In our weekly spot on the site where we talk about mental health and wellbeing, a few words on reclaim the night.
Hello, and welcome to Wellbeing and Mental Health Matters, our weekly spot on the site where we can talk about issues that are concerning us.
When I write, it comes from a personal place. Of memory, of experience. Of life. When I write, I hope to engage with other people, to share a viewpoint and to see the other side of the coin. When I write, I hope to bring comfort and support to people navigating difficult times. I recognise that just as some people like apples, other people prefer pears. It’s okay to have differing opinions.
I rarely touch on the political news of the day. I am not a polemicist. I’m a human, connecting with other humans in the best way I can, hoping to build mutual support and understanding. And I look to engage with everyone, regardless of politics, gender, orientation or ethnicity. We are all endowed with glittering pathways under our skin that comprise our nervous system, our hearts, our minds. How we chose to use them is in some part down to our own discretion.
Today, I want to talk about the horrific events of the past two weeks. Of a woman murdered when she should have been able to walk safe, walk free. Of the outpouring of female voices on social media, in parks, in vigils.
I’ve stayed quiet on the subject, while reading and empathising with the memories, the grief and the anger of others. An outpouring of voices crying to be heard across the gender spectrum, to not be forgotten, to share lived experiences that have been minimised, tucked away at the back of memory.
I have seen women detailing the ages at when harassment started, often in a single digit. How that harassment grew as they grew. How it continues. A single incident may seem mundane. It’s something you file away as unpleasant, while glad it didn’t escalate into something much worse.
Glad it didn’t escalate. That is the crux of it. We walk in lit streets, our phones out, our keys in hand as a small line of defence if someone steps too close. We don’t wear headphones in the street. We buddy up, have agreed smoke signals for distress calls.
In my case, I do wear headphones on public transport. It’s my polite ‘back off’ signal, usually accompanied with my nose in a book. It’s not personal – to you. It’s personal to me. Because like thousands of other woman and girls, I’ve been harassed. I’ve been bullied and cat-called. I’ve been pulled out of my seat on a 5pm commuter train by a man wanting my seat, while everyone around me turned and tuned into their own headphones. I’ve changed my usual train to avoid someone who wouldn’t get the message that I didn’t want a relationship with them.
I’ve been chased around an office by men with over friendly hands just wanting a ‘tickle’. That incident was witnessed and dealt with very swiftly by my manager. I’ve had an ex dunk my head in a sink full of water because I displeased him. That little scrote didn’t last very long, but after I broke it off with him, he took to following me round university during my first term. Knew what bus I got home on an evening.
I found him on the roof below my bedroom window, when he knew I’d be home alone. As an 18-year old, I didn’t have a clue what to do. I called my brother. It was dealt with. I’m not saying it was done in the right way. But at least it stopped.
Sometimes, I make light of stuff. Like the time my mate and I were escorted home by a troop of Morris Dancers. It makes a cute anecdote. But the reason behind it was far from laughable. We were two thirtysomething women, out for a quiet drink in our home village. Two men joined us, then began to pressure us with unwanted attention. Suggested we go back to their place and make porn with them.
We’d been chatting to the Morris Dancers earlier in the evening, who came every new year to bless the village pubs. My friend asked them for help, when on the pretext of going to the toilet. They were absolute gents. They shouldn’t have needed to be.
We minimise, we make excuses, we forget the experiences that shape our unconscious behaviour. That reluctance to exercise in an evening. To walk down unlit paths. To take public transport alone.
This past two weeks there has been a public reckoning of that fear. Women have found their voices and are sharing their experiences. And they are as harrowing as they are mundane. There are too many to count.
I want to make something clear here. In another role, I am establishment. I follow the rules of law to the absolute letter, and apply them as demanded. I swore an oath to do so. But there is an institutional issue here, and a real concern with how we educate not just men, but everyone – both in their private lives and in public establishments – about coercive control, gaslighting, violence and the fear of violence. Not just to women. To everyone. About how we can encourage tolerance and understanding, giving people the tools to support one another.
I think this was brought home to me by the events of the weekend at the vigil for Sarah Everard, and a poem by my friend Harry Gallagher, that I read at the same time as viewing the news footage and photographs:
Reclaim the Night
She came in peace to reclaim the night,
with her sisters, a candle and a thimble of hope,
which wept itself out under flashing blue lights.
Held down on the tarmac by a friendly policeman
she sees from the gutter an opulence of coppers,
all suddenly keen to see streets safe at night.
My establishment role has also illustrated to me that men are also attacked, that they too can be the victims of horrific violence. That women can be perpetrators. This is not to lay blame on a whole group of people, many of whom are horrified by recent events, and are seeking to understand the challenges that women face on a daily basis. I see you, and I know so many of you, standing arm in arm with women.
I’m not a victim here. Rather, these are my lived experiences that I have seen echoed across the country this past two weeks.
I’ve broken my silence on this because silence in itself is part of the problem. We can only begin to solve that problem if we are aware of what it is. Of the scale of it. Of ways to reach out to support one another – regardless of background – and look for ways to change the status quo.
Her name was Sarah Everard. May she be at peace.
You can read more of Harry Gallagher’s wonderful poetry here
Organisations that may provide support:
Refuge against domestic violence
Supportline aimed at those who are vulnerable and isolated and at risk of abuse
Survivors UK supports men, both who have been abused and those seeking to support someone who has been abused
Citizen’s Advice Bureau support for domestic violence and abuse