Beyond ‘survival’

Remember when the days were long

And rolled beneath a deep blue sky

Didn’t have a care in the world

With mommy and daddy standin’ by

But “happily ever after” fails

And we’ve been poisoned by these fairy tales

This is the end

This is the end of the innocence

Don Henley, The End of the Innocence

 

Today marks my transition from being 26 to being 27. It marks six years since I asked my father to sing Don Henley’s song ‘the End of the Innocence’ at my 21st birthday party. At that time it may have been an odd choice of song – a rather morbid message going forward into adulthood. But in the last six years it has continued to play over and over in my mind.

The song speaks of the crumbling of a safe, protected world. For me the song captures a lot of what I have felt in the past few years and particularly how I have felt since being raped. The song speaks to my feeling that the life I had occupied before the rape was over, that I would never be the same person that I was before I was raped (both to myself and to others), and that I would never get back the view of the world, the innocence, that I had held before the 30th of October 2015.

These feelings have filled much of the past year.  On reflection, 26 was predominantly taken up by a constant battle to ‘survive’, or rather to do a particular kind of ‘survival’. I fought frantically to recapture the version of myself that I had been pre-rape – in my intimate relationships, at work and when I looked into the mirror. A lot of the time it felt like I was succeeding. I carried on with the research and the writing that I had been doing before the rape, I maintained my intimate relationships with my friends, my partner and my family, and I was able to look unflinchingly back at my reflection. Being able to carry on as I had done before was immensely comforting and it allowed me to feel in control of my life again.

In many ways this period mirrors what is referred to as the ‘outward adjustment’ phase of recovery. According to the You & Rape information booklet : ‘In this phase, most survivors try to carry on with their lives as normal. To anyone looking at you from the outside, you may seem to be coping. You might even feel this way yourself. You need to go through this phase to reassure yourself that you can cope. During this phase, you test your ability to survive the experience’ (p.42).

But this kind of survival left very little space for me to process what I had lost, what had been fundamentally changed and ripped away from me by being raped. I was so busy surviving and carrying on that I did not have time to mourn, or to rage or to just be still.

I remember one day breaking down in front of a friend about something unrelated to the rape. I became completely overwhelmed and sobbed hysterically for about 20 minutes. She gently stroked my back and said: ‘I think this is the first time you have allowed yourself to cry all year’.

I have struggled to allow these kinds of moments. I think this is partly because of the dominant narrative of ‘rape survivor’ that I have tried to embody. Even before I was raped, the term ‘survivor’ was deeply inscribed in my subconscious. Since training as a volunteer counsellor at Rape Crisis in 2013, I have adopted the use of this term.  After the 30th of October 2015 I automatically appropriated this term when describing what had happened to me.

The preference for using this term is outlined in the You & Rape booklet: ‘we use the word “survivor” to indicate any person – man or woman – who has been through a rape and lived. We use this term not only because many victims do not survive and are killed during a rape, but also because many fear that this will happen even if the rapist does not intend to kill his victim. We also use this term because it does not feel helpful for any person to be labelled a victim – it makes that person seem more weak, helpless and passive than she or he may already be feeling. In fact, that person may be very strong, resourceful and resilient’ (p.3).

I am not for one minute denying the importance or usefulness of the term ‘rape survivor’. This way of seeing myself has allowed me to retain hope in my capacity to live beyond the rape. It has given me something beyond the helplessness, the passivity and the powerlessness of being a ‘victim’.

But this term has also prescribed a certain way of experiencing and processing being raped. The term ‘survivor’ inherently implies growth and transforming the rape into something ‘positive’.

Michelle Hattingh in her book, I’m the girl who was raped, speaks of her own discomfort with the term survivor. She says: ‘I absolutely, positively, loathe the term “rape survivor”. Survival to me, is a verb. It is something you choose to do. I did not survive being raped. I was raped. I am neither a victim nor a survivor. I feel like I have become rape’ (p. 112).

I know now that I was frightened of relinquishing the little bit of control that I had regained in the aftermath of the rape. I was frightened of delving into the deep, dark, overwhelming hole filled with memories, shadows and horrifying, shattering pain. I am still afraid.

But I have been able to say to myself at least once in the past year: ‘what happened to you is immensely terrible’. I have been able to cry and say ‘I am afraid that I will never be the person I was before’. I have been able to admit that I am different, not more or less, but different from the person I was before I was raped.

In beginning to acknowledge these shifts I feel that I am becoming more myself, or rather a version of myself that I want to be. I am not merely ‘surviving’ but rather I am re-learning the process of ‘being’ – with all its inconsistencies, instability and vulnerability.

So today, on my 27th birthday, I wish to acknowledge what has come before, and want to also reach out to a place beyond ‘survival’.

Reimagining sexual non-violence

Being raped by a strange man at knife-point was my first experience of sexual violence. It was the first time that I did not consent, that I shouted ‘No please!’ and this was ignored. It was the first time that my body was not mine and that I was simultaneously empty and full of poison.

Except that it wasn’t.

In the space between then and now it has become possible to see that the rape that occurred on that Friday night was merely such an obvious and recognisable act of violation that it broke open and made visible all the other violences I have previously experienced.

In acknowledging the horror of that experience and in recognising my pain, fear and anger it has become possible to recognise other experiences that hurt, frightened and angered me, even though at the time I was unable to see them in this way.

It is as if that experience, which I have unflinchingly named as rape, which I have relived over and over, which I have been unable to ignore, has made possible a new way of seeing, of naming and of acknowledging what is sexually violent.

In an attempt to reclaim my body, mind and spirit post-rape I have been forced to recognise that many of my sexual experiences have been violent. I do not mean violent in the same way as the rape was. I do not mean that I have ever been physically threatened or hurt by the men I have had sex with. I do not mean that I have ever said no and this has been ignored. I do not mean that I have been too drunk to consent and someone has had sex with me anyway.

These are the things that I have always used to measure and understand the boundary between sexual violence and consent. But this understanding does not capture how I have felt in sexual encounters. How on many occasions I have not wanted to someone to kiss me or touch me or have sex with me but I have let them anyway. How on some occasions I have imagined that I am somewhere else while these things are happening. How I have just waited for it to be over.

It never felt possible in these moments to articulate this violence, either to myself or to my partner. Recently friends have shared similar stories of uncomfortable paralysis, of not wanting but quietly waiting for it to be over. We have laughed (and cried) about this together. These conversations have made it clear that this is not simply about my sexuality and my sexual experiences. Rather that it is about the violence of normative, unquestioned constructions of female sexuality. Because for as long female sexuality continues to be tied to passivity and compliance there is no real space to say no.

In trying to reconstitute my sexuality, I have begun to reimagine consent, beyond saying ‘yes’ or ‘no’,  beyond force and threats, beyond being under the influence of substances including alcohol. I have begun to imagine consent as the real possibility of making a free choice.

I imagine it as trusting and valuing the self enough to keep it safe from implicit, silenced, disguised kinds of violence. I imagine it as overcoming all kinds of self-doubt and hatred that makes it almost impossible to hear what the self wants or doesn’t want. I imagine it as the reconstituting of a polite, modest, quiet sexual passivity.

I wish it had not taken that terrifying night to make me see and be able to speak these things. I wish I could have spared myself many traumatic moments that made me doubt and hate myself even more.

But I have hope.

I have hope that laying bare the lies that I have been told and have told myself will make possible an alternative way of being. I have hope that I will be able to trust and value my body, mind and spirit in ways that I have not being able to do before. And I have hope that in doing these things I will be able to experience myself and the selves of others in non-violent and previously unattainably wonderful ways.

This hope forms a significant part of my daily attempts to reconstitute myself in less violent ways.  It demands a renegotiation of how I view and exist in my own body, as well as how I interact with the bodies of others. It involves an untangling of notions and practices of gender, sexuality, desire and love.

In fact, it requires a rethinking and a redoing of almost everything – a daunting but necessary journey to embark on.