I don't want to be brave.
I’m sitting having coffee with a friend when I receive a phone call to tell me that I’ve won an award at the Amazing Women Awards for No 1 Magazine in Scotland.
I was shocked, as I had no idea at all about being nominated by my eldest daughter and was very touched to have won my category called “Strength” out of 15 other women.
I was told they were impressed by my strength to overcome the difficult things in my life and the way I use my story now to help others.
For those of you who don’t know my story I was gang raped when I was thirteen years old by two American teenagers and raped three more times before I was eighteen.
And on September 22nd 2014, I decided to break thirty five years of silence by sharing my story publicly on the website of The Forgiveness Project and I completely underestimated what the impact would be.
So many people got in contact with me. To start with it was people I knew, as most of my friends hadn’t known about the rapes or if they did they didn’t know the gang rape was near fatal.
And then strangers started to send me messages from the UK and slowly from all over the world, sharing their own stories of rape and sexual abuse.
And they all said the same thing to me, “You are so brave” “wish I could share my story too” “I’m too ashamed and not brave enough”
And whilst I was really touched that these people, men and women, had reached out to me, I wish I wasn’t considered brave.
I wish it were considered normal for people to speak out and share their stories and that as a society we were able to hear, listen and believe them with no judgement or victim blaming. Shying away from the uncomfortable things in life help to keep them hidden and unspoken.
I would love to live in a society where we recognise that life is made up of everything; the good stuff and the not so nice stuff and be able to express them both freely.
But sadly that’s not the case. Too many people are silenced and shut down for so many reasons.
It was my shame and guilt that silenced me. I thought that if people knew what had happened to me then they would change their opinion of me and wouldn’t want to know me anymore.
My opinion of myself was so low that I thought that people would think I was worthless, contaminated and useless, just like I did for years.
Somehow, I believed that what was done to me was a reflection of me and I was to blame for being raped.
So I bottled it all up for years inside, but I quickly discovered that what we don’t talk about leaks out of you. It affected me in so many different ways over the years in the shape of fears, phobias and any way that I could numb out (eating disorder, drugs, drinking, depression, suicide attempt, promiscuity etc)
However the silence only hurt me and magnified my shame. I see now that the shame never belonged to me, it always belonged to my perpetrators, but I carried and wore my inappropriate shame for years.
Sexual violence is such an intimate crime, it didn’t just affect my body but my mind and psyche too and the impact lasted far longer than one night.
The fears and phobias manifested very quickly, mainly around my safety, having contact with men and feeling like I needed to be in control all the time.
When my eldest daughter became 13, I started to have a lot of flashbacks, nightmares and memories return. At first I thought I was going mad and I had made them up, because I had worked for many years at Women’s Aid and Rape Crisis and had heard so many women’s stories.
I thought to myself that if it had been so bad I would have remembered it. I understand now because I work as a psychotherapist, that when we experience a trauma, the mind’s job is to numb it out and it only reveals itself back to you when you’re ready to face it, which can take many years.
So I decided that in order to get some peace with all the images running through my mind, I would go back to therapy to try and get rid of them.
I quickly discovered that getting rid of them wasn’t an option; in fact stepping into those painful and shameful memories was my way out.
Giving my story oxygen to my therapist was one of the hardest things I’ve ever done as it brought up so much shame in me but paradoxically it also taught me to stand grounded in my shame, which diminished it.
For years I couldn’t even say the word “rape” and here I was diving into my worse nightmare.
But I found over time, the more I worked it the less energy all the pictures and memories had and by the end of the three years, there was no sting left in them at all. I had successfully neutralised it.
It was the courage of another woman sharing her story online that helped me to find my own voice and when I was approached by Marina, the founder of The Forgiveness Project, to share mine she advised me that I didn’t need to put my name or photo up and it could be anonymous.
I had been in newspaper articles about rape a few years prior when I was one of those blacked out silhouettes of a woman with no name but I decided that I was tired of hiding and that I had nothing to be ashamed about. So I proudly but nervously announced that I wanted my name and photo to go up too.
Many doors have opened for me since the sharing of my story and I’ve been invited to speak at conferences, schools and events and to take part in TV and radio interviews sharing my story to help end the shame, stigma and silence surrounding sexual violence.
I’m not suggesting that everybody goes out and speaks in a public forum. But share your story with someone you trust to break down your own silence and guilt to start to reclaim your life.
There is something for me about speaking my truth that has liberated me. And every time I share my story I feel less and less connected to the person I used to be, no more shame, fear or guilt.
All of my many feelings, thoughts, behaviours, fears and phobias that developed from the trauma of rape have disappeared and I have no hesitation now in telling people I have been raped.
Running away from the truth, trapped me. Facing up to everything with no more denial saved me. Ultimately the way in; was my way out.
I can honestly say that I’m no longer affected by my past but I didn’t get to this place overnight, it has been a process.
What I’ve learnt is that I’m not my body or the things that were done to it; I’m so much more. And I know that whatever they did to me, they can never touch the real essence of me and who I am.
So when I collected my award on International Women’s Day it was on behalf of anyone that’s been affected by rape or sexual abuse, hoping that they will find their voice one day and realise that we are all much stronger than we think we are.