Today, we have a guest post from a member of our community. Many thanks to her for sharing her writing with us. Please be advised that this blog post contains references to sexual assault and birth trauma; if you feel you may be distressed by this, then you may wish not to read any further. There will be some information below the post about where you can find support if you have been affected by experiences like this.
When I was a teenager, I was sexually assaulted by someone I trusted and I lost all confidence that the word “no” had any power to protect my body.
It took me a long time to be able to put words to what had happened to me. I spent a few years pretending that it was all fine and that I’d actually wanted it, and it wasn’t until ages afterwards that I realized it was ok to feel like I hadn’t. After all, I hadn’t moved, hadn’t fought, hadn’t tried to get away. I’d just stood still and waited for it all to stop. I must have been on with it, on some level. If it had really been assault, then I would have tried harder to get away. And it wasn’t that bad. Other women had experienced much, much worse, and I just needed to get over it. There were times when I could all but forget that it had ever happened and then times when I had weekly nightmares about it for months at a time. The worst thing about it was that it meant my body wasn’t a safe space anymore. I couldn’t escape what had happened to me because it followed me everywhere. I didn’t want anybody to look at my body, or talk about it, or touch it, and I didn’t want to look at it or think about it either. I didn’t want to take care of it. I wanted to damage it. I didn’t want it to be part of me anymore.
Many years later, I had a baby. I knew in the back of my head that this might bring up some bad memories, but it felt like I’d escaped unscathed after a fairly short labour and some stitches. There had been a couple of occasions earlier on in my pregnancy when I’d had to be examined and I had found that hard, but surely no harder than anyone else. Everything was ok. I had a baby, he was well, I was well. I got to go home after a couple of days in hospital, which were long and tedious and hard, but then we were home and getting to know each other and it was all going to be fine. I felt like I’d survived and that I could now just get on with the business of looking after a baby.
A week later, I was back in hospital after noticing a big blood clot. I’d been told to watch out for them and to call the hospital if I saw any clot larger than a 50p piece, which this was. We put my tiny son into his car seat, I packed a bag anticipating a couple of hours of inconvenience but nothing more, and we piled into the waiting room. Once I got there, I was put onto a bed and after waiting around for a while, someone came in to have a look.
OK, fine. It made sense. A clot had come out of my vagina, they needed to make sure there wasn’t anything sinister going on. Of course someone was going to have to look. I could handle that. I had to handle that. But I couldn’t. My stitches were still sore. I hadn’t looked at them myself. I wasn’t ready for someone else to look. I was terrified the doctor was going to tear my stitches open.
He was a medical professional. He was doing his job. I’m sure he knew he wasn’t going to hurt me and was just trying to keep it quick. But I wanted him to stop. In my head, I was screaming at him to stop. Maybe the words never left my mouth, I don’t know, because I froze, just like I had all those years ago. I don’t know if I screamed, if I whispered, or if I said nothing at all. I can’t remember. All I can remember is a suffocating feeling of my body being looked at and touched by other people and the fear that they were going to hurt me. The powerlessness of it haunts me and stops me in my tracks even now.
I have spent more hours of my life than I’d care to admit agonizing about whether I can go through all of this again. It was just one day. It was just one thing. Just a medical exam, which women everywhere have every day without freaking out, and a memory of something half a lifetime ago. Am I closing my mind to the possibility of more children just because I can’t get a grip? But am I really going to keep kidding myself that this thing that has been affecting me for decades is just “one thing”? The path has to be somewhere in the middle, accepting that it’s “a thing” but not “the thing”; something that happened to me, but doesn’t define me. I’m not there yet, but I want to be. And someday, I will be.
Statistically, I’m far from alone in my experiences, either pre- or post-birth. I’ve written this because I want you to know that if you’ve had something like this happen to you, then you’re not alone. And if you need to, you can talk to us about it. Come to The Motherkind Café, either in our private Facebook group or one of our fortnightly walks, where you’ll find support, not judgement. Whatever has happened to you, if you want to talk about it, we’ll listen.
If anything in this post has affected you and you would like some support with any of the issues mentioned, please speak to your GP. You can also self-refer to Talking Space Plus (NHS) or OXPIP, both of whom can offer advice, support, and treatment. You could also speak to the Oxford Maternity Voices Partnership for help in relation to giving feedback about a difficult or traumatic birth and improving care for women in Oxford, or find out more about birth trauma via the Birth Trauma Association and Make Birth Better.