It’s not your fault.
I’ve heard that sentence so many times that it’s started to not mean anything. I’ve even started throwing it around myself. It’s the perfect get-out clause for us as human beings, it stops us having to think about how we feel about something or why it happened. If something isn’t our fault then we had no control, we were just the audience to a disturbing play. Don’t think about it, just keep calm and carry on, why over think it?
The problem is that just because things may not be our fault to the person looking in doesn’t stop us feeling the same. Guilty, ashamed, disgusted. Over the past five years I’ve felt all of these things. The reason for this is that when I was a teenager in high school, while everyone else was drinking, smoking and finding their first footsteps on the road towards relationships, I was being routinely sexually abused by one of my peers.
It’s a story that doesn’t often fit well into the stereotypical narrative of child abuse. He was my age so surely I had power that a younger child could never have over an older abuser. Physically I suppose this is true, and that fact still makes me feel weak to this day. But the truth is I had no control over the situation. I was lonely. I was scared.
I had just come off slaying a dragon in my life, I had come out to the whole school, and a Catholic school no less. I was filled with a false sense of pride, as if somehow just by saying the words the problem would disappear forever and I could settle into my own series of Will and Grace, I had the outfits for it! The funny thing is though that in coming out all I did was put up a wall.
My parents had divorced when I was younger and though I have the most wonderful family, there was nothing they could do to stop me feeling rejected. I was the second born child, the harbinger of the problems and the inevitable divorce. None of this was true of course, I was barely 6 years old. It wasn’t my fault. Not that it mattered.
Fresh off my victory against the great closeted pink behemoth I then became the subject of someone’s attention. I was a naïve kid, I had no idea how it would develop. It started with the words, “Don’t you want to do this?” “Let me do this.”. Stupidly back then I thought no was a good enough response. Some people, as they say, don’t take no as an answer, they take it as an invitation. I was lucky that I had been able to drop out of PE due to my flat feet. I didn’t want anyone to watch me get changed, I didn’t want to see anyone else either. He never took the hint in the end.
I don’t remember when it first happened or how, I just know that from then on in every class I sat next to him he would touch me under the desk, grab my hand and make me do the same to him and force me to see things I never wanted to see. It didn’t take long to become a ritual, you’d be surprised how quickly you stop saying no.
The worst part of it all was the involuntary response. I found myself asking could I really be so perverted as to actually be enjoying this? I knew the facts, I knew about involuntary reactions to contact. I knew it wasn’t my fault, again it didn’t help.
Soon I realised that I had become a topic of conversation within the school. He was the stereotypical high school “jock” after all. The story went that he was out to prove he could make any person, girl or lad, fall for him. There was no question of his sexuality, no discussion of whether I was willing or not. After all, I was the lucky one. He was king of the school, it had to a blessing for the rather insignificant gay drama prefect to be getting any attention from him. I was just a running joke and I found myself agreeing with them.
I turned my attention into carving out my own position within the social hierarchy of the school. I turned everything that was turned against me right back and with ten times the vitriol. Not him though, I still couldn’t take myself away from him because I knew no matter how far I climbed he would always be a step or more above me.
I was lucky in college in that he was as new as I was, he didn’t have anything over me anymore. I was in control. I took up smoking, started drinking and became at least relatively popular. I finally had my own niche and could start living my own life, find my own identity.
It turned out that I hadn’t seen the last of him though. My home town was a small place, going on a night out pretty much turned into a meeting of the two colleges, you couldn’t go anywhere without seeing people you knew. It was a veritable “Who’s Who” of student life. Although given this was a small mining town in the North West a more apt term may have been a veritable “Who’s That!?” of life.
One night we were in the same club. I was drunk as it was that time of the evening and he approached me on the dance floor, loaded up on cocaine. He didn’t even have to ask but he did and I followed him to the bathroom. What happened there was and is my only sexual experience and I’ve never been able to look past it. All I remember clearly was him hurting me, a lot, and informing me that I was “shit” at everything he wanted me to do.
He made me hide in the bathroom cubicle until he was long gone. Nonetheless people were aware of what happened. I knew then though that there was no question of being honest. Big boys don’t cry over things they can’t change. I just said that he clearly couldn’t resist me. Two of my friends went home with me that night, I had to go into another room to sleep. I wanted to be alone with my pain and my shame. Over the years I minimized the story to the point of it just becoming a drunken fumble that I regretted the next morning, a story which pretty much everyone has to tell at that age.
I never let anyone touch me in that way again, it would take copious amounts of alcohol before I would even let anyone kiss me and even then I felt sick doing it. I didn’t want a boyfriend, I didn’t want anything other than something like that to never happen to me again.
After drinking my way through college and getting to University my whole mask started to crack up. I was becoming paranoid and depressed. Every night I both felt violated and yet utterly alone, craving someone, anyone to be with but paralysed with fear at what they might do to me. I went through treatment for depression until I finally tipped over the proverbial edge and took an overdose which cost me my best friend.
By this point I had given up on living. I was determined to merely exist. I carved my pain into my arms, covered the sadness in my eyes and blocked out my paranoia by keeping my head covered. I had descended completely into an abyss, one from which I never thought I would get out.
Around this time three people outside of my family and friends joined together to save my life. Claire Thompson, Nottingham’s Guardian Angel, took me under her wing. I remember our first appointments, I would just sit there and not speak. She doesn’t know that it still made all the difference to feel safe, even if I couldn’t talk. My doctor Simon Royal refused to give up on my either, he always told me that I could get this degree and I’d come too far to give up. I also saw Prof. Clive Adams with whom I probably clashed the most. I didn’t realise it at the time but he was challenging me to tell the truth about how I’d got here instead of just wearing “depression” as my mantle.
The journey since then has taken me two and half years. Eventually me and Claire began to talk and slowly piece together bits of myself back together again. I finally found a combination of medications that helped me after taking a near-fatal overdose and after a year and a half of convincing, Claire finally got me to go and see a counsellor. Rob.
I finally began to be honest about my past, I finally had people to hear me. I also told my parents who blamed themselves at first but realised that if there was blame to go around it didn’t belong with the three of us, they’ve been nothing but supportive.
Two months ago I finally addressed my social crutch. Two sectionings, countless overdoses and multiple scars later I got myself sober. I’ve now been sober for two months thanks to the support of my Uncle, Claire, Rob, Simon and my family and friends.
The truth is I still have something to mourn. I never had the stories to tell about their childhood that everyone else did. The first boyfriend/girlfriend, first date, looking at somebody across the room and catching their eye. Just being happy. I never had that and I know I am yet to come to terms with what I’ve lost.
I don’t know if I will ever trust someone to care about me in that way. When I look in the mirror I still think the same thing.
“He made me ugly”
I’m writing this because society needs to stop covering itself in this cloak of false comfort that we live in a perfect world. The truth is there will be people out there who you have met who share my story. Much worse than that is the fact that there are many more who you will never get the chance to meet because they could never live with this story.
We are part of a community here at University, here in Nottingham, here in the World. We cannot expect to build a world in which this story becomes rare unless we accept what has happened before us. The truth is we deserve to have a voice and it seems that with the revelations about the BBC & Catholic Church people are starting to agree with us.
Don’t kid yourself into thinking it is exclusive to these institutions though. It’s happening right now in schools and homes across this country. You can’t ever give us back what we’ve lost, nobody can do that, but you owe us a society which believes our stories and you owe us understanding. More than that you owe your children a world in which they will not have to worry about this, a world in which they will be protected. Something that will never happen until we begin to be honest.
We owe those who have died the promise they will never be forgotten.
Teacher’s need to accept that consent is not a matter of “allowing something to happen”. It may not be comfortable for you to confront the person who is touching somebody inappropriately, it may be easier for you to put it down to “experimentation” but don’t. You wouldn’t allow a student to break someone’s leg so don’t stand idly by and let them break someone’s spirit.
I have survived my story. By fate, family and friendship I am able to stand here now and write these words. I’m able to smile again, maybe one day I will be able to cry again too.
To those out there who are scared, ashamed and feeling totally alone. Let me tell you, I believe you. I don’t believe it was just “child’s play” or a “misunderstanding”. There is help for you out there if you have the spirit to take it. Please remember that you’re not alone and there is someone out there who cares and understands. Let us share this burden together, we’ve been alone for far too long.
It’s not your fault. But there’s so much more to it than that.
You didn’t deserve it.
You didn’t ask for it.
You couldn’t have stopped it.
You are stronger than anyone could imagine.
Stick around, you deserve to live in a better world than the one you grew up in. Maybe one day we can smile together, our memories of pain no longer defining us.