There has been a lot of focus in the media recently about the abuse experienced by boys at football clubs and some of them have grown up to become professional footballers. Some of these professional footballers who are now retired have been on television and radio to say what happened to them. There are now reports of over 860 phone calls to an NSPCC hotline, 17 police forces are now investigating, police have said around 350 people have reported child sexual abuse at UK football clubs. The numbers are big and behind all these numbers are the traumatic experiences of boys who thought they were being giving the opportunity to follow their dream. Yet following that dream came at the price of living a nightmare: One said ‘From being 11 years of age, you didn’t discuss things like that because the dream would have burst’.
For those of us who have worked with people who have experienced childhood abuse, the work can be hard and overwhelming but we are also privileged to be the person who bears witness. We work with people to enable them better manage these awful experiences. As many will know, the feelings of self-blame, shame and anger can be overwhelming to people who have experienced abuse. It is often very difficult for people to move from self-blame to apportioning blame where it should lie. It is even harder to do this publicly or seek justice via the police. The logical argument can be acknowledged: ‘the person who did this was an adult and I was the child’ but feeling that that is true is usually much harder. We are privileged to be part of that journey and to have and to be able to use our skills to make such a difference where we can.
Our own feelings are also important and it’s important to recognise the impact of our work on ourselves in containing the distress and making it safe for people to share their experiences with us. Sometimes, the stories we hear can be distressing to us because we hear of the details of the horrific things people do to others. It can feel difficult to manage our feelings and thoughts about this. Sometimes, the experiences we hear resonate because we think of our own families or friends and we feel distress – for example abuse of a child of a similar age to one’s own child. Sometimes, the experiences we hear remind us of our own experiences and memories that we may not want to revisit.
These feelings we experience are important in that they acknowledge our humanity and also our compassion and empathy in working with people who have experienced awful things. These feelings are also important as they provide us with a weather vane of our own emotions and how we are coping. If we feel nothing then perhaps we’re not really present and if we feel it’s too awful and distressing then perhaps we need to think about the impact of others’ trauma on us and what we need to do for ourselves.
One of the things we will often hear in our work is ‘I haven’t been able to talk about this before’ or ‘I haven’t told anyone’. It’s important that we do not perpetuate this in ourselves and not share our feelings about the work we do. Most of us probably do have people and processes in place to provide this – supervision, peer support, time to reflect, people we trust – it’s really important that we ensure that these continue for the people whom we are privileged to help and also our own wellbeing.