It’s two a.m. and I am lying on my side on the landing outside my flat. I have just fallen down a flight of stairs, tumbled out of the door to my apartment, which I didn’t realise I’d left on the latch, and landed hard against the wooden floor at the bottom.
I am surrounded by chipped paint and old receipts that have fallen out of my messy handbag at various points over the last year, as I rifled through it to find my keys. The landing is dark and stuffy.
I have a duvet pulled tight around me, and I held it close to me as I tumbled, so I am not too badly bruised. But I have pulled a muscle in my back and I find myself unable to move for several minutes. So I lie there, naked under the duvet, which is pure white except for the blood stains it is now splashed with. I am bleeding but I don’t know it yet, so the blood is silently leaking onto the white fabric like a poorly-kept secret, like proof that I will never be as clean as I pretend to be.
I am not bleeding because I was raped, although I have been raped before.
The man I am dating is asleep upstairs in my flat. He has no idea that I am in trouble. He has no idea that I am lying at the bottom of the stairs, and he never will. It seems enormously important that I keep things this way.
Adrienne Rich says that women are forced to lie with their bodies, and about their bodies, through their bodies, so often that we end up losing touch with ourselves. We deprive ourselves of a part of our own lives.
But, she writes: ‘The unconscious wants truth, as the body does.’
And they will find it, I think. Eventually the body and the unconscious mind will push you down the stairs and leave you naked on the landing, hurting, bleeding, unable to maintain the lie.
My date and I had had a very nice evening together. I was in pain – I suffer from endometriosis and Crohn’s disease, which together mean abdominal pain is a near-constant reality. Tonight I knew that sex would be unbearably painful. I knew my date would understand why I couldn’t, and I had resolved to abstain for the night.
But as the last of the evening light faded – it was summer in London, and the last light lingered in the sky until almost ten p.m. – I started getting an uneasy, fluttering feeling, like there were caged birds beating their wings in my chest. I felt like he was losing interest, like I’d lost his attention. I became convinced that he had realised what I had always known: that I am a rotten thing who does not deserve to be loved. That my wretchedness is a poison that will infect anyone who comes too close. My muscles felt an urge to run – not away from him, but towards him. I needed him not to leave.
When this happens, something catches fire inside of me. I need, more than anything, for this person to come to me. To love me even though I am a girl made of poison. To love me even though I am desperately afraid to be loved. That feeling of total unworthiness is typical of abuse survivors, I did not know this yet.
When I need to be sure of a bond, I use physical intimacy as my glue. I’d always been taught to believe that it’s the only thing that works.
When we were lying there that night, I felt so scared I could hardly breathe. He fell asleep immediately and I lay there next to him, clutching my stomach, frozen. I left the bedroom on tiptoe, taking the duvet with me, and sat on top of my stairs thinking about what I could do, where I could go. I was in a state of total panic. I kept having flashbacks to the sex we had just had, how it had made me feel so worthless, how there is nothing in the world that makes me hate myself more than using sex to create intimacy. So why did I do it?
All of a sudden my desperation to get away became much stronger. I needed to run. Without thinking about where I would go, I stood up quickly and stepped towards the staircase and I fell and tumbled down, and the next thing I knew I was lying naked outside the door of my flat.
Nora Salem says in ‘The Life Ruiner’, her own essay about abuse, that, ‘Perhaps the most horrifying thing about nonconsensual sex is that, in an instant, it erases you. Your own desires, your safety and well-being, your ownership of a body that may very well be the only thing you felt sure you owned.’
I have never had a sexually intimate experience that did not make me want to disappear.
In volcanic eruptions, animals sometimes become so overwhelmed by the stress of the situation that they run into the lava. A volcano erupted on an island off the coast of Indonesia, and several species were tracked heading towards the danger. Among them were sea lions, who could have escaped simply by swimming underwater and in the opposite direction. Instead, they swam into the volcano and let it burn them alive.
Lying on the landing I thought of another time I had exposed myself to sex I knew I didn’t want. A year earlier, I was lying next to a man I barely knew, hoping I would somehow vanish. I wanted no one to see or hear from me again. In that moment, I wished for the mercy of a raging volcano; the swiftness with which it would destroy me and leave no trace behind.
The next day I went home and tried to pretend it hadn’t happened, but when I turned on the shower, my wrists ached from the way he’d held me down. My legs shook for days. I lay in my room and wondered how I could have done something so reckless, despite knowing how badly it would hurt me.
I didn’t know, yet, about the sea lions.
There is a line from Cheryl Strayed’s Tiny Beautiful Things: ‘Most things will be okay eventually, but not everything will be. Sometimes you put up a good fight and lose . . . Acceptance is a small, quiet room.’
When I was fifteen, I was raped by a man in a bathroom stall. It was deathly quiet. He held a Swiss army knife against my throat and assaulted me, again and again and again.
He was about thirty-five, I guessed, and much stronger than me. He was drunk and smelled of whiskey and cigarettes. He was a stranger. I had never seen him before. His face is etched into my memory now, like scar tissue, but I will never know his name.
If you’ve read about trauma you will know that the human body’s autonomic nervous system gives it three options in this kind of situation: fight, flight or freeze.
When an everyday event concludes, the brain places it in a sequence, making sense of how each moment, each event, led to the next, and analyzing the experience based on this narrative. But traumatic memories get stuck. They cannot be rearranged into logical narratives, and instead they remain trapped in the brain as flashes of light, sound and smell – rogue fragments of an unbearable memory that leak out at the mind’s weakest moments. Instead of understanding these stimuli as past events, the brain reacts to these fragments of memory as though the event were still happening. The part of the brain responsible for separating the past from the present – the hippocampus – becomes dysfunctional, and the brain re-enters fight, flight or freeze every time it is reminded of the experience. The past bleeds into the present, again and again and again.
The hippocampus is closely connected to the amygdala, the part of the brain responsible for our most basic emotions: fear, joy, safety, grief. If the hippocampus fails to store away a memory as a past experience, it forces us to relive the memory every time the amygdala senses danger – whether it’s sensing actual danger or a fragment of the traumatic memory itself. Fragments can be as benign as a certain song, a bird call, the smash of a wine glass knocked over at a dinner party.
Unlike other memories that can be safely stored away by the hippocampus, traumatic memories stay alive. They lie in wait, and then move through us like breath.
So what do you do when the thing you’ve always been taught is an expression of love becomes trapped in violence?
Before that night in 2007, I had never had sex. I had never engaged in any kind of intimacy, not really. His is the first and only sexual script I have ever known. I say first and only because this is how sexual abuse works – it imprints itself on us and we, in turn, imprint it upon everything that comes near us. The assault lasted about twenty minutes but fragments of it will last a lifetime.
For ten years, every sexual experience I had was painful and terrifying. I had not spoken about the rape to anyone, and I hadn’t even acknowledged it to myself, so I didn’t make the connection between the attack and my fear of intimacy. I thought it was normal. And girls are taught never to talk about sex in any detail, so there were no opportunities to correct this assumption. I forced myself to engage in sex with men because the world taught me to believe that it was a prerequisite for intimacy and care. Physical closeness terrified me, but I wanted emotional support more than anything. I wanted it so desperately it felt like sometimes the need would swallow me up, propel me into a dark, dank place where no love could ever reach me.
I wanted so badly to be cared for. I wanted so badly to be seen. Because I am human, but also because I was suffering. I was trying to face a world that had all of a sudden become threatening and fragile and wretched. I was trying to understand how it could be that I had ever felt safe, that I had ever felt comfortable. I was trying to connect with the person I was before the attack, but she was far away, and so was everybody else.
Everywhere I looked I saw romantic love – and sexual intimacy – reflected back at me. That was the only path to a meaningful connection with another person, and I wanted that connection so badly I would do anything for it. Even the thing that frightened me the most. Even the thing I was least able to bear.
Sexual acts became a performance. Something I had to tolerate so that I could be entitled to the friendship and support that came with it. Everything about my intimate life was an act. I learned from films and TV what kind of sounds I should make, how women’s faces are supposed to look when they are enjoying physical touch.
My lived experience of these things was built on a memory of sharp pain, blurred vision, blackout, a Swiss army knife plunged into my skin. I had no idea what sexual pleasure felt like, and I didn’t trust myself to imagine it, so I performed. I found ways to manoeuvre myself so the person I was sleeping with couldn’t see my face, so that just for a minute I could let the pain show. I could squeeze my eyes shut and cry without breaking the fourth wall. Without fracturing the fantasy.
One of the lesser-known after-effects of trauma is that it makes the survivor hyper-vigilant and hyper-attuned to everything around her. Her senses become primed to detect danger. They pick up on signals invisible to others: every slight adjustment in body language, every double take, every stolen glance gets catalogued into a database in the mind that is always weighing whether or not it is time to run.
This made me particularly good at performing intimacy. I was so attuned to people that I could figure out what they wanted from me, and I could become that person, like magic. The more I worked on my performance, the more comfortable I felt. The act was something I hid behind. I needed it to be a sexual identity so real that there was nothing left that might prompt a partner to question my past.
This is how I led romantic relationships for ten years.
I fell in love and out of it, but I was never wholly honest about myself. The people who got closest to me physically were the people who knew me the least, the people I lied to the most.
I found ways in my everyday life to hide the fact that I hated being touched, that I couldn’t stand physical proximity. I learned to hide my discomfort when friends held my hand or patted my shoulder. I learned how to exit a conversation without ever having to hug anyone, making sure to leave only when people were positioned in such a way that getting up to embrace me would be a hassle.
I learned to talk about enjoying sex too, reading scripts from the girls I knew and the women in the novels I devoured. I learned what people wanted to hear. I became good at lying.
Adrienne Rich says: ‘There is a danger run by all powerless people: that we forget we are lying, or that lying becomes a weapon we carry over into relationships with people who do not have power over us.’
I came so close to forgetting that I was lying. I couldn’t acknowledge the truth because the grief of it was too heavy. Nora Salem asks: ‘Am I ruined, after all? Answering that would require me to imagine a world in which this never happened to me. What would I look like? Act like? How would I love?’
I couldn’t bear the thought.
When I first went to see my psychotherapist – the doctor most formative in my recovery – we were sitting in a very small room with two big chairs and barely any space between them. He said I looked uncomfortable, and asked if I was okay.
Without thinking, I stammered, ‘I don’t like sitting this close to you.’
He said, ‘Do you feel that way about most people, or just men?’
‘Mostly men,’ I said, thinking about it properly for the first time.
‘Why do you think that is?’
Before I knew what was happening, I was telling him the story of my rape. It was the first time I had properly spoken about it aloud.
After this first disclosure, I started seeing a sex therapist who specialised in the after-effects of trauma. She taught me how to stop myself from dissociating every time I was touched. She was the first person to teach me that sex was supposed to be enjoyable, and not something I had to trade for something else. It wasn’t just an offering, a blood sacrifice.
I have been working with two sex therapists for a year now, and each week they teach me something new about myself. I am still scared of physical closeness, but I am also full of wonder – there’s a whole world out there, it turns out, that I’ve never been able to see. A whole side of my personality that was taken in the night and never given back.
My therapist explains to me that our intimate sexual side is deeply connected to creativity and empathy – two of the things I value most. I feel hot with anger as I realise that the man in the empty bathroom stall had taken these things from me, taken sides of myself I cherish so much. But as the anger passes, it is replaced by something like excitement. I know that I can’t undo what happened to that girl, but I can approach her with curiosity. I can say: I know you have suffered beyond measure, and I want to understand who you have become. What do you look like? Act like? How do you love?
What do you wish to create?
Eventually, I decided to write an essay about my recovery for a literary magazine. That essay led to a commission for a book, which is coming out later this week. You’d think, then, that the process of getting all this down on paper, of releasing it into the world, would free me from the clutches of the assault. In a great many ways, it has.
But then, only a few months ago, I found myself lying on my side on the landing outside my flat. I was bruised, and bleeding. That night forced me to accept that of all of the elements of my recovery – the terror, the nightmares, the surgeries, the pain, the loneliness – intimacy is the hardest.
Maybe you cannot build love from a crime scene. Maybe this is one thing my attacker took from me that I will never recover. I’m not even sure if I want to. Perhaps it’s better not to know the extent of what you have lost. Acceptance is a small, quiet room.
What I have been able to do is accept the truth of my intimate self. I know now that she is bloodied and broken, and perhaps damaged beyond repair. But I am trying, and will keep trying, because whoever was buried under the weight of abuse is worth fighting for.
I’ve stopped lying with my body as a way of extracting love from others. I have realised that I can be honest about what I’ve lost, about what I cannot bear, to those I am close to, and if they know, as I now do, that this is not my fault, then they will stay and help me wrestle with the pain.
Trying to navigate love and accept affection without the deceit I spent so many years perfecting is singularly terrifying, because it means I risk having the one thing I fear most confirmed: that my body, mauled by a stranger in the night, makes me difficult to love.
But that’s a risk I have to take, because it’s the only way to open myself up to true connection. It’s the only way I will ever love and be loved in the way that I want to be. The truth is that I am a desperate, hopeless romantic. I want to be giddy and smitten and besotted and understood and cared for, no matter how hard it is to get there.
If I give up on that kind of love, if I keep lying, then I will let my attacker take something from me that is more important than my creativity, or my safety, or even my body. I cannot let him take the part of me that believes in love.
As I watch people walk away when it gets too hard, as I find myself defeated and wanting to return to my performed self, I think of Adrienne Rich: ‘When a woman tells the truth she creates the possibility of more truth around her.’
Even if insisting on being honest about my suffering makes me difficult to love, it’s worth it, because the act of telling the truth is a revolution. An act of kindness that I finally know I deserve; an act of kindness that might also open up the possibility of love for others; an invisible gesture that, if repeated, might just balance out the cruelty this world contains.
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