Unlocking the Cage of Silence and Shame: Our Talk With Becca the Survivor

"Writing the one fact about myself that I had been hiding all of my life into my Instagram bio – “my brother sexually abused me” – was the key that unlocked my cage of silence and shame"

Becca is a childhood sibling sexual abuse survivor and an advocate for mind-body treatment approaches for chronic pain syndromes. In 2019, Becca began the process of finally facing the horrors of her past in a bid to live a healthier, happier life. Documenting the ups and downs of her healing journey on her Instagram page, Becca has inspired fellow survivors to follow in her footsteps, speak their truths, and learn to love themselves. Becca lives in Victoria, Australia, and loves eating vegemite toast, painting with watercolours, and listening to Taylor Swift.

SWY: Would you mind sharing a little bit about your story and your experience with childhood sexual abuse?

B: From approximately age 8 to age 13, my older brother sexually abused me. He was 2 years older than me. At the time, I didn’t know it was abuse. My understanding was that it was something that we weren’t “supposed” to be doing, and that we could get into a lot of trouble if anyone found out. Like so many others, I was groomed into compliance and silence. He used a number of tactics in order to abuse me, including bribing me with money and offering to do favours for me. He would also emotionally abuse me by giving me ‘the silent treatment’ for no reason other than to manipulate me into letting him sexually abuse me. I looked up to my big brother, and I really wanted him to be my friend. I would become distressed when he shut me out emotionally, and he used my desperation to return to his ‘good books’ to his advantage. He capitalized on the imbalance of power between us and exploited my emotional dependence on him.

My experience of childhood sibling sexual abuse caused me to live in a constant state of internal stress. At 8 years old, I developed intractable daily persistent headaches as well as frequent migraine attacks. Over the years, I saw a range of doctors and specialists who were all unable to determine the cause of my pain. They ran blood tests and brain scans that came out normal, and I was recommended iron supplements and various medications – none of which helped. My doctors all missed a vital piece of the pain puzzle: my trauma. Not once was I asked about any events that might have been traumatic in my life or asked to be spoken to privately without my parents present. Not once was it mentioned that there is an extremely high correlation between patients with chronic pain syndromes and a history of adverse childhood experiences (including abuse). The link between chronic pain and stressful childhood experiences is under-recognized by both the medical system and the general public and yet it is so important! If my doctors or parents had recognized my pain as a possible indicator of abuse, questions could have been asked and investigations could have been made... and I could have potentially been spared from years of continued abuse and decades of shame and suffering.

"The link between chronic pain and stressful childhood experiences is under-recognized by both the medical system and the general public and yet it is so important!"

SWY: What was your experience like in terms of seeking help and resources?

B: Due to shame, feelings of perceived guilt, and the social stigma associated with being sexually abused by a member of my own family, I didn’t disclose the abuse or seek help at all until age 25.

The first person I ever told was a psychologist in September 2017. I had searched online for a psychologist and went into my first session with the goal to tell her about the abuse. Unfortunately, the psychologist handled my disclosure extremely poorly - she actually asked me if I had been the abuser! I disengaged from therapy with her and didn't return to therapy with a new psychologist until a year later. Although this new therapist was warm and kind, I remained fearful of telling somebody new after my terrible experience disclosing to my previous therapist. After 5 months of weekly therapy appointments, I did manage to disclose the abuse to her - but only immediately before I left the country to travel and live abroad!

It wasn’t until August 2019 that I made a conscious decision to really face what had happened to me. Inspired by psychotherapist Nicole Sachs (@nicolesachslcsw on Instagram), I began a daily journal practice. After 20 years of denial, it was extremely difficult for me to begin writing about the abuse. Despite how intensely challenging it was, I knew that admitting the truth to myself was the only way I would be able to heal, so I kept up my journal practice. Every day, I wrote for 20 minutes about my feelings, memories, and experiences as honestly as I could. Soon after, I set up my anonymous Instagram account (@beccathesurvivor_). I used the account, alongside my pen and paper journal, to work on accepting my identity as a sibling sexual abuse survivor. I never intended for Instagram to be a source of help for me, but it has actually played a pivotal role in my healing. Writing the one fact about myself that I had been hiding all of my life into my Instagram bio – “my brother sexually abused me” – was the key that unlocked my cage of silence and shame. Instagram became a place where I could show up as my authentic self and feel seen, heard, and supported. I realized that I was not alone in both how I felt and what had happened to me. Strangers started commenting on my posts and sending me messages of encouragement. I discovered therapists, coaches, and fellow survivors on Instagram who helped me learn about trauma, attachment styles, abuse, and the process of coming home to myself. The months I spent learning how to show up as a survivor on the pages of my journal and anonymously on Instagram paved the way for me to finally be able to share my story with those close to me in real life. For me, this included telling my sister in November 2019, followed by three trusted friends in January 2020, and my parents in February 2020.

SWY: Sibling abuse often goes undiscussed in the media and in discourses relating to sexual abuse. You mention (on Instagram) that your brother was the perpetrator of this abuse. In what ways do you think sibling abuse differs from parental or partner abuse?

B: Unfortunately, sibling sexual abuse is highly stigmatized in our society, extremely under-reported, and rarely publicized. Research into sibling sexual abuse has been limited by the lack of data available, but the prevalence studies that do exist suggest high rates of sibling incestuous abuse in Australia and overseas.

Sibling abuse shares many commonalities with other forms of intrafamilial abuse - including misuse of trust and power. However, what sets sibling abuse apart is the fact that both the perpetrator and victim are often both children, close in chronological age, and raised in the family alongside one another. For me, my big brother was my closest friend, and it was this sense of trust, loyalty, and connection to my own sibling that contributed to my confusion about the abuse. As we were both kids, I didn’t realize that I was being victimized or taken advantage of. In fact, I believed that I was equally guilty for “doing the wrong thing” and I felt a responsibility to protect ‘our’ secret from being discovered by our parents. This “us vs them” sibling dynamic was a huge factor that contributed to my inability to speak up about the abuse.

SWY: What are some ways you coped and took steps towards healing?

B: For 20 years, I used denial as a coping mechanism. I had hoped that if I never told anyone about it, I could erase it from my reality. I presented a happy, bubbly personality to the world, but shame and guilt constantly ate away at me. I blamed myself for the abuse and felt horrified that I had ‘participated’ in something as ‘wrong’ as incest. I internalized the belief that because I had “allowed it” and hadn’t spoken up about it, it was my fault as much as it was my brother’s. I felt as though the abuse had made me a bad person, so I put all my effort into trying to convince everyone, including myself, that I was good. For me, that looked like perfectionism and people-pleasing. I became a high-achiever at school and university. I relentlessly chased praise and A+ marks. I won scholarships and awards, constantly trying to prove my worth but always feeling like a fraud. Once I graduated, I threw myself into my new career as an allied health professional. On the outside, I was a shining example of a thriving young woman... but on the inside, I was deeply unhappy and harbored an unshakable loathing for myself and my dark secret.

Eventually, what motivated me to take my first steps towards healing was the realization that my lifetime of chronic headaches was connected to the abuse. Initially, I thought that I would be able to heal “in secret” – I had hoped that just telling a therapist privately and receiving therapy would be enough for me to recover without needing to tell any of the “real” people in my life. I was still carrying so much shame. I now know that nobody can heal in isolation. Nobody can heal if they’re still trapped by shame. Accepting yourself and allowing your true, real, raw self to exist and be seen by those around you is pivotal for healing and happiness.

"Nobody can heal if they’re still trapped by shame. Accepting yourself and allowing your true, real, raw self to exist and be seen by those around you is pivotal for healing and happiness."

SWY: Were there any specific moment(s) that were turning points for you in terms of reaching out for help?

B: My first turning point was in 2017 when my sister began describing the benefits she had been receiving from her weekly visits to her psychologist. Up until then, I had believed that therapy was only for those with serious mental health problems and that it would be shameful for me to go to therapy. Hearing her talk so openly and positively about therapy broke the stigma I carried about the “type” of people who receive psychological support. Soon after, I booked in to see a psychologist – my very first step towards healing.

Other turning points for me include telling my then-boyfriend the truth about the abuse (2018) and discovering the work of American psychotherapist Nicole Sachs (2019). Nicole’s own story of overcoming chronic pain and her podcast 'The Cure for Chronic Pain with Nicole Sachs, LCSW' motivated me to begin facing my past to the fullest extent possible, which truly kickstarted my journey to recovery.

SWY: If there are any readers out there who may be going through a similar situation, what would you want them to know?

B: Being an abuse survivor can often be such a lonely experience. I like to remind fellow survivors that they are not alone in how they feel and that their experiences (past or present) do not define their worth.

I’ve found that being a part of a community of survivors has helped me to feel less alone. Sharing my thoughts, feelings, difficulties, and experiences with fellow survivors has helped me to feel truly understood – and much less isolated.

I believe in the healing power of community so much that I have founded two online support groups for childhood sexual abuse/assault survivors: one specifically for sibling sexual abuse survivors, and one for all survivors of childhood sexual abuse and their loved ones. The support groups are hosted by the app GroupMe, which is free to use and operates in a similar way to WhatsApp. Group members can choose to remain anonymous by only using their first name or even a pseudonym.

Any readers looking to join the sibling sexual abuse support group can send me a direct message on Instagram here. Alternatively, readers can join the support group for all survivors of childhood sexual abuse by clicking here. We are stronger together!

SWY: What is one thing you want others to understand about being a childhood abuse survivor?

B: When a childhood abuse survivor reveals their story, being believed and supported by those they have chosen to tell is incredibly important. If a loved one shares a story of childhood abuse with you, listen to them and let them know that you believe them. Remind them that you love them. Offer your continued support. Being fully seen, heard, loved, and supported by the people we share our story with means so much to us.

SWY: How do you think we, as a community, can take steps to reduce instances of childhood sexual abuse? How can people get involved?

B: Abuse thrives in silence, secrecy, and shame. Children will continue to be abused at distressing rates for as long as we continue avoiding thinking and talking about it. The first step to dismantling our current societal culture of shame, taboo, and silence around abuse is being willing to acknowledge and learn about it.

I highly recommend reading the freely available tip sheets, guidebooks, and resources about childhood sexual abuse that have been developed by the incredible organization ‘Stop It Now!’, which can be found here.

Listed below are specific actions parents, teachers, and medical professionals should be doing to help identify and prevent child abuse.

Parents and Care-givers Parents and caregivers need to be having conversations with their children about consent, boundaries, body safety, and respectful relationships. Parents can learn how to approach these conversations and what to teach their children by attending child protection workshops or presentations. Parents can also read age-appropriate safety education books to their children, such as ‘Some Secrets Should Never Be Kept’ by Jayneen Sanders and ‘My Body Belongs To Me’ by Jill Starishevsky.

Some of the essential skills covered by parent education workshops and child safety education books include:

  • teaching children what appropriate and inappropriate touch is

  • teaching children to know and use proper anatomical names for their body parts, including their private parts

  • making sure children know that no one is allowed to touch their private parts (unless for medical reasons) and they are not allowed to touch anyone else’s private parts

  • teaching children what to do if someone touches them sexually, shows them pornography, or asks them to do anything sexual

  • letting children know that they will never get in trouble for telling an adult that they have been inappropriately touched

  • guiding children to tune in to their emotions, including teaching them how to identify when a situation doesn’t feel safe

  • empowering children to say ‘no’ in dangerous situations

  • fostering an open, trusting and communicative parent-child relationship

It’s important to remember that while having these conversations with children can be uncomfortable, they are crucial for keeping children safe.

Teachers and Child Care Providers Teachers and child care staff need to attend seminars and workshops that will train them on how to identify risk factors and red flags for childhood sexual abuse. It is not enough for teacher training to only include information about adults who abuse children. Given that more than a third of all sexual abuse of children is committed by someone under the age of 18, training must also include information about children who abuse children. More teachers need to be aware of the high prevalence of sexual abuse committed by children so that they can be monitoring students for concerning behaviours, including siblings who attend the same school. Teachers also need to know and understand what their legal obligations are in terms of mandatory reporting of suspected child abuse and neglect cases (these obligations vary across countries and states).

Doctors and Healthcare Professionals Given the strong association between medically-unexplained symptoms and childhood abuse, doctors and healthcare professionals need to be routinely inquiring about a patient’s history of abuse or trauma during evaluations. It is the responsibility of healthcare professionals to undertake a thorough case history to determine all factors that may be contributing to presenting problem(s) – and psychological trauma is a vital consideration in many cases. Addressing pain and trauma often needs to go hand-in-hand. When children present with chronic pain syndromes such as persistent daily headache or medically-unexplained gastrointestinal symptoms, a trauma check becomes all the more important because these questions may uncover abuse that is currently happening to the child. Paediatricians should be asking to speak to their young patients privately without parents present in order to provide the child with the opportunity to feel safe enough, to tell the truth about the abuse that may be happening in the home environment.

We want to thank Becca for finding the courage to share her story of childhood sibling abuse, her newfound journey towards healing, and the many ways we can support other survivors and raise awareness about sibling abuse. If you want to learn more about Becca and her story, check out her Instagram page @beccathesurvivor_