypt, there were a lot of people, men especially, dressed in robes and I found that triggering.
‘When I broke down at work a week later, I spent the next seven weeks in hospital. In 2009, I broke down again and it was more serious. I was in hospital for 10 weeks and came out a few days before Christmas.’
After the second breakdown, Pauline eventually got the right therapy and help she needed. It was a turning point in her life. She explains: ‘In 2009, I really opened up to therapists and my husband about what happened to me. I felt like a weight had been lifted but I also felt vulnerable. I felt hyper-vigilant, on-guard and I was always looking over my shoulder.’
Since then, Pauline has dedicated a lot of her time to helping other survivors and charities. In 2018, she trekked across parts of the Great Wall of China for charity Survivors of Abuse, where she is also an ambassador.
Pauline had the opportunity to be involved in The Truth Project, an independent inquiry into child sexual abuse. The information she gave was used in the government’s Operation Hydrant – a coordination hub established in June 2014 to deliver the national policing response, oversight and coordination of non-recent child sexual abuse investigations. She says: ‘People can still come forward and share their experience with the Truth Project until October 2021. For me, I have told my truth, I know my truth. I do everything in my power to help others.’
Pauline set up her website, Take Cover, in March 2020 for survivors of abuse. She explains: ‘I hope the website enables people to take cover, take a breath and find resources or be signposted to help.
‘I hope to start doing some more work out in the community and set up a peer-to-peer support group in Bedhampton. I want to build a community that empowers survivors and enables them to speak freely. I want it to be a safe space they can come to during recovery.’
Lockdown has been triggering for Pauline, but she has coped through photography. She explains: ‘Wearing a mask for me is a trigger but I wear one because I don’t want to be questioned and explain myself. Working from home is isolating and you suddenly couldn’t be around other people.
‘The rules are there but they are also restricting your freedom and your control is being taken away. You have no control or power. This is something that’s taken away from you again and again. This is how I felt during the abuse.
‘You spend more time with your thoughts with no distractions. I hadn’t seen my son for months.’
Armed with her camera, being outside and snapping pictures of wildlife has relieved Pauline’s anxiety. ‘I love my camera – it’s with me all the time and it’s like my best friend. I also enjoy sharing them because it takes your mind to a different place. Being mindful is one of my coping strategies.’
Moving forward, Pauline is educating herself to be more trauma-informed. She explains: ‘I’m learning all the time and am currently doing a course with the charity Mind. I am the mental health support for my department at work. My mantra now is I am the me I am meant to be. There’s always hope.’
:: For more information, go to take-cover.org.