I was attacked by a man while on holiday when I was 18. The holiday had only just begun, so I told no one and hid my bruises. Strange as it may sound, I refused to think about it. I had just finished school and I wanted to live life. It’s only recently, as all my friends are graduating with degrees and I’m working as a cleaner in a hotel, that I have thought about it. I dislike the choices I have made and I’m not sure if this is as a result of what happened. I wanted to be an actress, a human rights activist, a writer… but I feel he took everything away from me. I never would have expected to feel so worthless, so pointless. I don’t know who I am any more, or who I was. I can’t even use the word to describe what happened to me. I feel ashamed that I was drunk and didn’t do anything to stop it. I just want to find a way to feel happy again, and find myself, but I don’t know how.
This letter appeared first in the Observer
If you were a friend and were telling me this I would say the kinds of thing the columnist you wrote to probably said. I’d say you already know what’s wrong and what you’d really like to change, you’ve been brave enough to write and you now need to be brave again and enrol at a university, go to the police about the attack and get a therapist to help you deal with the thoughts and feelings stemming from the attack. This would all be good advice.
However, I think there is more going on here, more that you don’t say, including the word ‘rape’ (the inability to name what happened is very regressed, somehow, from a time when you wouldn’t have known what to call that). When the attack happened you were drunk and it was the beginning of a holiday. You didn’t report it or tell anyone. The fact of your silence and your shame at being drunk suggests that you were already cowed, were perhaps already depressed. The worthlessness and pointlessness you describe may well have been present before you were raped.
You say you hid your bruises. I wonder if you were already hiding emotional bruising of some kind. The way you say it suggests that it felt like a normal thing to do. You are now a cleaner. I wonder what cleaning means to you. You obviously see it is a lowly occupation, something degrading, somehow befitting your degraded state. The things you say you wanted to be are all high-profile jobs in which one is clearly seen, speaks confidently, is not forgotten. Your hiding the attack and hiding yourself away from the world, cleaning up after other people’s sexual antics (in my fantasy) seems to me indicative of something that predated the rape. It’s also interesting that what has inspired you to regret your choices is envy of your friends’ relative success.
You feel the rapist stole your personality, your sense of yourself before the attack and, obviously, after it. However, you say that you are ashamed that you were drunk and didn’t fight back. It is that shame that you were not, in the moment, the person you would like to have been or hoped you were, that has perhaps been so annihilating – your fear of having been somehow complicit. I am not suggesting for a moment that you were complicit, that drunkenness gives anyone license to attack you or that you could or should have fought back, I’m just trying to point out that it is your guilt and shame at not having lived up to a fantasy of yourself that seems to have stripped you of your ability to succeed. Your own suspicions about yourself. Perhaps you feel you can’t now go on to enact other fantasies of yourself and make them real – that of being an actress etc.
However, I suspect the rapist confirmed your unconscious view of yourself and it is this that is so overwhelming. It’s complicated because, of course, rape is deeply traumatic and can leave people with all kinds of psychological symptoms. Perhaps, as you say, the way you feel now is solely related to the attack and work with a rape counsellor would help you to move on from this very stuck period of your life. However, I would want to look further back at the development of the girl who, having been attacked, felt that cover up and denial would be the easiest course of action.
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