Trigger warning: Gender Based Violence, rape, suicidal ideation
One thing I love about working at the British Council is the focus we place on gender and the changes we seek to make in the world.
In our programmes we’re pushing to be gender sensitive or gender transformative. We have incredible safeguarding mechanisms and policies to help protect and support those who come within our sphere of work. We conduct important research and actively seek to influence policy around the world to benefit women and girls. All this, and so much more.
Internally, however, and especially when it comes to sexual and gender-based violence (GBV), I feel like the discourse goes a bit quiet.
As though the women within our organisation are immune to the statistical probability that 1 in 3 will suffer GBV in their lifetimes (UN Women, 2020). As though our image of a ‘victim’ doesn’t match up with our colleague sitting across from us. As though it’s something that happens to “other” women, and not to us.
But it does happen to us.
This is my story.
I was raped a few years ago, and during the 18-24 months that followed, I struggled to accept what had happened to me and found asking for help rather difficult.
Our lack of internal discourse on GBV didn’t help and often I interpreted this as “this shouldn’t have happened to you. It happens only to others.”
For example, a few months after my rape, I attended training on Adults at Risk and Safeguarding – and it wasn’t suggested that the issues we were discussing might directly affect people in the room, or where we might be able to seek support.
I also did the Gender Mainstreaming training, and whilst various gender issues were discussed and we could share some of our experiences, again, the context was about looking outward at the women and girls in the world, and not so much at those sat within the room.
My line manager, director and HR were completely empathetic when I told them, and I was told I could ask for what I needed. However, there is no specific guidance for line managers or survivors on what to expect when continuing to work after experiencing a traumatic event. I felt like the burden of articulating and requesting support was solely on my shoulders, at a time when, honestly, all I wanted was a step-by-step “Survivor’s guide to surviving”, and a defined list of options available to me.
Maybe it will help if I explain a little bit how I felt at the time…
In the immediate aftermath of my rape, I recall sitting in the office, feeling as though someone was going to discover my shameful truth just by looking at me. As though the constant intrusive thoughts were audible for all to hear. As though the weight of it was plain to see.
Of course, no-one discovered anything.
The reality was that I was doing everything in my power to keep my sh*t together, hide it, forget it, push it down, get on with work, and stop my entire world from collapsing around me.
For about 18 months my principal coping mechanism was to try and be the Jessica I was before it had happened.
I worked as hard as I could and tried to occupy every hour possible to drown out the thoughts and flashbacks which plagued me every single day.
After the first few weeks, I stopped going to therapy – partly because I had truly fooled myself that I was okay, and partly because when I was made to face with the grim truth, my precariously constructed “old Jessica” mask would disintegrate, and I wouldn’t have the time to put it back together and get up the next day and go to work and be productive.
I couldn’t admit to myself that I was not okay, so there was no way that I’d be able to articulate that to HR, my line manager or director. More painful than admitting I was not okay, was admitting that the old Jessica was gone, and I was going to have to learn to accept this new version of myself – who I hated.
A Jessica who lacked even an ounce of self-confidence. A Jessica in whom I felt I couldn’t trust. A Jessica who got overwhelmed by the slightest pressure.
Finally, about 18 months after the rape, by that point severely mentally unwell and very close to quitting my job (and not so far from wanting to quit life), and with a big push from my girlfriend, I sought therapy again.
Not long after, I identified that I needed some extended leave from work, although it probably took me a further three sessions of therapy to pluck up the courage to ask my line manager. I felt ridiculous for not being over it yet and worried I might appear weak or like I was skiving. Or what if I took the time off and still felt terrible? Would I be expected to come back “fixed”? I worried again that colleagues would somehow guess what had happened and why I was taking a month off, and they too would think I was pathetic for not being able to just “suck it up” (which I recognise now was a projection of my own dialogue with myself).
Again, I was very lucky to have an understanding line manager and director, and within a few weeks of asking, I took a month off.
It was only in that space that I was able to finally work through some of the most difficult knots of trauma and set myself on a path of recovery. Obviously, I didn’t magically get better in that month, but I was able to mourn for the old Jessica and begin to let the notion of her go. I forgave myself and began to hold space for and love who I had become as a result of the trauma.
A Jessica who is more compassionate than before, especially with herself. A Jessica who is more driven to make a difference in the world. A Jessica who can be trusted and who can get through anything.
I totally recognise that I had to own my process of recovery. The British Council isn’t responsible for me not seeking therapy sooner or for not asking for time off earlier on.
I also acknowledge that my experience is individual, and shaped by my privileges (white, with resources for therapy) as much as my intersecting identities (a queer and neurodivergent woman). Maybe my experience is completely unique, although I fear it’s probably not.
But it is my belief that when we only talk about GBV as something external to the organisation, and when we wait for survivors to come forward and ask for what they might need, without a framework in place, without a safe space for them to turn to, that we risk causing greater anguish for those individuals, or we leave line managers unsure how to best support, and we risk fostering an internal culture of silence in which survivors feel ashamed to step forward and say “me too”.
Author: Jessica Swann.