Friday, 12 October 2012
We all know the answers. What chance would a girl from an approved school or Broadmoor have had if she'd spoken up against a man draped with honours from the British Establishment and Catholic Church and who spent Christmas with the Prime Minister? None. She wouldn't have been believed for one second. And so these victims remained abused by the visibility of their attacker and he carried on unchecked and growing in confidence with every year.
You shrug and say 'but that's how it was then. Things have changed now.' And I say that, no, they haven't. Women still live their lives in a culture where the default setting is not to believe them. And not just about rape. About everything. This runs on a spectrum of 'you're lying' to 'are you sure?', taking in destinations such as 'I think you're overreacting' 'well, I haven't seen anything' and ' why don't we wait a few months and see what happens?' It happens whenever women try to report anything that happens to them from a particular Pill causing problems or periods being painful (it on average takes 8 years to be diagnosed with endometriosis), or their child just not seeming right in some way, to saying that that comment in the street wasn't a compliment or that when their partner does certain things it scares them. Their word about wanting or needing an abortion has to been agreed by two doctors while a declaration that you don't want kids is always accompanied with the order that 'you'll change your mind.' Women are constantly seen as unreliable at best, deceitful and out to destroy someone at worst.
And yet the irony is that the destructiveness of disbelief affects women primarily. They are the ones who live with the consequences of being disregarded, maligned and told their word is neither valid nor valuable. This has the effect of silencing women everywhere in life. It's very hard to stand up at work and suggest something unknown or risky with conviction when you're constantly being told you're not even an expert on yourself, your life and your body. This undermining seeps out into the rest of society. Men learn that their word is always seen as more important and often feel cossetted by that protection. Girls, who are seen to combine the silliness of children with the duplicitity of grown women are left horribly vulnerable and boys internalise that being seen to be girlie in anyway is the worst thing that could happen to them.
Being believed is like being scooped up in the strongest pair of hands. It's like being attached to a harness and rope while climbing the unpredictable rockface of life and knowing that you can hug tight or take a risk and swing out and that you will be fine. It builds confidence, it forms a barrier than makes it hard for the corrosiveness of self doubt and loathing to errode. It allows you to pick yourself up and face life without having to waste time and energy on fighting your way just to be heard let alone your actions acknowledged. It's vital to be able to heal and move on from painful paralysing experiences and unlike complicated interventions, it's free and easy. It just relies on kindess, humanity and being a decent person with a certain amount of humility.
I have faced a lot of disbelief in my life. The most striking example, of course, was trying to report rape. The first time, there was just a wall of doubt and denial driven by the fact that my attacker's uncle was well connected and there was a delay in reporting. I'm not stupid. I knew that not being able to produce forensic evidence would be a stumbling block. I half knew that reporting wasn't going to go anywhere, but having been told that what I was saying was unladylike by the woman at Victim Support (who could barely hold the phone for pearl clutching) and then having my GP refuse to note the assault on my medical notes, I needed an acknowledgement, some visible marker of what had happened. It was too much to comprehend that my whole life had been turned upside down and yet there was nothing tangible to see. I presume this is a similar emotion that women who have had miscarriages and stillbirths feel and why momentoes, photos and death certificates are so important? I wanted someone I could trust, who was impartial and who could be proactive to say yes, this happened. I needed to be believed. I simply couldn't believe this had happened and I needed permission to let myself start addressing it in order to make sense of it.
Instead I got total hostility, enhanced with sneering and judgement. I could come to terms with him not being punished as long as they'd investigated. Investigating is a form of belief. Ultimately I'd have liked the bastard to face some consequences, but I could more easily have come to terms with being told 'I'm sorry. We believe that he did this to you, but unfortunately because we can't find this evidence/the law doesn't allow/we can't prove it, we can't do anything, but we'll bear it in mind.' It would have taken less time that the lecture they gave me and I'd have gone away feeling something had been done, even though really it hadn't. Call it placebo policing. Call it being half decent to a traumatised victim. It certainly wouldn't have left me feeling so angry and helpless and fucked up.
I think I could have coped with that disbelief, and the version a few months later when the police seemed to believe I'd been raped that time but not that I deserved anything being done about it, if it was an isolated event, but disbelief was coming from everywhere and had been for years. Since the age of 14, I have suffered from nausea almost daily and then strange abdominal pains. I went to doctors repeatedly and was told it was all in my head, was I sure I wasn't pregnant?, it was lady trouble, growing pains, just something I had to live with and a multitude of other disbelieving, don't give a shit responses. Of course, it wasn't any of those things. It was gallstones and the offending organ was whipped out in 1996 and the problem was solved.
Except it wasn't. The nauses remained, now joined by literally gut wrenching diarrhoea and unexplained pains. After months of strong painkillers and hospital visits, the pain was found to be secondary stones. All fixed. Except that 16 years later my life is still dictated daily by nausea and diarrhoea. At least 9 GPs have disregarded it, telling me it can't be that bad (despite admissions to A&E on occasion and extreme weightloss at times), that all women get a bit of a dodgy tummy at that time of the month, I'm attention seeking, I eat too much fat/too little fibre, I've only got IBS and even though I'm medicated for both conditions, I don't really need it but they're just humouring me because after all it's well documented that I'm mental these days. Desperate and unable to work because of it, I asked to see a gastroenterolgist for 6 years and was refused time and time agian. I wanted to argue, I wanted to stand up and say 'listen to me', but having been disbelieved that I'd been bitten, that I'd been raped, that I was really properly homeless, that I'd had no real investigation by the police, that I really really did want to complain about the police, that my drinking hadn't caused the second rape, that I qualified for benefits, that I needed psychiatric help, that I was ill, that I was worth being helped, that I wasn't looking for attention, I just couldn't find my voice for that. I took the pills and carried on dealing with everything else.
And I met some people along the way who don't ask for explanations and justifications, but who just believed what I was saying. My solicitor who backed me to the hilt over my compensation claim and practically used her buff folders as pom poms as she cheered me on to claim the compensation that was a tangible acknowledge of what had happened. The therapist at the Chronic Fatigue clinic who convinced me I was ill and not just imagining it. The employment advisor who heard me say I'd never work again and who believed me that I felt like that while believing I still had a lot to offer. Friends who didn't quiz and query and question, but just accepted me warts and all. And eventually I felt ready to stand up to the GP who was blocking me and move surgeries. I stormed into the new one fired up and determined to be believed and was met by no resistance at all, only concern and help. Within 6 weeks I was sitting in front of a gastroenterogist, mouth open to defend myself, only to be interrupted by him and told I had quite definitely got something very wrong with me, it was no more in my head than the man in the moon and it should have been sorted years ago.
Like many people who have their gallbladders removed, I suffer from something called bile salt malabsorption and biliary gastritis which is basically a fancy way of saying that without anywhere to store bile, the stuff is sloshing round in huge quantities in innards making them angry and inflamed and causing terrible nausea and diarrhoea. It's not serious, but it's not pleasant and the longer you have it unchecked, the harder it is to control. But none of that really matters. The kindness and respect and belief of the gastronenterologist confirming what I knew all along was medicine in itself. That 30 minute consultation did more for my mental health than the 100 hours of therapy I've had.
All the psychological help in the world isn't much use when everytime you try to trust yourself and your feelings, it is undermined by someone's else disbelief. It just makes you more confused, more torn and feeling under greater attack.
But what happens if the person talking to you knows you're actually wrong? What if the gastroenterologist had been utterly sure I did have IBS? What about all those people over the years who knew that my eating habits were in fact totally fucked up and not normal like I insisted? Or if you can see that someone is drinking themselves to death? Do you just take their word for it, show no challenge and believe them no matter what? Not exactly. Having a belief isn't the same as believing someone and pushing your belief above all else, even if it's correct, simply raises the stakes. It makes the person in denial have to spend their time and energy on battling with you, not dealing with themselves and looking at their behaviour. It turns genuine concern into a battle of wills and in repeatedly explicitly telling that person you don't believe them, you also tell them they can't come to you and talk to you even things change because you don't trust them. You can express concern, you can remind the person that you're worried and that they don't have to put up with things and deserve better, but you will never help someone get to acceptance faster by disbelieving them. It's counterproductive.
Nothing pushes my buttons more than that air of disbelief. When you ask those forensically minded questions about what I did when I was raped that sound like you need tangible proof over my word, you disbelieve the biggest thing that's ever happened to me and if you disbelief the big things in my life, you can't believe the little ones. You're doubting me to my face and yet expecting me to not only put up with it but not question you in return. You've put me in an impossible situation where if I try to prove I'm right, I'm almost trying to prove a negative. It's like the more you tell someone you're not mad, the crazier you sound. I can hear myself frantically defending a point so trivial as to be inconsequential and thinking that I sound mildy hysterical to myself, let alone anyone else, but unable to stop in a frantic, out of control way.
It's a trait I'd dearly love to remove from my repetoire. It plunges me into a vortex of self doubt, anxiety and PTSD, but not only can I not avoid it, I don't want to lose the knack as it's engrained into the benefits system on which I am completely dependent. To qualify for sickness benefits, a person (or a panel) will quiz you about the absolute fucking minutiae of your daily life. A recent tribunal for DLA saw us spend a good ten minutes on what I'd do with a pork chop and another five on my tea making skills. No matter how genuine you are, when someone asks you to go through the making of a hot beverage second by second, it's impossible not sound like you're lying. Truth does not respond well to slow motion time and the more you try to correct the fact it sounds wrong, the worse it gets. It's like trying to walk in a straight line when pissed. You wobble more when you think about it. For me it's like being back in the police station. I feel as exposed as when they were shuffling the photos of my naked body, but the stakes are higher. It's my home, my sole income, my ability to survive let alone thrive. It all depends on someone believing me. I'm not optimistic.
I guess all I can do is learn to believe myself. The self fulfilling prophecy is that after years of being doubted, I really believe myself or believe in myself. I find it hard to accept that sometimes, especially in the matters of my own life, I know better than other people and that generally my instincts have been better than not. But I don't find it hard to believe in other people. I never apply the same doubts I have about myself to other victims who come forward and I find it easy, in fact edifying, to be their cheerleader. And I wonder if that's how we learn to cope? We throw ourselves into supporting those whose situations mirror ours and hope that some self belief reflects back on us and that makes it easier to deal with that constant inbuilt doubt toward women? Do we gradually create a wave of women who are able to stand up to that by standing together and sharing belief amongst ourselves?
I don't know, but I really hope that the discourse round the Savile victims and the work done by the Mumsnet campaign and hashtag of #Ibelieveher are starting to change things slowly, but surely. I think it's obvious that the culture of disbelief creates more chaos long term than it seeks to calm or ignore and does not serve the majority at all. We need to start reaching out and supporting people who try to tell us things we don't want to be bothered with, no matter what it is. Only then will we not hear the phrase 'just the women' again in a hurry...
Posted by gherkingirl at 10:00