'She had attempted suicide six times by 14'

25th September 1998 at 01:00
Walk in, walk tall. Adolescence is a time that many of us recall with a mixture of bitterness and regret. Victoria Neumark visits a centre in London that is fighting to stem the rising tide of teenage suicides

Sara (not her real name) had been sexually abused by a family member from the age of seven. She had attempted suicide six times by the time she was 14. She hated being a woman and the way she looked, so she cut herself (with compasses, glass and razors). Her father did not believe she had been sexually abused and beat her for lying.

In her family, falling short of high academic standards was ridiculed, but doing well was never praised. Sara could not concentrate in exams, became confused about her sexual orientation, was promiscuous but hated sex. Her mother, teachers and friends all told her that her problems were in her head and she should pull herself together.

At the age of 18, she came to the centre. During two years of intensive therapy, which were, she says, the only times in which anyone had ever taken her seriously and listened, she completed her A-levels and went to university. She had gained the strength to leave home, continue with her studies and make lasting relationships.

Sixteen-year-old "Ali" referred himself because he was ashamed of his ears, which he felt made him look like a monkey.

At the interview he sat huddled inside his hat and collar, and said he would not go to school because of his hatred of pretty girls, to whom he was also strongly attracted. Ali revealed that his home life offered no sexual privacy and that he had unwillingly been exposed to the sexual side of his parents' marriage (they had 10 children, of whom he was the oldest, and lived in a three-bedroom flat).

During therapy he was able to examine his feelings safely and slowly came to accept that his ears were normal, that his feelings about them were a mask for other feelings of shame and inadequacy and, ultimately, that his own adult sexuality was nothing to be ashamed of.

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