Hey, my name is Ashleigh Rae and I’m an abuse Survivor.
I couldn’t always use the word Survivor. For more than a decade, I was a victim – small, contracted, and crushed by shame.
I wasn’t abused by just one person, either. I was abused by all different kinds of men – white, brown, students, mechanics, hospitality workers. The cycle of abuse started when I was 13, and it continued until I was 20. In that time, I was raped more times than I can count on both hands and feet, I was choked, and threatened with beatings.
I didn’t know that I had been abused, or that I was a victim. My behaviour had up to this point, been about getting through each day and hour, surviving. In 2013, my behaviour spiralled and I suffered a devastating suicidal episode, leading to a diagnosis of Complex Post Traumatic Stress Disorder.
I suffered debilitating and all-consuming panic attacks several times a day, and no matter how much effort I put into regaining control of my body and mind, I failed. I suffered with flashbacks, night terrors, dissociation, panic, hypervigilance and digestive upsets – the intensity of these symptoms did not abate in spite of antidepressants, sedatives, and cognitive behaviour therapy.
This went on, and on, eating away at the edges of me. It wasn’t until one day, when after yet another intense panic attack on my way to work, that I decided I had had enough. I was tired, I was done, and I took myself back to the train station and opened my phone to browse for a podcast to keep me grounded for the ride home. I came across a podcast by Victoria Police titled “Unspeakable”. It was the first time I heard anyone clearly and concisely, speak about sexual violence. I listened intently with tears streaming down my cheeks for the whole forty minute commute back home. I found instead of walking home, my feet carried me from the train to the local Police Station and before I could comprehend what was happening, I heard the words tumble clumsily out of out my mouth: “I want to report a sexual assault.”
This moment was the beginning of transforming from victim, to survivor.
It took two years of specialized, regular therapy with an outstanding therapist for me to understand that what happened to me, was not my fault. This was the first person who sat with me and witnessed my pain, discomfort, deep fear, rage, and horror and she gently, expertly guided me to remembering who I was, restoring my sanity. Slowly, the panic attacks became less frequent, less intense. Night terrors that left me drenched in cold sweats and terrified for my life became less vivid, eventually fading and shifting into the realm of more pleasant dreamscapes. Flashbacks and intrusive thoughts were more quickly picked up and placed respectfully back in the box in the corner of my mind from which they came. Eventually, I was able to hold my partner’s hand, admire its softness, and allow him to embrace me – his arms seemed to be the safest and most comfortable in the whole world.
As therapy progressed, so did the investigation and judicial proceedings – sometimes at a snail pace. Six months would pass with no word, then a quick succession of events would slam together. Building momentum was out of reach, each time I’d gather the stamina to begin pursuing something, another development in the investigation would need my attention and I’d be wiped out for weeks, often months, with resurfacing memories and depression.
As I began to tell people about the investigation, I encountered the social attitudes that assumed I was to blame – some people whom I had thought close, angrily demanded I drop the case and stop ruining this man’s life and reputation. It came unexpectedly, and back then I didn’t have a witty comeback to combat their attitudes, or the strength to attempt education and explanation.
In 2020, we began court proceedings. I was terrified – I had, naturally, watched all the courtroom drama I could get my hands on in the years leading up to this. I don’t remember many of the details of the day, but I do remember after coming to a plea deal, I was sitting in the Magistrates Court with a Social Worker, watching the Judge and hanging on her every word. I remember hearing the Offender in response to the question, “How do you plead?” answer with a clear and concise, “Guilty”.
My world seemed to stop in that moment – it was over. I had done it. I had taken my claim as far as it could go in court, and held at least, one perpetrator to public account. After almost three gruelling years, I had done what is almost impossible: I had taken a perpetrator of sexual violence to court, and I had won.
In that moment when I stood in the courtroom, I couldn’t move. I simply stood, and large waves of relief, anger, and power washed through me all at once. I could almost touch the ripples it seemed so potent. This was the moment when the transformation from victim to Survivor completed itself, and I felt it radiate throughout every cell in my body.
The road to being a Survivor was a rollercoaster of precious joys, and deep dark lows. I learned where our communities and society as a whole is broken, and how easy it is for victims to fall through the cracks and never have a chance at recovery.
This is why I am here, and what I intend to do: to change the outcomes and experiences of victims of sexual violence, and remind the public that we are human, and we are worthy of a full life beyond the violence and wrongs done to us. I’m doing that with the means at my disposal – by writing on the blog and Facebook page speaking, and broadcasting on Recovery: Life Beyond Sexual Violence Podcast.