*Warning: the following article may be triggering for some readers.
There are some things that I said I would never write about on here. Stories that I never wanted to tell or at least, ones I never wanted to put my name to. But, over the last few years I’ve thought about why I don’t want to tell my story and it always comes back to the same thing – shame.
I’m heading towards 40 and, looking back, I now realise that no-one should feel shame over the things that happen to them. No-one should be ashamed or embarrassed because something was inflicted upon them without their consent. So now, I am owning my story and writing about it in the hope it helps to heal old wounds and maybe, in some small way, helps someone else.
So this is my story.
I moved out of home when I was just seventeen, after my mother gave me an ultimatum. I had no real life experience at all at that point. I wasn’t like teenagers today and I’d had a very sheltered childhood. But, at 17 I found myself independent, forced to drop out of college and starting to work full time.
I had a boyfriend back then and between spending time with him and working it didn’t leave much time for anything else. I had to work all the hours I could to cover my rent. But, I’d still go for drinks with colleagues on a Friday night, and I might end up at a club on a weekend. I was 17, acting 18, and getting used to my new life and trying to make the best of it.
I remember vividly not being happy back then. I was a mess. My parents had split up six months before, I was estranged from my mother and living independently far earlier than I’d ever imagined. It wasn’t how I’d expected my adult life to start out. But I took one day at a time and hoped things would work out ok. It was all I could do.
Little did I know that everything was about to change.
On the cusp of turning 18, I agreed to go for a drink with a guy I knew through work. He was an undercover security guard at the shop opposite the one I worked in and he’d always let us know when there were shoplifters about. He knew I had a boyfriend and I, naively maybe, thought that men and women, colleagues, could simply go for a drink together with no other intentions or motives.
So, that evening, a Thursday, I met him after work. I was in my work uniform and had made zero effort with my appearance as it was just a drink with a colleague. Someone I thought of as a friend. I really hadn’t thought anything more than that and was just looking forward to a nice evening getting to know someone new.
So we went to a pub near work. A pub I’d been going in since I was 16. One I’d always had really good nights out in and one that sold the most amazing fishbowl cocktails. It was somewhere I knew well and somewhere I was comfortable going. I knew the barmen and I felt safe there.
He bought me a drink and we sat at a table near the door and talked about so much – that day at work, our lives, our relationships. It was a pretty normal evening. Low key and simple. We had a few drinks and one blurred into the next. He insisted on buying the drinks, heading to the bar each time and I didn’t argue.
After a few, I told him I’d be heading home shortly. It was only about 9pm but I wasn’t used to drinking on a weeknight and hadn’t eaten. Plus, I was tiny – 5ft 3 and weighed about 8.5st. I was 17 but had never really drunk much so I couldn’t really handle alcohol. It went straight to my head.
I told him I’d just nip to the loo and then I was heading home. But, as soon as I stood up I knew that I’d had more to drink than I realised. The room was spinning instantly. Looking back, I don’t know how much I’d drunk. I presumed my drinks were singles but there could have been any amount of alcohol in them.
I walked in the direction of the toilets and couldn’t walk straight. I had to go downstairs, around a corner and along a corridor and I remember trailing my hand along the wall for balance, feeling the flocked wallpaper bumpy under my fingers.
I went into the toilets at the end of the corridor and there was no-one else there. I went straight to the first cubicle and pushed open the door, turning to shut it behind me. The next thing I knew, the man I’d come to the pub with had pushed the toilet door open before I could slide the bolt across, pushing me back into the cubicle.
I was so shocked and so drunk. I was confused and didn’t know what was going on. Twenty years later I’m still not sure of the logistics of what happened. I have had so many flashbacks since then and know I will never fully remember those next minutes.
I remember his hand on my mouth, the smell of him, his breath on me and a hand clutching at my neck. The time went in slow motion but I’m sure it was over pretty quickly. I was left crying in that cubicle, bloody and with a used condom floating in the toilet.
I don’t remember getting home that night but I remember waking in pain and full of overwhelming shame. I hated myself. I felt disgusting and I thought how stupid I was to go for a drink with someone I barely knew, get so drunk and let that happen to me. I blamed myself completely.
I had to go into work the next day but I left early, feeling sick. I felt sick for a long time after that. After the bruising and cuts healed the pain inside just kept hurting and I kept feeling so awful. I hated looking at myself, I hated being me.
I never saw the man again.
Thanks to my mother, I’d grown up to believe that sex before marriage was a terrible thing but when I started having relationships I’d realised that actually, sex before marriage was really common and not terrible at all but, despite that, I’d always seen sex as something sacred. I hadn’t just given it away. I’d hoped that it would always mean something and be special.
But, because of that, it felt like I’d destroyed a big part of my identity that night just by going for a drink with someone and I needed to find a way to blank that out, deal with it and try and numb the constant pain I felt. So, I spent the next eighteen months in pubs and clubs pretty much every night of the week. I turned to drugs and alcohol to mask the pain.
Over those 18 months I did so much, met so many people and as each week went by I liked myself even less. I was a shadow of who I had been and I hardly recognised myself. I lost weight, couldn’t sleep and made so many mistakes.
Back then, I was in a really dark place. I rented a room in a house, didn’t really have any family, had very few friends and was so incredibly unhappy. I really felt I had nothing to live for.
Everything came to a head 6 months before my 20th birthday and I had the opportunity to turn my life around. I met my future husband, stopped going out and focused on a new job, in a new town. Slowly life got better.
But, it was probably only ten years after I’d gone for that drink that I realised properly what had actually happened that night. It was a bit of a lightbulb moment when I was reading the news. I realised that I’d been raped.
I hadn’t wanted to have sex. I had gone to the toilet to use the toilet. I hadn’t invited him with me. I had given him no reason to think I wanted to have sex with him. I had done nothing wrong.
Now, consent is such a huge topic but back in 2002 it really wasn’t. If a girl went out, got drunk and someone decided to take advantage of her in the pub toilets the police wouldn’t take it seriously. It would simply be your word against theirs. Now, times are different and I am so thankful for that.
Whilst writing this, I Googled ‘I was raped in the pub toilets’ and it’s shocking the amount of times it happens, but usually by a stranger. Yet, only 10% of rapes are committed by someone the victim doesn’t know. I’ve never reported what happened to me, as I felt for such a long time that it was my fault, that I brought it on myself.
I know that if I had been attacked by a stranger I would have reported it instantly. But, because I went for a drink with him willingly I have always felt to blame.
I know that even now there are people who will always blame the victim. People who say a woman shouldn’t have been walking home alone, that they shouldn’t have been wearing a short skirt or, in my case, shouldn’t have let a man buy her drinks.
But, being alone, wearing a skirt or going for a drink doesn’t mean someone is asking for it. It doesn’t mean they consent to sexual violence. It means, simply, that they are living their life and they should be free to do that without judgement or fear of attack.
I’ve replayed what I remember of that evening so many times over the years. I know I gave him no reason to think I wanted anything more than a drink. There was no physical contact. We sat on opposite sides of a low table, our knees couldn’t even touch accidentally.
Through life I have somehow grown to be quite a tactile person – I talk with my hands, rub a friend’s arm if they’re feeling down and give out hugs endlessly. But back then I wasn’t like that. I was introverted after a difficult childhood full of bullying, I had no self confidence and had a really closed demeanour. Back then I wasn’t tactile at all so it was an evening without contact, without flirting, without any mixed messages.
You see, even now I feel I have to explain that. I have to explain that I didn’t lead him on. I didn’t ask for what happened. All I wanted, all I expected, was a quiet drink. And I realise now, when I try and look back objectively, that I was a really vulnerable person back then. I was probably a pretty easy target.
My life has been tainted by this experience and the months that followed. I felt dirty and worthless for such a long time and when I met my husband when I was 19 I felt he deserved better. I had so many issues and felt so broken. It took me a long time to be fully present during sex, to get any pleasure from sex and to stop thinking about what happened to me every time I was in an intimate situation. Even now, nearly twenty years later, I hate people touching my neck or covering my mouth. Some things will always stay with you.
I still sometimes think about that night, all those years ago and have such huge regret that I went for that drink in the first place. And that’s such a huge thing for me. A woman should be able to go for a drink with whoever she likes, whenever she likes, without worrying if she’s going to get raped because of it.
You may wonder why I’m writing about this now. Why dredge this up two decades later. Well, this experience has impacted other aspects of my life over the years and as much as I don’t want to be a victim, I know that I am one and I need to accept that. I have let myself be a victim so many other times since, feeling like I don’t deserve any better.
But I cannot let being a victim define me. I am so much more than that. So, I’m starting therapy to get help to finally try and heal the wounds that have been open since my teens. I don’t think I’ll ever fully get closure and I don’t think I’ll ever completely forgive myself for going for that drink. But, I hope talking about it will make the memories fade and the scars easier to bear.