On being brave

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.

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7 responses to “On being brave

  1. It’s funny how often people use words without really stopping to think what they mean. I’ve never thought very much about what “brave” means — I think you hit it on the head, and you’re right, it really does suit you. I, for one, am glad that you ARE brave, because otherwise I wouldn’t have gotten to “know” you.

    ❤ ❤

  2. This is amazing – so eloquent and moving. Thank you for writing this because it feels like it has planted a seed and that’s something I really need right now
    My sister really struggles with being called ‘brave’ simply because of the fact that this was not a choice and the way in which people say it is so patronising.

    Basically, I just want to thank you for posting this because of how I can relate to it and how other people (without eds, maybe) will be able to relate to it

    Thanks xxxxx

  3. bravery isnt just about recieving an award or getting recognised for doing something… bravery comes from within and it came take many guises. u are an incredibly brave and strong woman, who is reclaiming independence and helping those less able to be brave by themselves. That is worth more than any “award” in my eyes 🙂
    sending you lots of happy vibes and hugs
    x

  4. Hi Katie.
    Your blog is great. I feel strongly about the sense of shame that you refer to. Rape must be dreadful but the experience of it can’t I suspect be helped by the associated sense of shame society treats it with. The secrecy that is then borne from that sense of shame must make it all the more unbearable.When someone is in difficulties it’s the feeling that one can talk about it and get it into the open that helps to stop the problem feeling, growing and growing and overwhelming us in depression.The focus seems to be on the victim who’s life is labelled as “ruined” and the associated shame and not the desperate need to prevent other dreadfully sick people from committing these acts of violence in the first place. It’s no wonder poor victims feel so so low and suicidal. Yes rape is a horrific act of violence but I think our society makes it even worse for the victim because of the stigma. Well done for voicing your experience. Hopefully others will feel able to do so too. What you say about bravery rings true as well. Great post! 😀

  5. Katie, thanks for sharing your thoughts on this, and for helping to erase the stigma on victims of sexual assault. I’m glad you are moving on in such a positive direction with your life, and I’m so sorry for all of your pain.

    You got me musing about bravery as it applies to me. We humans have such different psychological make-ups! I think I must be very fortunate, because I have had only one experience in my life that has made me feel great fear. That is, of course, the fact that my daughter has had all the eating disorders, plus some severe comorbid conditions, that have caused her great pain, both physically and psychologically, and even threatened her life. I don’t really relate to the concept of bravery in my situation, since the fears that I have felt off and on during the 13 years of her struggle were about her, my darling, most precious child! There was never a “choice” that I had to make to be brave or not. It never entered my mind whether to keep going trying to support her or not. There is some kind of a biological imperative in a parent to preserve the life of her child, and I definitely feel that imperative. Bravery doesn’t enter the equation.

    So, bottom line, I don’t feel like I have ever done anything “brave”. Everything else in my life has been pretty darned easy. And I am going to say it here, gulp, I was raped also, back when I was 20. I am in my mid-60’s now. As far as I can tell, while it was awful and I wish it hadn’t happened, it didn’t cause me any severe or lasting psychological pain. Lucky me! And I truly mean that – no sarcasm here. I guess I am the kind of person for whom it takes the threat of the death of her child to cause truly intense and continuing fear.

  6. Wonderfully said! 😀

  7. Pingback: Disappointing | Giant Fossilized Armadillo

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