What it’s like to… experience childhood abuse

When she was two years old, Susannah Birch’s mother cut her throat. She tells us about the childhood abuse she suffered, finding solace in the internet and then being groomed by an older man who she online dated for three years…

Susannah Birch is a freelance journalist, blogger and childbirth doula who also does freelance web development, SEO and social media management. She lives with her husband David and their two daughters, aged four and six.

On being a childhood abuse survivor

“I was two and a half years old when my mother cut my throat. I only remember it in images; I remember it more like a series of photographs and I was too young to understand what was happening to her mentally. I grew up feeling as if she was a different person at the time, one I couldn’t see as the same person as my mother. So it was a huge shock to me to find that she COULD be that person when she became manic again.

It’s unfortunate that my mother’s psychotic episode was influenced by the Bible but it could just as easily have been influenced by anything in her life at that point – whether it was an obsession with health, ice-cream, cleaning, socialising or running for Prime Minister.

After that, she was never physically violent towards me but as I grew older, she began to exhibit more and more signs of mania. She had another breakdown when I was ten years old during which she believed she was possessed by an angel and asked me to try and visualise a shed and shovel. She didn’t hurt me but I found it very strange.

I had a tracheostomy tube in my throat for 11 years and I still have a very high-pitched husky voice because my vocal cords were paralysed

The experience left me shaken because I’d never seen her experience a manic episode and my father and I had been lead by medical professionals to believe her breakdown and attack on me was a once off.

She began exhibiting more and more strange behaviours over the next three years, culminating in her telling me I was visiting a friend’s house for a few days before she spirited me away to the other side of the country to stay with relatives. She didn’t tell my father where I was for weeks.

She claimed that my father was abusing her but over time even our relatives started to question her story as she showed increasingly erratic behaviour. Finally our relatives rang my father and told him where we were; he flew over that day. My mother found out and fled, ending in police involvement and her being put in hospital for several weeks. I told my father that he should divorce her. Five months later, they separated, and I stayed with my father.

susannah-birch-2

I was very blessed to have a father who was always open about what had happened and my mother’s illness. I grew up talking about the event from a young age, so I was able to receive my father’s support and adult perspective as I processed the event.

When I became an adult myself, I thought I had dealt with it well. However giving birth to my own children resulted in postpartum OCD and an avalanche of thoughts and emotions which I hadn’t expected to need to work through. I’m glad that I did though, because it meant I gained a whole new perspective both on my own experience and my mother’s.

To be a childhood trauma survivor is nothing compared to the many other children who suffer ongoing abuse. Fortunately, I was very young at the time, so I have memories but no fear or pain attached to them. Thanks to very supportive friends and family, I was able to live a normal life in most ways.

The two things that have helped me to heal are time and getting answers

The medical impact was the most noticeable; I had a tracheostomy tube in my throat for 11 years and I still have a very high-pitched husky voice because my vocal cords were paralysed.

The two things that have helped me to heal are time and getting answers. Time has given me perspective from a distance. Answers have helped me understand what happened so I can better process the events.

It’s made me hyper-vigilant in avoiding things that remind me of my childhood, such as religion, or having an only child (I always wanted at least two children for this reason.) However I sometimes wonder if it may have made me swing too far the other way, and question things which weren’t directly related to the trauma in my life.

Creating a radio documentary was what helped me heal and gain more perspective after talking to people who were involved. At first it didn’t even feel like forgiveness; instead I simply began to feel empathy and started to understand her perspective. You can read more about my journey to forgiveness here.

Being groomed online

As a teenager, I was groomed online (and online dated) the man for three years, from the ages of 15-18. He claimed to be 17 when we first met, but was actually 50. By the time I uncovered the deception, he was 62. He used photos of his own son to fool me.

I met my husband when I was 18. However I continued to talk to the man for a further nine years (till I was 28), as internet friends, before I found out his true identity.

I had suspected for a long time that the man was lying about something. I thought it was simply something he was ashamed of such as his job, his income or his education. After being manipulated for so long but having no way to prove my suspicions, finally finding out the truth was a huge relief. It allowed me to push him completely out of my life without any guilt or lingering questions.

After a three-year online relationship with someone who was very manipulative, dishonest and volatile, my husband was a breath of fresh air. My husband has always been very logical, literal and straightforward, so I never have to try and read between the lines or question his intentions. I proposed to my husband five weeks after we began dating (just after I turned 19) and we married just over a year later.

Due to my medical issues, being an only child and being homeschooled, I found the internet a great place to escape for many years

I don’t think that my trauma made me more attracted to the guy I dated online; I think it was more the fact that I had been homeschooled and raised in a strict Christian home till I was 13. As an only child this made me very naive and easy to manipulate as I first explored the internet and met so many new and interesting people.

I had the internet from the age of nine, and due to my medical issues, being an only child and being homeschooled, I found the internet a great place to escape for many years, without the repercussions of ever meeting the person in real life.

Unfortunately the dark side of the internet impacts many people without them realising it. Pregnancy photos, children’s innocent swimsuit photos and family photos are regularly taken off sites like Facebook, either to create fake accounts or even to place on pornography websites. Many people, especially teenagers, are surprisingly blasé about making fake accounts with other people’s images or posting very intimate details about themselves online.

The way I cope is by helping other people, because I feel it’s easier than trying to help myself. I’ve been seeing a very good psychologist for four years and also recently started a range of other therapies, so I see it as a journey that will only happen one step at a time. Helping other people means I don’t have to immerse myself in my own problems all the time.”

If you experienced childhood abuse and would like some support, visit NAPAC, or call their helpline on 0808 801 0331 (free from all landlines and mobiles) 

SHARE THIS: