Ilisha Purcell

UCL

CN: Sexual assault; Rape; Trauma

 

When I think of my life, it splits into two sections divided by a thick line, a line made up of the hands of men who turned my life and me inside out: the before and after I was sexually assaulted.

In the eighteen months of living on the right hand side of the line, I have resided in recesses of my mind so despairing I thought I wouldn’t surface from them. I have resided in physical places I did not know existed: women’s refuges, rape crisis centres and some that I thought I would never need to visit – the statement room of Northumberland police department, the office of a lawyer my parents knew, in the car of my ISVA on the way to visit a senior member of the same police department.

The former places usually exist in backstreets, down corners of roads that I would walk along in my childhood, only to return later, having been forced to shed any innocence that remained. Most are hard to identify, but through multiple google maps searching I got used to noticing them from the colour of the door – the pastels, the black, the occasional lilac. You had to press the intercom on each one, say who you were and who you were here to see, all in order to keep some people out and others safe inside.

Each week as I revised for my A Levels, I took an hour out from my revision routine, sitting at home in a body that I felt was on loan, to attend the six therapy sessions the NHS could afford to give me to stitch myself back together. Sometimes what my therapist says flashes across my mind, but often I just remember the silver intercom that I would press and the words I would say. The secret code, the combination I can still recall on demand, the access to a safe of knowledge and trauma I never asked for and never should have been given.

 

“I took an hour out from my revision routine, sitting at home in a body that I felt was on loan, to attend the six therapy sessions the NHS could afford to give me to stitch myself back together”

 

Like the worst spy film ever, I began to live a double life. In the women’s centre I went to in Newcastle I saw no one else there, apart from the staff who had to lock and unlock each door, checking behind them each time, a haven and a prison at once. The only time that I did see someone it broke my heart, not just because it was a girl younger than myself with her mother, but because it meant that they knew why I was here and saw me as I sometimes see myself, when it’s dark and I catch a glimpse of my face that they looked into, shocked and disturbed by the trauma I carry  each day in the bags of my eyes and the tightness in my shoulders.

Rape is not a word that slides off my tongue. It sticks in my throat like a hand gripping it, snake-like – but it does define a large part of my life. It does not define me – I do not feel that being a ‘survivor’ completely characterises who I am – but the events have changed how I think and feel about myself. I can accept that as much as humanly possible, whilst still having an anger inside me that only some combination of three prison sentences, a time machine, a copious amount of hard liquor or a complete change to the judicial process and attitude towards women could ever dissolve.

 

“It does not define me – I do not feel that being a ‘survivor’ completely characterises who I am”

 

In January I went to my first group therapy session. Near the beginning of the meeting, one of the women turned to us all and said how happy she was to be here, but devastated too, as it meant we were all linked by one thing in common and that she was so sorry for that. It took a moment for me to follow what she was saying and associate myself with the devastation she referred to, to fully comprehend that I was connected to these women in a way that I have never experienced before.

What happened in the thick line does not often enter my daily conversation, apart from with my boyfriend and occasionally my friends, but there is not a day, maybe not even an hour, that thoughts about it don’t go through my mind. Sometimes they do go through, breeze through with a fleeting image or word that makes me grimace, but a lot of the time they stick, slither and squirm their way into my consciousness. I can remember the exact look in their eyes through to the smell of their burps, and finally here was a space that I was openly acknowledging this, all the sordid details that keep me up at night.

It was like being reunited with family I always knew existed somewhere, but had always remained invisible to me, bittersweet mythological creatures who could understand my experiences in a way that others can’t. It moved me in a way I haven’t felt before; it was like being acknowledged, understood, woken up with cold water. Looking at these women reflected a part of myself that was terrifying to look at: the vulnerable part that is nevertheless composed and radiating in such strength.

 

“It was like being reunited with family I always knew existed somewhere, but had always remained invisible to me”

 

So I will continue to go and be surrounded by these women who I feel a bond with, though I know little about their daily lives. And, in a small room down a small street in the middle of north London, I can now look into the eyes of myself in someone else and tell them that I’m so sorry for what happened to them. And that brings a harrowing feeling of relief.

 


Header image by Bahman Farzad

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