I was raped 10 days after my 30th birthday. I was determined to continue the party, and ended up drunk and naked with someone who couldn’t take “no” for an answer.
The back of my head was pressed into a face brick windowsill, and he was twice my size, so there was no fighting him off. I begged him to put on a condom, and he did… But he didn’t unroll it properly.
He pushed me down, he pinned me down, and he did what he wanted to do to me. I tried to focus on the music thumping through the walls, hoping that if my body couldn’t escape perhaps my mind could. I still remember the song I heard. Lady Gaga’s Bad Romance. The irony wasn’t lost on me then, and it’s not lost on me now.
He stopped grunting and heaving and panting, and rolled off me. I looked at him while I dressed. There he sat, hanging his head. He appeared much smaller than he had before. “I’m sorry,” he said. “I’m sorry… It has been a long time…”
I didn’t wait for him to finish. I left, returned to the bar, and had a cigarette. I didn’t quite know what to do. I settled my tab, and went home.
I lay on my bed, staring at the window until sunrise.
I was able to see my doctor first thing, but I wasn’t brave enough to tell her I had been raped. I wasn’t brave enough to tell her that I had to remove the condom from inside of me even as his cum slimed down the inside of my thighs. I wasn’t even brave enough to admit it to myself. I told her the condom broke.
Perhaps my doctor saw something in my eyes or heard something in my voice that morning, because once she had done an HIV prick test, she told me that the course of ARVs she was going to prescribe was one that is given as prophylactic to people who have been raped.
I was to finish the course, wait a length of time, and then have a follow-up HIV test (which, incidentally, was negative).
It was only when I had returned home from the doctor that I was able to start putting words to what had happened to me, and then I wasn’t brave enough to tell the police.
The first person I told was my then-manager. The second, my three best friends. I also told the person who mentors me in my craft, and my Dad.
I wasn’t brave enough to tell my mother; not for almost five years after the incident. I also wasn’t brave enough to seek counselling; at least not for a few years.
Instead, as the pillars of my earth shook, I resigned from my job, worked out my notice period, and spent three months at home, unemployed, fragmented, and in utter darkness.
But even as I wandered Hell’s nine dark circles, I found that there was still some determination left in me, and that, come what may, I was going to make my way up and out. I had no idea just how that night would affect my life.
The only place that would hire me was the local branch of a national firm that does close to what I’ve always wanted to do, which is to write. The pay was dismal, but the office was two kilometres from home, the people seemed nice enough, and I was being hired for a position in which a tertiary qualification is preferred.
I wasn’t brave enough to tell my mother; not for almost five years after the incident.
The job forced me out of an increasingly solitary lifestyle and into the city, where I met people from all backgrounds, and in many different circumstances. The opportunities and encouragement I received were more healing than any of those involved could ever know.
I learned a great deal, honed my skills, and eventually had just about everything I could hope for in that office. However, as much as I shone outwardly, inside, I was a corpse, exhausted, poisoned and decayed by unspoken grief and rage. My determination to move on from the rape, and to prove myself to myself and to others, had come at great cost.
An opportunity to freelance from home came along, and I resigned from my job. All I wanted was to be at home with my cat, and drink copious amounts of tea while tending to my plants, playing my harmonium, or watching TV.
I thought that retreating into my cottage near the stream would restore some sense of life inside, but the isolation only made it worse.
The daily flashbacks came with ever greater intensity. Where before I would only ever see him moving on top of me, I began to hear and smell him also.
The panic attacks grew stronger. Where before I would only ever feel anxious and panicked, I began to struggle to breathe, and start crying.
I don’t remember when I first started thinking about suicide, but think about it, I did. Once or twice, I went into my garage, closed the door, and left my vehicle’s engine running for a little while, before turning off the ignition, and going inside for tea and a cigarette.
The night the sight of my floor tiles made me sob uncontrollably was the night I realised it was time to think about seeing a psychologist. I spoke to a friend the following morning, who recommended a counselling psychologist nearby. I sent her an email, she replied, and we set up an appointment.
She met me at the door of the big, old house in which she has her office. I spied a labyrinth tattoo peeping out from under her collar, and knew instinctively that I would be able to talk to her. That day was, in a very real way, the first day of the rest of my life.
Things got worse before they got better. I hit rock bottom, and when I got there, I found my fire, gathered up my scattered fragments, and forged anew. I saw myself as I truly am, virtues and vices and for the first time in a long time, I loved myself.
I loved myself enough to forgive myself for letting things get much further than they would have got, had I not drunk so much. I loved myself enough to forgive myself for not trying to fight him off; for what felt like self-betrayal. I loved myself enough to believe that I am loveable, and I loved myself enough to forgive the man who raped me.
Time has passed, I’ve left the city for the seaside, and I’m closer than ever to achieving some of my dreams. Do I feel brave or strong? Not particularly, although I’m bloody surprised and pretty damn excited that I did make it through the darkness. Am I a shining example of a survivor, capable of motivating and inspiring others with sage words of wisdom? Probably not.
What I can tell you is that being raped, while utterly horrific, was not the worst thing to ever happen to me. It changed my life irrevocably and marked my soul indelibly, but in that dark night, I found and loved myself in truth. I see the world through new eyes these days, and, if I know anything, I know it’s worth having hope. It’s always worth having hope.
If you have been raped and haven’t told anyone, please know that morning comes, and eventually that darkness will break, but until then, don’t try go it alone. Find a psychologist or counsellor you can trust, and let them help you heal.
Contact LifeLine anonymously on 0861 322 322
Graeme Shackleford is a freelance writer based currently in small-town Eastern Cape. He has worked in retail, and as a journalist, and spent time in a monastery, and sees pretty much everything as grist for the mill.