Each life is a story, structured with a beginning, middle and end. It is a work of collaboration: the author changes. As babies, we are carried by others who write our lives for us, who determine what we shall wear, when we shall eat, and even what we will be called. Gradually we grow, and we learn that we can have some control over our lives; we reach teenage years and realise the importance of autonomy and freedom. We start to consciously mould our own personalities, and that is when we truly become authors of our own lives for the first time.
At that age, we tend to assert our new-found freedom somewhat falsely; we rebel against the previous authors and embrace whatever they would not choose for us. But that limited experiment in self-definition is powerful, and we greedily indulge again and again. We gradually shape ourselves more: we decide on a career, we develop tastes in music and literature, and we choose our friendships. We create ourselves, and we decide on a plot for our stories, for our lives. “I am going to be a successful children’s book editor, and I will spend my twenties living in an attic bedsit in London.” Whether or not this comes true is far less important than that I decided on that plotline for myself.
That is why acts of sexual violence are so shattering. Someone else’s brutality threatens to derail the story that we want to tell, and it sweeps our power and confidence from us. At 18 I was bullish, confident with men, and sure of where my life was heading. Then in fifteen minutes one night in Malta, my world was ripped apart. My life was irrevocably changed, and my personality altered immediately – although you’d have to have been looking for it to notice as an outsider.
I would be lying if I said that before the rape I was some wallflower – I have always been a terrible flirt, and I had kissed my share of boys. But I was very clear at 18 that I wanted my first time to be with someone I loved – indeed, my now-lapsed faith had persuaded me to wait until marriage – and instead, a selfish man deprived me of the right to give my virginity to someone I chose. Having said that, as far as I’m concerned I did lose my true virginity to the first man I loved, a few short months later. What is important is how you choose to view experiences, and I refuse to give that hotel clerk, Mark – his name badge was glinting at my eye level continuously as he moved on top of me – that honour. So that was the first time that my authorship was removed by him. And then it continued. Unbeknownst to me on any kind of conscious level, most of my actions then became dictated by him, and that experience.
I grew suddenly reckless, going out of my way to walk down alleyways at night, talking to strange men. I didn’t realise it then, but looking back I am clear in my mind that I was doing my very best to stick two fingers up at him, to state defiantly that he had not scarred me. In fact, I was giving him the power by letting him write my story. Similarly, once on my gap year and travelling I was no victim rocking slowly against the wall of a darkened room. I was a near alcoholic who partied every night and slept around. Contrary to tradition, I reacted to rape by becoming incredibly promiscuous. I don’t mean that I had occasional one night stands. I mean I slept with four people in one week. I hasten to add that that was an abnormal week, but still. I was out of control in a very dangerous way.
Why did I react like that? Theories differ. Perhaps, as with the dark alleyways, I was trying to say that I was just fine. Perhaps I was trying to take back control of my sexuality. Perhaps I was trying to convince myself that the rape didn’t matter, because sex wasn’t important, it was run of the mill. It could be any one of those ideas, or a combination, or something utterly different, and I may never decide. However, what I have learned since – after doing lots of digging online, because it isn’t easily found – is that my reaction to rape is not a singular experience. Plenty of women attempt to get over it by sleeping around, but we never talk about it. This has to change – I thought I was thoroughly alone, but instead, untidy experiences were being hushed up. It is so much easier to sympathise and pity a mute agoraphobic than a drunken slut – so those are the life stories that get printed.
I digress. My promiscuous behaviour continued when I reached university, and only gradually started to get better halfway through first year – which is exactly the time I first told a friend about the rape. In other words, as soon as I took control and began to be the author of my life once more, I prevented the hotel clerk from dictating my life. Thank heavens I went to a university like Durham, which has a total of four clubs surrounded by a close-knit community. That meant that my behaviour was easily found out – and no one likes to be called a slut, no matter how true it is – and that I was limited in my opportunities to go off the rails. Durham has some drugs, but in a very innocent way compared to a lot of unis. I am convinced that if I had gone to Leeds or Nottingham, with a big city culture and lots of ways to get into trouble, I would have been a drug addict within months. In fact, the sometimes irritatingly welfare-based nature of Durham saved me, and helped to put me back in charge of my life.
I gradually got better – I still have bad days, such as when after receiving particularly bad news about a relative, I started drinking at 10am and rounded it off by sleeping with a pseudo-ex who I knew was a prick. Occasionally I have panic attacks where I lose control, and if I’m struggling with something really huge, my gut always tells me to reach for the wine and the nearest penis. But by and large, this thing which dominated me for years – and which will always be a part of me – is now in the background, no longer steering me. My personality has been irrevocably changed, but not necessarily in a bad way. Dealing with my rape has helped me to find a resolve and strength within myself that I had no idea of. And the self confidence that I now have is utterly different from the one I had at 18. Now it is quiet, determined, and in some strange way, very peaceful. I have a faith in myself that I can deal with anything, and it is that knowledge, more than anything else, that has helped me to regain my authorship.