"Trying to make sense of it all ..."

This article by Matt Carey is a salutary reminder of the close links between adverse childhood experiences and addiction.

When I was eight years old, I was targeted by a group of predatory paedophiles who subjected me to eighteen months of horrific sexual abuse. Like almost all survivors, I was too ashamed and scared to tell anyone what had happened...not my parents, friends or family.

Where I am today

My life has been one of extremes, since suffering the trauma of regular sexual abuse in public toilets at the age of eight, and leading on to teenage alcoholism, ‘sexual anorexia’ and living with complex post-traumatic stress disorder. And now? I have been blessed with over 25 years of recovery from addiction, a successful, fulfilling career and, for the most part, a sense of peace and purpose in my life. Far beyond the material success I have achieved, the most important realisation is that I know I am being intuitively guided on a journey of spiritual awakening which is hugely rewarding and profoundly healing. I have become aware of a beautiful presence deep within me, which is a source of immense strength and love. It has, at times, been a long, tough journey to get here 'though…

I felt broken, but couldn’t remember why

For most of my adult life, other than a few vague, fleeting memories I could not remember anything that happened to me before I was twelve years old. I would look through the family album and see myself on holiday or at a family reunion, but have no conscious knowledge of being there or of what happened. As soon as the abuse had finished, I buried the horrific memories so deep inside me I could barely remember anything that had happened – until, aged 12, I reached puberty which triggered off relentless and savage memory flashbacks to the abuse. I immediately became aware of a deep, visceral feeling of horror inside of me, which was so overwhelming it was soon crippling my life. Almost overnight I felt dirty, ashamed and disgusted with myself but didn’t have enough visual memory to understand exactly why. On the surface everything looked and felt fine; I could flick a switch in my mind and ‘act’ so no one knew what was going on beneath. But I had begun to feel threatened by the physical presence of certain men, scared of being attacked, even at times with men I knew and had no reason to question or distrust; I often had an overwhelming feeling that something dreadful would be about to happen. I began to withdraw within myself; I became very anxious, depressed and often paranoid about other people’s intentions.

Negative coping strategies 

I had my first drink of alcohol when I was 8 years old (the same age when the abuse started) and I loved it. Whilst I hated the taste, the effect throughout my body was sensational. It felt like a chemical reaction was surging through me, and I felt alive in a way that I never had before. I adored the explosive effect throughout every cell of my body; like a firework display inside - I wanted to feel that sense of power again and again. These feelings of euphoria didn’t last and by my late teens I was a desperate alcoholic. Getting drunk was the only way to drown the horrific feelings and savage, obsessive thoughts, and I would do anything to get hold of enough alcohol to reach the oblivion I now craved. I started getting the delirium tremens (DTs) most nights, imagining snakes at the bottom of the bed coming up and attacking me, which brought on horrendous palpitations. The self-harming became worse; in my insanity I would head-butt the bedroom walls on occasion to try to knock myself out. I hit rock bottom aged 20 years and, with horrendous fear and trepidation, attended a meeting of Alcoholics Anonymous.

The gift of desperation

This was the turning point in my life, although I didn’t know it at the time. With the support of AA, I haven’t had an alcoholic drink since 1st March 1993. AA has offered me so much more than physical sobriety. It has become the spiritual foundation to my life and created the opportunity to explore a variety of healing pathways which have included:

• conventional trauma therapies for PTSD in the UK;

• to Spain where I enjoyed an exhilarating month long pilgrimage along the 500-mile Camino to Santiago de Compostela;

• to Brazil where I experienced profound healing on a meditation retreat;

• and on numerous visits to India where I studied spiritual philosophy, meditated in ashrams, and trekked the Himalayas.

My journey of healing started as soon as I stopped drinking and accepted I needed help. I was diagnosed with PTSD aged 20 years and, until I was 43 years old, the PTSD effectively served as a powerful anaesthetic in the sense that I had so few memories of anything before the abuse took place. The happy, joyful memories of me as a young, playful and shy small boy didn’t come back to me until I was in my early 40s. Such was the long-term, crippling effect of the abuse on my memory, it sometimes felt as if the abuse was ALL that had ever happened to me before the age of twelve.

Asking for help

The conscious decision to ‘go back in’ and re-live the memories takes enormous courage for a survivor. Life feels so savage and overtly threatening when one goes back in. I can now accept it is an ongoing journey of healing and I have come to a place of acceptance within myself and feel much more peaceful. I can see how my healing was held back by:

• my inability to cry about the abuse

• the shame I felt about my active involvement during the abuse

• the aggressiveness of the PTSD flashbacks which did not lessen in their intensity for many years

• the fact I couldn't remember the most traumatic events until five years ago

• the fear, shame and confusion which limited my desire to talk openly with my family

For years I would not allow myself to cry. I feared once I opened up the floodgates I would be overwhelmed by the force of the suppressed energy within me, and become a nervous wreck. The idea of the emptiness inside of me after the tears, of feeling ‘weak and vulnerable’, really scared me, yet to hold on would keep me in so much pain for much longer.

Healing is (thankfully) never over.

We must be open to receive it. There has been plenty of healing over the years and the effects of the abuse have greatly diminished. There are times, though, when I am triggered and feel traumatised. This is the challenge of living with complex PTSD - the survivor often re-lives the abuse (you are there, it is happening in real time around you), rather than remembering it on a screen in your mind. The most important things I've needed to do in order to heal is to;

• Accept that what happened actually happened, in the context of not denying any of the painful memories or running away from them.

• ‘Forgive’ the paedophiles so I can focus all my energy to healing the eight year old boy.

• Let go of the shame and sense of being responsible for what happened to me.

• Allow the abused eight year old boy within me to have a voice, and to be heard.

• Reclaim the happy memories of my childhood and create a context for the abuse.

• Allow those who love me to hear my story so that I can feel their love, and heal more deeply.

It has taken me many years to come to a place of forgiveness, which is a word that I think is typically misunderstood. I have forgiven the paedophiles who abused me, so I can heal; but I don't think it changes their spiritual destiny one iota. Forgiveness sets me free, not them.

It has allowed me to start healing, as I no longer focus my anger and rage on them; I no longer seek or live out some fantasy of hunting them down and executing them, as I had for many years. I came to realise that so long as I focussed the rage onto them, it would continue to destroy me. It was wasted energy; it had no effect on them whatsoever, and I remained locked in the pain. It helped me to recognise I was ignoring the needs of the traumatised boy whose voice desperately needed to be heard.

Putting pen to paper

A psychologist told me when I was in my early 20s, that I ‘almost had a phobia of relationships’. Looking back I can see there is much truth is that statement. It is only more recently that I have been able to write in detail exactly what happened to me during the abuse. This was another turning point in my life. It was during this process that I knew instinctively that I needed to place the trauma of the abuse into a broader, healthier perspective.

I started writing a document which quite naturally evolved during the course of the next 18 months into my memoir. Writing the book has been profoundly healing for me. I learned that I had to come to terms with the symptoms of shock whenever the PTSD was triggered; I can still go into shock, but over the years I have become better able to talk through the memories with others, which has helped the adult in me recognise the coercion and manipulation that had created so much of the toxic shame which crippled me. There is more of a ‘distance’ in the memories of the abuse now. I've gradually become more able to be a witness to the trauma; I still experience the physical and emotional symptoms, but I am consciously aware that I am a 45-year-old adult remembering what happened during the abuse, rather than being the 8 year old child reliving the abuse.

My hope is that fellow survivors of trauma and addiction might find hope and encouragement to find the help they so desperately need to heal. Writing the book helped me to realise that I needed to;

• Reclaim my childhood from the sick men who abused, molested and raped me, and in doing so tried to destroy me in body, mind and spirit.

• Learn to love the amazing, ten-year-old boy who somehow managed to survive – a boy I have for many years of my adulthood despised and rejected as weak and pathetic.

• Release the blocks within my mind which have crippled my hopes of becoming a loving partner, a good father, and of having a family of my own.

Much to be grateful for.

There is so much in my life today that I am grateful for. When you meet and listen to fellow survivors who have walked the path before you, and hear how they have changed from a state of utter despair and hopelessness. To know that they have come back from the very brink to lives with love, kindness, humour and integrity; it not only offered me hope, but also showed me how to change. During the last two years so much has changed. It has been the years of working the 12 Step programme, regular meditation, the life-changing support I’ve received from my fellow CSA survivors, and the expertise of several highly gifted professional therapists has helped me to change the inner narrative so that I am able to, for the most part, replace the negative conditioning of the abuse with more gentle, kinder and loving thoughts. This collective support has consequently;

• Improved my physical, psychological and emotional health

• Encouraged me to develop a relationship with a loving Higher Power

• Helped me develop an intimate, loving relationship with my family

• Guided me towards a greater purpose in life, which is to live in love and peace with myself and others

• Enabled me to enjoy genuine, lasting, and trusting friendships

• Led me to find success through a career in the professional theatre which has given me lifelong friendships and memories of so many great occasions

• Inspired within me the love of and the opportunity to travel. 

This process has made me realise what an extraordinarily strong, resilient and courageous young boy I was, to have lived through this horrific trauma, and to have survived into adulthood relatively sane.

Memoir: A Small Boy Smiling: A remarkable journey of healing from the trauma of child sexual abuse to spiritual awakening by Matt Carey. 

Matt has worked in the world of entertainment for over twenty years, as organiser of several prestigious international festivals, and community based cultural projects supporting children and young people. He is 45 years old and live in London, UK.