Mark, 18, began viewing images of child sexual abuse after the country was sent into Covid-19 lockdown in March 2020. Mark describes his journey from seeking out indecent images of children on the Dark Web, to his arrest, to the support he has received from the team at Shore.
I left my secondary school early in March 2020 as the country was put into a nationwide lockdown and spent months alone with little to occupy myself with. At first, it all felt like a bit of a novelty, as nothing like this had ever happened before, and after the stress of revising for exams, I felt like I should enjoy the free time; the longer it went on for, the more I found myself struggling to cope with the isolation and inability to see my friends.
Later on that year, I joined an online group chat where people would share and send pictures, videos and thoughts on various topics. It was one of those things that I did in the spur of the moment, and never really gave much thought to, until one day, somebody sent four attachments containing illegal images.
I remember opening these and viewing them for the first time, feeling incredibly shocked and disgusted by what I saw. These thoughts went through my mind for hours, until I decided to leave the group and delete everything to try and clear my head. It took me a while to get over the horrible nature of what I’d seen, and I started to feel better after several days; as I calmed down, I began to feel an intense curiosity to see those images again, but I didn’t know how.
A year of vicious circles
I’d previously heard of the dark web, and slowly started to explore this over the next few months. It was a nest of illegal activity, and I didn’t have to search that much to find more of what I’d seen before. The context of the images grew more serious, and with ease of access, I would view more and more every time I visited the dark web. It would always seem ‘fine’ whilst I was looking, but then afterwards, during my normal, day to day life, I would become guilt-ridden and shocked by what I had done. This would lead me to delete anything I had from my devices and pretend that it had never happened, or that it was the last time I’d do something like that.
I couldn’t comprehend what I was doing, as I’d never had feelings like this before. However, after successful days, weeks, and even months of being ‘clean’ and not engaging in this behaviour, my feelings of guilt and wrongdoing would surpass and I’d find myself back online, repeating it all again. This became a pattern, a cycle, and lasted for over a year. I found myself deteriorating mentally and socially, I was busy and surrounded by plenty of friends, but behind all of that, was holding a secret that I truly felt I could tell no-one about.
The moment my world changed
In September 2021, I was woken early to the sound of knocking at my front door, and immediately I knew that something wasn’t right. It was the police, and they came into the house after having obtained a warrant to search it for devices containing illegal images. I felt like my world had crumbled completely as I confessed to my actions and watched them turn my bedroom upside down in search, whilst also going through my devices in detail. At the time, my mother was being made aware of the situation, and I knew that my behaviour had caused extreme damage, not just to my life, but to hers and others around me too.
I wasn’t arrested, but questioned at the police station, and then I was free to leave. Their advice to us was to ‘try and live a normal life’ but I couldn’t see how this was possible now, with them investigating everything and the thought of being charged and sentenced hanging over me. Over the next few weeks, I lost 90% of everything in my life. I was expelled from school for breaking their code of conduct, asked not to return to my dance school, had no access to the internet due to my devices having been seized, and I had to face the consequences of my actions with the people around me. It felt like the world had ended.
The fallout and getting help
I fell into a hole, not being able to tell my friends why I’d stopped going to school or dance whilst trying to deal with all the thoughts, feelings and worries I was experiencing about it all and face those around me every day. However, my family, shocked as they were, were hugely supportive and loving, something I hadn’t expected at all. They put me in contact with the charity who run Shore. Talking to someone about what I’d done wasn’t really something I wanted to do, given the huge level of embarrassment and guilt I was feeling, but I knew that just sitting with my feelings constantly going around in my head wasn’t going to help anyone, so I gave them a call. They spoke to me in a non-judgmental, supportive way, and arranged for me to have an appointment with one of their workers.
My first appointment with my worker took place a few weeks later, and it was over the phone. It took a lot for me to try and explain to her what had happened, but hearing her voice was enough for me to know that this was a safe space to talk, and that she was there to help me, not judge me. I started to have regular meetings with her, once a week over Zoom, and we began to discuss reasons, consequences and moving forward. The activities I completed with her were exceptionally helpful in making me understand more about risk-taking and illegal behaviour, and I reflected on possible reasons why I’d started engaging in this in the first place. She was very calm and understanding, helping me to make sense of it all and see that, although this was a huge bump in the road for me, I could get over it and still have a good life. This wasn’t easy for me to understand, and at times I felt like it would never happen; I’d have days where I would struggle in silence and feel like I was going to fall back into it all again but knowing that I had a meeting with her every week helped me get through. I would look forward to seeing a friendly face, knowing that I’d learn something new with each session.
I began to understand that I had a problem with pornography, which you can become more and more desensitized to over time, causing you to seek out more extreme content. My worker from Shore helped me understand that it is a super-stimulant, meaning that you experience a sensory overload when viewing it; the more you view, the less effective this stimulant becomes, meaning you need something more ‘exciting’. Slowly, I managed to cut back on my use of pornography, giving me more time to spend doing other things and be able to reflect on its pros and cons.
Rebuilding my life
During my time with the people at Shore, I realized that, in order to help myself rebuild my life, I needed to plan ways to get back to normal. My worker supported me in applying for jobs and I managed to get a part-time job as a Christmas temp at a shop in my local town. It got me out of the house and doing something productive, whilst giving me the opportunity to earn some money and meet some new people.
My worker helped me prepare for the court case I was going to face. Whilst I still felt highly anxious about what was going to take place, part of me felt better knowing it probably wasn’t going to be as bad as I thought, something which had been dwelling on my mind since this all began.
A year later, I have been through court and although it wasn’t pleasant in any way, it helped me mark the start of a new beginning. I was sentenced to probation and a community order of unpaid work, both aimed at helping me work through the problems I was facing and getting me to give something back. I managed to keep my job at the shop and now work there full time alongside a wonderful team of colleagues and friends who make it enjoyable and something I look forward to.
Looking to the future
I now know that sometimes you have to go through a rough patch to appreciate what you have in your life. I’m incredibly grateful to my family and friends for supporting me, and every day, I remind myself how lucky I am to still have them in my life. I also know that, if it weren’t for the help and support of the people at Shore, things could be very different for me.
My advice to anyone going through something like this is to seek help at the earliest opportunity, as it can change your life for the better, not for the worse. Embarrassment and guilt may prevent you from doing so at first but I can strongly say that if you get in touch with them, you will be making the first step in lifting yourself out of that dark place and beginning to work towards something better. Don’t feel like you’re alone, or that anything you say will be a shock to them, because they have heard it all and know how to deal with these problems.
Don’t give up, even on days where you feel like you have nothing left, because you do; things will always get better, so keep the visualization of you on the other side of all this in your head. You will get there.