‘Happiness is possible’, says psychotherapist who survived decade of childhood abuse

Kenneth Barrett from Loughrea who became a psychotherapist after surviving years of childhood sexual abuse. 

Photograph: Mike Shaughnessy.

Kenneth Barrett from Loughrea who became a psychotherapist after surviving years of childhood sexual abuse. Photograph: Mike Shaughnessy.

Kenneth Barrett first contemplated taking his life when he was eight years of age. When he was 11, he tried to hang himself from a tree near his home in Loughrea. Other suicide attempts followed, including an attempt to drown himself.

“Honestly, I don’t think the thought ever left my mind again for the next 13 years, it became my constant,” he says.

“I usually kept the attempts at bay by severe periods of withholding food or bingeing and purging. But sometimes I felt overwhelmed and I would plan to kill myself. I clearly remember the turmoil, the sadness, the pain, the desperation, the wish for ‘it’ all to stop.”

The “it” was sexual abuse, which had begun when he was two years of age and continued, almost daily, until he was 11. His abuser was a woman (not a family member ) who was violent towards him as well.

He says while he wanted to take his life he did not know how to do it. “I never saw anybody being killed except on old cowboy films where the bad guy was hanging on a tree. That’s how you kill yourself I thought. But when I tried it, the branch broke. I got up and went home. I never told anybody about it.”

I always knew it was wrong

The awful memories of the abuse are still very clear in the 41-year-old’s mind. “I always knew it was wrong but I thought it [the situation] was mine to manage. You try to make sense of it. The person who abused me used to threaten to hurt my sisters instead of me, I felt it was my duty to mind them. I’d never scream [during the abuse] or make noise. I held it [the tension] in my body, I was very tight and rigid as a child. I was sick a lot.”

Every special occasion was tainted with fear. To Kenneth, birthdays, and Christmas’ were run-of-the mill days when he was subjected to terror and abuse.

“The abuser was constantly in my life,” he says. His parents, who were good, kind, people were in bad health and were totally unaware of what their young son was experiencing. However, they were concerned about his lack of appetite and the fact that he was frequently tired and sick and brought him to various doctors. But none got to the root of the problem. Equally, his extended family were in the dark as to what was happening.

“I started rejecting food when I was around three-years-old. I really didn’t eat for a couple of years, I would just have milk and eggs mixed together. I was at the doctor every second week but as I came from a sickly family no-one took much notice. I was also referred to a paediatrician and psychologist when I was 10. My parents were very worried, I used to see the worry [in their faces] and that reinforced the belief that I would have to protect them. They were very kind and caring but fragile. Had I told them about the abuse they would have stopped it.”

He was fearful from as far back as he can remember, he says. “It was terrible to be so afraid. I was a child dominated by fear. I was afraid of everything. I was afraid of a meteor strike, of World War 3, of disasters. I can’t remember anything much except fear. School terrified me. I was afraid of the teachers, of other children, of being away from home. I had separation anxiety when I was away from my parents. I’d pretend to be sick a lot and fake illness.”

I would go a

month without eating

Kenneth developed eating disorders when he was eight-year-old. He had anorexia and bulimia. He self harmed also, cutting and burning himself. “The eating disorders and self-harming covered it up [the abuse] and they became the issue rather than the cause. I felt better when I didn’t eat, I felt more in control. I felt I could stop bad things happening by not eating. I would go a month without eating and then I would eat and purge. Occasionally, I would get up at night and eat rubbish from the bin.”

He prayed for an end to the abuse which filled his waking hours with fear. “I was very religious and I used to pray to Baby Jesus to come and help me. I felt He or my guardian angel or my action men or toy soldiers would save me. I had a belief in a magical spell that things would change. When I was eight I wanted to be dead, I used to lie in bed thinking about the daily abuse. The guilt I felt was huge, I blamed myself for not stopping it.”

He was a very bright student, had good friends, and did well at school despite his frequent absences and the heavy burden he carried. He credits one teacher, Joe Monaghan, who taught him for a year when he was 10, with “saving me”. While he never told him about the abuse he was suffering, the teacher’s kindness and concern meant a lot to him.

“He was an excellent teacher who was naturally kind and he took an interest in me. I think he picked up on the fact that [all was not well with me]. He encouraged me to play sport, to stand up for myself and look after myself. Even after he moved away he would write to me occasionally from Boston.”

However, another teacher in whom he confided about wanting to take his life, showed little compassion. “She looked at me and said I was selfish. She was quite, quite horrible. I felt no-one wanted to know.”

Fought off perpetrator

with a knife

The abuse finished when he was 11 after he fought off the perpetrator with a knife. It was only after it stopped that everything hit him.

“It was one of the most confusing times, there was no-one to fight anymore. The monster was inside me now.”

His first suicide attempt occurred after the abuse ended. It was a desperate means to end the suffering he was experiencing, he says, to “kill that painful part inside me”. Other attempts followed. Afterwards he was consumed with guilt for feeling the way he did.

“I felt ungrateful, I had a family who loved me, how could I do this to them. But I also remember thinking that they would be better off without me. What confused me were the feelings of relief when I would survive an attempt coupled with thoughts of how pathetic I was for not being able to do it. Suicidal thoughts and actions always involve pain, both for those experiencing the thoughts and their loved ones.”

He went through severe anorexic phases - when he was 14 he hardly ate any food for four months. He only began eating again when his mother became unwell and he needed to care for her.

After finishing school, Kenneth began working in the family business. The long hours and physical nature of the job helped push the abuse to the back of his mind. “Working gave me value. I would work seven days a week. I could take a lot of physical punishment, I would not even feel pain. I could have a gash on my leg but I would not feel it. I was very cut off from myself. The work and alcohol at the weekends numbed what I had been through. I felt invincible.”

But suppressing the pain led to other problems. He developed kidney stones when he was in his early twenties and then the dam opened its floodgates. The anguish started to come back and he no longer had alcohol or work to anaesthesise him.

Everything would

remind me of it

“It was like post traumatic stress. Everything would remind me of it and I was terrified all the time. Getting through each day was incredibly difficult.” He contemplated suicide again. “A number of times I went off with a gun to shoot myself. What stopped me was the hurt I would cause to others.”

He went for therapy and slowly the anger, fear, hurt and heartbreak he had been repressing began to come to the surface. “It took a lot of courage to say the words [that he was abused]. It was a struggle, my throat would tighten. I was a wreck physically, I was in convulsions.”

Slowly, he began to heal. “Sometimes I would feel great like there was a weight lifted off me. Other days I would feel physically and emotionally drained. Sometimes talking about it would re-traumatise me but over time, talking about it and having other people understand me, helped me understand myself.”

Kenneth, who is married with an 11-year-old son, confided in his wife Malvina about the abuse eight years ago - he told his family last year. They were all were very supportive. He qualified as a psychotherapist 10 years ago and is based in the city. He specialises in eating and personality disorders and helps others come to terms with their pasts and move forward with their lives.

“Things are really good for me,” he says. “I get a lot of satisfaction from my career and I have learned how to care for myself. I mind my body now, I was detached from it for so long, I saw it as my enemy.”

He has shared his story in the hope that others would realise that happiness is possible “no matter how bad things may appear at the moment. This is what I promote as a therapist.”

He and Malvina (who is a Pilates instructor ) have set up Fit Mind Healthy Body, an integrative mind/body therapy business because they believe the mind and body must be treated as a whole to achieve optimum health.

For further information telephone Kenneth at (083 ) 8693771 or log on to www.fitmindhealthybody.ie

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