'I was abused - now I want to give hope to others'

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Rhys Dickinson
Image caption,
Rhys Dickinson is the youngest board member of a child victims' charity

Warning: this article describes the impact of abuse which some people might find upsetting

Rhys Dickinson lost his childhood to the terror of physical and sexual abuse. Now aged 23, he wants to show other young victims of crime what can be achieved in life, even after suffering "unimaginable" trauma.

In his own words, the law graduate from Essex describes how he overcame his anger to become the first person in his family to go to university.

'Everyone thought he was lovely'

Image source, Rhys Dickinson
Image caption,
Rhys lived in constant fear of being abused

It was fine at first, he was someone I trusted and liked. All of a sudden he became more and more aggressive and threatening. I was about five or six years old.

He would get angry and punch me in the arms and stomach. He seemed to find it funny. He would chase me round the house with a BB gun, shooting and laughing while I screamed and cried.

Everyone thought he was lovely and a good guy, but I was scared of him.

We had just moved into a new house when the sexual abuse started. He took me upstairs and that's when he made me do things to him for the first time. I was seven.

It made me feel sick. This happened for several weeks until he raped me. I remember being frozen, crying and in so much pain. This carried on for years.

I lived in constant fear of him abusing me.

One of the reasons I never told anyone was that I was scared - I didn't think anyone would believe me and I would make it worse.

'My mum was crying'

Image source, Rhys Dickinson
Image caption,
Rhys's abuser cannot be identified for legal reasons

I suffered four years of sexual abuse. I was 11 when I told my mum.

I remember coming home from school, my mum was sitting at the table, one of her friends was with her.

I didn't want to say anything with the friend there. She left and I spoke to mum on her own. I was crying, I was scared. She was crying and saying, 'how has this been going on?'

That evening, he spoke to me on the phone and said, 'it was just horseplay, I didn't mean it'. He was calm but he was starting to worry.

I worried - would he come and get me? Would he get arrested? Was I going to be taken seriously and what would people say about me?

We went to police and gave our statements.

He was arrested and remanded, and while he was on remand police got intelligence of a threat to my mum's life.

'He got 14 years'

Image source, Rhys Dickinson
Image caption,
Rhys was at secondary school when he finally told his mum about the abuse

For six weeks, we couldn't stay at home. One week we would be living in an empty holiday park, the next week we would be somewhere else, like a caravan in an empty field. It was so scary. I couldn't go to school. Afterwards, people at school asked lots of questions which I didn't want to answer.

At the trial, I gave evidence via a video-link. I was 13. I kept crying, reliving it all. I was told my evidence was so compelling that people were in tears.

From what I remember, his defence was that I'd got hold of my mum's true crime books and made it up. He got 14 years.

After the trial my family were nominated to go to Disneyland Florida with Embrace (a charity for child victims of crime) with other families. It made me realise I was not alone.

'I had a lot of anger'

Image source, Rhys Dickinson
Image caption,
Rhys said he would lash out at school and get into fights

When we got back I got a bit of support with school work with a guy from Connexions (a former government support service), but I needed more help and he put me in touch with a counselling service. I went every week for three years and had to travel for hours on the train as there was nothing near me.

I had a lot of anger towards my abuser and fear about leaving the house. I couldn't trust anyone and I isolated myself at home.

I was struggling with my schoolwork. I'd lash out and get into fights. I felt I had nothing and I struggled to make friends.

Counselling helped me get on and have a focus. I don't know where I would be now without that support.

I don't carry that anger with me any more. I don't want my abuser to define who I am.

'I told all my housemates'

Image source, Rhys Dickinson
Image caption,
Rhys is studying for his master's degree in international law

I went to college and got my A-Levels. It was then that I got an interest in studying law. I could see that I could use it to help people.

I was the first in the family to go to university. It was probably the biggest turning point in my life. I made friends instantly. I'd never really got close to anyone before because I was scared to go out.

I was in my first year and living in halls of residence when my abuser was released from prison. I told all my housemates in the kitchen.

They were lost for words, some of them cried. It was the first time I had ever told friends like that, and it really reassured me that I didn't have to be ashamed.

'Pre-trial counselling is a must'

Image source, University of Lincoln
Image caption,
The University of Lincoln athletics team raised thousands of pounds for Embrace after Rhys told them his story

I got my law degree and I'm now finishing my masters. Wherever the legal profession takes me, I want to use my experience to make sure every child is put first, to make sure they know they are believed, are supported every step of the way and have faith and confidence they will get justice.

I have given presentations to the Crown Prosecution Service about my experience and the trial, how it affected me and whether anything could be done differently to help victims.

I've received a lot of support from them, which is awesome.

Pre-trial counselling is a must. For a child who has been through so much to not be able to talk about it and get help straight away is a travesty. I had so much going on emotionally that I just couldn't understand and I had to wait years to really get the help I needed, and if I didn't have the strength I did then it could have been a different story.

We need better signposting to local services and guaranteed funding to give every single child the right to free counselling.

'It has given me a drive to succeed'

Image caption,
Rhys says his life could have spiralled out of control

Joining Embrace as the youngest person on the board has been amazing.

I want to go around the country to speak to adults and children and show them what you can achieve in life, even when you've suffered unimaginable things.

We all face challenges. Some are bigger than others, but with the right support you can get through it.

Abuse could have had a negative effect on my life, I could have spiralled out of control. But it has given me a drive to succeed and help others beyond anything else.

If you have been affected by the issues raised in this article help and advice is available here.

As told to Laura Devlin

Photography by Laurence Cawley

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