color key — red: assault; blue: mental health; green: self-reflection. the contrast of light and dark correlates with bright and somber tones of voice.
Deafening numbness is what's left after your first sexual assault, swamping over you like dark fog rolls in from the ocean.
After your second, the numbness has already taken up space; it's infected you, and thus you feel as though nothing has changed. It's familiar. Nothing at all has changed.
I have always been vocal about my experiences with mental health. I write poetry and blogs exposing myself to the world (or more aptly, anyone willing to read it); but oddly, I don’t talk about my sexual assaults. I have an anxiety about it that I don’t feel when discussing my depression or anxiety; it’s ironic because, for me, the subjects are intertwined.
There is still a part of me that feels guilty about what happened to me and I don’t like the idea of drawing attention to that. I’m deciding to give myself a break and to acknowledge openly — yes, I am a survivor of assault, and to ask of people — please do not confuse my willingness to be transparent as a vehicle for seeking attention.
I don’t actually remember how old I was the first time I was abused. I’ve had a strange sense that my childhood belongs entirely to someone else and that I was merely watching it unfold as an outside presence. I think I was nine.
My stepbrother and I had been asked to share an air mattress on the floor of our bedroom, to make way for new furniture moving in the following day. He was older than me. I was sleeping when I felt a sweaty hand slithering its way into my knickers. I remember rolling over abruptly, in a bid to send a message of ‘please don’t touch me’ to him. He rolled over the opposite way, seeming grumpy that I’d denied his advance. We woke up the next morning and he spoke to me the same way he’d spoken to me for years. I was infuriated and uncomfortable to walk past him on the way to the bathroom.
It took me months to tell someone about it. The first person I put faith in was a teacher at my school; she was warm and maternal and I was aware that, even if she didn’t believe me, she would have to alert somebody about it. I had a small, intimate group of girlfriends as school — the kind where you’d talk about the flat you’d share when you went to Uni together, and how your babies would grow up friends like we did. They were actually the first people I told. Because they were my friends, yes, and regardless of age you can trust people you love. They encouraged me to tell our teacher so she could do something to protect me.
She didn’t. In fact, I discovered in my twenties that when she’d called a meeting between my mum and stepdad, it was to ‘discuss the inappropriate lies’ I’d been spreading among my peers. The subsequent nothingness that my honesty relayed only told me that what happened to me didn’t matter.
I was assaulted for a second time when I was 17. This time by a close friend but, again, when I laid asleep in his bed. I struggled more with this one. I say ‘this one’ as if it’s making the perfect poached egg or mastering a yoga pose. This time I was an adult capable of fighting back, of calling out, but I didn’t. I was still terrified. The event made me feel like that nine-year-old again; I retreated somewhere within myself, not consciously aware of my body or what it was experiencing. Yet again, that familiar and loathsome snake of a hand slid its way into my knickers. Only this time, a bright, jarring flash illuminated the room. He was taking photographs on his phone of my exposed genitals. I kept my eyes clamped shut, even maintaining a fake but steady snore to ensure he wouldn’t know I was fully awake. I lay awake still as he masturbated next to me to the photographs he’d taken. When he finally fell asleep, I calmly grabbed my coat, made my way downstairs, and left.
I kicked myself furiously for not being able to summon the courage to roll over and get him off of me. I still kick myself today for not finding the initiative to grab his phone as I left that morning and take it to the police. But I think subconsciously, I didn’t find the will because I knew it would be fruitless. Surely if there’s a lack of willingness to believe a child, there would be no willingness to believe a woman. In society the headlines are unbalanced with the amount of accusations against the people facing repercussions. This is only feeding the monster that teaches survivors it’s not worthwhile to seek retribution. For me, that foggy numbness has subsided into anger, but it feels like that anger still isn’t enough to counteract the notion of being swept under the carpet again.
Maybe one day the anger will flourish into courage, and I will find the tongue hidden at the back of my throat.