LETTER: What it’s like to be a victim of sexual assault or rape in Guernsey

Following the harrowing personal accounts we published on Thursday, one local woman shares her experience of living with the aftermath of sexual assault.

Shutterstock pictures (29351734)
Shutterstock pictures (29351734)

TW: This content in this article may be distressing for some people. Anyone affected by these kinds of stories is urged to seek support from Safer, Victim Support, the Samaritans or Guernsey Mind.

I WAS saddened to read the article in the Guernsey Press recently where Bailiwick residents shared their experience of sexual assault within the island.

I had written the below words with the intention of anonymously sharing them five years ago but when you have been hiding a part of your life away for so long it sometimes takes the courage of others sharing their stories to share yours too.

There is much research, evidence and advice out there on how a person may feel as a result of being a victim of such trauma – but it is pertinent to consider how one might feel going through such situations in a small, close-knit island community such as our own.

You have to face the fact that you are more than likely going to bump into the person that did it any time you leave the house. It can leave you constantly on guard and anxious for fear of catching a glance of them at the supermarket, or in your local watering hole, or anywhere else you deserve to feel safe. Seeing the accused can make you experience intense emotions of upset, anger and, in some cases, trigger flashbacks and cause you to mentally spiral.

There was one point that I felt such anxiety that walking anywhere gave me intense panic attacks – I would get ready to go to work in the morning and I couldn’t stop crying and I’d have to re-apply my make up over and over again. There were times when I was in the same queue at a shop as the individual who assaulted me age 14. There was a time I was on a date on Valentine’s Day and saw an individual who assaulted me. Imagine trying to explain to a first date why your mood has drastically changed and you’re freaking out all of a sudden. Every experience like this can drill that feeling of shame, which you do not deserve to feel, much deeper.

If the incident happened whilst you are drinking, you may question yourself, question if others will question you, but also if you cannot recall the name or face of the accused it can make you feel very confused and on edge. You could be walking through Town and hear a familiar voice, you could see someone with the same colour hair, you could smell a certain aftershave. All of a sudden you feel like you are not safe around many of the people around you. You can feel like you are living in a bubble and like you are walking along holding a sign up saying ‘look at me, I am a victim’. You feel everyone is as aware of you as you are them. It destroys your confidence.

I had an issue once that even feeling drunk would cause me to panic and end up reliving the situation again as I didn’t feel in control. I had a panic attack once in the toilets at Folies and felt completely stuck like I couldn’t get out. Luckily when I walked out of the toilet my friend saw I was distressed and grabbed my hand and led me out of there and got me home. But still I felt embarrassed as everything was a haze and I didn’t know if anyone saw me reacting like that. What if someone I work with saw me?

You have fear of reporting because you know the island is so small. You know you might bump into their friends or parents and that makes you worry about ridicule or people questioning the sore, stark reality you are currently facing.

To be clear – the fear of the traumatic experience being questioned was incredible. The way I felt trying to process the situation in secret was bad enough, let alone how I would feel if it was questioned. It would make me literally want to die. If the accused is someone you know well, you may feel like you are letting their family down and upsetting them. It’s insane the number of times I worried about how reporting the accused would ruin their life, despite feeling that they had ruined mine.

You may get to the point where you feel ready to put something on file with the authorities and all of a sudden read an article in the paper about a girl being charged with falsely accusing someone, or you read a case where the accused gets ‘not guilty’ due to the woman being drunk or taking a while to report. The fear sets in once again and you worry you’ll go through so much heartache and grief reporting and it will be all for nothing.

So maybe then, like me, you feel you can’t report or you haven’t got the strength and then even when you have processed the trauma you get random thoughts for years and years after, and you have the weight of the world on your shoulders because what if they’ve done it to someone else as they got away with it when they did it to you? What if there is someone else out there going through the horrible experience you did which could have been stopped? You wouldn’t want anyone to feel the way you have and the guilt you can feel is intense. I recall a situation where a friend shared an account with me of someone who did something to her who had done something to me. It really truly hurts deep in your soul and causes such conflicting feelings about what you should have done.

You may also be scared to report because you know people in the police and worry about them knowing what happened to you or if they will see you in a different light.

I think the worst part for me is that I hardly told family or friends. I didn’t tell my mum as I thought it would devastate her and I don’t want her to feel that way. I didn’t tell my friends as I was scared of being vulnerable in front of people as I already felt vulnerable enough. If I did tell someone, I would often play it down or not be honest with how it made me feel. It felt like I was living two lives – the life in my mind where I was literally haunted, and the life I presented to others where I was OK and nothing had happened. I ended up disassociating with myself. I just didn’t know who I was anymore.

Many times I tried to get back to dating but would feel so nervous about proceeding to matters of the bedroom I would end up having to open up to them. This would normally happen out of necessity as when any such activity started to occur I would sometimes get flashbacks and end up having a panic attack.

If I ever spoke to anyone it would normally be a bloke I had gotten close to. This would normally be because I’d have to explain why I would get panicked during sex and have to stop.

FYI – getting panicked during such moments of romance can make you feel even more ashamed. Then you have worries about if they will perceive you as broken goods, or go to someone less emotionally damaged for an easier life. I experienced some cases where because these men were the only person I felt I could speak to, it became too much for them or scared them away. I worried if I would ever find anyone.

I know for months on end I only liked going out at night. It sounds weird and unexpected as some people are scared of being out in the dark but when I was in the daylight I felt like a spotlight was on me. I didn’t want to be seen, I didn’t want to be noticed. In the day I would put my hood up, and sunglasses on, even if it was bad weather. I felt like I needed to be unrecognisable in order to protect myself.

At this point a number of instances occurred at the hands of different individuals and I felt like if I couldn’t be seen, I couldn’t be hurt. On some days, just popping to the shop, I’d have to give myself a massive pep talk and many times I would actually just go hungry until it was dark again. I was scared people would talk to me that I knew and I wouldn’t be able to fake being OK.

I had been in so many bad sexual situations with so many different men. People find it odd how these bad things can repeatedly happen to one person and, trust me, I often felt the same, and thought I gave off a bad energy that turned men around me bad. The truth is there are a lot of people in this island who would undertake such acts and when you lose faith in yourself and believe you are nothing, sometimes you give in. Not only that but your sense of how you should be treated is so tainted that it’s easy to self-destruct and get in dangerous situations.

I had experienced these situations since age 13, and at the time of the last event I was 25. That’s 12 years of avoiding help, 12 years of struggling, 12 years of not knowing who I am, 12 years of not knowing what I serve, 12 years of having a big dark cloud over my head, 12 years of flashbacks, 12 years of bad relationships, 12 years of crippling anxiety and lack of self confidence.

I just could not do it any more. I had tried to numb it all with drink or drugs. I had tried to push it to the back of my head. I even on two occasions tried to end my life.

But if I wasted my life then THEY would all win. I had a choice to make about how I would deal with it going forward as I was desperate.

I found out you can contact Victim Support. I emailed them first as I was too scared to call. They arranged a time to call me back. This was scary but it did help with my anxiety as I wasn’t being caught off guard and I could think about what I needed to say and make sure I was in a comfortable environment.

They called back and they were so comforting and arranged a time for me to pop into their office. A really nice lady sat and talked with me and put no pressure on me at all. It was so hard to get the words to actually leave my mouth but I was brave and did it. It was most probably the most relieving 45 minutes of my life. Even speaking to another woman out loud – a woman who reassured me I was OK and I didn’t deserve those things to happen to me. I spent so many years questioning if I had over-thought things or over-exaggerated things and she confirmed it was wrong. It was good to know I wasn’t mad.

They can also give you advice regarding the police if you choose to press charges. An interesting thing I learnt was that you can go to the police and put something on file but not formally press charges. This means that no action is taken there and then but if something untoward happens in future (to yourself or others) your report on file can help prosecute.

Going to Victim Support helped me get the courage to go to the doctor as she reassured me it would be OK. I booked an appointment when I felt brave enough to. It was so hard but I knew I had to fix myself as no one else was going to. I felt so nervous as the on-duty doctor was a man and I muddled through. He was concerned and arranged counselling. It took several months to get my first appointment but I’d spent over a decade shouldering the burden. I wish the wait was shorter for others as it took me so much courage to get to that point that the two-month wait could have made me turn around and run away again. But I went for my first appointment and every one reassured me I was OK and I wasn’t crazy and I wasn’t a bad person and I didn’t deserve things like that to happen to me.

I got referred to group meetings where you go along and do different activities and have general conversations with other woman in similar situations. These were every week for eight weeks. Whilst it felt sickening that these things happen to so many different woman, it was good to speak to people who had shared experiences. Even when I wasn’t talking, but listening to someone else’s experience it made me unwind everything that happened in my mind and I ended up feeling differently about myself.

I’m not going to lie, it was very difficult at times, but I’d survived that long so had to keep going. Every time I left the meetings I would get home and reflect on my own situation and sometimes I would just be in bits. But the turning point for me was imagining the same events happening to someone else and I suddenly felt so much anger. Literally overwhelming anger and I was looking back on the experience wanting to scream, ‘Why are you doing that to her?!’ That’s when I finally realised I wasn’t to blame and that I wasn’t in the wrong and I felt so much relief flow through me that I just burst into tears and I couldn’t stop crying for hours. I finally knew I wasn’t wrong and I had always felt... wrong.

After that I struggled as I realised that so many people did wrong to me, and how many more people out there could do wrong to me. I realised I just have to really take care of myself. If I get with any men, set boundaries and make sure I trust them to honour them. I made sure I didn’t get in dangerous situations or walk off with men I didn’t know. It was frustrating as at my age my friends were all laughing about accidental hook-ups and walk of shames and I was too nervous to even get with blokes I trusted.

Sometimes, many years on, I am doing much better in life. I feel at times like I might even be thriving. I have a few bad moments and I have had to work so hard on my confidence. Sometimes I feel cheated that so many good years of my life were tainted but that wasn’t the card that life handed to me and I let that feeling drive me forward and remind myself that no one is going to beat me, I’m in control, I can be whatever I wish to be, and I will be a caring and compassionate person whilst doing it.

The main thing I’ve learnt in life is that it’s not what happens to you in life that matters, it’s the person you become because of it. And whilst sometimes I may feel a bit odd, or a bit shy, or a bit nervous, I know that deep down I’m a strong person and I am proud that I didn’t allow the bad things that happened to me to turn me into a bitter resentful horrible person.

It’s so hard to take that first step to get help. The journey will be so hard at times but you owe it to yourself to process things and improve your quality of life. To anyone that feels like life has ruined them – please do not let it. Take it one step at a time and it might take time but after every dark night, the sun always rises again and things can and will get better.

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