Cheryl Rainfield is a young adult fiction author that writes for teens to encourage them the way books encouraged her while growing up. Cheryl writes about abuse, trauma, and oppression, while not losing sight of hope and healing. In our interview, Cheryl talks about how painful it was to be a victim of sexual abuse and specifically, incest and ritual abuse, and how she coped through self-harm and cutting. She found safety and solace in talking to caring and supportive people, such as her teachers and therapist, and also through writing and art."In SCARS (WestSide, 2010), Kendra must face her past and stop hurting herself before it's too late. It's my arm on the cover. There's a lot of me in SCARS; like my main character, Kendra, I am an incest survivor, I used self-harm to cope, and I'm queer." - Cheryl Rainfield
Did you choose to write for teens or did your writing take that form on its own?
I love YA (Young Adult) books. I’ve read and loved them for years (since I was a child). To me, it seems that there are less boring bits—no long passages of description or narrative, and more openness about painful issues, more real emotion, and more hope (and happy endings). YA writing also seems to be where my voice naturally is. I tend to write with raw emotion and pain—it’s what I know—and about abuse, trauma, oppression, issues that there can be a lot of silence about, as well as (intentionally) with hope and healing.I also write for teens because I want to let them know they’re not alone and encourage them the way books encouraged me. I remember how much pain I was in as a teen (as an incest and ritual abuse survivor, as someone who used self-harm to cope with that, as a queer teen in a homophobic world), and how very alone I felt. I know how much we need to know we’re not alone and that things can get better. And I know that for some teens, their only form of real safety, support, and/or talking about painful issues is through books (this was often true for me) so I want to be able to give that, to make a positive difference. Books are my way of doing that.
In Scars, Kendra finds a lot of relief through caring people in her life. How did you take steps to find supportive people in your own life?
I was always looking for safe people to talk to and connect with (and to try to find safety through). I tried to talk about the abuse, even as a young child, through my art and my writing (which got me more torture), and I talked about my pain to teachers and other adults who were open to it. Once I’d remembered the abuse (I started remembering at age 13), I got out the abuse memories quite graphically through my writing and my art—it helped me to get it out—and I shared it with people who I trusted. I found a good therapist as a teen—that was key for me and so very important in getting some of the safety, support, and nurturance that I needed and had never gotten. I also joined a few abuse survivor groups, though as a ritual abuse survivor I never quite felt like I fit in. I needed support for the major issues in my life—the incest and ritual abuse, the self-harm, and being queer in a homophobic world.As a teen I tried to start an abuse survivor support group in school. I also sought out and found survivor, feminist, and lesbian communities and groups (including a drop-in center that became a great form of support), took courses in Wen-do (Women’s self-defence), and took part in political action such as Take Back the Night march, Dyke March, and Pride Day. It helps so much not to be isolated. I connected with other survivors. I also sought out incest and ritual abuse survivor newsletters and books, and contributed to the newsletters. I exchanged letters with a few survivors who lived far away from me. (Now days, there is a lot of online support available, through websites, chat groups and forums, email, and more which I didn’t have access to as a teen.)I was in pretty constant pain that felt unbearable—I was still being abused and tortured during many of the years that I was remembering the abuse—and I often used self-harm to cope, and many times struggled with wanting to die. But I also kept searching for support, compassion, and other people who understood, and I kept working on my healing.For me as an incest and ritual abuse survivor, the book The Courage To Heal by Ellen Bass and Laura Davis was an incredible form of support and healing, and for a year or two I carried it with me everywhere, read it over and over, and shared passages with people who were supports.
While mental illness on its own carries a lot of stigma, abuse as a predecessor for mental illness carries its own shadow. Why do you think it’s important to connect the two and bring abuse into the light?
Hm. I need to address something first: I don’t like the term “mental illness” or “disorder” both because of the negative connotations they hold, and also because I don’t think they apply. For me, every effect of the abuse and trauma that I’ve struggled with can be directly linked back to the abuse and torture I endured—my depression, self-harm, dissociation, PTSD, DID, struggles with suicide/wanting to die. I use some of the labels such as PTSD and DID/MPD because it immediately helps others understand what I’m talking about, but I don’t like or identify with the disorder part. The effects are direct and obvious results of the extreme trauma, and to me it makes so much sense why I have (or had) them. And for me, the dissociation, DID, and self-harm were also coping mechanisms that actually helped me survive the torture. I don’t think I could have survived without them, and I saw some other children die who were abused/tortured with me who couldn’t cope on the same levels.I think it’s so very important to talk about abuse and the resulting effects because talking about it can: encourage healing in ourselves and in others; reduce pain and isolation; help us get something we need (such as support, compassion, being heard, knowing we’re not alone); help people who’ve never had those experiences have greater compassion and understanding; and create positive change. I also think it helps us get rid of any shame we may carry (that abusers or society put on us), not carry around secrets (which have a lot of weight and can be oppressive), and help us be healthier overall. It’s hard enough to be in pain, but when you’re in pain and you think you’re the only one, the pain is so much worse. Talking about it helps reduce the pain, shame, isolation, and lets you know you’re not alone.And talking about the effects of abuse (and showing the cause and effect) can help people understand more, have increased compassion and less judgement. That was very important to me with SCARS—and I’ve seen it have such a positive impact.
Do you have any message for youth who suspect they may have been sexually abused, but like Kendra in Scars, have a hard time remembering specifics?
Get support. If you can, see a therapist, someone who feels right emotionally for you. A good therapist can help so much—help you heal faster, lessen the pain, give you the safety and confidence you need to look at the painful things in your life. Healing is so much easier if you’re not alone.Trust your process. If you’re not ready to look at something yet, that’s okay. We block our memories for a reason—they were too traumatic or painful to deal with at the time. You may find that with more support or safety in your life, you can look at them. It can help to look at them slowly, in small pieces, and not overwhelm yourself. It also really helps to find ways to escape from the memories or shut them down, so that you feel that you have control over when and where you want to look at them. If you know you can stop a memory if it’s too painful, and come back to it when you’re ready, you might be more willing or able to look at it.It also really helps to find ways to self-soothe, to comfort yourself, to know that you have ways to cope when things get hard. And it helps to have people you can talk to (whether in person, online, or both). I highly recommend The Courage To Heal by Ellen Bass and Laura Davis; it can help so much. You may also want to try accessing your memories through writing or art. But again, it helps if you have support. If you can’t afford a therapist, there may be someone you can talk to through another avenue, such as a guidance counsellor at school, a worker at a drop-in or a survivor group. You can also check out support groups (in person and online).I think that facing the memories can help us get safe (if we’re not already) and help us work through some of the affects, allowing us greater happiness and less negative side effects. It can be a long process, but one that brings relief.
You've stated on your website that it is your scarred arm that appears on the cover of Scars. Were you ever ashamed of your scars? If so, can you shed light on how you moved from a place of shame to where you are today?
I was ashamed of my self-harm wounds and scars for a few years when I was cutting; I went to great lengths to hide them (just as Kendra did in SCARS). I also didn’t want anyone to stop me; I needed the self-harm to help me cope with the abuse and torture I was living through. But over time I learned to accept my scars. I saw them as more of a visual indication of the abuse I’d been through and my survival. I also gradually learned to love myself, and worked on accepting and loving my body. It become important to me to not hide my scars because I hate secrets—they remind me of the incest and ritual abuse that I was forced to keep silent about. And I didn’t want to feel ashamed—and hiding them meant that I was. So I stopped hiding them, and learned to talk about them. It also really helped to have people who I loved, love and accept my arm.
What are some of your favourite self-nurturing habits? Why are they so important to you?
I love to read. Reading a good book comforts and nurtures me, and helps me escape when I need to escape, while entertaining me. Books can also help me feel less alone. I also love watching feel-good movies, playing with my dog, spending time with my friends and people I love. I enjoy putting natural essential oil cream on my hands (it smells good and engages a few senses at once), listening to music that I find uplifting, and reading emails or letters from people I love and/or that make me feel good.I think it’s so important to do things that help us feel good, especially for those of us with abuse or trauma backgrounds, or who are dealing with depression. It can be so easy to fall into depression or despair or old abuse messages, and/or to isolate ourselves. Treating ourselves gently (the way we might a friend), using self-care, can help lift our mood, encourage us to love ourselves and/or treat ourselves better.
You recommend a ton of books on your website. Can you share with us the top three that influenced your writing style?
Only three? I find that hard to do! But I think Dick Francis, Lois Duncan, and Cynthia Vogt all affected my writing style. I read them over and over again as a teen, and I still reread them. Their books resonate with me and speak to me.
Do you have any words that you live by today?
Not words on their own, but more core beliefs—that it’s important to have compassion and kindness for others AND for ourselves; to trust our instincts; and to work on healing.