On a grey autumn evening in London just over a year ago, I went out for drinks with a friend to celebrate a new job. Eight hours later I was raped by somebody I’d never met before.
My assault happened in late 2017, when the #MeToo movement was still fresh and gaining momentum every day; I felt lucky for this. (Lucky in the way you might feel if you’d escaped a house fire, thinking you were alone, only to find that the people next door had escaped a house fire too.) In the state of shock that followed, which lasted for several months, I became obsessed with this new wave of feminism.
The women who spoke out became my heroes overnight, and the rest of the world seemed to fall away. Disengaged as I was from my own body and everyday experiences, I lost any concept of health or moderation. I was all too aware of the cliche of drinking to feel numb, but in my newfound nihilism I continued to use alcohol for all the wrong reasons.
The period of shock was followed by a similarly alien experience of processing – inaugurated over a weekend in March where I vomited everything I consumed and eventually took myself to the accident and emergency department of the local hospital. A referral to the Priory the following week confirmed I was suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). What ensued over the following months was an astonishing concoction of trauma, pain and grief. This is what I’ve learned, and I feel moved to share it.
You have to rebuild your relationship with your body
As a young woman in the age of social media, I have been all too aware of my body – its shortcomings and its assets – since puberty. I’ve always considered myself lucky in the sense that I have never had a particularly hateful relationship with it, never had an eating disorder or body dysmorphia, and have what I consider to be a pretty healthy attitude to food. But after I was raped, I became aware of my body in ways and places I didn’t know possible.
It’s hard to overstate the feeling of uncleanliness that follows sexual assault, and I felt dirty from the inside out. In the immediate aftermath, I treated my body with the disrespect I felt it deserved. I ate crap, drank too much, put on more weight than I ever had, and generally displayed a total lack of care towards this vessel that carried me through the world.
At the moment, I am more at peace with my body. Addressing feelings of dirtiness in therapy was crucial in helping me get over what I saw as a lack of purity, as was establishing a regular exercise pattern. I still have days where I feel a n impulse to abuse my body, where I feel as if I could vomit and it might make me cleaner, but now – mostly – I have the good sense not to listen to the voice of my shame.
The people that love you most may not understand your suffering
There is nothing like watching the people you love suffer because of you. I am not being self-deprecating here, but stating the facts. I was and am lucky enough to have a large and stable support network, but the more people that love you, the more people hurt because of what happened to you. My family, my boyfriend, my closest friends, my cousins: I struggled, and still do, with the feeling of burdening them with this great pain. They were angry (I wasn’t), they were confused, they were worried, they were grieving. Secondary trauma can be terrible. It’s confusing to process other people’s hurt when you are suffering as acutely as I was.
What was more confusing was that as desperately as they wanted to help me, they couldn’t actually understand what I was going through. Having no friends who had – to my knowledge – been assaulted increased the sense of isolation inherent to trauma. Making peace with an experience that you can’t convey in words to your nearest and dearest is something that I don’t think I’ll ever stop struggling with.
Relationships will suffer
This is one of the hardest things to accept. When something terrible happens to you, you will lose people. It’s not fair, it’s not right and it’s not nice. But trauma causes fractures. Sometimes, it’s because people surprise you: they don’t support you in ways you expected them to. They say insensitive things. It’s usually not their fault, since sensitivity is so heightened in the sufferer.
PTSD can also cause irrational and erratic behaviour that can drive people away. On a very basic level, no one wants to hang out with somebody who is always in pain – that’s not immoral or insensitive, it’s just human. We all need to protect ourselves. My relationship with my boyfriend broke down within months after I was raped – hardly surprising given the stamp of trauma that the assault had placed on our existence as a couple. It was hard to see past the dreadfulness of the situation, and I think we both began to associate each other with suffering.
Having said that, there are some friendships that have become stronger than ever. And my family, though always close, has entered a new era of openness and emotional honesty. We’ve become a family that discuss our feelings around the dinner table, that tell each other we love each other for no reason. Because who knows what might happen tomorrow?
There will be good days, and terrible days
This probably won’t ever change. Some days I wake up, and for no particular reason, rise with it at the back of my mind and it stays there all day. Other days I wake up and feel as though my heart is a rock and my brain is barbed wire, and I can’t even begin to think about what will happen next. Some days, I feel nothing at all. Those are the scariest, because that’s when I worry I might not be myself any more. A large part of recovery is, I think, learning to live with the bad days. Learning how to stay level when you’ve had a sleep plagued with nightmares and a day plagued with flashbacks, and then someone at work makes a joke about your skirt being too short: learning how to not fall off the cliff edge on these days?
I’ll get back to you on this; I haven’t figured it out yet.
Life goes on
Knowing this is both my hope and my despair, my lifeline and my death sentence. Things happen all the time to everyone. Some people go through life experiencing nothing terrible, nothing objectively life-changing. Some bear on their shoulders pain meant for 10 people. Nothing is certain, and living with uncertainty is something human beings are bad at. It is something that going through a traumatic event makes you better at, but it never becomes easy.
Watching the people around me get on with their lives, while mine seems to have partially stalled, is hard. There are times when I feel overtaken by the injustice and the arbitrariness of what happened to me. Having only recently been in a fit state to work, I’ve lived at home for the past year. I’ve felt infantilised by a lack of financial independence and I’ve felt pathetic for not being “stronger”, for not getting back on my feet quicker. In my late 20s, I’m watching friends around me get engaged, have babies, get close to six-figure salaries, while I sit on my childhood bed and cry because I don’t know if I’ll ever feel like myself again.
But the fact that life does go on – that it has to go on – has made sure that I go on too. At the end of a long and arduous year I’ve begun to feel that I’m emerging from a dark tunnel. I’m working part-time in a job that I like, and that I feel I’m good at it. I’m rebuilding my self-esteem from the shattered pieces leftover, after he broke me.
A year on, I’m living acutely with the consequences of what one person did to me. I won’t ever forget the pain that he caused me, but I hope – and believe – that one day, it won’t define me.
• Those affected by rape or sexual abuse can contact Rape Crisis on 0808 802 9999 (England and Wales) or on 08088 01 03 02 (Scotland)