Content warning: mentions of sexual assault and violence
The following is an exclusive extract from The Way We Survive: Notes on Rape Culture.
When I see men who look like David, it’s like being stabbed in the abdomen. I have to reassure myself: not all people wearing glasses are you. Not all people are you. On buses, on trains, on tubes, on streets. All people could be him. They catch my eye. Do they see the fear in my face? Do they see the faltering recognition; the terror that you could be coming towards me? A knife in your hands ready to slice me in two once more. House keys as tiny knives in my own hand, ready to fight back this time. But you’ve been ordered to stay away from me, so you probably would.
Three years later, and there are fewer men who look like David. Has the style of the millennial man changed, or have I begun to heal? I can go to London Bridge without the fear he will be at the bottom of every escalator. I can walk down the street, holding hands with my partner, knowing I am safe, if just for a moment.
Another day, a year after the bus incident above, I am in the park next to my house in the middle of a June heatwave. The air is thick and dry, the park buzzing with people who have just emerged from their houses after a day of working from home during the Covid-19 pandemic. I sit on a striped towel and read in the still-strong evening sun. There are children playing, running with hoops. There is a mother and daughter sunbathing in front of me, the daughter a wheelchair user. I see a man approaching, not directly towards me but to the hill I am sitting on.
He is middle-aged and tanned like leather, his greying hair falls to his shoulder in loose waves. He looks enough like the man who assaulted me in Australia for my body to go into overdrive; tense, my hairs standing on end, heart beating faster and harder. He doesn’t even acknowledge me. He sits a few metres away and begins to do sit-ups. I feel his breathing on me. I doubt he even registers my existence. I feel like he is watching me; I turn around too many times to see that he hasn’t glanced my way.
This is how it feels to be triggered. You sit, minding your own business, thinking of the benign worries of that day, the sweat dripping down from behind your knees, ruminating on the intense chapter on suicide prevention in the transformative justice anthology you’re reading – and then your body gets dragged back to five years ago, lying on that beach in the equally blaring sunshine. I can see that I am in a park in South London, I see my striped towel and the old gym shorts I am wearing. Yet my flesh and my nerves feel struck, my neurons firing to get away, to stay safe as he has returned. I try to stick it out, try to punish my body-mind to overcome, convincing myself that the feelings will pass.
They do not pass. I keep turning around – do I look crazy, paranoid? The words on the page I read become fuzzy, as hot as the air around me. I finally give myself some peace. I get up, walk further up the hill towards my home. I get home and have a weak beer, watching Queer Eye until I forget about the man in the park. I tell my friends I want to speak to them, and then I decide to ignore them. I fall asleep. There is no resounding hope at the end of this day; it just ends.
The depression and dissociation come like the start of a film. Like being in the cinema before the film begins, the sound bringing your attention to the supersonic speakers they have surrounding you. It pulls my body from my skin, booming, moving around like those little balls of metal you see bouncing off the sub-woofers. When I want to hurt myself, the wanting comes in waves, just like those soundwaves. More aptly, it comes in cataclysms, typhoons. It comes to me when I look out of the window and see grey. I feel myself leave and need to stab myself to return. I feel myself pull my hair out of its follicles and the memories flood in their place.
Despite the hellishness of these moments, I don’t want to be cured of my trauma. I don’t think it’s possible. I will never completely get over it, will never be absolutely ‘cured’. I will forever be weaving in and out of sanity, reality and happiness, forever be weaving in and out of insanity, derealisation and melancholy. Assuredly, things get better. And then they get worse. And then they get better. I am not a failure for the struggle I have in getting through some days, nor am I a failure for oscillating between sheer happiness and the numbing depths of depression. I am both a survivor and a victim, oscillating forever between well and unwell – and that is OK.
In the darkest moments, I tell myself that I will get up in the morning and make some tea with oat milk. I’ll listen to that new album by an old favourite. I’ll let his melodies ripple through me: saxophones, brass of calm, reminding myself that I’ve survived this in the past and I will survive it once more. I will find them again; the love and the pull, the beautiful pull of life. It is OK to be sad right now, you have enough to mourn. I will stay alive tonight, so that I can smell my new perfume tomorrow. Today I wear bergamot. Tomorrow, I will wear jasmine. Choosing a bouquet in place of the wreath I once dreamed of.
The Way We Survive by Catriona Morton is available to buy in paperback on July 7.
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