Invisible Subjects is a series of anonymous interviews, conducted by me, with a member of the public. The purpose of this series was to find the extraordinary in strangers’ lives, to pull out the truth that we can learn from absolutely anyone. I believe the things that will drive us forward as a society are empathy and togetherness; people are all we’ve got, and I wanted to showcase people here. It’s important we do not take for granted the wealth of knowledge and experience that surrounds us each day – for in every face we pass on the street, there is an unbelievable story, something absolutely unique, that we can learn from them. To gain the riches of knowledge from others is fundamental to succeeding together. I have loved these conversations, the subjects and their subjects. I hope you do too. – Madeleine
TRIGGER WARNING: This interview discusses sexual violence.
We sit in a bar, in the early evening of a weekday, both in our day job clothes, and tired. We’ve bought a few cans of sugar free fruit juice, which, as it turns out, is totally vile – and now we are cold, under a bridge where the trains rattle overhead. We test the recording a few times; other than the blinding noise of trains every two minutes, we are ready to go. I can feel there’s something there, something she wants to get out, to say. There’s a tingling energy in our space, something I’m not quite ready to let slide away yet, and so we begin, as the sky begins to darken.
Hi! So I know you’ve read these interviews before… Just tell me a bit about yourself, to start, and what you’d like to chat about today.
I’m from Manchester, and I’ve just turned twenty three last week. I’ve lived in London now for three years, I just finished uni. I love being in London. Don’t get me wrong, I really miss Manchester, but I just feel like London is kind of my home now. I came here for uni, I studied drama, which I really didn’t like. I feel like the experience of moving to London has really shaped who I am, that’s why I feel like I don’t want to leave. It’d feel like a step back, by going back to Manchester. It probably wouldn’t be, I’d probably find that newer version of myself there.
As shit as uni has been over the past three years, it’s been the best three years for myself as a person. I think the thing I really want to speak about today is my journey with sexual violence that happened a long time ago. It was this time last year, a week after my twenty second birthday that I had a bit of an epiphany moment. I thought, ‘Something has got to change. I am leaving behind my teenage years, and I can’t keep this thing buried any longer.’ It’s literally something I hadn’t told anybody. I mean, anybody. That was a huge turning point in my life.
It started with uni counselling, and from there I got private counselling, which I am still doing. Uni really pulls the shit out that needs to come out…
In the best and worst way, maybe. So, you want to discuss your journey with sexual violence specifically today. That’s totally fine. Do you want to go into, if you’re comfortable, a little bit about what originally happened? To whatever extent you want.
It’s funny, I feel really strong speaking about it now. It happened when I was eight or nine, and it’s actually one of those things that feels dreamlike, like it didn’t happen, and that’s why I didn’t discuss it for so long. I was like, ‘it’s not valid of me to speak about it now, this long afterwards, what’s the point?’ So then it just gets buried, and that’s it. But then eventually it just comes out.
So, yes, it happened when I was eight or nine, I can’t remember very specifically. It was a family friend, which made it even more difficult to speak about, because it’s someone I trusted at the time. I can’t remember how long it went on for, but I know it definitely did happen, and caused a lot of anxiety in my childhood life. It was repeated. It was almost game-like in a way, it became like a routine thing when they stayed over. They were two years older than me, so it was kind of – it became a thing that I thought was normal. It was only years after that I’d think about it and feel really sick, guilty and shameful. But I still never wanted to speak about it. I just feel like so many people do experience something at a very young age, and they think that maybe, because it happened so long ago, that they can’t speak about it now, or that it doesn’t matter.
What opened my eyes was going to therapy, group therapy, that it’s a fucking global thing, sexual violence. It happens to thousands and thousands of people, but you still don’t think that it’s valid to speak about it.
Tell me about your experience in therapy.
It was a very movie-like moment. I was walking through the park, feeling really crap about everything, and thought, ‘What is this feeling that I can’t escape? This thing that’s inside my chest that I carry around with me all the time.’ And it was that, it was actually that. And I thought, ‘Fuck, I actually need help.’ I never thought I’d be the kind of person that went to therapy, but that was a bit of a lightbulb moment. I thought, ‘Oh my God, I’ve been carrying around this fucking heavy weight for so many years.’ It was over half a lifetime ago. That in itself is quite a scary fact. Over half my life I’ve been living with this baggage. So I just thought, I’m gonna do it.
And this was before you’d ever told anyone? Do other people in your life know now?
Yeah. My mum and my grandma, and my closest friends know. It’s something I’m quite comfortable with about myself, hence why I can have this conversation here. That’s obviously a process, it’s taken such a long time to get to this point of acceptance. It’s like, okay, this happened, but it doesn’t have to ruin my life forever.
Therapy was really interesting. The first time I went, it was a uni counsellor. I just sat there in the first session, and I didn’t know what to say. I was looking at him thinking, ‘Are you going to tell me what to do? Tell me what to say…’. I’d never done this in my life. I just said ‘Okay, this happened, but what should I do with that information?’
Then you went to group therapy…
I just started that two weeks ago. It’s only the beginning, and I think it’s really… How do I say this… Nice? To be in a room full of people who are there for the same reason, not the exact same, because everyone’s story is different, but we are all there to heal one way or another. What really surprised me was the ages, the age differences. I’m the oldest in the group. It varies from fourteen to twenty three. I was thinking, ‘God, these girls are so brave. They’re so young to do that.’ I’m twenty three, twenty two when I first spoke about it, so to even recognise that that’s happened, and to go and get help for them is fucking incredible. I’m really happy that I’m there. A year ago I was offered this group, and I said ‘No way.’ I wasn’t ready to go into a room full of people and say, ‘This is my story.’ It’s really important that we speak about these groups, these organisations and charities, because otherwise you have no idea they exist, unless you go through one person who gives you access.
Accessibility to therapy is a huge conversation at the moment. I know that when I went through it, they basically said, ‘Well, you aren’t quite suicidal, so here’s a nine month waiting list.’
It completely discourages you. I waited six months for a one to one session. It got to the point where I was ringing them all the time asking for updates, I needed to know. It’s horrific.
So, having gone through this year now, almost exactly a year – from having never told anyone to speaking about it in a published interview – did you ever feel like you’d get here?
No, I never thought I would tell anyone. I specifically remember telling myself I’d tell my mum before she dies. I never thought I’d tell anyone – it’s quite mad for something, something that’s a big, big secret with yourself that you never think you can open up about – to then become something that you feel so comfortable sharing. It’s really, really nice.
What was your family’s reaction when you told them?
I haven’t told my mum who it is. The way I told her was a buildup. I remember phoning her, saying I needed to speak to her about something, but not right now, at some point. I couldn’t go home and speak to her face to face, and I couldn’t speak to her over the phone; at that point the words physically couldn’t come out of my mouth. It was just a lump in my throat and I couldn’t say it. So it was a process of elimination over text. She suggested three things – number one, that I’m gay. (We laugh, a lot.)
Oh my god, bless her! That’s such a nice way to do it – for her to ask you to pick from a series of things.
I’m glad she did it like that. Number two was sexual abuse. Number three… What was number three? It was something like, I’m going to move back home, something not as pressing. I told her number two, and she said, ‘That was what I was hoping for the least, of course.’ She asked who it was, and I told her I can’t tell her, but it’s someone she knows. She wanted to know if it was any of her ex boyfriends, or any of her friends, and I said no, but it’s someone you know, but not someone you love and care about now. Her first reaction was, ‘I’m gonna kill that person!’ She asked if I wanted to report it to the police, and I said no, I don’t want to report it. I just feel… I feel like because of the situation being around that age, it points to something that was maybe happening to them. They were also a child. This is where the tricky situation lies. They were older than me, but they were a child, and I wonder, what was happening to them? Where did they learn to be so sexually developed in that way? So I don’t want to do that. I won’t feel better, it won’t take the pain away, by going to the police. At this point, I need to heal for myself, I want to heal myself instead of creating another scenario. It’s a whole other ball game.
It’s a re-hashing of trauma, isn’t it, and another audience of people to explain to. When was the last contact you had with the person?
When I was about twelve, but I’ve always had them on Facebook. It’s such a strange thing, to have them on Facebook. I only deleted them last year. It became so normalised and unspoken it was just like, this was a person that I knew and it didn’t happen and everything’s normal and fine. We’ve not spoken. My mum still speaks to their mum and always mentions them, which can be sometimes quite difficult. But I don’t think I would approach them right now. I don’t think it would do anything for me, I think they’d be just as confused as I was, and they’re probably dealing with it in some way or another. They obviously must think about it.
So much of these buildups that happen is because there’s so much shame involved, right? How do you feel like at school or at home, for children in general, there should be more of an outlet to speak about things happening at home?
It’s so hard because every household is different and every relationship with your parents varies. I think having experienced it, and if I have children of my own, it’s about paying attention to the signs. There were definite signs, when I was younger, that my mum did miss. I’m not blaming her at all, you’d have no idea that someone in your house who you trust, another child – you don’t think these things are happening the way they do.
I had a lot of night terrors. A lot of night terrors. This is a bit embarrassing but I’ll say it anyway – I used to wet the bed until I was twelve. It was a really physical thing, and it’s something I only learned in therapy that it can surface in physical ways, like peeing in bed at night was my eight or nine year old self’s way of saying, ‘Something’s happening, and I can’t really tell you, but it’s happening.’ So paying attention to warning signs and changes in behaviour. I was really, really timid in primary school, I used to get bullied quite a lot, I think that was obviously linked to that. Maybe a little of my personality too, I’m not the most ‘out there’ person. But looking at these key signs. I feel like schools need to do some sort of… I don’t know, I don’t know what they could do, it’s such a young age. But there need to be educational tools utilised.
I saw an interesting conversation about teaching children about things that are beyond their understanding, like institutionalised racism, for example. There two sides to it, which were, one one hand, if they learn very young how to treat and be with other people, it’s a good thing. Another argument is that children don’t understand what these things even are, and by teaching them about it, you’re giving them ideas on how to mistreat others. I suppose with sexual violence, teaching children about these things that they shouldn’t know yet, in order to protect them, might tempt them to explore it in an unsafe way and ask questions about themselves they don’t need to ask yet.
It’s funny you say that, I was reading some articles about a year ago before I went to therapy. I Googled my situation, wondering if it does happen, do children do these things, is it normal? They call it ‘playing doctors’, a sort of ‘I look at your bits, you look at my bits’, and most of the time it’s very harmless, just being intrigued. Obviously it’s such a fine line, that’s what makes it more difficult, the age group – there’s no excuse for sexual violence when you’re an adult at all, because you’re an educated person who understands what it means.
This is a personal question, and please if you don’t feel comfortable, you don’t need to answer. Has this affected the way you’ve dealt with sex in your growing up?
Yes. My relationship with sex has changed a lot over the years. When I first started having sex when I was sixteen or seventeen, it was a thing that I just did, and it wasn’t really… I didn’t attach the trauma to it at that point, I’d pushed it so far back into my head, it was two separate things. I’d always have a sick sort of feeling afterwards, and think, ‘Something didn’t feel right about that.’ But I just sort of carried on, and years went by. As I get older, I’ve thought more about the trauma, and it’s influenced how I view sex now. I’m a lot more cautious than I used to be. I look for people that I’m totally trusting and comfortable around. That’s a really important thing for me.
I don’t feel like sex is hard for me right now. The year I was unfolding this in therapy, I just didn’t have any sex at all. It was just like – I can’t. I can’t be having this conversation once a week and be having sex. It’s too much. So it definitely has [affected me]. But I’ve also learned that sex doesn’t have to amount to what the trauma was, it’s not the same thing. Although the acts are the same, they’re not the same, because I now have consensual sex where I’m fully aware of what’s going on and what’s happening. I feel like this culture we’re in at the moment, it’s normal to go out and shag anyone from an app, whereas I just can’t do that. People ask why don’t I just “get on hinge and have a dick appointment,” and I just say that I can’t. There’s a difficulty of not being able to tell people why I feel like that, I just say I don’t want to. It’s something that came up in therapy, that I feel like I’m missing out on stuff that every other person my age is doing. Sex is just a fun, loving thing to them, there isn’t trauma attached to it – obviously you can’t assume everyone’s not been through it, we have no idea.
I also think people talk – we always assume that everyone else is having amazing, fun, bouncy sex all the time but they’re not! Some people are, but most people have problems attached to sex, on different levels, obviously. But in our culture we assume that this is what we do when we’re young…
… Yeah, to just go out, sleep around, it’s fun. But it’s actually not sometimes. It doesn’t mean I have horrible sex now, I do have sex, and I enjoy it. But it’s just different, to find that comfortable space.
Have you ever told a partner about what happened?
Um, no. Even with my long term boyfriend, I was with him for two and a half years, and I never mentioned it once. That was at the time when I wasn’t even acknowledging it as a thing, it was in the back of my head, locked away, never spoken about. Whereas now… I think at some point I will, yeah. I feel like it’s important.
At the start, you said that uni forces a lot of shit out of you in many ways. Tell me a bit about that.
I think I felt very out of my depth. I think I thought I’d move to London, have loads of friends, live a really cool life and do this and that. Then you get here, and it’s so fucking lonely. It gives you more time to think. That’s what forces shit out of you at uni, it’s the time that you’re not doing anything, you just think. At school, you’re so busy, but at uni, it’s so fragmented, your timetable is all over the place. All the time in between lectures, you need to do things to keep you occupied. That isolation in first year did trigger this whole thing. I lived in halls with five international students, none of whom spoke English. That was really fun. You literally have no one, and I had some really crappy friends in first year. Come second year I had a good support system, to sort of speak about this.
It’s interesting to hear, whenever I see you, I always think, Fuck, she’s got it together! Look at her! She’s dressed cool, she looks amazing, she’s confident, she has so many friends, she knows what’s going on.
Ha! We think everyone’s got it together! But they don’t! No one has it together!!
That’s the secret of adulthood I think, nobody has it together.
I like that! I like it now I know. Leading up to it, you’re having an existential crisis every two weeks, but now it’s so comforting. You find other people who also have huge piles of shit. Then you can share your shit, and it feels so much better. That’s the difference between my life in Manchester and my life in London. People here really know me. People back home know an old version of me, where I’d never share any of this. It feels like an alternate universe. London itself is so hard to live in, it takes a while to get to a point of familiarity with all these places.
Okay, last thing. If you had someone sitting in front of you now who’d experienced what you experienced and never told anyone, what would you say to them?
I would say… Talk to people who you know can give you the support. Avoid speaking to people who can’t give you that. When you’re unloading something that’s so heavy, you need to be as certain as you can that that person is going to respond in a way that’s sensitive, and that they’re going to check up on you and help you. I would always recommend trying to seek some sort of professional help. These things take time, there are waiting lists. In the meantime, speak to people you can trust. Also, journal. Journalling is something I never did until a year ago, and now it’s my favourite thing, it gets to Sunday night and I journal!
Having a self care routine, however that may look. Viewing self care as a thing that’s not… not something that’s disposable, like buying clothes – it’s not monetary. I spent so many years thinking it was a monetary thing, I’d buy clothes to make myself feel better, I’d change my hair, whereas it’s the inside work that you’ve got to do. I think also, those days where you feel really crap and low, sit with it. Get comfortable with it, don’t try to run away. I would go for walks for miles and miles on my own, and never feel any better. The best thing to do is to sit in my bedroom and really take it.
I would advise anyone to just speak about it. The way I rationalised it in my head, I thought to myself, I can’t get into my forties like this, it’ll eat me up and then I’ll just crash because these things always catch up with you, no matter how hard you run. Whatever you do, wherever you go. I thought going to London would make me feel better. Running away actually amplifies any feelings you had. Having the courage to let it go, not let it go as in pretend it didn’t happen, but to be comfortable with it being not such a big, dark, heavy secret. It can be this thing that’s there in the background, but it doesn’t have to be on your chest every single day. It can still be part of you – it can never not be part of you – but it doesn’t have to hold so much importance in your day to day life. That’s what I’ve learned – it’ll always be there no matter what. But having the courage to speak about it, that’s part of the letting go process, to be able to open it up to other people. I wish I’d had someone, years ago, who was telling me these things. It doesn’t have to stay a secret forever. There’s at least one person in the world who’s going to listen.