After successfully (finally) properly completing a year at University, it seems only fitting to look back at the journey so far. Because, my God, what a journey it has been. Just these three years living here, starting recovery, fighting, laughing, singing… it’s been a pretty extraordinary journey all things considered. One I wouldn’t wish on anyone, but at the same time, one I don’t regret, and one which has made me stronger. Almost on cue, a year has been completed, the whole reason for moving down here has finally started to happen, and simultaneously huge changes are happening within our internal system.
And so, before the changes take full hold, I think it’s important to look back… to look over my shoulder.
The first difference is my hair colour, which sounds a mad thing to say but is hugely significant. For probably the first time since I’ve lived here, I now have a hair colour which is as near to my natural colour as it’s probably ever going to get when coming from a bottle. For the last few years I have either been peroxide blonde, or intense red. It’s always been a mask; a front. I wanted some bit of me to look bolder than I felt. If my hair was bold, then maybe people would believe I felt that confident too. For most of the time, this wasn’t the case, but the mask was nonetheless there irrespective of how much I was falling to pieces inside. Now my hair is back to being me again. Some part of me apparently feels secure and comfortable enough within our skin and being that the need for a bold mask has vanished. That part of me doesn’t care anymore if I have a bad day – just go with it, have the bad day and embrace it but don’t hide behind a bold colour. Just be human… and accept it. Be yourself. So somehow, despite it being a fiver from a shop and just from a bottle, the fact my hair colour is finally a natural tone speaks huge volumes. I’m not a little girl trying to look like an adult and trying to look more confident than I am. I am just me. It’s been a long time since I was ‘just me.’
But looking back, over my shoulder. Looking at the long road behind me. You know when you’ve been walking for miles and you turn around, and you’re genuinely shocked at how far away the start of the road is, and how hilly and crazy it was? That’s how I feel. I’m standing here, and I’m exhausted. My skin is caked in dust and sweat, my legs ache from walking/running/climbing/scrabbling. My hands are rough from when I’ve been on my knees and forcing myself to crawl, just crawl even a centimetre and refusing to give in and stop. My body has changed. My mind has altered.
And I can only stand here with tears rolling down my cheeks, washing away the stained dust. Tears for so much…
Tears of relief. If at the start of the journey I’d known what it would involve, I wouldn’t have attempted it. Of this I’m sure. It would have sounded like an impossible challenge, and at so many times it has felt like one. Not really knowing what lay ahead was somehow a saving grace, whilst simultaneously terrifying. I started the journey and by the time I realised the hugeness of it, it was too late. The only way I could get out of it, was to keep going. And now here I am. By no means is the the end of the entire journey, but certainly is a point where I can reflect and cry for the journey so far.
Tears also of intense gratefulness and warmth. I can hear the whispers of different memories with my friends over the last few years. The giggles, the laugher until my stomach ached. Tears of laughter are really quite beautiful. The face of a genuinely happy and amused friend – who doesn’t feel warm at such genuine smiles? Somehow throughout this journey, with every dark twist, there’s also always been one of these memories that leave me moved to happy tears. The moments of soft compassion, even the dark times conquered by a friends’ kindness. For all those moments I am grateful. Those moments have made the journey possible.
And also tears of pain, sorrow, grief. These I guess make up the most of my tears, and rightly so. It’s healing to fall apart. What a paradox huh? I’ve fallen apart, my mask has crushed into tiny unfixable pieces, the pain inside has been so overwhelmingly intense for weeks now. But standing alone, tears streaming as I look back at the road of chaotic destruction, I know that this is only right. I feel like I’m looking back at an empty battlefield. There’s nobody around but it’s only recently ended. The smoke still hangs in the air, like a thin veil, slithering inside me and wrapping its invisible fingers around my throat. The screams have echoed, and the echoes haven’t yet died. A haunting echo of childrens’ screams, and of my howls of despair and terror, just echoing. Waiting to fade, but not quite fading yet. The atmosphere is an eerie one, almost too silent and yet simultaneously far too loud. If I close my eyes, I can almost see the ones lost, like faded ghosts walking along the road. The build up of terror and horror has gathered inside my chest, living behind my rib cage, a huge pressure pushing the air out of my lungs, as though at any moment I might erupt into one huge scream for the last 21 years. All of the emotional agony I couldn’t afford to feel at the time, now lives within me, a part of me. Not black – it’s only right to feel it – but my god it hurts. As I look back on the road and think of those who didn’t make it this far, the grief clutches at the back of my throat and escapes in a strangled sob. Because I am standing here without them. I am relieved to be here but my daughter should be in my arms, wriggling against my chest, and the other children should be standing with me. We were an army in a huge war and we fought together, and fell separate. Even those who survived, I have no idea where most of them are.
I carried my daughter. She knows the sound of my heartbeat from the inside, she was blessed with hearing that, of feeling my heartbeat give her life, a constant lullaby whilst I carried her…and I was blessed with feeling her kick me, or press against me, wriggling around inside and leaving me half-convinced I was carrying a washing machine. She was a part of me, and now she’s away from me and it’s bewildering and painful. At night-time, I wake up to find my arms are back holding her, as though even my arms aren’t coping with her absence. I daren’t get a bath because I know if I do, I’ll feel her sitting on my stomach as we cuddled. But if I shower, I can remember her frowned protest as the water splashed her delicate eyelashes. If I eat, my throat chokes because it’s food she’ll never taste. I cannot function because she was a part of me and is not here. My job was and is to protect her. I am frozen in it.
So I’m standing here looking at this journey and the feelings are mixed and each as intense as the other. So much destruction. So much pain and hurt caused to so many innocent. I can feel my late girlfriend’s strong, slender arms around me, as though she’s standing here with me, but I know she isn’t. If I turn, I know I won’t see her. She should have been here too. Why is the world so cruel? I have come so far on this journey but somehow its bittersweet. Somehow I feel I’m being punished and tortured most by being here without them.
But equally, when I look back, I see so much courage. So much. When I see children today, they look so carefree. So happy. No glancing over their shoulder or indeed keeping a careful eye on the rest. On one level its beautiful to see. On another, it’s a culture shock and I grieve for my lost childhood. But on another level, it reminds me of the courageous children I was around, and the courage I myself must have had even though I felt terrified. The abusers sometimes said we were the devil and that they were ‘protecting’ the world by hurting us. I remember the fire in a young boy’s eyes (maybe 9 years old) as he looked up at the two strong men and said ‘well if I’m the devil, then the devil hates you. So you are more alone than me.’ The bravery to say that cost him a beating, and he trembled as he said it, but the courage in his eyes was incredible. We just fought. We fought with laughter, we fought with compassion, and we fought with courage.
Only standing here now can I appreciate the level of courage needed to survive all of that. It was always just a norm to me but I’m come to realise this new world I’m in isn’t a temporary holiday that will be snatched from me if I believe in it too much. This is real, and forever. And with that realisation has come culture shock, and with that has come outrage and stunned shock at what I, and others, survived…and what it took for us to have done so.
And so I stand here, looking back at the journey, about to close my eyes. But before I do, I have cried, I have wept for what has happened – both the good and bad. I can appreciate the beautiful moments, can cry tears of pride and equal grief for the childrens’ courage and bravery, that we should never have needed in the first place. I can sob and howl and choke on pain from what I have lost, what my survival has cost my soul and others’. I can smile gently at the moments of hilarity with friends – both years ago and present – and I am grateful always for the fact that even as the abusers forced my mask to shatter and the tidal wave of pain to engulf me, my friends helped me keep hold of light, and most importantly – of laughter and compassion. A journey of horror, and a journey of strength and beauty.
And so it is time… the next stage begins…
And I close my eyes and feel grateful for those who helped me get this far, and I let the tears keep falling…
What a moving journey.