Broadcaster Charlie Webster on the legacy of childhood trauma: 'I didn’t think I was valued and so didn’t care about myself. I was drowning'

Charlie Webster in Los Angeles. Portrait by Jennifer Cawley/Emotion StudioCharlie Webster in Los Angeles. Portrait by Jennifer Cawley/Emotion Studio
Charlie Webster in Los Angeles. Portrait by Jennifer Cawley/Emotion Studio
Sports broadcaster, podcaster and campaigner Charlie Webster has a glittering CV of achievement, including multiple marathons and cycling 3,000 miles from London to Rio. But the trauma of abuse by her violent stepfather and sexual abuse by a sports coach when she was a teenage athlete left deep emotional damage around self worth she is still reckoning with today. It is why she has written a book tackling all of these issues head on

It’s 8am in Los Angeles, the automatic sunshine is streaming through the window, and, run completed and breakfast downed, Charlie Webster is almost ready to begin another day of hustling and sweet-talking for her latest big TV idea.​

Almost, because for the next hour she’s going to tell me how she arrived at this moment – one which those whose role was to care and nurture never thought she would reach, doing their damnedest to crush the life out of her.

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And she spills the lot. About not just the tyrant stepfather and the paedophile running coach but also the bad boyfriends. The time she nearly died; the occasions when she thought about ending it all.

Charlie Webster finishes the London Marathon in 2019. Picture: Jeff Spicer/Getty ImagesCharlie Webster finishes the London Marathon in 2019. Picture: Jeff Spicer/Getty Images
Charlie Webster finishes the London Marathon in 2019. Picture: Jeff Spicer/Getty Images

“My stepfather called me ugly, thick and – when I cried – pathetic,” explains Webster quietly. “And he told me I would never amount to anything.” Well, he got all of that wrong.

She’s been a sports presenter on the box. She’s campaigned on behalf of those who’ve suffered similar fates and changed laws. She has 16 marathons to her name as well as Ironman triathlons and has cycled from London to Rio. She tops the podcast charts. Her projected return to our screens has got a hard act to follow – a previous documentary shocked the athletics world into greater scrutiny of coaching to protect the young in its charge. And now she’s written a book.

All the horrible things which have befallen Webster, 41, are in it but this is not a misery memoir, even though if so positioned on the shelves it could blow many of these titles away. It’s called Why It’s OK to Talk About Trauma because she wants it to be of benefit to other victims.

Among the many warm testimonies on the opening pages, Professor Sir Simon Wessely, Regius Chair of Psychiatry at King’s College, London, writes: “When Charlie Webster developed PTSD and was looking for help, all she could find were intimidating textbooks full of academic jargon which didn’t feel like ‘real life’ – books by people like me. This is definitely based on real life – her own. If something similar were to happen to me, it’s the book I would want to read.”

Charlie Webster appearing on This Morning last September. Picture: Ken McKay/ITV/ShutterstockCharlie Webster appearing on This Morning last September. Picture: Ken McKay/ITV/Shutterstock
Charlie Webster appearing on This Morning last September. Picture: Ken McKay/ITV/Shutterstock

We’ll come to the PTSD, which followed that 3,000-mile expedition on two wheels, the rare form of malaria, the coma and how she came back from the dead. But for context and as the book’s subtitle has it, “to make sense of our past and grow through the pain”, let’s start at the beginning.

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Webster was born in Sheffield, her mum Joy falling pregnant with her at 16 while still at school, attempting to hide the bump from her teachers with safety-pinned jeans and baggy jumpers until being rumbled and kicked out. “My mum and dad – who was just a year older – were miserable,” she explains over Zoom. “They were forced to marry to keep me but divorced when I was three. Mum and I were homeless for a while and when we eventually got a house we lived off potatoes.”

Webster was seven when Joy met the man who’d become her stepdad. “I just wanted this new dad to love me but he didn’t. He despised me.” Jealous of her closeness with Joy, he subjected her to mental and physical abuse, undermining and lashing out. His reasoning for hitting her aged ten, of hurling objects at her face when she entered a room? “To toughen me up.”

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She recalls in the book how the trauma of near-death experience in Rio prompted flashbacks of the trauma of childhood in Sheffield: “ … Hiding behind the bedroom door, holding my breath in case I made a noise, and wetting myself because I was too scared to go to the bathroom… ”

Such horrors are locked fast in the memory, this one from when she was 15: “I can clearly recall to this day every little detail of my stepdad punching me in the stomach and falling to the ground. I remember exactly what the room was like, the sounds of my mum and little brother screaming, the smell of alcohol, even the feel of the cheap black dress I was wearing… ”

He’d accused her of being late home. She wasn’t because she never put a foot wrong, indeed knew exactly where to place her feet on the floorboards so as not to make a sound, and was careful not to clink her fork on her teeth when she ate. She was managing his mood-swings and doing everything to keep the peace, having forced herself to avoid crying because this only provoked him. But she was beginning to assume that such punishments, because of having so little self-worth, were somehow merited. Classic trauma behaviour.

Her mum tried to protect her but was suffering her own abuse. School suspected but chose not to interfere. The family doctor didn’t ask any questions either, simply handing her some pills for depression, diagnosed when she was 17. No one would listen; though Webster back then didn’t want to tell.

In adult life she has been an impassioned campaigner against domestic abuse, an ambassador for both Women’s Aid and the NSPCC who serves on the Ministry of Justice’s victims panel and, thanks in large part to her lobbying, 2021’s Domestic Abuse Act acknowledges the effect on children of living in troubled homes. While Joy would eventually leave the marriage, worldly goods stuffed into two Aldi bags, Webster jumped on a train to Newcastle and university, hoping to excise Sheffield from her life, although she had another reason for wanting to do that.

She was 15 when she was sexually abused by her running coach. The accidents from being too afraid to go to the loo at home continued at the club. The coach exploited this, diagnosed a weak bladder and told her he could help – with massage. In the book, describing a panic attack aged 33 which led to her seeking psychiatric help, she was remembering, among other things, the coach leaning over her with “stale blue-cheese breath… his crotch right next to my head on the weights bench” and “the slipperiness of baby oil”.

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“He preyed on me, groomed me, but I thought he was helping me,” says Webster. “And he was so manipulative that I’d question myself. Did that really happen? Was that really abuse? For don’t forget I wanted to be an athlete. I wanted to win races. By calling him out, was I going to destroy all of that? I was worried I’d be chopped from his training group.”

Webster thought she was the first to be targeted – she wasn’t. In 2002 Paul North was sentenced to ten years in prison for multiple counts of sexual abuse and one of rape. One girl, Georgina, committed suicide aged 18, Webster only discovering this during filming for her BBC documentary Nowhere to Run: Abused by Our Coach where she reconnected with her old track mates to tell their story. “I wanted what we suffered to count for something,” she says. But last year another from the group – Katie, a good friend of Webster’s who’d moved to Australia – took her own life.

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“It’s horrific – I’m heartbroken,” she says. “When Katie passed away I felt guilty. Why didn’t I speak up before? We could have all helped each other because there’s so much power in peer support.” Webster does not mention North by name but adds: “He’s out now. I know he’s got family who’ve stuck by him but I’m so angry Katie isn’t here because she’s the one who deserved help. In her name and also Georgina’s I want things to change.” The film shook up UK Athletics. “Far more than when I was young there’s an acknowledgement [of the need for effective safeguards]. Maybe the book can be another spur and what happened to all of us can validate the experience of others in similar situations. Hopefully it can tell them: ‘It’s okay, hang on, you can work through this… ’”

Webster was helped by therapy, reckoning her clinical psychologist saved her life, although laughs at how she initially balked at the suggestions, to encourage her to feel safe, that she choose a favourite soft toy and smell (lavender actually stopped her nightmares). Another exercise was creating a “lifeline” using a piece of string, flowers (for life’s good events) and stones (for the bad). One stone in the book’s illustration reads “Bullied at work” but there’s no mention of this in the text. What happened?

“Well spotted – but can I even tell you?” She mentions the #MeToo movement in Hollywood and how some of those who spoke out would end up ostracized. Presenting sport she worked for Sky, ESPN and ITV. She doesn’t name the guilty network but says sexism was rife with cutting comments about her accent – northern working-class – and appearance. “I wasn’t there to friggin’ look pretty,” she says. “I was passionate about sport. Away from work I don’t think anyone was more actively involved in it. I ran 250 miles to and from 40 football clubs. If a man made a mistake on camera then off-air it would just be banter. If a woman did the reaction was: ‘What, you don’t know that? You’re so stupid.’ The number of times there would be women, including myself, left crying in a heap after being berated was horrific. It was abuse, and I don’t use that word lightly.”

Maybe less so now, but televised sport in Webster’s era was very male-dominated. Why, in view of her trauma at the hands of men, did she venture into it? “Because of what had happened to me. I wanted to fight and prove myself [in that world]. I threw myself into it.”

Considering what her late teens had been like, her drive and determination were impressive. “There was a lot of risky behaviour. I didn’t do drugs but I drank a lot. I self-harmed, cutting myself with screwdrivers, and there were suicidal thoughts. I had meaningless, unemotional sex. I had no fear and was probably seen as this cool girl but the truth was I didn’t think I was valued and so didn’t care about myself. I was drowning.”

The abuse she suffered at the running club has caused anxiety as an adult when she’s been lying on anything except a bed – in a reiki session, for instance, or near horizontal in the dentist’s chair. When she sought meaningful relationships, intimacy was a problem.

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And as recently as a few years ago, after learning by phone as she walked near London’s King’s Cross that a TV project had fallen through, she instantly began beating herself up. “All I heard in my head were the voices of my past: ‘You’re not good enough. You’re an idiot for even trying.’ A double-decker bus was speeding along the road and I nearly stepped out in front of it. The hurt was so powerful.”

In everyday life for Webster there can be triggering: something current, maybe innocuous, sparking a memory of something bad. She knew she could be inviting rapid, continuous fire with the book but says: “I wanted to write it, I needed to write it, and it had to be honest to show the impact trauma has. There were days when I wrote for 12 hours non-stop, didn’t even want to take a loo break. The words were pouring out of me, I’d be crying and crying and crying, and the toughest chapter was the one about relationships which had failed. Then, oh God, sometimes I’d have to be on TV the next day, all smiley-faced… ”

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Two exes got violent. One tried to throttle her, only stopping when his six-year-old daughter ran into the bedroom having heard her screams. Another with trust issues was obsessed with her previous boyfriend and put her down wherever they went. “He said I made him look bad because I always looked good.” Once he slammed her leg in a taxi door, later throwing a glass of whisky which cut her. “He started crying and my critical self went into overdrive. The behaviours I learned as a child kicked in. When my mum cried my stepdad would blame me. I didn’t bother to pick the stinging pieces of glass out of my feet and went to comfort him. ‘This is my fault,’ I told myself.

“I was mimicking my mum [in her marriage] and the more desperate and ashamed I felt, the more I did it. My childhood dictated how I was behaving as an adult. When I’d met that boyfriend I was guarded but told myself I needed to let somebody in if I was going to have any hope of having my own family. I left that relationship after another six months but all I could think was: ‘Another failure. You’re worthless, you’re unlovable.”

Webster is in a better place now. Single again, but ever hopeful. “Regarding that boyfriend there’s been a bit of a pattern. The thing these guys liked about me about me would become the problem because they were so insecure. I think I’ve grown and don’t want to believe that thing about it being hard for successful women to have relationships. But what am I to do? I am who I am and hopefully I’ll find somebody wonderful who’ll love me for that and not feel so threatened. I’m a Scorpio so I’m loyal. I’ve got faults but I’m very loving and very giving.”

And children? Webster has undergone IVF without success. “There’s been a lot of soul-searching about that. For a long time I didn’t want kids, didn’t want to bring them into this world because of what had happened to me and also my mum’s experiences. I just saw unhappiness there and didn’t want that, although as a mother she did her absolute best and we have a great relationship. Because her education was interrupted she had me reading before I went to school by testing me on street signs and shop names. By ten I’d read every Stephen King novel. She constantly said: ‘Experience life. See the world. Do all the things I couldn’t.’ My mum is adopted so I’ve been wondering: maybe I adopt and give a child the love it maybe cannot have because of circumstance.”

Webster followed her mum’s urgings but in 2016 her globetrotting almost ended in disaster. Twenty-four hours after finishing her epic cycle she was in intensive care fighting for her life. The malaria, her kidneys failing and red blood cells self-destructing had her doctors in Rio telling her she wouldn’t survive. “I actually died,” she says. So the medics were stunned when she pulled though.

“They told me I was fortunate my heart was so strong. If it had been weaker, surrounded by fatty acid, then probably I couldn’t have been brought back [to life]. So the running I did as a girl when all that horrible stuff was happening helped save my life. That’a a head-f**k! And the other thing they said was I fought so much to stay alive. Even when I was in the coma I was fighting and fighting and fighting. I do remember a moment when I said to myself: ‘I can’t do it anymore, I’m done.’ But then I was like: ‘No! I’m not finished yet!’”

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And Charlie Webster is not finished. Not finished with the programmes and podcasts. Not finishing hoping she can find love. Not finished processing the pain although she does this better now. Not finished her abuse campaigns. “I’ve always been interested in politics,” is a throwaway line in the book. “Well spotted again,” she says. “I’ve thought about going into it. Can I achieve more from the outside or working from the inside? So maybe … ” One good thing, I say, politics is absolutely trauma-free. “Ha, of course!”

Why It’s OK to Talk About Trauma is published by Welbeck on 9 May, £16.99.

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