Brave Michelle shares heartrending story of surviving childhood neglect and sexual abuse

Co Antrim’s Michelle Duffy is sharing her harrowing experiences in order to embolden other survivors to speak out and get the help they need

Friday, 5th February 2021, 8:00 am
Michelle Duffy now works for the NSPCC

The reality it captures is shocking. A little girl trapped in the mire of despair, hungry, cold, often alone, repeatedly sexually abused, driven to run away from home but finally able to reach out to others about the abuse she was suffering.

Michelle hopes her open letter will encourage and embolden other young people in Northern Ireland who are experiencing any similar form of abuse to speak out and seek help from the NSPCC as she did.

This is a letter of hope because Michelle did get the help she needed and now has a happy life, a fulfilling career and is a proud and committed mother of three, who finally feels liberated from the sense of shame and fear her abusers wielded over her psyche.

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Michelle writes: “Dear Seven-year-old-Me, I know you feel frightened most of the time and people say you behave strangely, banging your head against the wall and not making friends. But then they haven’t a clue what’s going on at home, they don’t know you’re locked in a room for days on end, scared to make any sound because if you do, you will be hurt. They can’t imagine that you’re having to stand on a wobbly stool to reach up and fetch dry cereal because you are so hungry all the time. Above all, they don’t know you’ve been sexually abused because no one really talks about that sort of thing.

“I understand why you’ll start to run away from home. I know that those cold derelict flats with the big rubbish chute are truly horrible but it’s somewhere to escape to- at least for a while. There aren’t any adults there who can harm you and you can feel safe. But unfortunately it won’t last because you’ll get so cold and hungry and eventually you’ll have to go home. You’ll be punished in ways most people could never imagine and locked up again for days. Then the abuse will start again. That violent man with the knife will come round but to survive all this, you will start to blot out what happens with him and with the three other men who subject you to sexual abuse

I would love to be able to turn back the clock and shield you from all the abuse you are experiencing. I know you will block out much of this until we both feel strong enough to remember. I know that the person who abused you will still be allowed into your home and that you will also be sent to stay with him. I know you’re probably angry and don’t understand why no one, not even your Mum, has tried to stop this.

“I can tell you something, though, that you’ll barely believe – you will escape this, eventually, and you will feel safe again. You will start to speak out and tell people what happened to you and you’ll do it, this year, when you are seven – even though it’s so hard to do. People will believe you, they will want to help you and they will be kind. You’ll meet Anne from the NSPCC – she’ll talk to you and help you. You might find it strange for a while that there are people out there who will be nice to you and don’t want anything in return but believe me, they do exist, you will find them and they will help.

“I can’t lie, things will take a while to get better. Hurt like this can take a long time to recover from but once you speak out, doors will open for you. You’ll get counselling and take time to think what you want to do with your life. You’ll remember Anne from the NSPCC who took you out for burgers and just chatted and helped you and then you’ll go back to studying when you are much older. You will do an HND and go on to study social work and decide that you too want to help other children. You’ll get a job with NSPCC Northern Ireland, working with children who have survived sexual abuse. The project you’ll work on will be called Letting the Future In which does exactly as it says – it helps rebuild children’s lives so they can overcome the past and look forward to the future.

“I have been thinking about you so much this year and remembering that terrible feeling of being trapped. So many of us have felt this way during the lockdown and you will understand what that feels like even more acutely as you have been physically locked in rooms and trapped in a cycle of sickening abuse.

“The other thing that will astonish you is that you’ll become a mum to three children! You will vow never to let anyone harm them and will never understand why you weren’t protected when you needed it.

“Finally, I implore you to keep speaking out. If at first, people don’t want to know about your abuse, keep on speaking out until someone helps you, and they will. I know you would tell any other young people to do the same.

“Please hang in there! You are brave, you are more resilient than you think, you will recover and eventually, you will have a happy life and will help other children too. Love, Michelle.”

I ask Michelle about her long journey in processing the trauma of the appalling abuse she suffered; many abuse survivors go on to lead troubled lives with a greater propensity to addiction and mental illness than those lucky enough to have enjoyed a happy and harmonious upbringing.

“I am still processing my trauma and personally I don’t think it is something you ever truly get over,” she told the News Letter. “Healing is a journey that is continuous and the road has not always been easy. There are many difficulties. For years, I carried a huge sense of shame about what had happened and I worried people would judge me. I was called a liar so many times.

“I was the girl who always faded into the background, who sat quietly and listened to others. I never had a voice. I often felt to blame for what had happened and I struggled with that for a long time.”

It was not until her mother passed away, dying by suicide in 2007, that Michelle found the deep strength to begin to establish the life she deserved.

She had not spoken to her mother for two years because of her anger at the cruelty and chaos of her upbringing, but while her mother was hospitalised for ten days prior to her death, Michelle finally received what eludes so many victims of abuse - recognition and acknowledgement of what she had suffered and an apology from her estranged mother.

“She woke up the day before she passed and told me what had happened to me as a child wasn’t my fault, that she was sorry, and that I was not to blame. I needed to hear that. After her death, I struggled for a year or so but decided life was too short for that. I started to believe what happened to me was not my fault.”

Another seismic moment for Duffy was encountering one of her abusers in the street.

“I became overwhelmed with fear and every inch of my body was shaking. I put my head down in shame and felt angry that he had that control over me, even as an adult. I continued to feel angry afterwards, although not in an aggressive way but rather as a catalyst to change. I started to tell myself that enough of my life had been taken. I was determined not to let anyone take any more from me.”

The incident inspired Michelle to end a dysfunctional relationship she was in, enrolled in college and began what she describes as “working on myself and giving myself the opportunities I never had previously.”

She is now the first person in her family to go to university and is now completing a masters degree as well as helping other victims of childhood sexual abuse and neglect through the NSPCC: “I think there was a stubbornness and a drive not to let my abusers win. I realised I had the power to change my life,” she said.

You can call the NSPCC’s Childline on 0800 1111.