As I've mentioned before, I was sexually assaulted on my way home from school when I was 11. It's something that has affected my life in numerous ways; for years, I was constantly scared. My attacker was maybe 16 or 17, and so not only were men possible threats, but the boys at school, and so I would mix with very few of them. The assault made me scared to go out on my own, so I wouldn't unless I absolutely had to (for school, etc), which led to not only a lack of a social life as a teenager, but also missing out on numerous experiences that I either didn't have until later on in life (I didn't have my first kiss until I was 20) or have yet to have at all (I've yet to have a boyfriend - these are just two examples, not all are boy-related), and also means I now find it difficult to make friends.
These are the long term affects of an experience that, in all, lasted maybe 10-15 minutes on my journey home. I can look back on my life since it happened, and wonder how different it might have been if it hadn't happened, how much I've either lost or never got the chance to have because of the fear. It makes me angry, so angry that my attacker was in my life - in person - for such a small amount of time, but has affected everything that followed. There is a part of me who thinks it would be good to be able to confront him, to rage at him about how much he took from me. Yet I know I could never do it. I know, because of one of my triggers; on occasion, I will walk down the street, and there will be a guy in front of me walking in the same direction, and for a moment, I'll think it's him. Even now, 18 years on. The debilitating terror I feel in those moments as I freeze in my tracks, and the relief so immense I could cry when the guy in front turns slightly and I realise it's not him, make me absolutely certain I cannot face him, even if I was able to. I simply couldn't cope.
Which is why I filled with an incredible amount of awe when I read on Wednesday of how Carmen Aguirre confronted her rapist in prison. This is an incredible edited extract from her recently published book Mexican Hooker #1: And My Other Roles Since The Revolution, and it covers not just her experience of meeting her rapist, but also the details leading up to her rape. Reading it, I found it astounding how Aguirre found the strength to sit across from this man who violated her. Aguirre is an enormously brave woman. I got goosebumps - the bad kind - reading her story, and imagining doing the same, meeting my own attacker, and I was triggered, though on a smaller scale, again. The idea made my blood run cold. The dread of just thinking about being anywhere near my attacker, I can't even begin to explain.
I'm not generally easily triggered into remembering my assault. When it comes to movies and TV, I get very emotionally involved if a character is sexual assaulted or raped. I know it's fiction and not real, but this happens, and so I watch and keep myself watching, so the character isn't so alone. I know that might sound strange, but I'm not there while people are actually assaulted or raped, so there's a sense of solidarity, a sense of shared experience, to watch a sexual assault or rape storyline played out over several weeks or the course of a two hour movie. I have been hugely invested in Linda Carter's storyline in EastEnders for well over a year for this very reason. But I'm not triggered, mostly, by what happens in movies or on the TV.
Until recently. At the moment in Emmerdale, Aaron Livesy is going through the court case to get his father, Gordon, convicted for raping him as a child. Most of the storyline has not been triggering, but what I found was, surprisingly, was the scene where he was giving the details to the police of what happened in a room that looked much like a front room with sofas and a table, with a camera on the wall, filming the whole thing. I was brought right back to when I reported my assault and had to do something similar in a front room setting, being filmed as I gave the details of my assault. Despite the fact that watching the confrontations Aaron had had with Gordon and how he finally told people the truth of what happened didn't have any affect on me other than being emotionally involved in his story, that scene in that faux front room was deeply upsetting. I sat watching with tears falling down my face, knowing exactly what that moment was like, knowing how Aaron was feeling. It was shocking, having such a vivid flashback. I'd never been triggered by TV before, but this small scene brought back that moment for me, when I, a 11-year-old child, had to go over the most horrific experience of my life.
When Lady Gaga's performance at the Oscars of Til It Happens to You, a song about experiencing sexual assault and rape, was all over Twitter, I looked it up on YouTube. I was profoundly moved by the song - that being the first time I had heard it - and the survivors who stood around her at the end with self-blaming and victim-blaming words written on their arms. I was talking about it with the other Safe Space team members on Twitter, and Jess mentioned how powerful the actual music video was, and so I went to watch it. It has got to be one of the most incredible, powerful pieces of acting and performance I have ever seen.
This video can be triggering. Please look after yourself and do not watch if it's going to hurt you.
And that's the whole point about triggers, of any kind: they're not something you can control, nor will you necessarily know what they will be until they're right in front of you. I know Stephen Fry has apologised for the remarks he made about trigger words and safe spaces, but I feel the need to respond. If you know your triggers, and can create an environment where you can avoid them, doing so is not self-pity.
I've been lucky that my triggers are few and far between, and I don't necessarily have to avoid much, but what I have learnt from being triggered is you can't control what triggers you, and you can't control how you react. It's not self-pity that has me freezing with fear, makes my blood run cold, that has me reliving events or emotions. It's not self-pity that has people wanting to avoid things that debilitate them, but "an example of self-care," as Harriet Williamson said in a recent article for The Independent.
Trying to cultivate a life where triggers are few isn't self-pity. It's survival.
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