All he did was take my hand and give it a slight squeeze, but it was enough.
Enough to get my breathing – and my rising panic – back under control. ‘Don’t worry,’ Sam, my boyfriend, whispered in the middle of yet another board game at Mum’s on Christmas Day. ‘It’s nearly time to go home. Just another few minutes to get through.’
I smiled in relief – at the thought of going home, but also at him. At his thoughtful words, his affection, and for knowing me so well.
I have no idea how he knew that my anxiety levels had gradually been rising. That the music had seemed to be getting louder; that people were talking but, to me, it felt like they were shouting.
All I knew was how grateful I was to have someone in my corner, on my side. Because for so long, I never thought I’d allow myself to be in a relationship.
When I was 16 and working, I was sexually assaulted by a colleague.
I was touched sexually numerous times without consent, while also being subjected to sexual comments.
The ordeal was covered up with banter and hushed tones so I tried to just get on with my life – burying the trauma.
It was only a few years later that I first started to realise what had happened to me. That having my body violated was wrong.
Afterwards, I couldn’t imagine being close to another man. Closing myself off, I’d tell people I didn’t want a boyfriend or that I wasn’t interested in a relationship.
At first, people – some who knew about my assault, while others didn’t – accepted my wishes without question. But throughout my twenties, as friends started to settle down, they began to wonder why I was single.
‘Are you a lesbian?’ some people went as far to ask. I even asked myself the same question. But I wasn’t – I was just too traumatised by what I’d been through.
Don’t get me wrong, there were plenty of times where I thought I was ready for a boyfriend. I’d create profiles on dating apps and start flicking through, but the slightest interaction would send me spiralling into panic. I’d delete the account, and convince myself I’d end up alone forever.
I could never shake the feeling that someone would end up being the same as the man who assaulted me.
That was, until September last year, when I came across Sam on Tinder. Unlike the other men I’d interacted with, I already knew Sam as we lived in the same small town – in fact, I’d fancied him since I was 16.
We’d never been romantically involved before but, whenever I caught a glimpse of him in town or the shops, I felt that giddy feeling you get when you have a crush. I’m not sure he ever noticed me and, of course, I convinced myself nothing was ever going to happen.
Seeing him on the dating app, I couldn’t just ignore him – and for the first time, I didn’t want to – so I swiped right, and he did as well.
We spoke all the time and, despite all of my fears, I kept thinking how easy it was to talk to him. We’d speak all through the day and evening and it never felt like I was desperately searching for something to say.
It’s in these early conversations that I briefly opened up about my sexual assault because I wanted him to know everything about me. I also told him that I had never been in a relationship before.
He rang me late on a Saturday night and we spoke for ages. He was kind, patient and ultimately told me what I needed to hear – that he wasn’t like the previous men in my life.
We never went on a first date at the start; the thought of going for dinner with a man I barely knew was too daunting. A few times, Sam would ask if he could come over, or if I wanted to go for a dog walk, but I kept saying no. He listened, respected my wishes, and waited.
Eventually, as we continued to speak through video call and text, Sam asked to pop over for a cup of tea after work – and I said yes.
Every ounce of my being was a nervous wreck when he arrived. Immediately, he gave me a hug, but I could barely return the gesture. It wasn’t because I didn’t want to touch him – I later learnt in therapy that it was the trauma resurfacing. My body was telling me that I could be in danger, so even being able to hug him properly took weeks – let alone kiss him.
I remember thinking how calm he was for the hour he stayed. I tried to play it cool, but my mind was racing. I was actually doing this, I thought – this was a huge step.
I enjoyed talking and getting to know Sam, but it was exhausting. I couldn’t work out why I wasn’t sleeping or eating properly, why my body was shaking and why my stomach felt constantly tied in knots. I cried – a lot.
To constantly ignore the urge to run away was draining. It was raw and painful.
Looking back now, it’s clear the trauma had reached the very front of my mind and I was struggling but then, it completely confused me, too.
It was almost as though my brain was split into two. There was the panic, worry and fear over opening up and allowing myself to get close to a man. But there was also a positive, more exciting side. I was enjoying getting to know Sam and I wanted to allow him that. It was the sense that not running away would be worth it in the end.
So, as the days ticked by and the trust between us grew, my feelings began to change. The fact that Sam would listen to me and I began to believe that, actually, he was a good man, began to override my worries.
It became clearer that I wanted him in my life.
Then, there was one day in particular I’ll remember forever. I wasn’t even his girlfriend at this point, and we hadn’t been speaking long. We’d spent my lunch break together and when he left, my mind felt strange – it felt numb. I wasn’t feeling the excitement you’d usually feel when you’re talking to someone you’ve fancied for years, I was just empty.
Suddenly, almost like a tsunami, I became completely overwhelmed and broke down in tears.
I struggled to filter my thoughts and work out what I was feeling but ultimately, it was all because of the assault. I hated the fact it’d happened to me; and I questioned why I couldn’t just forget about it and wanted, so desperately, for the negative feelings to stop.
Later that afternoon, Sam came over. He brought a mountain of chocolate and sat with me as I became more and more withdrawn – thinking about everything that happened to me.
I’d mentioned my assault to Sam before, but not like this – I really conveyed how much it had destroyed a massive part of me. There was a lot of sadness in my words, as I asked him: ‘Why did it have to happen to me? And why is it still impacting my life, eight years later?’
Sam, of course, couldn’t answer these questions – there were no answers – but he held me and promised me he’d stay by my side and that these feelings would ease. And they have.
My body and my mind felt different after that day, almost lighter. As though some of the weight and the pain I’d been carrying for years was finally starting to shift.
Sam and I have been together for just over three months – he makes me smile so much it hurts. When we laugh, it fills me with delight, and when we’re together, my mind is still. I am the most present I have ever felt.
Those noises in my head, the overwhelming thoughts and fears, they are barely there anymore. Even when they are, I tell Sam.
Sometimes expressing how I’m feeling takes a bit of time, but again, he’s just there, listening, comforting and supporting me. ‘I’ve got you’, he says, and I trust him.
I’m not sure what the future holds. Initially, that would have terrified me but now, thinking about having a future with Sam excites me because I know I have battled that storm and done something I never thought possible.
Do you have a story you’d like to share? Get in touch by emailing [email protected]
Share your views in the comments below.
Source: Read Full Article