Archive for October, 2010

Words, Wide Night

Somewhere on the other side of this wide night
and the distance between us, I am thinking of you.
The room is turning slowly away from the moon.

This is pleasurable. Or shall I cross that out and say
it is sad? In one of the tenses I singing
an impossible song of desire that you cannot hear.

La lala la. See? I close my eyes and imagine
the dark hills I would have to cross
to reach you. For I am in love with you and this

is what it is like or what it is like in words.

– Carol Ann Duffy

This morning I woke up after hearing something slam onto the hallway floor. Investigation showed it to be from Amazon, and I knew exactly what the brown package contained: After Silence, the account of journalist Nancy Raine’s rape and her recovery. I naively hopped into bed and cracked open the spine. 46 pages later, after reading some of her exquisite prose which I related to so deeply, I was a wreck.

After 46 pages I knew I couldn’t read any more for the time being. I put it to one side and got out of bed. Except I didn’t. The tears which had come and gone as I read her words suddenly started to flow continuously, and I wrapped my duvet around me to create a cocoon. I let my head run through all sorts of things that I don’t normally let myself think about. I had expected reading that book to be a challenge, but that since it would resonate, it would be worthwhile. I didn’t expect it to be accompanied by such an overwhelming sense of vulnerability. I thought it would make me feel stronger, in the company of this Amazon of  a woman. Instead, I felt intensely alone.

At 22, I looked over the side of my bed at the floor of my room, willing myself to get up and step onto it. There’s nothing special about that piece of floor, no terrifying memories or even associations. I looked at this unthreatening expanse and curled up even more tightly, as my grief trickled down my face. I couldn’t imagine being able to get up. Except then I moved one leg against the other, and became painfully aware that I was naked. I always sleep naked. But then, suddenly, I was horrified by my nudity. I could feel the absence of underwear acutely, felt the air against my vagina and was panicked by how vulnerable I was. How could I have left myself that open? I rushed out of bed and pulled on the bulkiest clothes I could find—thick tracksuit bottoms and a hoody.

I went next door to my flatmate’s room, crawled into her bed and lay there as she comforted me.

This is what it is like to have been raped, or what it is like in words.

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The emotional realities of rape

Right at the start of this blog I dealt with the physical aspects of rape. Talking about the emotional responses take up far more time, because they are many and wide-ranging. But now I would like to focus on just one area: the emotional impact on sensuality.

I’ve spoken before about the emotional distancing that I experienced following the rape: the memory hovered somewhere in the distance, but not in a cognitively useful way. It was there, but I didn’t acknowledge it, didn’t have a clear grasp of what had really gone on, and I certainly felt none of the raw emotion. This is something that I’ve always been good at. My subconscious has always been very good at protecting me, and I’m usually the last to realise when something is bothering me – I don’t feel stress or anxiety on the surface, but it manifests as insomnia. It’s a sure fire way of figuring out if anything’s wrong with me.

In a similar way, the general psychologist view of what happened to me after the rape is that the memory stayed with me – if hazily – whilst the terror and the anger associated with it was suppressed. However, it’s impossible to completely eradicate emotions as strong as those, so they showed themselves in other ways, as though upset that not enough notice was being paid to them.

One way was, of course, my charming habit of drinking myself into a stupor before engaging in a competitive round of bed-hopping. There was one more, which was noticeable only to a few: what happened to me during sex, and even more so, in the immediate aftermath. Unsurprisingly, the Australian boy was the first to notice this, since he was the first person I slept with after the rape. Every time we had sex, I would turn away, be very quiet, and not want to look at him. And every time, although he wouldn’t always catch it, I would have to wipe away silent tears.

As a psychology geek, he realised fairly early on that there was probably a reason for this, and he gently asked me about it quite a few times. I rarely gave a gentle response. No, nothing had happened to me. No, I had never experienced sexual violence. Nothing from my childhood. Nothing recently. I was fine.

We had a spectacular blow up about it one afternoon in Thailand – or rather, I blew up. What’s astonishing about this is that I truly believed my own words. I did think I was fine. The emotion was so far removed from the memory of the rape that it had become blurry, like a photo negative left out in the rain. It was a memory of nothing particularly important, and certainly of nothing damaging.

And so I carried on not dealing with the ramifications of my experience. A pattern emerged during my sexual encounters. I would relish the chase, the achievement of getting men into my bed, of being able to have a degree of control over them. And then I would realise that they were in my bed, and throughout the sex I would want them to hurry up and get the hell out, out of me, my body, and out of the room. To begin with I would always withdraw and silently weep. Gradually, the withdrawal lessened. I would be able to cope with the sex just fine, to mostly ignore the man inside me, but always the tears would come. They would come, but they would be without emotion. I didn’t feel sad, or scared, I just felt numb, and slightly bewildered at why these tears always appeared.

As my keel slowly righted and I began to have healthier sex with people I actually cared about, the tears remained. Even if it was just one or two shiny pearls, they would always slip out. I became excellent at hiding them, until more recently, as ‘people I was sleeping with’ became ‘person I was considering dating’, I decided to open up. The emotional and physical consequences proved difficult to hide in the longer-term. The two almost-partners of those months were well-chosen, because they both responded with absolute sensitivity at a time when I was terrified I would be told that I was too much work. And they remained gracious as weird little me apologetically wiped tears away after thoroughly pleasant sex.

Then came the boyfriend, the first commitment following the rape and the breakdown of my relationship with the Australian boy. My memory is awful, so I can’t be clear about the exact order of events, but I can tell you that this happened around the same time that I was writing the article for the student newspaper – when I was finally owning my experiences. One day, after sex – the sex which he had learnt to understand would always be followed by a little teariness – he wanted to chat and I told him to shut up. I told him to be quiet, because I was concentrating. And then, after an awkward twenty seconds, I burst into a big grin and gave him a hug. “No tears,” I said triumphantly. “I can control them now.” And now, I find I don’t even need to control them. They no longer come.

 

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Walking home

My heart thump-thumps along with the heels I try to make sound heavy, threatening.

‘Poised’.

I clutch my keys with jagged teeth poking out, and twist my neck every half minute, peering into

black.

I breathe too quickly to be from Trendy Shoreditch. A dark road is my challenge. I am not brave

anymore. The bravery was stupid, arrogant.

I miss it.

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I confess (it was me)

About twenty minutes ago I was having coffee (read: hot chocolate) with one of my oldest friends. We went to primary school together, we were tap dancing partners when older (oh yes!), and as such he knows me pretty well. No stranger, then, to the Malta story – in fact one of my earliest confidantes – but having just returning from a year abroad, my blog was news to him. As we discussed it, a disparity emerged between us. “Don’t do that”, he said abruptly, taking me by surprise. “Don’t use that word.”

The offending word, it turned out, was slut. “Your behaviour…it wasn’t really chosen. You weren’t in control. Don’t be derogatory about yourself.” Now, apart from the fact that I was reminded just why I adore this man so much, I had to disagree. For the moment, let’s leave to one side the reality of the word ‘slut’ being fairly sexist, and that as endless wannabe feminist popstars have pronounced, it’s unfair that women get slapped with that label whilst men are just LADS. What I want to focus on is this idea of choice, of control.

This blog began with an article in a student newspaper, in the last edition of my time at uni. I wanted to write it because I cared about taboos of rape being torn down, and because after what in retrospect seems like a degree spent getting my head straight, the article felt like a suitable full stop at the end of a very long sentence. For these reasons, getting that article out there was terrifically important to me. However, I would  be lying if I said that there wasn’t another reason. Durham is a small place. Stories spread, reputations get made, and they stick. In first year I pretty fairly earned the label College Slut, and it stayed with me throughout uni – which was unbelievably frustrating to me by third year after all my work at becoming a reasonably controlled person. There is no denying that part of my reason for writing that article – which I knew would be distributed around every college and library – was because I wanted to shift some of the blame. See? It wasn’t my fault! Something terrible happened to me. You can’t judge me! Can’t you see that at heart I am a picture of innocence, an angelic victim? In my mind, a fantasy unfolded where people who previously held certain opinions about me suddenly felt struck down with guilt, and embraced me as they realised the errors of their judgemental ways.

Let’s get real. Whilst, yes, my head was a bit all over the place during those dark two years, I was the one doing all those things (read: men). I made those unwise choices, and yes, they were choices. I could have been stronger in turning away from the booze and the men, and I wasn’t. I don’t mean this in a way that suggests I’m beating myself up – I think I dealt with it as well as I was personally able to. But I did make those choices, and I bear responsibility for them.

As a result of friendships, and of this blog, I know the stories of a number of women who have been affected by sexual abuse. They have all reacted in different ways. I was strong to the extent that I managed to function in a day-in, day-out capacity, but failed utterly in the areas of self-respect and self-control. Others fell to pieces and lost their confidence with the outside world, but kept their inner sanity. Still more amazed me by their strength in dealing with rapes in methodical ways, only slightly adjusting their routines yet failing to properly address the effect it had had on them emotionally. All of these women are different people, with different emotional backgrounds and levels of  psychological preparedness. No one is better or worse at addressing rape; someone who displays calm on the surface is often repressing huge amounts underneath, whilst one crazy for a while might adjust sooner.

When I think about my behaviour a few years ago, it is comforting to be able to blame it on Malta. But I also have to acknowledge that it was me, and my body, that participated in those acts. That period demonstrates to vivid effect the weakest, the worst, aspects of me. I have very little self-control, and in times of insecurity, as much as I like to think of myself as an independent woman, I prefer to relinquish it. Every single one of my sexual misadventures happened when I was utterly incapacitated by alcohol. The fact that I knew what drinking was likely to lead to, and that I still drank, shows that I was willing to allow someone else to take the reins for a while.

It still shows itself today. For a whole host of reasons, whilst I have always been confident about the, erm, ‘warm up’ acts of sex, sex itself still leaves me nervous. Obviously, I had a horrific introduction to it. Then, for years, I only knew sex as something that was always accompanied by pain. In addition, the confidence and comfort that comes from sexual exploration with a regular partner is something that I have never really had time to build. As a result, and in contrast to my university persona as some wild sexual animal, I’m actually pretty timid in the sack. In the build up, I’m a happy bunny, let the good times roll. But put me flat on my back and I’m suddenly very passive, very insecure. More than one partner has been taken utterly by surprise by this fact.

So yes, I am strong to the extent that I am now in a place where I am talking publicly about my experiences. But I’m weak in that I don’t have much self-control. Again, whilst I now like to think that I’ve made huge progress in addressing my rape (‘dealing with it’ somehow suggests that at some point it will have been ‘dealt with’) and my sexual misadventures happen far, far less often, they do still happen. The last time I felt utterly out of my depth, about a year ago, I relinquished control yet again and my old behaviour resurfaced, courtesy of some willing freshers. Whilst it is tempting to heark back to Malta to explain it, I think that takes the easy way out. To misquote J.K. Rowling from that fabulous commencement speech (if you haven’t yet watched it, please do), there is an expiration date on blaming past experiences for your current situations. I have to accept that the biggest weakness of my personality is a lack of self-control. Yet again, I’m left with the conclusion that the rape – or rather, the aftermath of it – taught me something really valuable about myself.

This does, however, put me in a sticky situation. I did, as we know, cheat spectacularly on my beloved Australian boy. I ruined a relationship that I cherished, and much worse, hurt a man that I adored an indescribable amount. I never want to do that to somebody else. And part of me worries that perhaps that person – that horrible person who hurt someone so greatly – was not a monster borne from a horrific experience, but a part of me all along. That’s why I was so delighted that the next relationship I had – a whopping three years after I had first done my cheating –   was slow and steady. It was a gentle relationship that we eased into, as if we were children gradually inching our way into the cold waters of the sea. I was dipping my feet into the world of commitment, testing myself. Thankfully, I behaved myself, and indeed never came close to doing anything untoward. And whilst that lovely relationship did not last (and indeed led to the most charming, friendly break-up I’ve ever had), it gave me the confidence to think that I might be able to start trusting myself again.

Just so long as the next relationship also gives me time to break the shoreline.

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Rock Bottom

Apart from making ludicrous amounts of money and getting millions of children and adults reading, J.K. Rowling is a goddess for a whole other reason. That’s because, on 5th June 2008, she delivered a fabulous commencement speech to hundreds of lucky Harvard Graduates. One of her major themes was the fringe benefits of failure, and I think about her words rather a lot. Whilst I would, of course, never think of rape as any kind of failure – as if that monstrous act was anything we had control over – replacing the word failure with rape in the following is very powerful to me.

So why do I talk about the benefits of failure? Simply because failure meant a stripping away of the inessential. I stopped pretending to myself that I was anything other than what I was…  I was set free, because my greatest fear had been realised, and I was still alive.

That makes the journey look rather easy, but it is true. “Stripping”, as a term, is important to me. The blog is called ‘I’ve been stripped by this’, because that’s how I felt. Being raped was like someone had come into my mind, my place of solitude and comfort for eighteen years, and pulled down – stripped off – the photographs, lessons, conceptions and securities that I had decorated its walls with. I was left floundering, finding it difficult to know where to begin.

But whilst it took me some time to realise – about three years – what I gradually did come to understand was that I am still here. And I had a stronger idea of what I really meant. There was no point having any bravado anymore, of faking confidence, or pretending that I knew how life worked –  at least to myself. I don’t think I’m explaining this well, because Lord knows I don’t mean that I had some sudden epiphany and ‘found myself’. I just mean that, in stark contrast to my immediate feelings following the rape, I became comfortable with myself, and accepted for the first time who I was.

And so rock bottom became the solid foundation on which I rebuilt my life.

This delectable phrase is what tumbles through my head on a daily basis. Without a doubt, about three years ago I was at rock bottom. I was failing utterly to deal with my rape, I was sleeping with numerous men and women, I had lost my first love as a result, and my friends were understandably getting frustrated with me. It would be a total lie to suggest that I went from there, to sitting up one day sickened with myself and deciding to “rebuild my life”, but eventually that experience did lead to a complete paradigm shift.

Failure gave me an inner security that I had never attained by passing examinations. Failure taught me things about myself that I could have learned no other way. I discovered that I had a strong will, and more discipline than I had suspected; I also found out that I had friends whose value was truly above the price of rubies.

I certainly did not discover that I had more discipline – more like an absolute and total lack of self control – but I did discover a sort of steely inner confidence that was new to me. The friends… the friends I did discover. My girlfriends in Durham, my fabulous housemates – they listened to me and were there for me, and didn’t hate me when I did crazy things. That day in which I received bad news about a relative and went on a drunken sex spree – that day, I was AWOL for over 24 hours, ignoring any and all messages and calls from them. I came home eventually, and whilst they told me off – they told me I could always come to them when I was struggling – they didn’t hold it against me one iota. Also that day, one tireless friend followed me around all day as I stumbled across Durham, trying to convince me to get under control, to start caring about myself. This time last year I was having an extraordinarily tough time, and had what can only be described as a sort of temporary depression. A number of really, really crap things happened all at once and I didn’t get out of bed for almost 2 weeks. Until a valued friend insisted I see him, saw me for coffee, and was absolutely lovely whilst I sat opposite him in Costa and pouted for an hour. But it was the start of me getting back to myself. And on another, much much more recent day, when I realised for the first time how very angry I was at my rapist, a dear friend talked to me for five hours in the early, early morning. Although ‘talked’ might be going a bit far – he listened to me expelling huge, guttural sobs, and just put up with it. Friends, it turns out, are incredibly important.

The knowledge that you have emerged wiser and stronger from setbacks means that you are, ever after, secure in your ability to survive. You will never truly know yourself, or the strength of your relationships, until both have been tested by adversity. Such knowledge is a true gift, for all that it is painfully won, and it has been worth more than any qualification I ever earned.

OK. Here comes the difficult part – and I hasten to add that I am writing this on a good day, when I’m feeling terribly grounded and sure of myself, and that that leads to certain feelings about Malta. I’m sure in the weeks and months to come I will contradict this. But right now – as absolutely, ridiculously crazy as this sounds – I’m on a knife edge in terms of whether or not I’m ‘glad’ the rape happened to me. Or, to be more accurate, I don’t know if I would be willing to give back the lessons and the confidence I’ve gained since Malta, in order to remove that experience from my life.

I should explain. Pre-Malta, I was not a confident person. Outwardly, I was very much so. But I had never really had many true friends, and spend most of the time hoping that people I liked would be persuaded that I was likeable too. I was green with envy at my beautiful sister, who had had a solid friendship group since primary school, which even today is virtually unchanged. I didn’t really like myself, because people seemed to drift away when they had a chance to get to know me – never a good sign.

Post-Malta, I know who I am – the good bits, and the bad bits. While I of course wish that I could improve the less attractive aspects of my personality, I also recognise that the whole person is worthy of being cared about. I am content. I know what I value in friends, what I am willing to overlook and what I absolutely find offensive. I have the confidence to voice my opinions and step apart when I don’t want to do something that others are up for, rather than going to something dull because I think it might help me find friends. (That seems juvenile, I know, but it’s a huge difference from my 18 year old self).

I don’t have a definitive answer about the knife edge dilemma. But the fact that it even is a dilemma is extraordinary, and I hope somehow that it might give other people struggling some help. What seems insurmountable now is surmountable, and one day you will reach the surface gasping for air.

PS. My apologies for sounding like I just emerged from an Ashram.

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