A sexual assault at 13 years of age will have lasting effects. It is not something I choose to dwell on, but it is certainly a part of my life. It cannot be erased and can never be ‘forgotten’. 40 years later, it is very real.
I don’t pretend to know what others are going through or have gone through. I only know my own painful, long journey. My experience changed my life and has continued to have ripple-effects on my thoughts, actions and relationships ever since – It influenced my family; my trust in people in general; my husband; my children.
It doesn’t stop when the incident stopped. Far from it. And, as a 13-year-old, I had no idea that it would affect my judgements of others and, most of all, of myself, over and over and over again. Until I would despair at times. Until I wanted to hurt myself or take my life. Until I would be crazy with the images and thoughts and anger and shame. Yes, the shame.
Shame is such a strange phenomenon. It can be all-consuming. Shame once had the power to influence every single aspect of my life, when I allowed it to. I used to let it – of course, I didn’t know I could have power over my feelings back then. I used to walk in shame. I refuse to now.
But it has been a struggle – not dissimilar to the struggle of that day that a dirty old man decided he would like to ‘play a little game’ with me and my companions. From that crucial moment on, for the next five years, and ten years, and twenty years, and beyond, I struggled to stay positive, to dare to trust people and most of all, to believe in myself.
Unfortunately, with the barrage of media hype until we’re all sick to death of hearing about it, during these enlightening days of the Royal Commission, society can grow weary of what seems the retelling of the same ol’ same ol’, and we can become desensitised to the seriousness of the issue and its life-long effects. We can lump all the stories into one category and push it all to the back of our minds. And that is a very sad thing.
Every individual needs to be heard. I needed to be heard. I needed to be acknowledged. And now I have just discovered something else I needed!!
Since writing my motivational memoir, Falling Up Stairs, where I bring to light my experience, I have received an extra measure of acceptance and growth. It is strange how we can put something ‘out there’ and it takes on a life of its own and a weight is lifted from you. Those who have read Falling Up Stairs, know of the ‘secrecy’ attached to my attack. The powers-that-be of that day did what they thought best. It wasn’t the best for me. It may have worked for others. I doubt it. Somehow the freedom of being able to bring something to light is liberating. To have a voice about something is empowering. To crawl out from beneath the rock of the silent victim and rise to a place of freedom is indescribable.
I feel whole. I feel free. I feel heard. I feel validated and vindicated.
But it was much more than just writing about it.
The clincher happened the other day. It was the result of my mother reading Falling Up Stairs. We didn’t discuss it at the time of her reading my book, but two weeks later (the book came out just three weeks ago) she brought up the subject of the childhood incident that plagued me but was never discussed in our family. Wow. Amazing.
To be fair, we did discuss it once. I was in my 30s. The discussion was brief. It was healing, though. Immensely so. My mother and sister and I hugged and healed. And I thought I was free.
Funny thing that. Because when my mother brought it up the other day, I realised how much I treasured and hung on her every word of acknowledgement and comfort. I realised how powerful her genuine hugs felt. I realised how strong her encouragement made me feel (bringing courage to someone, that’s what encouragement is). Her approval of me penetrated deep deep within my heart. I felt something shift. Something within me that had been taut for most of my life, gave a gentle sigh of relief.
I became empowered.
It was as though I was carrying a pain I wasn’t even aware of. You see, I don’t walk in the guilt and shame of my sexual assault any more. Haven’t for quite some years. I left it behind many years ago. YET, by my mother embracing me and reminding me of what I had done that day, I realised there had remained some healing to do.
Mum reminded me that it was me who escaped the perpetrator and ran for help. Yes, I do remember that part, because of the specifics that stand out in my mind. Yet I didn’t write about it in my book… and here is Mum, 40 years after the event, telling me it should have been recorded. She felt that I was worthy of the acknowledgement.
What I remembered was that I ran. I remember being amazed with how fast I could run. I remember thinking I was running like a wild cheetah. I ran the fastest I have ever run in my life. I ran FOR my life. I ran and ran and knew I had to make it to other people – someone. Anyone. I had to get help. I ran so fast I felt the wind in my hair, against my face, whistling in my ears. And my feet barely touched the ground. I had a power and a ‘rush’ so strong that I was desperately invincible.
The other thing I didn’t remember, and probably the reason I didn’t mention it in my book, is what Mum wanted emphasised. Mum, recalling that day, said I was so scared to be the one running because I was freaking out that the perpetrator was behind me using the knife he had threatened us with, to kill his other two victims, my sister and my childhood friend. Shit! That is a whole lota fear right there!!
He must have told us he would kill us if we didn’t play his game. I mean, isn’t that the standard line all these scumbags use on innocent children? I don’t remember him saying it. I recall him telling us to relax, telling us that he didn’t want to hurt us, telling us we shouldn’t struggle. ‘Just lie still’. I remember every fibre of my being knowing he was lying. He was going to hurt us. He was going to hurt us BAD. I remember how hard it was to move. To move anything – we were frozen in fear. My limbs were like lead weights, and I could hardly get my mind to focus on them to bring them to life.
Surely he would have used the sleazy lines to mess with our heads, threatening lies that we presume a pedophile to use; that threat that he would kill us if we shouted out or tried to escape. He was big and we were small. He was strong and we were weak. He was a muscular male and we were pre-pubescent girls. He had everything over us. Yet I dared to escape and run. And here was my Mum, four decades on, telling me how heroic that was!
It turns out that he was a no-good, lying, yellow, weak coward. When I ran for help, he ran for cover. It’s coming back to me now. I have a memory of my marathon run that day; of looking back in total fear of what I might see – would I witness a glimpse of a knife-wielding maniac killing the two people on earth I was most close to? But what I saw in that fleeting moment when I looked back as I ran like the wind, was a scared ‘little’ man, struggling to pull on his trousers as he stumbled and tried to run away. Run away in the opposite direction. Run away like the chicken he was. He wasn’t playing any games, he wasn’t killing anybody – he was running away in fear. He was afraid.
That was the clincher. Not his fear. Not the memory of him running away. Not the fact that my sister and friend escaped too. No, the clincher came through my mother. I’m a 50 year old who still needed to hear my Mum tell me it was OK. What I did that day was OK. Mum told me I was brave. Mum told me that it was because I did run, that we were set free that day. Mum was acknowledging me. Mum was championing me!
Is that what my heart had burned to feel all these years… someone acknowledging the pain and recognising my action? Not just someone, but my mother?!
Is that why I feel so different? I wrote of the incident in my book with the aim of using it as a motivational tool for others, and it was liberating for me, as I totally believe it will be for others. But I’m free since my Mum told me she was proud of me. Since Mum told me she was troubled that I hadn’t shared that part of the story with the world.
‘Let the world know that it was you who saved the others.’
It is OK to feel OK about what I did.
I’m free. I’m liberated. I’m alive and well.