Content warning: Sexual violence/sexual abuse & language that some may find offensive.
The contents of this page contain topics related to sexual violence, therefore some of the content might be of a sensitive nature to readers.
Elle Anderson was sexually assaulted during her walk home from a night out a few years ago. UWLSU would like to thank Elle for agreeing to share her experience with our students to convey the message of empowerment through survivor stories.
What gave you the courage to speak up on your experience?
I think that the word courage is an interesting one, I consider any individual to be courageous when going through this situation and it comes in many different forms. Talking about it isn’t the only way to be brave during these awful times. Sometimes just surviving each day is the most fearless thing someone can do. With my experience, because I was taking my case to court, I found that my situation was generally being discussed a lot in a legal sense and I think this normalised the experience that little bit more in a weird sort of way. However, at the time of this all playing out I was also trying to complete my degree and just generally navigate my way through being a student. Therefore, I never truly let myself genuinely talk about or feel the emotions I had. I was in a constant line of communication with my friends and family surrounding the case and consequently the experience felt more about the court proceedings rather than the trauma. It began to feel like I was narrating a story I wasn’t a part of. Nonetheless, as time passed, I realised I wanted to tell my story and share my experience more and more to bring awareness to this terrible thing that unfortunately happens every day to so many innocent people. For me, there was a need to be able to discuss and speak about the subject and if me talking helped even one person then I was doing something right. I have two sisters and the idea that something like this could happen to one of them, that somebody could hurt them, fuelled my fight in the moments where it felt all-consuming. Even in the very early stage of the police interview, I explained how I couldn’t bear to be living in a world where my sisters could be hurt by simply walking down the street. It is all too easy to feel silenced and sometimes that feels easier than reliving this tragedy over and over again, but I decided that I wanted to create an open narrative in hope someone could take one thing from my experience that they could relate to or find a tiny bit of solace in. Ultimately together we are stronger and that little bit louder.
What advice would you give to survivors of sexual assault who might be reluctant to speak to someone about their experience?
My main piece of advice would be there is no right or wrong way to handle going through something as agonising as this. To know that to anyone who has been or is dealing with a horrendous situation like sexual assault, there is always someone who will listen, you are not alone and if you really look around so many more people have been affected by this continued monstrosity than you realise. Just because I have chosen to speak out doesn’t mean that I am noble for doing so. Remember, just carrying on is courageous. We all have our own journey, one that with time will surface and create a healthy living space for you to pursue life again. I think it is so important to know that there are people out there willing to listen, to support you and to understand your pain. It is tragically typical for victims to apportion guilt onto themselves instead of the aggressor and you have to try with all of your being to tackle that mindset.
For me personally I really struggled with talking about my trauma unless I had something to drink. It was like I was scared to expose myself and feared if I did, I would be shut down. I was worried that if I spoke it would only make those around me feel uncomfortable. The confidence only came when I’d smashed back a bottle of wine and the quiet corner of my head would finally render to my friends - this was not healthy. As time moved on I slowly but surely began to speak to my friends openly about this and every time I did, I was proven wrong about the judgment I had lived in fear of, every time I decided to open my soul to one of my dear friends, partner or family I was greeted with profound love and support. I didn’t think my pain was worth acknowledging and I submerged myself in so much self-doubt that ultimately, I damaged myself that little bit more. An example of one of the times I knew how lucky I had it was the horrific day I had to give my side of the story to a jury in court, after breaking down and sobbing tears I didn’t even know I had, I left the court room and ran out to one of my best friends who held me as she sobbed too, bearing in mind I had never really seen her cry before. This was the first time during my journey that it became clear how much sexual assault transcends the individual, when your loved ones see you in pain, they, to a lesser degree, live through it too. I knew my friends wanted to carry the burden with me, that they felt the pain also and we were in this together.
I was not alone, neither are you.
What is one thing that has helped you get through your experience?
My friends, partner and family, I am incredibly lucky that I had and continue to have a support system around me. These came in all shapes and sizes, from my sisters and mum to my lecturers at university. I found at the beginning I didn’t want to talk about things, I wanted to shut the lid and internalise any emotions I had towards it. Ultimately lock it all in a box and hope it would somehow go away. I was lucky enough that slowly but surely the people around me showed me that getting drunk wasn’t the only way I was able to put my heart on the line and talk about it. Our voices can often seem so small but if we communicate our thoughts and feelings surrounding our experiences, we can not only educate others around us but also help ourselves. Fundamentally, if you are a sexual assault survivor that is the most important thing. Surviving. Although we may not recognise ourselves as the survivors of the same crime, we share something that nobody else will understand. If you are reading this, our stories have consumed both of us and made us feel like nothing but a distant memory of ourselves. In that shared experience there is the sound of hope: you are never ever alone. Something you must also realise in this situation is about self-discovery and the main person who will help you, is you. As a sexual assault survivor, the majority of the thoughts and feelings that happen to you, happen in the confinement of your own head. Through self-soothing and learning to deal with this you build up a very different relationship with yourself. Nobody else knows your truth like you do. Often, when you speak to others regarding your trauma you tend to sensor some of the things that are truly in your head which means naturally the only person that knows the exact depth of what you are feeling is yourself. As strange as that sounds these experiences change us, we build up a stronger character to deal with that. There is always a potential that you will build a better relationship with yourself because of it, nobody is more important in this story than you. Of course, there are smaller moments of clarity and relief along the way. Although it seems obvious, an important moment for me was having the validation from a loved one that my alcohol consumption had nothing to do with the legitimacy of the assault. This was important because of the continued stigma around victim’s behaviour, which for me was exemplified in court through the consistent emphasis on my alcohol consumption and what I was wearing. Because ultimately the following sentence could not be truer: ‘What you were wearing and what you were drinking is completely beside the fucking point’. This all ties into the idea that blaming myself became so easy, you ask yourself do you want to be the person that compulsively discusses your experience for months on end or be the one who has never uttered a word due to their unbearable pain? But one must remember, there is no right answer and there never will be. Take the emphasis off of your own role in everything, any way you choose to navigate through this is indisputably valid. Often you hear people ask, ‘was it actually assault’, ‘were you pissed’, ‘did you have a conversation with them’. My advice to people asking these questions is it seems to be an almost widespread component of the survivors experience that people around them question the genuineness of what actually happened. This can set someone back further than they ever stepped forward. Be gentle. In order for someone to be able to recover the constant doubts must end. Just simply, believe them.
Anything you would like to add?
I just desperately want to reiterate that you truly are never alone, no matter what the situation, there is always someone who can be there. Whether that is someone like me, a support group, a friend or even a random stranger. When trying to conquer something as damaging as sexual assault, we can often look at the world as a cruel place. It’s suddenly as if the glass shatters around you and you see everything very differently, and it’s not in a good way. This type of trauma can rob you of the ability to trust your own feelings, memories and the people that surround you, putting doubt in every fibre of your thoughts. Nevertheless, the world we live in is far kinder than you think, people want to listen and mostly people are there to help. There is always a light at the end of the tunnel but as cliché as it sounds it might be time to realise you are the light at the end of that tunnel.
- Elle x