Life after the fact


CN: rape, alcohol, drugs.

It took me more than a year to understand what happened to me in Freshers’ week as being an assault. I still can’t call it rape. I’ve had breakdowns over it in front of friends, welfare staff, my dean, and even my tutor. What happened to me ‘wasn’t that bad’ – it still hurt. I still felt humiliated. And I felt like it was my fault. So I kept sleeping with him; every act of violence, every disrespectful remark felt good for a little while. It feels good to get what you think you deserve.

I cut him off, eventually, over something unrelated. The year was spent pretending I was fine – that what had happened was regrettable, embarrassing, but not illegal or abusive. I experienced a far more violent attempt at assault by a man five years older than me. I got into a relationship with someone who did not have my best interests at heart, and who knew how to take advantage of my vulnerability and my need to feel protected. It felt like every act of abuse – or self-abuse – kept filling a well. Sex, alcohol, drugs I promised I would never try. I convinced myself I was having fun, but I was numb. I topped my year in prelims. I had loads of friends. Surely I was fine. Surely I was just carrying it off well.

Yeah, I wasn’t. These things catch up to you, at some point. It all hit at once; my mental health took a turn for the worse and I wasn’t completing even a third of my work. I cut friends off and isolated myself from others, and became utterly bitter. I couldn’t bear to see anyone else having fun. Seeing others happy felt like looking on from the window of a double-decker bus, up Iffley Road and around the roundabout. It was a life I so desperately wanted; I nearly had it but I couldn’t enjoy anything at all. I couldn’t bring myself to eat or to sleep. I found someone who was willing to treat me right and I felt like something was missing, because there is no love without pain.

Healing is learning that there is no such thing as ‘honest’ abuse. To live in your head, it has to disguise itself as romance or desire or (at the very least) ‘fun’. If an abuser showed you their true colours, you would turn them away. Doubt, deception, denial – all factors crucial to someone’s hold on you. This was not your fault. You are not weak; you were not blind. This could have happened to anyone.

If you’re reading this, I want you to know that there is a life after sexual assault. You can recover. It’s a hard road and a big obstacle to overcome and the world will not be kind to you, but you are bigger than what has happened to you. You can’t measure recovery with the number of ‘good days’ you can string together or the bad ones that set you back. It’s in the little things you can do now that you couldn’t do before. It can be clubbing again after too many months; saying yes to a date, and drinking in public; giving yourself time off, and eating three meals a day. It can be hard conversations with the people you love; telling someone, anyone, what he did; allowing yourself to feel safe in someone’s arms, knowing that you chose to allow real love in  – and that you did not choose to be abused. It was not your fault and it does not have to define you. You won’t wrestle with it forever. One day you’ll wake up and have better things on your mind.

You are lovable. Your value is immutable. There are brighter days ahead.

Image credit: Terry Freedman, Flickr.