Will anyone ever believe me? Can I trust anyone enough to tell them what’s happened to me? How do I begin to explain how it’s affected me?
Those are just some of the questions many victims of sexual abuse ask themselves when deciding whether to speak out about their horrific ordeal.
But as two immensely courageous Sheffield women have proven, not only is it possible to find support services in Sheffield to help you through the darkest of times, but it is also possible to find the strength to begin again.
When Cally met the man who would turn her family home into a ‘prison’ he appeared charming, interesting and caring.
Little did she know her relationship with him would turn into a nightmare and lead to him being sentenced to 20 years behind bars for the abuse she suffered at his hands.
The pair spent a fairly normal and contented two years together before everything changed.
What began as the odd jealous question from Darren about who Cally was spending time with, or if she was cheating on him, soon escalated into a persistent campaign of vicious and degrading physical and sexual abuse she thought would end her life.
“The first time, when he punched me, I was shocked and thought because it came out of nowhere that it was a one off. But it became daily,” said Cally.
The physical attacks over a period of eight months have left her with scars all over her body and a nose that has been so badly damaged she is on a waiting list for surgery to repair it.
And while the horrific physical abuse Cally was made to endure over eight months was extremely traumatic and left the young mum too afraid to go home, she says it is the sexual abuse she suffered that was the hardest to bear.
“It’s one of the worst forms of control. Not only do you feel ashamed, but you feel like you deserve it. It makes you feel dirty in a way the physical abuse doesn’t,” said Cally.
She added: “At least when he was hitting me I still felt like me, but when he raped and abused me sexually he took something from me I can never get back. It ruined me.
“People might say well why didn’t you leave him, but he threatened to kill my children, to kill my family if I did. I didn’t think our friends would believe me because he was always so nice and charming when they were around.
“I thought either he’s going to kill me, or I’m going to kill myself. I couldn’t see a way out.”
The abuse finally stopped when a police officer was sent out to visit Cally to fill in what she describes as a ‘standard domestic abuse’ form. The young mum says she intended to continue to keep the abuse hidden, but when he was asking questions she says something was set off in her and details of the months of abuse she suffered just ‘poured out’ of her.
A police investigation was immediately launched and a file sent to the Crown Prosecution Service. But due to a lack of DNA evidence, prosecutors advised Cally to drop the case because they feared she may not be able to get a conviction.
“To hear your own barrister telling you you don’t have a case was so difficult. But I felt like I had to do it, to take it through court, because I knew I wouldn’t have been able to live with myself if in a year, two years time I had seen his face on the front of The Star because he’d murdered the next woman he was with,” said Cally.
And so when Darren pleaded not guilty to the 11 counts he was charged with, Cally was faced with being in the same room with her attacker once again to give evidence in the trial against him.
“They could have used my video evidence, but I didn’t want to allow him to see me upset again. I wanted to get back some control, and I was able to do that by giving evidence in court – behind a screen where he couldn’t see me.”
But support was on hand in the form of Independent Sexual Violence Advisor Nat Duffy, who was with Cally every step of the way from speaking to her legal team, to guiding her into the courtroom through a back entrance and sitting with her as she gave evidence in court.
Nat who works as a ISVA on behalf of the Sheffield Rape and Sexual Abuse Centre – SRASAC – said: “We have one foot in the legal side of things and one thing in the counselling side. We provide help and support all the way through, whether that’s showing the layout of the court, or just being there to listen.
“But we never, ever pressurise anyone to report their abuse to the police or to go through the courts. We’re here if and when it’s right for the survivor to take it through court.”
Since Darren was sentenced to 20 years in prison last year, Cally says she finally feels safe at home and is beginning to put the pieces of her life back together, one at a time.
As part of the counselling and therapy Cally has received from SRASAC, the brave mum has begun to write poetry to express the ongoing effects of the trauma she has suffered - something she says has been very therapeutic.
But while reporting Darren’s abuse to the police and taking it through the courts was the right thing for Cally, not every survivor wants or feels able to take the same journey.
One such survivor is Hazel* who was abused by someone close to her for over three years. For her, receiving counselling and through that beginning to feel able to trust again has been instrumental in helping her to feel empowered and able to continue with her life.
She said: “The team here at Sheffield Rape Crisis have been incredible. When I came I was so nervous, I felt unbelievably scared. But the counsellor was amazing, and just allowed me to talk as much or as little as I wanted.
“Because he knew where I lived they helped me work out what I would do if he came to my house, or how to cope with those thoughts. I didn’t think I would be believed so to receive such support was unbelievable.
“I thought people would think how can an educated, successful woman in her 40s allow herself to be abused? But abuse can happen to anyone. It’s not just someone waiting in bushes in a park that abuses and rapes, it can be anyone. It can be your friend, your boyfriend, anyone you know. Before it may have looked as though I was coping on the outside, but that was just me doing what I had to – to be able to go to work, to live. Just because someone seems okay on the outside, doesn’t mean they’re not having to fight every day to keep going.
“Now I feel as though I have got some control back, and I am beginning to feel like myself again – I’m not just doing what I need to survive anymore.”
SRASAC, which is supported by Sheffield Council, offers a free and confidential service to all those who may have experienced sexual abuse, sexual violence or rape at any time in their lives.
n Names have been changed to protect the identities of the survivors quoted.