Losing my voice

Losing my voice

I haven’t left my apartment today except to take my dog for walks. They’ve been short walks, close to home, and I’ve been on edge. This morning I crossed the street to avoid a man walking my direction, and just now I practically dove into a bush to get away from a man who walked up behind me. I didn’t even realize it was happening until he rolled his eyes and shook his head. I’m pretty sure he thought I was a racist. I’m not a racist. I have PTSD.

Since I woke up I’ve been overcome with shame that shouldn’t be mine, guilt that I can’t shake despite knowing with everything in me that I shouldn’t blame myself. I took a nap this afternoon and woke up from a flashback nightmare.

sadLast night I went out with a friend to say “bye for now” as I prepare to move in about a week. After dinner, we sought a casual pub where we could have a few drinks and continue our conversation. We settled on a laid back spot with a juke box and a good beer selection. I love going out with “M” because she’s everything I’m not. She’s bubbly, positive, fun, extroverted, and genuinely interested in everyone she meets. She’s always starting conversations with strangers. She’s beautiful and confident and social, but she’s also genuine and sweet. It’s no surprise that people are drawn to her.

My natural response when I came back from the bathroom to find M talking to a group of guys was to wait patiently until she came back to our table. I’m awkward in social settings and interacting with new people – especially groups of them – is terrifying. She motioned me over and introduced me to a couple of the guys who were out celebrating a bachelor party. After a few uncomfortable minutes I realized they were actually pretty nice, and the conversation was innocent and friendly, so I started to relax. We played some songs on the juke box, had a couple of beers, and laughed a lot. In what seemed like an instant, the energy in the room changed. It got more crowded, people got louder and drunker and more aggressive. I started shrinking back into a corner, overwhelmed with what was going on around me. M checked on me, made sure I was okay – I was.

The guy I’d been talking with brought me a beer, but now instead of standing across from me laughing he was beside me with his hands on my hips. I moved away from him and he followed, now behind me, touching me, crowding me into the bar. I tried to make a joke to distract him. He grabbed my breast and I pushed his hand away. M saw this and told him it wasn’t okay. Me? I was silent. I chewed my bottom lip so hard it bled, I couldn’t breathe and I couldn’t say anything. I slipped away to the bathroom, but he was there waiting when I came back. I kept my distance at first but he pursued me so aggressively that I tripped backwards over a bar stool. I grabbed M and asked her to come outside with me. I pushed through the crowd and spilled onto the street to try and catch my breath.

I leaned against the wall, apologizing to her. “I’m so sorry, I can’t do this.” I was worried that she’d be disappointed in me for…I don’t know what. I felt I’d done something wrong. M took my hands in hers and said, “Don’t apologize. That guy is being a drunk asshole, you don’t have to put up with that. Do you want to get out of here?” And I let out the biggest sigh and felt the fear dissipate and thought about how lucky I was to have her there looking after me. I don’t know why I thought a friend would react any other way. I said I didn’t want to leave, that I just needed a minute. But he walked out and came toward us, and I realized I had to get out of there. I hugged her quickly and jumped into a cab.

I felt bad for leaving, I felt like a loser. Isn’t this what young, single people do? They go to bars and flirt with boys. The guy talking to M was respectful, he wasn’t pushing her into a bar and grinding on her. Why did this guy think he could do that to me? Was I wearing my insecurity on my sleeve? Why didn’t I say anything? WHY DIDN’T I SAY ANYTHING?

I’ve spent the last 7 months finding my voice as a survivor of sexual assault, as a feminist, as an activist – where was my voice when I needed it? I’ve healed and I’ve grown and I’ve come a long way, I know I have. I thought I’d come further than this but last night I learned I’m still powerless. I wasn’t drunk or incapacitated. I wasn’t in a dark alley, alone and vulnerable. I was in a crowded bar in my own city, with friends… and I couldn’t say anything.

I’m so disappointed in myself for freezing up, for panicking. And I’m so grateful for my friend M. What she did is referred to as Bystander Intervention.

Today I was looking for an image to accompany this post and I searched for “sexual assault bystander intervention”. I know there are a number of campaigns focusing on this effective prevention tactic. The Ontario government recently launched “It’s Never Okay” which uses some powerful (and creepy) images of typical situations where bystanders can prevent sexual assault. This, like most campaigns, is mainly focused on university students – specifically girls who are too drunk to consent or guys using date rape drugs. I’ve been there, done that – I certainly see the value in that targeted message. The Ontario campaign is the first one I’ve seen to also include workplace harassment, which I appreciate. But those were the only ones I could find: all women who were for some reason unable to consent. They don’t make Bystander Intervention posters targeting 31 year old women who are physically and mentally capable of saying no. They don’t make them, because I think most people would agree that a woman in that situation should be able to take care of herself. I think if my experience last night was on YouTube, people would say you can’t blame the guy for trying…it’s not like she told him to stop.

So instead I chose an image from an article talking about a study on why rapes aren’t reported. I tend to agree with criticism of the use of images like this to accompany stories about sexual assault. Survivors shouldn’t feel shame or guilt, and these images kind of imply that they do. I do. I chose this image because that’s how I feel today. I know I shouldn’t feel bad, I know it wasn’t my fault. It has been 5 years, 7 months, and 14 days since I was a single woman in a bar meeting men. I don’t think it has changed much in that time. I thought I had changed but I realize I’m the same awkward, scared, and vulnerable girl I was before.




Lauren Reid is the founder of When You're Ready.org, a three time survivor of rape who built this community to let other survivors of sexual violence know that they're not alone. When you're ready, I'll be here.



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