I was gang raped.

It’s been almost 6 years now and I still refer to that night as my “attack”.  Somehow using the word “raped” is still immensely difficult for me.  I can write it.  But I battle to say is out loud.   Slowly though, I’m processing.

Rape has a legacy.  It is something I’m learning to deal with every day of my life since.  I’ve largely moved past the place now where the word triggers a physical reaction under my skin, but the truth is, it remains there and many of my days are still hard.  Here is what I refuse about rape’s legacy – that the shame is on me. That I somehow did something wrong. That it could have been avoided if I’d screamed louder or fought harder.

I suspect that I’m going to be dealing with it every day for the rest of my life.  I’m so grateful no one told me that 6 years ago!

When Poppy came into my life a few months ago, I acknowledge now, that somehow, somewhere, a small part of me wanted this to be the answer to my prayers:  that getting a dog to help me would magically take it all away.  All of it – The nightmares, the flashbacks, the anger, the tears, the having to prove that I’m getting stronger and can cope.

And in this, lies my biggest lesson so far:  Poppy is not some kind of miracle cure for PTSD.  She is not a ‘pill’ to take that will miraculously numb and wipe out the memories that haunt me. 

Instead, Poppy and I are working together so that she can help me navigate a way through this craziness.  We are training together so that I can learn to lean on her and trust again.  Poppy is really incredible like that – my teacher of forgiveness, love and non-judgement.   She has an innate way of completely making me forget (for a bit) about what I often refer to as the “neon shining label above my head” – the reality of being a survivor.

Because the experience of being raped has forced its way into my identity, if I want it to or not. It comes with the territory of writing publicly about my rape.  Of speaking about it.  It is not something you ‘heal’ from – no sutures or bandages can make this better. What I can do instead, is to choose everyday to defy people’s expectations around what being a rape survivor means.  I refuse to lie down and be defeated by it. I am learning to claim this new version of my life to the best of my ability every single day.  It’s a choice.  To be stronger than those men. To overcome.  It’s what my friend Jes Foord refers to when she says “they took my body but they will never take me” – this is my act of absolute defiance.

And I have a crazy woof doggie to help me defy.  To be a rebel.  Poppy understands rebel more than most.  Her daily escapades and adventures are proof! From stealing socks, unravelling toilet paper or being totally obstinate with me in her training progress.

In many ways, Poppy is a ‘survivor’ too.  She was rescued from a family, homed once before I found her, and promptly returned to the rescue organization, because she was too much of a handful for their family.

But here is where I want to propose the need for a new word for both of us.  Being a “survivor” for both of us doesn’t adequately describe the reality of moving forward.   Yes, the term “survivor” has an implication that we start out as victims, but we outgrow that label as we “triumph” and move past the immediate aftermath of the crime. Survivor implies having survived the recovery process.  For me, survivor sugar coats the reality of rape and the strength required to choose to be stronger every day for the rest of my life.

Yes, ‘Survivor’ tells an ultimately hopeful, inspiring, empowering story. Look at us, thriving despite violence. Survivor is easier for people to hear. It is more comfortable than ‘victim’. Victim reminds people of violent acts, of brutal realities. Survivor makes them think of rousing music and impossible courage. Survivor is the story of sexual violence that the media, the public, wants to hear. I don’t know a single person that has experienced sexual violence and thinks they’re better off for it. The act and aftermath of sexual violence is not oriented around the potential light at the end of the tunnel.

To date, I’ve used the word ‘survivor’ to describe myself numerous times.  Mostly because there was no alternative.  I didn’t have the right language.  And I still battle to say it out loud.  So here is to progress – I’m writing it down today until my heart can process what my brain already knows – “raped” does not define me.

Being a rebel does.  Choosing, actively, every day to find kindness in this dark world is my act of rebellion

My friend once told me, “surviving rape made you brave and strong.” But that’s not true. I was brave and strong before somebody raped me. I don’t think I became stronger because of the rape. I think I simply got back to my baseline — brave and strong.

I am not better off for having been raped. Conventional wisdom tells us to “get out of the victim mindset.” As if there is a stigma associated with the term “victim,” and “survivor” seeks to evade it. Are victims of other crimes ashamed to have been victimized? Maybe. But there is a particular, and particularly egregious, stigma associated with sexual violence.  A legacy. I refuse to feel ashamed of what was done to me. The shame of the act is not mine; it is on the men who perpetrated the crime. My rapists may never be punished, but they will always be guilty.

The language I use to talk about sexual violence should place the spotlight on the fact that other people perpetrated a crime against me. We do not call the victim of a robbery a “survivor” after all!

I do not want to be the focus. I want the crime to be the focus. I want the criminal to be the focus. When we hear the term victim, we think about the crime, acknowledge its perpetrator. When we hear the term survivor, the perpetrator is erased. Empowering victims, linguistically or otherwise, won’t stop rape.

There are survivors of a fire, a natural disaster, a disease. But for me sexual violence is different. It is not an unstoppable pandemic. It is not a blameless illness. There is always somebody that bears the blame. We know who these people are, though they are rarely imprisoned.

I avoid using the word “victim” when writing or speaking. I use the word “survivor,” the word the #MeToo movement wants me to use, because I want the movement to succeed.  Common language is important to unification, to a consistent message —but when I’m alone with myself, I know my truth. I am a victim of a heinous crime. Yes, I survived, but mostly I wish I did not have to spend time worrying about verbiage.

We need to get to a place where language can be more nuanced, more telling, more personal. We need to be able to speak our truths however we want to articulate them, to fully own our stories, and not just donate them to the cause.

I don’t have the answer or right ‘label’ for where I am now.  To adequately describe how far I’ve travelled in the last (almost) 6 years.  To describe how much of an impact Poppy has made on my life in the last few months.

Calling myself a rebel is hardly the answer – it’s hardly nuanced but it does make my heart sing!

And in that absence I will always choose the idea of being a rebel.  A rebel with a poet’s heart.  Because writing helps me face some of this unravelling and rebuilding, with a kinder heart and a hope that this world will face its ugliness by listening to stories like mine.

So here is a toast to all the dried ink of all the versions of myself I’ve been:

 “Tina” “Victim” “Survivor” “Rebel” — to all the things I’ve failed at to get here, all the wounds I’ve tried to run away from and then begrudgingly faced— a daily struggle to push until they dissolve into a display of colour.  In my dreams, I blow it all away with my dragon’s breath like ash – all of my history.  But then, when my eyelids flicker open and I have to choose again to get up.  This is not a dream.  My body has been a battlefield.  It’s a long journey.  This transforming into a rebel.

I thought I’d never get here.

I never thought anyone could travel this with me.

But I was wrong.

Poppy does.  Everyday.  Even on the days I don’t win and curl back up into bed. She is there. Loving, watching, creating havoc, forcing me to live in the present and not in the past where my PTSD wants to take hold.

I am so grateful for this journey together.

One rebellious paw print at a time.