By Ione Wells
Today was a great day.
Sunday morning, a day off. One of those gorgeous sunny but crisp mornings when spring is just teasing into summer. The park is heaving with Londoners, wearing shorts and flip-flops despite the fact it is still barely scraping thirteen degrees outside, and there is a jingle of an ice-cream truck in the distance. My body is seeping with endorphins (even if admittedly everything hurts) after completing the first session in one of those intense fitness bootcamp courses that I roped myself into as a 4-month-too-late-New-Year’s-resolution. Better late than never right? I make time to read the papers, and ignore my attention-sapping phone, over breakfast. I started the afternoon by accepting an exciting new work opportunity for the summer. I can’t stop grinning. My best mate is back in town and we make plans to go for a drink. I can’t work out how or why, given I’ve let work pile up for weeks, have bills to pay, and have many an undone to-do list floating around, but everything just seems to be going right today. Today, I can’t help but speak in clichés – I feel on top of the world.
Back home, I sit and fill out my student finance form (a menial task, but who cares, today is great!) I sign the form and date it. The date stares back at me, rather like when you’ve looked at a bright light for too long and can’t quite remove it from your field of vision.
Anniversaries are a weird thing. They are artificial, really. There isn’t really a point to them other than marking that something significant happened on this day once, at least a year ago. Yet we use them as an excuse to revisit all occasions both positive and negative: marriages, deaths, shops opening, wars ending. Reading the newspapers this morning, I came across a feature about Easter 1916 regarding its own anniversary. What struck me about the feature, though, was not so much its focus on the event itself, as we so often dwell upon with war memorials, but on the ripple of events that this one event triggered. The way it influenced how we have seen other conflicts since, the way it changed the shape of a nation, and the progress that has been made since that day, which we recognise all the more in remembering what happened in the past. Indeed, the only real purpose I can see for anniversaries is that they remind you to take stock of what exists today in light of, and sometimes in spite of, what has passed.
A year ago, today, this day ended and I was rock bottom. I spent the end of 10th April, or more like the early hours of 11th April, 2015 having the cuts and bruises on my naked body photographed in front of the police for forensic evidence, after being violently sexually assaulted on my own street on the way home from seeing friends. This day, a year ago, nothing could take off the bleak lenses that I was seeing the world through. It was, contrary to today, one of the worst days of my life.
Not every day is, or has been, a great day like today. There were the days of post-traumatic stress, the days of flashbacks and night terrors. There were the days of intrusion and invasiveness by a few notorious newspapers that, unlike the others, forgot that I was a human being and not just a news story. There were the days of court hearings, police visits, anxious waiting for phone calls, Twitter trolls, hate mail, rape threats – you name it. There were also just those ordinary crappy days that are a fact of life – the days of exams, of bad weather, of people being a bit shit, of getting the flu, of missing your bus even when you’ve just run a mile to catch it and everyone at the stop is staring at you like a fool. Not every day is a perfect day, for anyone. Of course it isn’t. It might look like it is for some rich kids on Instagram, but inevitably the days we project for others to see aren’t ever the whole story. We’re all human. (Back at it again with the clichés.) We can’t always pick which days we will feel on top of the world, and which days we will feel like the world is a dark place to be.
But when I take stock of this year, and the significance of this day, it is not those darker moments that stand out for me. This ‘anniversary’ does not make me want to think about this day last year, but about the year that fell between. I don’t want to define the year that fell between 10th April 2015 and 10th April 2016 by the incidents that tainted it, but by the incidents that transformed the energy of injustice, upset and anger from the negative incidents of this year into things to feel positive about: by the community on here; by the fantastic people I have had the chance to collaborate with through #NotGuilty to encourage social change: The Schools Consent Project, My Body Back, The Clear Lines Festival, Amongst Women Festival, Women of the World Festival, TED, Cambridge4Consent, The Survivors Collective, Goblin Baby Theatre…the list goes on; by the incredible, brave contributors we have had to this site – sharing their stories and, through every word, standing up for fellow survivors and themselves, stressing that no individual is alone or to blame for what they have gone through; by the inspiring survivors of assault that I have spoken to at our support groups and events, in the street, via email; by the people who have found solace and felt encouraged by #NotGuilty; by the days like today that remind me that I, and my life, are so much more than something that tried to define me and overcome me for a while, and that I can aim to have days like today every day if I want to; by the people in my life who I see every day, the people I share meals and stories with, the people who make me laugh.
#NotGuilty started as a tiny article in a student newspaper, not even half a page, towards the end of the paper, past even the blind dates and adverts. Little did we know it would ever catch public attention, let alone travel worldwide. Before we launched the campaign, I remember saying to my family that if we managed to reach out to just one person, to make even just one individual feel a little less alone and a little stronger, then I would feel that it had all been worth doing.
The world feels a lot closer with all of you who have read, contributed to, written about, engaged with, reached out to, and been part of the campaign this year. In the letter that kick-started the campaign, I told my attacker that he had not proved any weakness in me or my community, but had only demonstrated the solidarity of humanity, and confirmed my opinion that there are infinitely more good people in the world than bad. Infinitely more people than even I could have imagined, it seems. Without whom, I could never have anticipated such a transformation from negative to positive events ever being possible.
When I clocked the date today I wasn’t initially going to write about it, fearing that it could all too easily make ‘the year in between’ into an ‘anniversary’ of one especially bad day – that day changed my life, but it was people who transformed and shaped my experiences.
Once I started, though, the words simply poured out and I am glad they did. If only so I can say to all of you who made it possible: thank you.
Remember playing with your neighborhood friends when you were little? Riding bikes and flying down a hill without fear of falling or a car coming? And when you did fall no matter how bad it hurt you always got right back up and kept riding. Most of us today still bounce back from falls just like that. I did, until I was raped. I had and did a lot of things before I was raped. Like freely express my mind, sleep at night, not fear anyone, not fear myself and most importantly I had self worth. I swam, I enjoyed hanging out with my friends, I adored my family, I had healthy relationships. Life was simple, not easy, but simple. Before I was raped I had enough self worth to know that I could accomplish anything I set my mind to. I had enough self worth to make someone else laugh and smile. I had enough self worth to set goals and run after them while knocking everyone down in my way. A guy named Tom not only took my innocence. He took my voice, sanity, power, and focus. He took Stephanie away and turned her into a self destructing pity party. I am not proud or by any means want your pity. This is bigger than me. This is for the little girl riding her bike and having to go home to an abusive dad. This is for the little boy that is too scared to tell anyone he’s been assaulted. And this is for all the teenagers who lost their voice.
Approximately 4/5 sexual assaults are by someone the victim knows. In my case that was true. It is also true that only 68% of sexual assaults are reported to the police. All the other brave boys, girls, men and woman who do report their abuse only 98% of rapists EVER spend a day in jail. Rape is complex, its not about sex. Its about violence, control and power. It’s about intentionally hurting someone to belittle them into thinking they didn’t do anything wrong. Most of the time they win, ask anyone who has been sexually abused. They will tell you before they started the road to healing they thought it was their fault. And the ones who don’t heal will always think it was their fault. I was abused for 3 years. I was 16, 17, and 18. This is a crucial time in anyone’s life to figure out who they are. I lost the chance to do that and I’ve suffered from transitional issues because of it. I couldn’t go to college and sleep at night. I couldn’t be a good roommate, girlfriend or teammate. But I went anyway because I worked my whole life not only to swim in college but to go for free. I couldn’t let Tom take that away from me could I? Well, in the end he did for 3 years. I lasted one semester in college because I truly believed he was following me. I would see him walking to class. In my swim locker. In my bed. I pushed and fought and refused to get help because I was too embarrassed to tell anyone what he did to me. Today, I know I was suffering from PTSD and I have a piece of shit rapist to thank for that. It still doesn’t hurt any less today but when I see him places I can assure myself he’s rotting somewhere not in my presence. Not talking, not getting help and lashing out at anyone who truly loved me has made me bitter and shameful. Is this all he wanted? To continue to control my life even when he’s not physically hurting me? And I have people tell me today “Why didn’t you tell anyone?” “How could you let it go on for 3 years?” “Didn’t you know any better?” How about a big fuck YOU? THAT is what is wrong. Why am I being questioned? Why am I being blamed? Why is rape so much different than any other crime in America? Rape victims keep quiet out of fear. For one, it is invasive, traumatic and confusing. Gathering the courage to say something and to be questioned like I have is NOT encouraging. I hope this little piece that I have written can give someone the courage to know they can say something in confidence and have a system to back them up. The system let me down and many others, but I hope that doesn’t keep anyone from fighting because YOU matter. YOU are not guilty. YOU deserve to heal. And one day you will be walking down a path full of love and support. You don’t owe anything to anyone. Draw the line where you want to and never feel guilty for not reciprocating. If you’re uncomfortable, it’s not your job to make sure that they’re satisfied. When someone tells a rape joke and you feel like running away, stand up for yourself and everyone else fighting. Not being a fly on the wall is the best thing you can do for yourself. Guys you hook up with won’t understand how much power it took you to open yourself up to a man again, so they have no place to judge you if you draw the line at some point. The first time you start liking a new guy you may feel guilty, since a guy is what got you here in the first place. Some men you meet will think your rape is baggage and won’t know how to “handle” someone like you. Remember that trusting will always be hard but that you will one day find a partner who can support you emotionally, will read articles to better understand how to help you, will be there for a shoulder when it becomes too much, will be cautious during sex but not focus on it during sex, and will love you unconditionally because they couldn’t believe that someone would ever do that to you. These are things no one will tell you, but its how you break the chain with the one who assaulted you. You can be free. And you are SO loved.