I do this one thing on the anniversary of my rape
The toughest thing about trauma is trying to reclaim the life you had before it.
Fifteen years ago, I was violently beaten and raped by a stranger, who followed me through a park one spring afternoon. I’d been hiking on my own – one of the great joys of my life.
But after that brutal attack, the peace I’d found in nature was destroyed: The outdoors had become a space of fear and danger to me. I felt like I would never be able to enjoy hiking again.
At 24, I had hiked the Pembrokeshire Coast Path for seven days on my own. And now, at 29, I couldn’t even step into my local park without suffering a panic attack.
My rapist had not only physically violated and injured me, but he robbed me of my source of happiness, and with it, my own sense of self. Of all the injustices that come with rape, this seemed the cruellest.
By the first anniversary of my rape, I was lucky to see my rapist convicted in a court of law.
This was a rare victory, because statistically so few reported rapes result in a conviction.
But even then, recovery still seemed a long way off.
My career had foundered since the rape. The post-traumatic stress disorder, depression and anxiety that engulfed me in the build-up to the trial had made it impossible for me to continue my demanding job as a film producer.
I was now unemployed, directionless – I couldn’t even go for a walk.
So a year after my rape, I made a decision. I decided to attempt a walk in a park, to see if I could at least reclaim some of my appreciation for nature.
Aware of my post-traumatic fears, I asked two friends to accompany me, but asked them whether we could walk in silence, to each absorb the beauty of springtime.
We walked through Brockwell Park in South London for half an hour, observing the flowers, listening to the birdsong.
It was a far cry from the adventurous treks I’d done in my earlier life – but it was a start. There was an overlying fear, but beneath it, I recognised the familiar stillness that came with treading softly on grass, the calmness that trees had always offered me. And I reminded myself I had my friends by my side.
That was the beginning for me. I gradually grew more confident in my walking, making my way through city parks, then countryside rambles. Often with friends, but little by little, I dared myself to attempt a solo walk. In time, the post-traumatic fear was replaced by the peace of being in nature.
Every year since then, on the anniversary of my rape, I make sure to go for a commemorative walk on my own.
In both books, I ask: how can we move through the world as women seeking adventure and fulfilment? Is it with fear and the memory of past trauma? Or with joy and hope? I believe the answer is both.
After my rape, my mantra was to put as much distance as possible between me and the trauma. Both geographic distance in the miles I hiked, but also metaphorical distance in my subsequent life experiences. The more experiences I accrued, the less significance the rape would hold for me.
Today, I find life as a mother and novelist to be an adventure in its own right.
My rape will always be a trauma that permanently shaped the course of my life. But, in the wake of such trauma, we can be reminded of what once brought us joy.
We can feel sadness at the gap between our earlier lives and our post-traumatic ones. But we can also reclaim the joy from our past and forge new, positive experiences.
To anyone who is scared, I’m here to tell you to make that first step into a park, with friends at your side. And gradually, you’ll find your confidence. You’ll find your way.
Complicit by Winnie M Li, published by Orion Fiction in paperback on 20 July 2023
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