‘I am a survivor, and I’m taking my seat.’
Photo credit: Amanda Demme, New York Magazine.
Words by Rachael D.
Trigger warning: this post deals with sexual abuse and suicide.
‘35 women, 36 chairs’ – The black and white cover of the July 27 edition of New York magazine. One empty chair was included to represent those raped by Bill Cosby who “have come forward and aren’t on the cover, as well as anyone who may not have come forward yet”. For many, that empty chair also speaks for them. For people from all walks of life, that chair symbolises their own untold story of sexual abuse. Such is the case for Rachael…
It’s time for me to fill the empty chair.
The world is going crazy following 46 rape allegations against Bill Cosby.
A lot of people, including the media, are asking questions:
Why all of a sudden are women now coming out of the woodwork to claim that Cosby has raped them? Is it for media attention? Are these just money-hungry women, looking to score some sort of compensation?
What are their intentions?
Are their allegations true?
How can a man we all love and adore do this?
I can tell you from experience that it takes immeasurable courage for survivors of sexual assault to come forward. Why does it take them so long? Because they’ve been dealing with torment and hurt that can only be understood by fellow survivors. In a world that constantly resorts to victim-blaming, they have finally found the inner strength to come out to the world and admit that they were raped.
In a society where women and girls are blamed for being in the wrong place at the wrong time, wearing the wrong clothing, or for speaking in a manner that deems them as deserving of rape, how can we possibly expect victims to readily come forward?
16 years after being sexually abused, I am taking my seat. I am coming out to the public and admitting that I am a survivor of sexual abuse.
For years I have felt ashamed, disgusted. I travelled down a long path of self hatred because a few individuals in my life decided to violate my body.
Well, that changes now.
I was in primary school when a family friend, ‘G’, first raped me. He was in his early twenties and was the son of my Mum’s close friend ‘L’. G picked me up from my school on Friday afternoons to babysit me. My mum was a single mother and I was used to staying at other peoples houses as she went out on dates or with friends, so being babysat by family-friends was familiar to me.
G raped me when I was just 6 years old.
In the time we spent together, G always told me that he loved me. He had always taken a fancy towards me, and when I was over at his house he would always take me into his room to show me his stuff, give me treats and tickle me. As a young girl I liked feeling included by adults and I was always eager to connect with a male figure, as my older brother and my dad were no longer apart of my life.
G’s mum also babysat me often. Sometimes she would force me to sleep in her bed and, whilst telling me how beautiful I was, would touch me through my nightie. On occasion she would take me to her boyfriend’s house to stay the night. I would wake up without my clothes on, on a different bed, with camera lights flashing and whirring.
Every night I was babysat I would curl into a ball at the bottom of my sleeping bag to try and protect myself from being assaulted.
During these visits I was always wishing that I could be home with my mum, but for some reason I also found myself hating and blaming her for failing to protect me. Growing up, I hated my mother with every bone in my body. I saw my Mum as being responsible for letting G and L babysit me, even though at the time she didn’t know that I was being abused. It’s taken us years to undo the hurt and pain that these people have put me through, but over time we are starting to chip away at the wedge that exists between us.
I was in year 5 by the time I told her about the rapes and assaults – I wrote it on a Post-It note and ran up the stairs. The next day I found myself at a strange building discussing my story and having to make up excuses to my friends at school why I was always absent.
It was that same year that I chose to confide in my friends. I remember it was my friend O’s birthday at school when I broke down and decided to tell them about my story. My friends looked disgusted, made fun of me and I only felt further isolated.
I look back and I understand why my friends acted like that. I understand that we were children… how could they possibly grasp the concept of sexual abuse when all we ever saw on TV was Marissa and Ryan on the OC if we managed to dodge the “go to bed its 8:30pm” by our parents?
But such an immature attitude wasn’t excusable years later in high school. I was in year 8 sewing class when a friend at the time, M, turned to me and asked: “Is it true you were raped? Haha someone from your school told me… How funny is that?”
Little did she know that the year prior I had tried to take my life twice, at the age of 12 and 13. Little did she know that she was making fun of me about something that pushed me so far as to attempt suicide, just to escape the traumatic memories of my sexual abuse.
Coping with abuse whilst navigating my teens:
My first teenage sexual experience was whilst I was at my friends holiday house.
I was 16, about to begin year 11, and had been drinking vodka and smoking weed. Experiencing hallucinations and nausea, I went to find my pillow which had been moved into another room by one of the guys we were staying with. When I asked for my pillow back, he said no. When I tried to tug it away from him, I felt so nauseous and weak that I laid down on the bed beside him.
The guy rolled over on top of me and kissed me until I kissed him back. He was telling me he was turned on and he wanted to have sex with me, I said I was a virgin and I didn’t want to. He spread my legs as I laid there, staring at the ceiling trying to stop my tears from rolling down my cheeks. I couldn’t move, my arms were frozen and I removed myself from my own body.
When he was done he simply put on his underwear and walked out of the room.
I just laid still and cried. I had flashbacks of lying on G’s bedroom floor being paralysed with fear.
I remember making my way to the bathroom. I tried to pee, but my vagina was so swollen that all that could be seen on the toilet paper was blood. By the next morning, he had already left before I woke up. When I told my friend what happened, I found myself laughing the situation off and simplified it to the fact that I had lost my virginity. Looking back, my laugh has always been my defence mechanism – I laughed the day after I was first sexually abused by G, telling my mum that G had a girl over and I saw them kissing and doing things… but in reality he had kissed me and had done those things to my body. I rang my two closest friends, telling them I lost my virginity and neither were very impressed… I just felt so ashamed that I just continued to laugh.
Two years later, I found myself in a controlling relationship were my makeup, clothes and even the perfume I wore were decided for me. If my ex boyfriend wanted sex, he was getting sex. If I was asleep and he wanted sex, he got sex. Looking back, I only said yes to sex consensually twice during our six month relationship.
Whenever I said no, he would complain about my tears. He would complain about the blood on the condoms because he was always rough and forcing himself into me.
Why did I stay in a relationship for that long? I thought that’s what I deserved. The idea that love was abusive and tormenting had been long engraved into my mind even before I hit sexual maturity.
I thought G abused me because he loved me. I was taught that love should be controlling, and this warped idea carried on for so many years that I allowed myself to be in relationships that were disempowering and downright abusive. I allowed myself to be treated like dirt because the first man that came into my life treated me like dirt – how was I meant to know any better?
Life in my twenties:
Even into adulthood my life has been plagued with frequent panic attacks when I see people that look similar to L and G. For years I suffered from harrowing night terrors and extreme depression. I was diagnosed with anxiety in 2013 and thought to have the symptoms of PTSD. Until recently, sexual relationships would reawaken my fears and the exact feelings I had when I was being abused, making me unstable as a partner.
I’ve realised that I subconsciously associate white 20-something males with abuse and mistreatment. Because of this, I find myself being attracted to the opposite, and only seem to find men of African and Maori descent attractive.
Although I am no longer in contact with my brother or father, I have always idolised my grand father for the way he treated my grandmother, and always hoped I would one day find a relationship that emulates theirs. It’s taken me years to get into a relationship that empowers me. I’m happy to say that I am now in a loving, equal and stable relationship with my current boyfriend. Although this is an incredibly liberating experience for me, my boyfriend still has to work hard to make me feel safe because no one before him has ever given that to me.
In my early twenties, I decided to volunteer in an orphanage in Kenya. I wanted to focus on the easy and simple elements of life, and free myself from unnecessary baggage by giving back to people in need. Because of my childhood experiences, I always wanted to help protect children and show them love and affection. The emotions I felt whilst volunteering were so childlike and simple it became my own special sort of therapy. Volunteering for 6 months over the last 2 years has filled the hole within me that had been empty for over a decade.
I have also decided to use my experience and my interest in Public Health and Health promotion as a tool to try and help other people learn, move on and accept reality after sexual abuse. I want to raise awareness, to shine a light on the injustice of victim-blaming and to educate children to respect each other, and in doing so respect the importance of understanding the word ‘no’. I want our generation to move away from calling people victims and start calling them survivors because that’s exactly what they are – survivors.
I look back on my experiences and I know that they have made me a stronger person. My history has taught me acceptance and resilience and it has made me exactly who I am today.
I am proud to be taking my seat.
If this post brings up issues for you, you can visit Beyondblue: the national depression initiative online, or call them on 1300 22 4636. For the National hotline for sexual assault support, contact 1800 RESPECT.
In your twenties and have a story to share? Email firstname.lastname@example.org to get your words published.