It’s not often that I can say with certainty that I know what I was doing at this moment nine years ago. Nine years ago tonight, between sunset on the 23rd and sunrise on the 24th, I was raped.
I don’t want to talk about that. Not because I’m scared to – I’m not. Not now, anyway. Discussing it in therapy has helped me overcome the worst of the post-traumatic stress disorder. I’ve written about what happened to me on my blog and even, last year, on Facebook. I spoke to a journalist at the Slutwalk a few months ago. I sent the resulting article to some friends and Laura wrote about it. I briefly mention that I was raped as an older teenager in my ED-related talks because it’s part of my story – but also because I think that stating in a matter of fact way that I am a survivor of sexual violence can help reduce some of the stigma, by making the issue seem more personal to those listening. I was raped. It massively affected every part of my life for years. And that is nothing to be ashamed of.
What I want to talk about is bravery. It’s difficult to write this without worrying that I sound big headed, but whenever I talk or write about my experiences people invariably tell me that I’m brave. It’s a word I’ve had trouble with for years. On one eating disorder forum I used to belong to my tag – given to me by other forum members – was “bravery suits me”. When I was very unwell I asked for it to be removed because I didn’t feel brave at all. That tag tormented me, reminding me that I was “choosing” anorexia over university, my future and ultimately my life – because that’s how I saw it at the time. I felt as if I was too cowardly to face up to my anxiety, post-traumatic stress disorder, inability to function as an adult and so on, so I was starving myself to cope and forget and build a wall between myself and the overwhelming, distressing, dangerous world. I can reframe those thoughts now and see that in reality I was under the influence of some powerful biological and psychological mechanisms, trapping me in the downward spiral of restriction, and that it wasn’t really a matter of courage or cowardice at all – but that’s how it felt at the time.
Something that makes me feel uncomfortable now about discussions of bravery is that the word is often attached to people who are visibly surviving and thriving after illnesses and traumatic experiences. It’s nice to compliment people in recovery on their tenacity and determination, but where does that leave those who are still unwell through no fault of their own? Are they not brave as well? What about those who don’t survive – who die from complications of eating disorders or commit suicide? One of the speakers at the F.E.A.S.T. symposium was Kitty Westin, who lost her daughter Anna to suicide ten years ago. She said that Anna was one of the strongest and bravest people she had ever met – because she had survived and fought through five long years of torture from her eating disorder.
I agree with her that continuing illness and death are not mutually exclusive with bravery. What is bravery, anyway? You could say that it’s entering into a perilous situation by choice, I suppose. But I didn’t choose to become a survivor of rape, I was forced into that situation. I was almost psychotic with anxiety and not really in control of my thoughts or behaviours for a long time afterwards. I became suicidally depressed and constantly wished I was brave enough to kill myself. I survived because I was scared of death, not because I made a deliberate decision not to let it destroy me. The same applies to my recovery from anorexia. I could have died from my eating disorder, or if I had slipped in just the wrong way when self harming. I attempted to stop both sets of behaviours every now and then, but as soon as my mood or anxiety overwhelmed me again I relapsed. On the outside I seemed to have no willpower, no strength, no bravery.
I did not undergo a major personality change the moment I began to recover. I was not a coward one second and a hero half an hour later. I survived being raped because I was too scared to kill myself and I recovered from anorexia because the idea of living with the eating disorder for the rest of my life became more terrifying than the alternative. My health was appalling and rapidly deteriorating, I had no social life, my career prospects were non-existent, my education had been disrupted too many times to count and the only events in my diary were medical appointments – I felt like I had nothing to live for and nothing left to lose, and the circumstances were just right that I began to take steps towards recovery rather than ending my life. It could have just as easily gone the other way.
I would be willing to bet that many people I would call brave would say the same thing. They did not set out to slay dragons just because the dragons were there, but because they felt compelled to through fear of what would happen if they did not. Either they or their loved ones were in danger. Something terrible was happening and they couldn’t sit back and take it anymore. They NEEDED to do something.
If bravery is doing what you need to do then I am brave. I actually have some self respect now, and I am proud of how far I have come. All I did really was survive, but sometimes surviving is an incredible achievement. Sometimes even that is too much to ask. I am proud of all my friends who have suffered or cared for those who suffer from eating disorders or other mental health problems regardless of where they are in recovery. To live with that level of almost intolerable distress for any period of time is heroic. I am proud of the friends I have lost to suicide and medical complications. They fought hard too, and would be here now if their pain had not exceeded their capacity for survival.
I was raped nine years ago tonight and it did not make me brave. But what I have seen and learnt and experienced since then has taught me that bravery takes many forms and that often, courageous acts are just necessary acts. That courageous people are driven by the simple need to not allow the alternative to happen. And that bravery really does suit me.