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.