Content warning: contains details of sexual harassment
When Helen and I first met, as students in 1999, I had no idea that 10 years later we would be living together again, or that we would one day be bridesmaids at each other’s weddings, or that one October night in 2001 we would run as fast as we could away from a man who had followed us home from the pub.
It’s fair to say that I grew on Helen a bit like an infectiously friendly mould. She liked the Manics, and I liked a bit of Westlife. She liked baggy jeans, and I loved sequin boob tubes. She thought Liam Gallagher was hot, whereas I liked Jeff Brazier from Shipwrecked. I was studying psychology, and she was studying English. One thing we had in common, though, was that it would only cost us £2 each at pound-a-pint night to have a really good evening. We quickly became inseparable.
It was while we were walking home from the pub, to Tom Jones’s former house where we lived, that we heard a noise. Initially we thought nothing of it, but then it became a pattern. We would hear a strange whistling sound – like a two-tone bird call – but when we turned around, no one was there. We started to feel a bit uneasy and quickened our pace through the lamp-lit streets of the south Wales village we called home.
All seemed to go quiet, and we couldn’t see anybody behind us, so we breathed a silent sigh of relief, and carried on chatting and walking. We got to the turning for our street and started climbing the steep hill. Then, with a terrible feeling in the pit of our stomachs, we heard the two-tone bird call again.
We turned, and saw him for the first time. He was a young man, standing at the bottom of our street, with his hand down his trousers, masturbating. He wanted us to see him. He wanted us to know he was there. He wanted to intimidate us while he pleasured himself. Evidently, he wanted us to know that he knew where we lived, too.
We lived in a cul-de-sac, and so the only place we could run was to our house. We squealed and legged it. Now, I may have about four inches on Helen – she’s tiny – but she can move! That girl was fast. I was scared, and I’m sure she was, too.
I think I remember pushing her up the hill, but at one stage we ended up holding hands – and she was quick. I felt I was falling behind. Then came the moment which still haunts me. I pulled her hand. It seemed I was trying to pull her back so I could get in front of her. Luckily, the guy stayed where he was and didn’t follow us. I will always be thankful for that, and for the fact that she and I were together that night.
“What happened that night, and the ruminations, intrusive thoughts, self-criticism, and social threat I’ve experienced since then, are not my fault”
We got to our house, slammed the door, locked it, and called the police. Then, while waiting for the police, Helen said to me: “Marianne, you pulled me back!” I still feel such shame to recall it. I honestly can’t even begin to remember what I said in reply.
Now, 19 years on and I’m a clinical psychologist, working with people who have experienced trauma. So, with my work head on, I know now that it’s likely that the fight-or-flight hormones had probably rendered my brain a bit off-line because of the threat and fear we experienced. That’s why I can’t remember. What I can remember, though, is the guilt and shame I’ve experienced over the years.
Discovering compassion focused therapy (CFT), and developing and creating the ‘Our Tricky Brain’ psychoeducation kit, has really helped me to process and understand what my brain went through. It has helped me learn and understand that what happened that night, and the ruminations, intrusive thoughts, self-criticism, and social threat I’ve experienced since then, are not my fault.
If there’s any guilt, shame, and blame, to throw around, then it firmly belongs at the door of the guy who did this to us. What Helen and I deserved that night, and what everyone deserves, is the right to walk home, safely, without incident, free of fear.
Happily, Helen and I are still good friends. These days, in my professional life, I sit with incredibly brave people who tell me about what they consider to be their greatest shames. Yet, until I began writing this, Helen and I had not discussed it in years. I didn’t feel comfortable to discuss my shame with the one person who would have understood it most, help me process it, and reassure me that it didn’t change the way she felt about me as her friend.
While I am friendly to the people sitting opposite me in clinic sessions, they are not friends, they know nothing about me. For some clients, the pain and the shame are too great, and they don’t ever feel able to talk about what happened to them.
In 2019, I attended a fantastic training course in CFT. The facilitator asked us to vividly imagine telling someone our deepest, darkest secrets, about which we felt great guilt and shame. It’s fair to say that the whole room of 45 or so mental health professionals were incredibly affected by this exercise. We were all cringing and feeling such visceral, bodily reactions. What was clear was that none of us were anywhere close to wanting to share these shameful secrets.
This has stayed with me. I have learned more and more about CFT since then. I now know that I didn’t have a choice over my actions that night. I was scared, and I was running for my life. And in moments like that, the human truth is that we all have the capacity to become ‘reptiles’, and just be out to save our own skins. There it is. In black and white. The thing I’ve been most ashamed of for the last 19 years.
You may be wondering why I’m sharing this with you at all? Well, I’m doing it in solidarity with all of my clients, past, present, and future. I’m doing it for all of the people who will read this story and then one day, when faced with their own shame, will be able to recall this psychologist who took a deep breath, and bared her soul and her shame to the world.
Of course, Helen would say that my greatest shame still ought to be ever having owned a Westlife album…
Marianne’s strength and authenticity shines through in her story. Her experience was clearly frightening, and connected with a part of herself she didn’t know existed. Although this initially created a feeling of shame, Marianne was able to work through this. By being honest with herself, she has been able to harness the liberating power that this can bring.
To connect with a counsellor to discuss feelings or shame or guilt, visit www.counselling-directory.org.uk
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