Two weeks before I started my AS levels, I was raped. Afterwards I took a very long and very emotional shower, I washed his smell out of my hair and brushed my teeth about five times. As soon as I stepped out onto the bathmat and stared at my face in the bathroom mirror, I stopped crying. I didn't cry again for several months. Soon after that I began getting the best grades that I had ever achieved, I scored 100% in my Psychology January exam and scored nothing less than an A in everything I did. At college I was confident and focused, judging by my energy anyone would have thought that I really did have everything going for me.
The minute that I closed my eyes at night, everything changed. I've always been an extremely vivid dreamer; in fact, they are often hilariously weird. The more I powered through life, throwing myself into my studies and ignoring my memories the more disturbing my dreams became. Several nights a week I would wake up feeling like I was in his bed, his smell still lingering in my nostrils, the taste of his breath in my mouth and my skin crawling from his sharp fingernails. Still, as soon as I opened my bedroom door, that part of me got buried.
Soon my days became nothing but a cycle of covering up my feelings. Wake up. Cry. Put make up on. Leave an afternoon lesson to go to the toilet. Cry. Reapply make up. Go home. Close bedroom door. Cry. Go to sleep. I just didn't want to deal with it, I believed it was my fault, that I was acting like this because I wanted attention. Even on the occasion that I convinced myself that something was wrong, I was worried that other people wouldn't feel the same. What would I even say?
The only times that I heard anyone talk about rape or sexual assault was either when they were making a joke, when it was being discussed in the news or if it formed part of a plotline on TV. Rapists were these mysterious predators, not a guy that you had GCSE History with for the past two years. Survivors weren't survivors, they were victims. They were curled up on hospital beds, or hugging their knees in a dark room like they were in some terrible stock photo on the top of a guardian article. Yes, I experienced serious emotional trauma and sometimes I did curl up on a bed crying, but the vast majority of the time I didn't look like that at all. It was no wonder that I didn't think anyone would believe me.
There is a special kind of stigma reserved for sexual crimes, it is not uncommon to hear phrases like "rape is especially heinous" and "rapists are monsters". I'm not disputing that sexual violence is "especially heinous", in fact one of the teenagers on the recent BBC documentary Is This Rape? articulated it perfectly when she described rape as "torturing" someone.
The difficulty is that it is very hard to stop that stigma from seeping into the lives of those who experience it. The more that we hate rapists and are disgusted by that crime, the weirder we feel about those affected by it. If a crime is so heinous, horrific and life altering then how can survivors look like normal people, act like normal people and still be sexually active like normal people?
Even now, there are very few people in the media and in the public conscious that are obvious examples of survivors rather than victims. Being a survivor of sexual violence is so much more than the initial act, the day after and the trial (if you manage to get one). It is often something you feel like you are for years. So, why don't we see more about living after rape? Where are those stories?
What continues to amaze me is that there are just so many survivors of sexual violence but yet we seem to hardly ever interact with one another. Sometimes I wish that we walked around with massive signs so I can find you all and strike up a conversation. Up until this year my entire experience of dealing with that rape - and several other instances of sexual violence - has been characterised by clinical and secretive meetings with professionals. I kept the entire thing separate from my normal life, I wouldn't talk about it with friends and if I did I'd avoid certain words, keeping the descriptions brief for fear of making them uncomfortable.
One conversation with someone from Time to Change completely changed how I felt. He said that while he understands why it is often difficult for people to be open about their mental health, the stigma around mental health difficulties wouldn't go away until it becomes normal to talk about it. To make that happen we need more people to talk about their experiences as if it was already normal. That really stuck with me. I realised that while I had gradually felt comfortable speaking about my Generalised Anxiety Disorder in everyday conversation, I couldn't imagine talking about my rape in the same way. But, that was exactly what I wanted from other people back during my A Levels, I wanted see someone talk about it without all the sensationalism and mystery.
So, I decided to start doing that. I told my friends, I wrote it all down on my blog and shared it widely on social media. If I was asked questions, I would answer them honestly and fully. Then I found that the more I spoke about it, the more that people I knew came forward and told me that they had experienced something similar. So far, the number has reached 13. For so long I had been so lonely, thinking that I didn't know anyone else who would understand. Now it's completely different, I can freely chat with survivors that I know about the everyday problems that inevitably crop up. We share tips and support one another, and the best thing is - it's not weird at all.
There are so many ways that universities can better support student survivors. We can create guidelines for accessing extenuating circumstances when you haven't reported it to the police. We can make the university reporting process more obvious to all students instead of having to trawl through pages and pages of websites and PDFs. A massive help would be to use trigger and content warnings for units and readings to help them get involved in seminars without enduring that nasty surprise. There is nothing worse than an image, reference or conversation about rape cropping up unexpectedly in the middle of a seminar, causing your heart to race, your windpipe to close up and your stomach to ache like you've just been punched in the gut. Carrying on as if everything is fine so other people don't think you're weird is almost impossible as it is, let alone actually learning and contributing towards discussion.
But, there is one really important way that we, as students, can better support each other. We can just talk about it. If you've experienced sexual violence in any form and you are ready to talk about it, then go ahead! Initiate that conversation. By being open about it yourself, you can help others around you feel comfortable enough to start talking too. There is so much that I've wanted to talk about for so long. I want to talk about how I still don't know why I agreed to give him a hug the morning after. How Zelda logos, grey wool hats, long nails, the smell of cider and empty microwave dinner packets make me feel physically sick. How I regularly look at his Facebook page and wonder if he ever thinks about me. How despite it all I still love myself and nothing will change that. So, join me and let's talk.