‘Why don’t you go and give your baby a wash?’ my neighbour, Graham Carson, said to his stepdaughter, Sarah. We were in her bedroom and had been playing doctors and nurses with her dolls.

I was eight, and often popped next door to play with Sarah, who was a similar age. Her mum was friends with my mum and it was an easy arrangement, especially if one of them was busy and needed help with childcare. Graham Carson was Sarah’s mum’s new partner. He seemed harmless enough, just another grown up to me.
‘I’m going to make you feel better,’ he said once Sarah was out of earshot. He pulled me onto his lap, starting moving me up and down. Then he began touching and kissing me. I wanted so much for it to stop.

‘If you tell anyone about this they’ll laugh at you,’ he smirked. ‘No one will believe you.’
I knew what he was doing was wrong, I just didn’t know why. After all, it wasn’t as if he was physically hurting me. And I believed him when he said people would laugh if I told them what he’d done.

After that, the abuse became a regular occurrence. Carson used to take us swimming, would make us play a game that would inevitably lead to him touching me ‘down there’ under the water. I used to sit in the changing room begging not to be made to go swimming. To the other adults it just looked like I was playing up.
Another game Carson liked to get us to play was called ‘Murder in the Dark’. He’d turn the lights off and Sarah, my sister Michelle, who was two years younger, and I would have to hide. Only I was the one he always caught first. I remember one Christmas trying to zone out as the abuse was going on by staring at the coloured lights twinkling on the tree.

What had I done so wrong to be punished in this way?
Eventually, I plucked up the courage to tell a couple of school friends what was going on.
‘The man next door has been touching and kissing me,’ I blurted out.
They laughed in my face – just like Carson said they would.

‘But if that was really happening you’d be pregnant and have a baby,’ one of my friends said.
We were so naïve back then.

I’d reached secondary school age by the time I finally told mum. ( she doesn’t want to name her mum and dad) We were watching TV when a Childline advert came on. It was a reenactment of a child being groomed by an abuser. I burst out crying and said, ‘that’s been happening to me!’

Mum phoned my dad who came straight home and marched next door. Carson denied everything but when Dad told him to sling his hook he didn’t hang around. I was in such a state that Mum and Dad decided not to go to the police. They didn’t think I’d be able to deal with a court case.

With Carson now out of our lives, I was expected to move on. Only I couldn’t. When I hit my teenage years, I rebelled. I felt that the worst had already been done to me, so what else could hurt me? It was me against the world. I often ran away from home, hiding out in the empty beach huts by the coast. I overdosed too. I’d take whatever I could get my hands on. Pain killers, the anti-depressants my doctor had prescribed. I never took enough to do any real damage – they were more like cries for help. But a couple of times I needed to get my stomach pumped.

Throughout this difficult time, the one person I could rely on was my boyfriend Chris. We met when I was 12 and saw each other on and off throughout school. At 17 we had our first child, Chloe, now 25. We married when I was 22 and have another four children together, Jessica, 23, Christopher, 20, Kourtney, 19 and Bailey, 17.
But despite having a wonderful husband and family, the wounds of the past refused to heal. I suffered depression and anxiety, as well as regular flashbacks. While putting up the Christmas tree should have been a happy family occasion, it just reminded me of Graham Carson and what he did to me. I refused to have coloured lights on the tree, too. They had to be clear.

It didn’t help that Carson still lived in the area. Sometimes I’d bump into him in the corner shop. His hair was grey but nothing else had changed. The shape of his fingernails and the way he wore his glasses was burned into my memory. And he’d smirk at me, just like he did when he told me people would laugh if I said what he’d been doing.

One time I was with Chris and collapsed when I spotted Carson in the shop.
‘Are you having a heart attack?’ worried Chris asked.
‘No, that’s him,’ I said.

Chris has always known what happened to me, but I’d never pointed Carson out before.
It got to the point where I became too anxious to leave the house. I became a prisoner in my own home.
I’d brought my kids up to always tell the truth and be wary that adults didn’t necessarily want what was best for them. One day, I was talking to Jess about the importance of honesty when I suddenly felt like such a hypocrite. I’d always harboured the fear that not going to the police had left Carson free to abuse other kids. Wasn’t keeping the abuse a secret just like lying?

I decided enough was enough. Jess came with me to the police station and I asked to see one of the police officers.
‘The abuse was years ago,’ I said. ‘It must be too late.’

‘No, no,’ she said. ‘There’s no time limit to when you can report a crime like this.’
To my amazement, Carson was arrested and charged with sexually assaulting me. He denied everything, just as he had done when Dad confronted him all those years earlier.

As we waited for the case to go to court, I constantly worried whether I was doing the right thing. I couldn’t face seeing Carson in the flesh so I was filmed giving evidence and was cross-examined at Chelmsford Crown Court behind a screen.
It was so hard, but I stuck to my guns.

‘Everything I am telling you is the truth,’ I kept saying.
My dad, an old school friend and Graham’s former partner, our neighbour, were also called to give evidence. I worried about putting them through such an ordeal, but they were all so supportive.

I couldn’t face being in court for the verdict. The officer dealing with the case rang to tell me. I’d been waiting for two days for the jury to reach a decision, and collapsed onto the floor when I heard the word ‘guilty’. Luckily, Chloe was there to pick me up again.

I found out later that Carson had admitted to kissing me but tried to claim I’d come on to him. Sickening.

In October 2016, Carson was sentenced to four and a half years behind bars for seven charges of indecent assault and gross indecency with a child.
After the verdict, instead of feeing relief, I felt numb inside, as if I’d been watching everything happening to someone else on the telly. Although I’m glad Carson is being punished, it can’t give me back my childhood. I’ll never know what it’s like to be a little girl without worries. As well as affecting me emotionally, Carson’s assaults have affected me physically. I’ve had a large, cancerous tumour removed from my leg and undergone a hysterectomy. More recently, I’ve been diagnosed with fibromyalgia and use a frame to help me get about. Doctors have told me that people who are sexually abused as children often end up with medical conditions in later life.

I also have intimacy issues. For instance, I can feel trapped if Chris tries to give me a cuddle and have to stand up to return his embrace. But he’s been so supportive and the kids have been amazing too. I’m lucky to have them and my eight gorgeous grandchildren.

I’m having therapy now and trying to move towards leaving the house more. Even though Carson is locked up, I still think I’m going to see him everywhere. Although I’m still suffering because of what he did to me, I don’t regret coming forward. I’m telling my story to encourage all victims of child abuse to tell someone. Carson took away my voice by telling me no one would believe me all those years ago. It may have taken over 30 years, but I found I have finally found my voice and will use it to help others.