Mental Health Confessionals: "I turned to self-neglect to cope with childhood sexual abuse"

TW// Sexual violence and Suicide

“It was like a dungeon,” says Deidre Olsen, when describing her childhood bedroom. “No one ever really went in there. It was kind of like my dirty little secret.”

As far back as Deidre can remember, her room had always been a mess. A sea of rubbish, mouldy Tupperware, and dishes were left strewn around for weeks until her bedroom floor was no longer visible. Freshly folded laundry that her mother had carefully put away in the dresser was often pulled out and thrown into the pile of chaos enveloping her room. For over five years, Deidre didn’t have any sheets or pillowcases on her bed.

If a friend ever came over, Deidre would shove everything into her closet or under the bed, in an attempt to appear more ‘normal’. When her mother would try to clean her room, she would rip it apart again in ‘an act of defiance’.

“It was my safe space,” she explains. “I was vehement about keeping it that way because it was like a protective layer around me."

This safe space had become a much-needed haven for a little girl still reeling from the major trauma of being sexually assaulted at the age of only three. Her mother had discovered a rash on her genitals whilst bathing her, and a doctor would later confirm that her hymen had been broken. Deidre’s father was investigated as a possible suspect, but it would later be revealed that her 17-year-old babysitter was the one behind the attack. This resulted in a lengthy court case, where a 4-year-old Deidre was forced to stand in a witness box and testify in her own sexual assault case.

To make matters worse, the parents of the accused girl were members of a local Evangelical church and when both Deidre and her mother walked into court, the entire congregation turned up as a means to intimidate them. It soon wouldn’t matter though – for some reason unbeknownst to both her family and the police, the doctor who had originally confirmed the abuse decided to recant her findings, and the case shortly crumbled after that.

Deidre says that this horrific event altered the course of her life and affected her development as a child. The deliberate destruction of her surroundings as a way of coping with the abuse would later turn inwards when at the age of seven, she was molested by her two older male cousins.

“That’s when the self-neglect got really bad,” she says. “I thought that if I was disgusting, no one could hurt me. I liked being able to repel people because it made me feel that I had the power to protect myself from being hurt. Other people had robbed me of my bodily autonomy. At least in this way, I was in control."

This was when Deidre stopped taking care of her personal hygiene. She refused to wash, wore the same clothes every day, ate junk food until she was sick, and wouldn’t brush her teeth for weeks on end. The cavities in her teeth got that bad that she ended up having two root canals on her bottom back molars. Her school peers would often make cruel remarks about her appearance, making fun of her clothes and telling her that she smelled and had yellow teeth.

When it came to her odd behaviour, Deidre believes that her parents put it down to her just being a ‘weird kid’. "I don't think they necessarily understood it,” she says. “This was during the early 1990s. I think the attitude to any kind of mental illness back then was just to sweep it under the rug.”

At age fifteen, Deidre would turn to drugs and alcohol.

“I started experimenting as a way of trying to slowly kill myself,” she says. “I thought there must be something wrong with me if these terrible things keep happening to me. I thought I was just innately a piece of sh*t who deserved to die.”

She found herself in an abusive relationship with a high school boyfriend, who ended up repeating the same sexual violence that she had been trying to escape from.

“I think because it was in the context of a relationship, I couldn’t identify it as sexual violence,” she says. “I had a warped perception of what sex was supposed to look like.”

It wouldn’t be until March 2020, when Deidre was 29 and suicidal in a mental health emergency room that she would eventually get therapy and receive a diagnosis of having borderline personality disorder.

“If I had known that as a teenager, it would have changed everything,” she admits. “I would have been able to recognise the maladaptive coping mechanisms, such as impulsive behaviour and recklessness."

To aid her recovery, Deidre filed a Freedom of Information request to the RCMP (Royal Canadian Mounted Police) in her native Canada which allowed her to gain access to information pertaining to her old court case.

After a year of trying, she received a 72-page PDF document of police records, as well as the document from the doctor who at first had claimed there was medical evidence to show she had been sexually abused. When she tried to obtain the court records though, she would discover that they had actually been destroyed, as her case had occurred over twenty-five years ago, and her perpetrator had never been convicted.

As another means of recourse, she tried reaching out to one of her cousins to discuss what had happened to her. He denied knowing anything about it. She says that she is not angry or looking for vengeance though.

"I kind of ask myself, 'What would justice look like?'” she says. “What I would love is an apology, for him to say that it happened. That would be closure for me.”

Instead, she feels pity for those who abused her. “I feel like children just don’t do something like that,” she says. “I believe someone might have been molesting them and that they were imitating it. Where does a seven- and ten-year-old get those kinds of ideas from in the first place?”

She admits that she feels more anger towards her high school bullies and the staff at her school.

“I feel more disdain towards those people because they cemented it,” Deidre says. “No one intervened, nobody stepped in or said, 'It's ok, the things that are happening aren’t because there's something wrong with you, it's because you are in pain."

Now at the age of 30, Deidre is living in Berlin and has been sober for two years. "I would say that since quitting drinking, I've been able to finally develop a healthy relationship with my body, with my surroundings, and with food and exercise,” she says. “Right now, is the most stable and healthy that I’ve ever been.”

Deidre feels that there is still very much a stigma when it comes to discussing the uncomfortable aspects of mental illness, such as self-neglect.

"Nobody wants to talk about the unkempt, the unsightly, and the ugly parts,” she explains. “I think people want to make mental health digestible for an audience and want to performatively say that they care when they don't actually give a f*ck. I think that's why there are so many shows about hoarders for example. People develop behavioural problems not because there's something innately wrong with them, but because it's usually a response to something.”