Archive for category Ramblings

Conversations with my 18 year old self: Faith

When I turned eighteen, my lovely aunt gave me a necklace from which a gold cross hung. It was about a year after I had been baptised, and two years after I had first become a Christian. I loved it, and what it represented.

But I stopped wearing it at the end of my first week of university.

In fact, I put it away in a safe, and I didn’t think about it, or God, for years. But when, six months ago, circumstances combined to return me to my home county of Surrey to both live and work, it turned out to be surprisingly difficult to walk past the church that I had once attended and loved. And after finally securing a job and returning to a state of relative normalcy, it turned out that there were no more excuses to hide behind either. It was time to think about why I left my church and my faith, and perhaps explore whether they were things I wanted to return to.

My decision to leave the Church was very tied up with Malta. Not because I hated God, or because I thought he had failed to protect me – free will having played a blinder where my attacker was concerned – but because my failure to admit that I had been raped meant that my radical behavioural shift to alcoholic nymphomaniac was utterly inexplicable to me. All I knew was that I was, almost nightly, doing things that I knew were both totally against my beliefs, and opposed to the beliefs and lifestyles of some of my closest friends – and that I woke up every morning hating myself, and being continually wracked with guilt at how bad a Christian I was being.

An extract from my journal during that unhappy time:

It’s lunchtime and I’m sitting with the most gorgeous view – a stunning lake with mountains in glorious sunshine. I still feel disgusting. I feel on the verge of tears, I have a churning in my stomach, and I feel so guilty.

The simple truth is that I stopped praying and going to church because the guilt became too much for me; I hadn’t ‘behaved like a Christian’ for months, and the daily struggle between my actions and my faith was destroying me. Since it was easier to walk away from the Church than it was to face up to what had happened, I chose to give up my faith.

But what had I really given up? Until recently, I thought I knew. But as I have re-examined the core principles of Christianity in the last few months, I’ve come to realise that five years ago, I walked away from a religion that didn’t actually exist.

I was convinced that I could no longer be a Christian because I was failing to be the kind of person I thought God wanted me to be. But Christianity actually teaches that Jesus helps those who are struggling (and failing), not those who are tootling along just fine. Mark 2:17 quotes Jesus: “Healthy people don’t need a doctor – sick people do.” I had become so obsessed by the ‘rules’ and my guilt that I’d totally lost sight of what my faith was really about – admitting that I was a person making all kinds of mistakes, and that I needed God to help put me right. Had I really understood the faith I declared by the cross around my neck, I would have clung to it as tightly as possible.

Rape isn’t the only thing I’ve come to terms with in the last five years. I finally came out as bisexual to my friends and family, went on dates with women, and slept with women. Being gay is something that forms a real part of my identity, and that I will fiercely defend. I resolutely ignored this truth when I first joined the Church, but it’s not something I can sweep under the carpet now: I love boobs.

Along with the Church’s attitude to women, it was the biggest obstacle to my return to Christianity. I had to confront Christian homophobia, and decide if the Church that caused it was something I could bear to be a part of. I needed to understand the parts of the bible that apparently condemned homosexuality. I needed to confront my Christian friends and ask them if they found me unnatural, or wrong.

Because Christianity does so much damage in this area. In America, one school district’s “Christian” homophobic policy contributed to the suicides of seven students in one year, and in the UK, “Christians” held a seminar on gays titled ‘The Lepers Amongst Us’. This stuff is huge, and it fundamentally damages people.

Well, it took a while, but I did confront it. If you would like to ask me about it then contact me and I will happily have a chat – and if there’s enough interest then I will post something about it – but the upshot is that I have spent months reading, thinking and talking about homosexuality and the Church, and I’m in a place where I’ve figured out my position and I’m happy. Yes, stories like the ones mentioned above make me batshit crazy, but in terms of my personal response to gays and the Church, I’m content.

Getting over theological obstacles is one thing, but actually regaining faith in God is something very different. And it started to return to me a few months ago when a very wise friend asked me the following question:
“Do you want to get your faith back?”
I thought for a beat, and then responded: “Yes”.
He leaned back in his chair, shrugged, and said, with a relaxed smile on his face, “Okay then. God’s in your heart, if he’s what you want. You can get there.”

One of my favourite poems is ‘Little Gidding’ by T.S. Eliot. And the part of that poem that I – literally – carry around with me, in my great-grandmother’s locket, is this:

We shall not cease from exploration
And the end of all our exploring
Will be to arrive where we started
And know the place for the first time.

I have been forever changed by my rape. It fundamentally changed me. But I’ve spent five years coming to terms with what happened to me, and I feel like for the first time, maybe I have finally arrived back where I started: with self respect and confidence, and with faith. Eliot was right when he wrote that we might truly know the place for the first time.

Last Sunday, I put the gold cross back around my neck.

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A moment of morbidity

Let me say at the outset that I’m glad I’m alive. For me, being alive is a Very Good Thing. Nevertheless, there is a question that swirls around my mind sometimes. And it’s the sort of question that is quite difficult to ask out loud, because it makes me sound terribly morbid. But I think it might be an important one, so here goes.

Why didn’t he kill me?

I mean this totally seriously. Think about it: he raped me in his place of employment. I was staying at his place of employment. It would not have been the Maltese police’s hardest case to crack, had I reported it. So in the interest of self-preservation, why didn’t he just slit my throat and be done with it? Or at the very least, why didn’t he threaten to kill me if I said anything? Because he didn’t – he threw me out of the back office and that was that. He didn’t even bother to take the next few days off work until I’d left the country.

The only conclusion that I am able to draw is that he knew I wouldn’t report him, that I wouldn’t say a word to anyone. And how worrying is that? Rapists know that the stigma and suspicion that surround a rape victim are so great – and that the psychological trauma they personally inflict is so huge – that they feel confident enough to let someone who could clearly identify them walk away.

I’ve been sitting looking at this screen now for ten minutes, trying to find a conclusion to this post. I don’t think I have one. It’s just something I wanted to point out.

I’m very glad I’m alive – but the fact that he felt he could allow that paints a troubling picture of society.

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Yup, I was raped.

I’ve been thinking recently about survivors’ attitudes to their own rapes. There seems to be a real range of ways in which people look back on their experiences – unsurprisingly – from those like Alyssa Royce who don’t see it as anything of real consequence to those women from the Telegraph who have found it has profoundly shaped their lives for decades. So whilst my own attitude is no more valid than theirs (and mine may well change in the years to come), I thought I would lay out my thoughts.

You’re blue in the face from reading about how important I think it is to talk about rape. But the other thing that I do think is really important is to own your rape experience – even if you do it privately, with no one else involved. By that, I mean that rather than attempt to hide the fact that you were raped, or push the memory far into the recesses of your mind, you admit to yourself that yup, I was raped. Is that morbid? Possibly. But mostly I see it as affirming. For a few reasons:

1. You survived

Here you are. You had a horrific experience, someone attempted to break your spirit, and yet here you stand. And for a while, your existence may have been undignified. But you’re still here.

2. YOU survived

Yes, you will have changed. Of course rape has changed you. But are you really telling me that you bear no resemblance to the person you were before? Have your tastes in music and books changed, have you drifted from every single one of your friends? Someone tried to break your spirit, but that crucial bit of you, that essence, remains. You’re alive, and you’re still you.

3. You survived, and you got something extra

Trust me, you did. Even if you can’t see it yourself yet. But when someone goes through something as intensely traumatic as sexual abuse, and comes out the other side, they’ve grown. Somewhere is a steely strength that no one will ever be able to rip from you again.

4. You got some shit from it, too

Enough from the mind/spirit section of the bookshop. Obviously rape is not some life-affirming experience, or everyone would want one. It’s painful, it’s tough, it’s humiliating (it shouldn’t be, but we all feel it), and it makes us feel scared. A lot. So yes, we rape survivors can go about feeling proud for having survived, and having some extra confidence. But the problem is that sometimes that confidence is hidden deep. We don’t realise it’s there. Far more often, we’re hurrying down empty streets, or feeling our hearts quicken when there are footsteps behind us, or – as happened to me recently – we completely freak out when friends pin us down in a just joshin’ sort of way.

But here’s the thing: own it. I experienced rape: part of me is a Survivor with a capital S, and part of me is a victim with a timid lower-case v. And whilst it’s hard to think of plus-points of the victim part, we can at least say this. When someone tried to imply that I didn’t deserve to be loved, he fucked up. I happen to know that I’m loved by a number of people, but I also love me. I’m trying to keep this from descending into affirming chants, but I do think that’s important. I love the whole of me, and even the new shitty bits – because they remind me of the strong bits. Yes, I scuttle down too-quiet streets. But I also dare to walk down streets in the first place. So props to me, and props to you. Own it.

So what those little shitty bits tell us is that rape gives us new limits, new things to worry us that never crossed our minds before, at least to any great extent – but those limits are also pretty weak. We can push past our limits. And because of that, I always try to think of myself as a rape survivor – and I say it proudly.

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Strength

I went to a party recently where I got talking to a confident and straight-talking Scottish woman. Lord knows why, but somehow we got talking about weakness. She was convinced that the best form of defence was to never show weakness – that to be weak was to be pathetic.

I disagree. I don’t think strength is about the British stiff upper lip – it’s not about never breaking down. I think strength is about having the courage to break down – to have a moment of weakness – and being confident that afterwards you will be able to pick yourself up again.

I have had moments of weakness recently. Not long ago I had one of the panic attacks that strike every few months, and this weekend, having been so unsettled by my recent fit of anger, I essentially ran away to the familiar, my old uni. (And as an aside… my recent wobbly moments are perfect illustrations of what I was talking about in The Five Stages of Absurdity).

Whilst there, I met up with some of the women I know are grappling with horrible memories. It made me think about strength. I have said it before, but I will say it again. We are the strong ones. We are the ones who were attacked, invaded, rendered silent. And we picked ourselves up, and we faced the day. The reason we are strong is not because we are fine (because we’re not), but because we are facing it. Remember: “the brave thing to do is to let your feelings affect you.” Strength is allowing yourself to let your emotions take over, because they need an outlet. And strength is not letting that emotion completely take you over – being able to come back to yourself.

I ran away because I needed to, and now I’m getting back to me. So healing – healing is not about always being kept together. Sometimes it is about being in bits. Don’t be afraid to rage, and don’t be afraid to weep, and don’t be afraid to have moments of vulnerability. These times prove your strength. You are not damaged if you have these moments. Something ugly happened to you. It is normal to have ugly reactions. Don’t believe anybody who says anything different. You are towers of strength.

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Who is Mark?

I’m shaking a bit. Is it weird that, although I know roughly what things I want to write about, the topic I choose on each occasion is the one that makes me feel slightly sick? I’ve realised that I’m terrified of my own blog. It’s good though, and like that amazing quote, after I finish writing, I do always feel “a shudder of relief”.

So. Who is Mark? That’s the question that is starting to follow me around. He wasn’t a villain who came into existence for a brief fifteen minutes and then exited stage left. Whilst I would happily use the words PRICK and ARSEHOLE to describe him, and many more besides, that lets him off the hook rather easily. I wrote my undergraduate dissertation on justice and reconciliation in post-genocidal nations, and one of my key tenets was that it isn’t helpful to describe the perpetrators of genocide as ‘monsters’. If we call them monsters, if that’s all they are, then they bear no responsibility for their actions – they are evil, and don’t possess the ability to differentiate between right and wrong. The same goes for rapists.

It is difficult to accept, but rapists are very human. Mark was normal, he was friendly and conversational. And, he existed before I came across him. What had his childhood been like? Was he abused when he was young? That’s an especially difficult question for me, because I don’t want him to have been – I don’t want him to have an excuse (yes: it is deliberately pejorative language). I want to be content in my hating him, I want it to be simple.

Had he raped before? Was I the first, the only? Were there girls after me? Does my cowardice, my never going to the police, mean that I bear some responsibility for other girls he hurt?

These are all big questions, but it’s not the one that really bothers me.

I want to know where he is now. What his life is like. He was, I think, in his mid to late twenties in 2006. Does he still live in Malta, single and alone? Or – what I keep imagining – is he in Britain, married? Does he have children? Does he take them to the park, and drop them off at school?

Does he ever think about what he did to me? If so, does he attempt to rationalise it? Am I a ‘silly mistake’ he made once? Perhaps it never even flickers across his mind. Or am I one of a string of girls he abused?

All I have are questions. And no answers.

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