A cartoon of a woman with long black hair comforting a woman who has her head in her hands.

How could I be friends with the man who assaulted me?

I recently read an article in the Guardian about what they called ‘unacknowledged rape’. The article stated that a large percentage of women have experienced sexual assault that they label as a misunderstanding, and it led me to think about sharing my own experience.

Growing up in the 80’s and 90’s meant, as a girl and young woman, I got some clear messages about what it meant to be a woman. Women were groped on TV as a form of comedy, women’s bodies were pointed at and laughed about in magazines and slut shaming was the norm.

It’s no real surprise then, that when I was sexually assaulted in my twenties, I blamed myself.

I shoved it down…stored it away…felt hot, deep shame when I thought about it…So I didn’t think about it.

This all changed when I was working with a young woman a few years ago. She knew what happened to her wasn’t her fault and put the blame firmly with the perpetrator. For some reason, something in me clicked and the memory came flooding back.

Waking up in the early hours of the morning to a friend sexually assaulting me, although I didn’t call it that at the time. I remember telling him to stop and saying that we were just friends. He obliged, got dressed and went to work. He even texted me later to tell me how hard work had been with a terrible hangover.

I was left feeling confused and sick to my stomach. I remember calling my ex-boyfriend, who I was still in touch with at the time and telling him what happened. On the other end of the phone was silence. I wanted him to come and get me, to rescue me from these feelings and tell me how angry he was that this had happened to me, but the silence went on. For me, it spoke volumes about who was at fault. He had questioned me before on whether I wore those short pyjamas around my male friends and the answer was yes. And here I was.

The realisation all those years later that it was assault left me reeling – what happens now? What do I do? How do I act? This man is still in my life and someone I still consider a friend.

I went back and forth, sometimes believing it was assault and other times telling myself it was just a misunderstanding. But there was something else nudging away and poking at me. After a few weeks I started getting vivid dreams and flashbacks to another occasion that was stored away in the depths of my mind and it started to become clear that this was not a one-off incident but had happened before. The memory was foggy and in bits (and still is), and I couldn’t be sure exactly what happened, but I knew something did. And that it wasn’t right.

For a while, everything crumbled.

It was all I could think about; first thing in the morning and last thing at night. It was everywhere and I needed to get it out.                                                                                                                                    

I started by talking to some friends who listened as I cried and tried to make sense of this. I knew I needed to tell my partner what was going on for me but wondered how I could explain that the person we had welcomed into our home was someone who had hurt me in this way?

It wasn’t easy, but I managed to.

We’re a few years on now and I’m still struggling to navigate removing myself from this friendship. We have many friends in common and I know they have questions about why I seem to have suddenly withdrawn from the group.

I went to a counsellor and talked openly, which helped me process what happened and the aftermath.

I talked about my younger self with the realisation that I was struggling with the impact of trauma and didn’t even know it. That helped to look back more compassionately on my younger self, accepting behaviours and decisions I made and seeing them in a different light. I was doing my best.

Now, what I’m left with is a feeling of sadness and loss. This might sound mad to some but I’m grieving that friendship; both what it was and what I thought it was. These awful memories haven’t deleted the good ones and that leaves me confused and torn. I know I will never choose to see him again or spend any time in his company, but there’s a part of me that will miss him and the good times we shared together.

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