A clouded view

Before I begin, please note that this is a personal account and does not reflect how I think other people ought to behave or what they ought to believe. This post contains discussion of sex and rape – albeit not graphically – so if this is something that will make you feel uncomfortable then perhaps give this one a miss. It’s also really fucking long. Comments are off but if you need to get in touch then you can do so here.

I’m writing this post in response to the myriad accounts of sexual assault and harassment that have recently appeared on twitter. The subject is obviously way more widespread and convoluted than just a few (thousand) tweets, but I’m not sure I would have written this had it not been for that. When you speak out about things like this, you open yourself up to abuse – so much so, that you come to expect it, especially from men. Obviously not all men. Women, too, join in the vilification of the victims of sexual assault, and this is harder for some people to understand.

I can kind of understand it, because I used to kind of be like it myself. I didn’t quite go so far as to actually call into question what some people had experienced, but I was pretty unmoved and sometimes doubtful about what people told me. It wasn’t necessarily that I didn’t believe them, but I was nowhere near as sympathetic as I ought to have been. I’m going to explain why, as best as I can – given that I don’t fully understand it and also because this is the first time I’ve thought about it in about a decade. It all boils down to denial. There are many reasons why I wanted what I believed to be true to actually be true, and other people’s stories made it hard to keep up the self-pretense.

To start with, there were a few incidents in my childhood that screwed me up. Although I was never actually properly sexually abused, occasionally weird shit would happen that my tiny brain was too young to understand. I have a vague memory of my mum having sex with her boyfriend in the same bed as me when I was 3 or so. I remember getting a clip around the ear for looking at nude pictures that were inexplicably in the magazine that came with the Sunday paper. I remember being told I wasn’t allowed in the same room as my dad’s brother because he molested his stepdaughter for years and years when she was underage, and then being left in a room alone with him on multiple occasions. I was too young to really understand what was happening in any of those scenarios – and, on top of that, sex and related topics were not discussed at all around me. The tv channel was changed if a sex scene came on. I was fobbed off when I asked where babies come from. I didn’t have a fucking clue.

However, the major incidents that had a detrimental effect on me didn’t happen until puberty. School had turned into a competition of getting boyfriends, and by age 13 I  hadn’t even kissed anyone. Someone tried to lock me in a cupboard with some scrot from my tutor group but I escaped and unwittingly fell into the trap of being called ‘frigid’ by everyone who knew me and cared about that sort of shit. When I dropped out of school later that year, some of the pressure eased because I’d gained some cool points back by being rebellious. But this was still hanging over me. I had been avoiding hanging around with the kids I had grown up with for a while, partly because the boy I liked was going out with my ex-best friend and partly because I’d met someone way cooler who took me to London and stalked bands with me. It was still an awkward time, but at least I wasn’t being called frigid. This all changed when I was 14 and the boy that I’d liked knocked at mine and we went for a walk and then somehow we kissed and then everything was great because clearly I wasn’t frigid anymore and now I could have my old friends back again without them being mean to me.

Within six months, I’d lost my virginity to the boy I liked, had a ‘relationship’ with a 19-year-old drug addict and then got with an 18-year-old who got attacked with a glass bottle by his friends once they found out how old I was. So things were going super well. I then got ostracised by the group because – unbeknownst to me – a boy I kind of liked really liked me back, but was incredibly hurt by my behaviour so called me a slag to my face and everyone else followed suit. Well, all the girls followed suit – or at least that’s how it seemed to me. This began a pattern where I felt as though girls never seemed to be nice to me, whilst boys were (generally) always lovely.

This was not a particularly good start. For one thing, I was far too young to be doing the things I was doing. You couldn’t tell me that at the time, though – like the clichéd precocious child that I was, I thought I knew fucking everything. My aim in life back then was proving people wrong. ‘You’ll regret leaving school.’ ‘You’ll never amount to anything.’ Blah blah blah. Whatever, I was going to London and getting drunk with cool people and that was more than I could say for them. I was having fun, I was totally in control. I was getting so drunk that I was passing out on the last train home and waking up in the back of a police car in Shoeburyness but I was fine, you know? I was getting so drunk I was sleeping in Terminal 1 at Heathrow Airport because I wasn’t going to make it home. I was deliberately missing the last train so I could get drunk and walk up and down the South Bank all night. Totally cool.

Until one night, when I was 15, when things went horribly, horribly wrong. I was waiting for some band outside a hotel in Kilburn and I was very, very drunk. I had managed to find some money to get more alcohol so I got my fake ID and went to the shop over the road and I got talking to some guy and I walked off with him. <Scene missing.> I remember putting my clothes back on and asking him where he was going and he said he had to go home for dinner and I was so confused and I had no idea where the fuck I was, just that I was outside in some little side garden thing. I have very patchy memories of trying to get back to my friends. I could barely walk. I asked someone for directions but my throat hurt too much to talk properly and I was too drunk to understand what they were telling me. I turned a corner and the police were there and my friend rushed up to me and hugged me and asked what the fuck was wrong with my neck. I can’t remember what I said. They put me in the police car with my friend and took me away.

At Paddington Green police station, I couldn’t get out of the car. The sickness had hit me and I couldn’t move because I was either going to puke or pass out but I was also panicking and fighting it which wasn’t helping me. They got me inside and sat me on a chair and I just slid straight off it and under the table. I remember someone shouting in my face that they were going to get paramedics to come and pump my stomach if I didn’t sober up immediately and somehow this roused me enough to get to the toilet just in time to throw up over my own legs. When I came out, my grandad was there and I heard him ask my friend whether or not I’d make something like this up. They made him sit in the same room, albeit on the other side of the curtain, while they combed my pubic hair and examined me for signs of trauma. They asked if I had been a virgin prior to the incident. ‘No.’ So now my grandad knew. I went home. I went to bed. ‘Don’t you want to have a bath or something?’ my grandad asked, because that’s what’s meant to happen after this kind of thing, right? No, I just wanted to go to sleep and not wake up.

I called the police station a short time after and they told me that the CCTV showed me walking off with him, however we turned a corner almost immediately and they couldn’t see his face very clearly and it was unlikely that they were going to track him down. A few months later, I rang them again and asked for my things back. They sent my clothes back in a bag, the evidence numbers still attached. I rang them one final time to check all my tests had come back negative, and they had. Case closed. It was never discussed at home again, either. My nan and grandad knew why I was barely leaving my bedroom, but they didn’t know what to say to me – thus, nothing was said. I had to figure out how to deal with this all by myself.

So let’s look at this objectively, shall we? I was only 15. In England in 1999, this was technically, legally, rape. Since 2003, it would be classed as ‘sexual contact with a child’ because I was over 13, but it would still absolutely be a crime – even if I had consented. And how could I possibly consent? I was so drunk that my memory ends shortly after I left the shop. I vaguely remember turning the corner and I don’t know what happened after that. I have had to make assumptions about what actually happened, so I assumed that the marks around my neck occurred during the act itself and not as a result of him using force to get me to where he wanted me in the first place. Even assuming that that is the case, then I was still far too drunk to give consent had I been old enough to be able to anyway. Looking at it like that, it all seems very clear that I was a victim of a serious sexual assault – objectively speaking, this is the only sensible conclusion.

However, I didn’t feel like a victim – and I still don’t. The police had probably asked my friends about my drinking and they, helpfully, had probably told them that I was drunk every time they saw me. They had probably asked what I was doing in Kilburn when I lived all the way over in Grays, and they probably concluded I was some kind of a groupie. Once they found out I wasn’t a virgin, and once they’d ascertained that I’d drunk myself into that state and walked off with the guy willingly, I wasn’t really treated like a victim at all. I was made to feel as though I had done something incredibly stupid and the fact that a crime had been committed against me at all was directly as a result of my actions.

So let’s examine the narrative. The narrative is rarely objective. All a narrative has to do is make sense in the mind of the person living it, regardless of how many hoops have to be jumped through. Perceptions have to be altered in order to remove any dissonance, so we start with the experience – the incident – and look at the evidence to determine how it ought to be perceived in order to cause me the least amount of mental anguish going forwards. We cannot involve any idealism; yes, in an ideal world the police would have treated me differently or my family would have been more supportive… or I hadn’t been drunk, or I hadn’t walked off with a stranger. Idealism isn’t helpful here. It’s just regret, or wishful thinking.

So, the facts:

  • I was 15 years old
  • I was drunk
  • I had sex, consensual or otherwise
  • The police did not treat me as though I was the victim of a serious crime
  • My grandparents did not treat me as though I was the victim of a serious crime
  • No-one was charged with any crime

My options, at the time, were:

  • Perceive myself as a victim and deal with the resulting emotions
  • Write the incident off and try to forget about it

How would perceiving myself as a victim actually help me in the long run? Ideally I would have been given some kind of support and an effort would have been made to find the guy who fucked me. But I was offered no support whatsoever, and I think the extent of the investigation was them checking the cameras on that part of Kilburn High Road. Therefore, and most crucially, the ‘me-as-a-victim’ narrative did not match up with the narrative that was being fed back to me. Trying to sustain a belief in the face of evidence to the contrary causes horrible cognitive dissonance, and that dissonance has to be removed somehow.

I had no fight in me. It was easier to accept that my narrative was wrong and amend it accordingly. I accepted that I was drunk, I had walked off willingly, I had stupidly got the police involved, I had been a nuisance, it was all my fault, etc. The shame of being a drunken whore was easier to deal with than the shame of being the victim of a sex crime who nobody believed. One of those things I could take responsibility for – I had control over it. It’s my shame. The other option was – and still is, to be honest – incredibly fucking sad and traumatic. And it still makes very little sense. It was less traumatic to forget it and pretend it hadn’t happened.

I never talked about it again.

So. Needless to say, and regardless of how I perceived it, the whole thing screwed me up. I could have hated men, but the issues I already had before it even happened left me in need of wanting someone to protect me and I still thought that only men could provide this. Before this, I used to get very uneasy in certain situations around men who I believed may take advantage of me. I no longer had that fear. The lack of control over my sexuality pushed me into a twisted narrative whereby I asserted control by giving myself willingly. Nobody could forcefully take from me that which I willingly gave. I could no longer become a victim because I was handing myself over. Other women – and some men, to be fair – saw this behaviour and wanted nothing to do with me because of it. This corroborated the ‘I don’t get along with other women’ narrative. My whole viewpoint was warped. Unhealthy sexual behaviour was normalised and rationalised away because if it wasn’t then I would have to address the resulting dissonance. And my psyche was too fragile to do this. So I accepted this narrative, and allowed it to continue.

It’s more harmful than inherently bad. I got positive reinforcement – obviously I had sexual urges, and I enjoyed the ‘bond’ that I had with the people I slept with. I also got a sick kick from the fact when they told me that I wasn’t like their wives or girlfriends, or their ex-partners, or ‘all the other girls’. But, in all honesty, I didn’t really enjoy sex for a long, long time after this happened. I’ve only really become comfortable with it in the last few years or so and I still have issues. Sex always used to be more about the performance than the actual experience itself. I wanted to be told I was good, I wanted to be made to feel special. And I was, until the lovers had no time for me or until the feelings of shame kicked in after I fucked someone. Slowly – very, very fucking slowly – the penny began to drop.

So how does this relate to my attitude to other women and their stories of sexual assault? Put simply, my defence mechanism – denial – tries to protect me by framing their experiences according to my own. If someone related an identical story to mine, in order to feel sympathy and (correctly) perceive them as a victim I would have to accept that the same response applied to me. But that causes me trauma, so my mind plays down their experience in order to balance it out. This denial-as-a-defence-mechanism was further reinforced by experiences that happened later on, experiences like the one where I asked my then-boyfriend to stop because he was hurting me and he didn’t so I just had to grit my teeth and wait for it to be over. For me to consider myself a victim at that point, I would have had to accept that I’d been a victim that other time as well and that was impossible. Had I considered myself a victim at any point, I probably would have become very angry at all the boys and men who I’d ever met. And I probably would have hated myself even more. It was already a struggle. Even now, my sexuality is very detached from the rest of my identity. The very few people who see the sexual side of me these days don’t usually get to see any other side of my personality. I don’t understand ‘lovemaking’ because it’s nothing to do with the role sex plays in my life.

Because I’m broken.

At present, I’m very aware that I’m a product of my past experiences even though I still clearly struggle with how to deal with them. One thing that I have realised is that my experiences and perceptions apply to me alone – I must not project any of this on to others. Where I am right now is precarious – I know, deep down, that my narrative is incorrect. But it’s far back in my past. To try to amend it now will mean relinquishing control over everything and I’m nowhere near ready for that. At least I am now able to accept that a drunk 15-year-old is unable to give consent, even if I am still unable to accept that this means I am a victim. I have finally realised that I genuinely do get along with other women, and that other women have completely different narratives even if they have been through very similar experiences. And, most importantly, I understand that my judgement must be suspended when listening to the accounts of others. After all, if I can look at what happened to me and genuinely believe that I am not the victim of some horrible sexual assault, then who the fuck am I to have any kind of opinion on what other people have to say?

In much the same way that I’m trying not to project upon women who are the victims of sexual assault, I am also trying not to project upon the women who are hostile towards them. Some of them may well be psychologically damaged by their past experiences in some way, and may also use their mental biases as a shield to protect them from further trauma. Some of them might just be arseholes. All I wish to do is explain why I used to automatically brush aside or disbelieve other victims: in order to protect myself from further trauma, I had to normalise that kind of behaviour somewhat. And that’s so wrong. I consciously fight it but I’m fighting something that is trying to help me. It makes it hard.

This post is the first time I’ve discussed what happened in detail, and it’s the first time I’ve even thought about it for a very long time. This is the first time I’ve ever acknowledged most of it.

If I’m honest, I never want to think about it ever again. I just want to move on.

A heart unfortified

I’m not afraid of being vulnerable, nor of people knowing about it. What I am afraid of is losing control. Not relinquishing control – I’m comfortable with that – but losing it, either so slowly I hardly notice it at first or all at once like a blow to the back of the head.

It scares the shit out of me. I’ve come close more than a few times and it’s like having something inside me that just won’t stop fucking screaming and I need to get it out or kill the fucking maniac in order to hear my own thoughts again.

I already have barely a tenuous grasp on my sense of identity; I’m vaguely aware of the something inside me that keeps me connected to what I perceive as my self, but the concept of a ‘self’ isn’t a simple one even without my personal confusion added to the mix. Losing control means losing what little connection I have to the personal identity I don’t fully understand in the first place. I just fall apart without knowing how to pull myself together again.

But I’m not afraid to talk about it. I don’t want to avoid thinking about it. My vulnerability is not a facade, but it isn’t hidden under layers of bravado and denial either. Deep down I am vulnerable, but I’m also pretty fucking strong with it. I’m not afraid of being hurt, even though it occurs frequently and easily, and is sometimes nothing more than a misunderstanding or a product of my imagination.

The thing is, you can’t destroy me that way. You can break my heart, humiliate me, force me into hiding or run me out-of-town, make me question my sense of worth and my sanity… you can even leave me so unable to cope that I end up at the brink of self-destruction. Yet, in spite of all of that, and in spite of the fact that I often find myself unable to fight back, I can take all the punches you throw until you wear yourself out and then I’ll dust myself off and walk away.

My vulnerability is my strength. You can drive me to the brink but I’ll hitch a ride back eventually. Not to be all emo about it, but I know a thing or two about getting hurt and I know it’s going to take more than some soul-crushing heartbreak to ever really beat me. I don’t enjoy the pain, mind you – although it has a weird addictive side to it. There’s something about extremes – any extreme – that makes you feel truly alive. Hurt feelings are just fleeting, flirting with trauma.

This all sounds contradictory. I apologise. I’m still trying to work it all out.

The point is, I’m not scared of being honest about all the shitty stuff because I’ve already lived through it and felt the pain firsthand. You can’t really hurt me by trying to use this against me because I have already lived it. You might as well give me a photocopy of a photograph of a screenshot of a tweet that compares my face to that of a sloth or an ugly flamingo. The attack is too diluted to be effective, much in the same way that trying to rub my past in my face by reminding me of it will never be as distressing as the pain was in the moment itself.

Not everyone is like this. I get that. Some people can’t bear to be perceived as having any kind of weakness. I’ve given up trying to hide my vulnerability because there have been too many instances where I have been unable to conceal it. The worst has already happened, so that vulnerability has become a kind of defence mechanism. There’s no danger of my past being used against me or of someone discovering that I am not who I appear to be. I display it freely, safe in the knowledge that by doing so I am draining it of some of its power.

I wrote before about the theory of boundaries of the mind. These boundaries are part of almost every aspect of the self: we have emotional boundaries, boundaries to do with memories, sexual boundaries, interpersonal boundaries, etc. It’s not boundaries in the sense of ‘this is where I draw the line’, but how thick or thin that ‘line’ is. A person with thick boundaries is said to have very delineated traits – ‘black and white’ thinking, a strong sense of identity, ability to focus and not get lost in thinking about the past or daydreaming. Thin boundaries are, obviously, associated with traits from the other end of the spectrum: difficulty focusing, becoming unstuck in time, problems differentiating between (day)dreams and real life, and blurred emotional and sexual boundaries.

What I find quite interesting is that people with thicker boundaries tend to be more likely to rely on defence mechanisms to protect themselves from emotional distress, such as isolating their feelings in order to keep them separate from their thoughts, or the repression of unwanted memories.

I don’t think I have very thick boundaries. I’ll give someone an ‘accidental’ elbow if they intrude too far into my personal space but I live in my head and my emotions are less isolated and more advertised. My defence mechanism is torturing myself to the point where I can withstand more pain than anyone else is capable of inflicting.

How shit is that?

I can’t even understand how one would go about separating their thoughts from their emotions. If I’m upset and I try not to think about it then I just think about it even more and get even more upset. Suffering through it is much… better? That’s not the right word. But at least by obsessing over it, I’m dealing with it. It’s a useless shitty way of dealing with it, but at least it isn’t going to reappear and surprise me into an unintended meltdown when I least expect it.

But what of repressed memories? What difference is there between walling off painful memories so that they can no longer be accessed, and the inability to recall a traumatic event due to a dissociative episode during the event itself? Both are defence mechanisms, both are ‘designed’ (for want of a better word) to shield the psyche from the pain of recalling an unwanted memory, both ultimately achieve the same result. However, ‘walling off’ and ‘isolating’ sound like deliberate, useful acts, whereas ‘dissociation’ sounds like your brain got the fuck out and abandoned you whilst the traumatic event was taking place. Is that the case? If so, what of the act of recovering those memories? Where are they? How exactly do you get them back in either circumstance?

Of course, dissociation is a ‘disruption’ or – in extreme cases – a ‘disorder’. Perhaps it has nothing to do with boundaries at all. But then why are people with thicker boundaries in relation to memories not considered to be disordered as well? If you are a person with thicker boundaries, doesn’t the fact that you have to bury your memories so deep that they are impossible to connect to not scare the hell out of you? Why are you unable to look at the past and let yourself feel that knot in your stomach and allow the sensations of longing and heartbreak and nostalgia and loss – not to mention any positive emotions you have buried alongside them – wash over you and overwhelm you with emptiness and hopelessness and the feeling that your life is slipping away uncontrollably and you’re probably never going to make sense of any of it?

I’m kidding. I completely understand why you wouldn’t want to do that.

But maybe now you understand why I don’t consider my vulnerability to be a weakness at all. I deliberately force myself to think about the past. I relive my traumas and feel the pain and despair from being broken by the world all over again, going over the broken places that might one day be stronger if only I figure out how to let them heal.

And then I turn it off.
Because I can.
Because the misery that you are unable to bear is the same misery that makes me truly invulnerable.