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Beth's Story: Through The Cotton Looking Glass

I look back and think, why didn’t I just leave? I was trapped... I had literally nobody left in my life to help me.

I always knew, deep down, that I was a lesbian. I was sexually abused over a period of years during my childhood, and people sometimes ask me did that make me a lesbian. No, it might have put me off men, but it couldn’t make me feel the way I always have about women.

What the abuse did was teach me that I wasn’t allowed to say no to men. By the time I was eighteen, I had a policy that if I didn’t say no to a man, he couldn’t rape me. I was also completely desperate for any kind of attention, affection, anything, I had grown up in a neglectful, abusive home, where there wasn’t much love to be had. Even negative attention felt good to me.

Sex with men for me became like cutting, or starving yourself is to some people. I did it because it both hurt me, and really, I also just wanted to be held, to be paid attention to. I felt that I deserved to be hurt, but I wanted to feel nothing, and also to be held. Sexual abuse messes you up.

I met my ex, George, when I was eighteen. I had just left my parents’ house to go to university. They rented out my room and made it clear that I was no longer able to go back to their house. I had no coping skills whatsoever. I sat in my room in halls for a term having an elaborate breakdown. I didn’t get any help for it, it wouldn’t have occurred to me.

When I met George, I was very lonely. I would have done anything, really, for a hug and somebody to talk to. I felt like sex was all I had to offer anybody. And then there was my “don’t say no” policy. And there was the self-harm element – the same sort of dissociative relief that some people get from cutting.

I was just 18, he was a couple of years older, and he could see the absolute mess my room and my life were in. If I met an 18 year old in that state, I would be giving her advice about how to seek help, not buying her presents and moving in with her. He preyed on me when I was vulnerable. I should have seen the red flags from space, but I was falling to pieces.

A couple of months later, we both dropped out of our uni courses, and moved in together. We both needed a way out. He found a job, I didn’t. I was too mentally unwell to work. My days consisted of getting drunk in the morning, falling asleep 'til he came home, then having increasingly weird sex with him.

He was very tall, well over six foot, and he was nominally bisexual. Or at least, he was so lacking in boundaries that he would try anything – I don’t believe he would ever have a relationship with a man, but he wanted to try everything.

Every single friend of mine who came to the house, male or female, he tried to orchestrate a threesome, or a foursome, or whatever. He sometimes succeeded, sometimes didn’t, but either way it always soured things with my friends. I became increasingly isolated and alone, and started to spiral again.

I look back and think, why didn’t I just leave? I was trapped. I couldn’t go back to my parents, they had rented out my room. I couldn’t go back to university. I couldn’t go to a “shelter” or whatever, because there wasn’t any violence. I had literally nobody left in my life to help me.

Then I started to notice weird things happening. My favourite shoes, that were fine when I put them in the wardrobe, were broken. My dress, that had been tight, felt looser under the arms and around the shoulders. Somebody had left the top off my lipstick. My zip was broken. He was always closing his computer when I came around the door. My underwear was going missing.

I came home one day to find that one half of the front of the dress that I wanted to wear that night was soaking wet. I confronted him about it. He confessed, and said that he had been wearing my dress, and had condoms filled with water in my bra, to make it feel like he had breasts.

I broke down at that point and told him that I couldn’t carry on with him, that my life was out of control, that I am a lesbian, that I was so sorry for getting him involved in all this, that I would just have to find somewhere to stay and see if I could work something out. I had tears streaming down my face, and snot in my hair from crying that hard.

He said that he was a lesbian too. It pulled me up short. I was only eighteen at the time. I didn’t say no to men, that wasn’t in my vocabulary. I can still hear the way a sob caught in my throat and I just stopped crying, like turning off a tap. Abruptly.

He took that as consent, rather than horror, and somehow the evening ended up with him excitedly going to get dressed up, as a “lesbian.” He came downstairs in fishnets, a short, tight red dress, my heels (several sizes too small for him), red lipstick, water filled condoms in my bra, and his penis tucked up between his legs. “See, it looks like I have a vagina,” he said. “And feel my boobs, they feel like real boobs, they even have realistic nipples!”.

He was feigning this whole coquettish, girlish thing, that looked like a parody of me. It felt like he was trying to be me, like he was mocking me, taking what was mine. He even affected my mannerisms, my laugh, the way I walk.

I felt in shock, really. I knew that he didn’t look like any lesbian I had ever seen. He was hairy, and wiry, and over six feet tall. He hadn’t even shaved, so had a day’s beard growth. He hadn’t showered, so he smelt like a man. It was like he was purposefully showing me that he was “really” male, and enjoying my discomfort with the whole thing. Under the coquette act, there was very male entitlement and rage.

I knew, I knew that he wasn’t a lesbian and that I couldn’t carry on with this, but I also knew that I couldn’t tell him that, and that I had nowhere else to go. I was frightened of what he would do if I said no. I had only said yes up to that point, and he had already managed to isolate me from all my friends and make me dependent on him for even somewhere to stay.

I just went along with it. I swallowed all my feelings and went along with it. I knew what sex with women was like, the aching tenderness, the deep passion, the desperate longing to be closer, closer, the way the soul comes in at the eyes and leaves in little gasps, the way the whole of my body turned to rushing water then rested at peace.

I knew that I couldn’t have that with him, because I didn’t feel that way about men, and there was no imagining that this person in front of me was anything other than a man. But I didn’t know what else to do.

The sex started getting more and more bizarre. He wanted me to tie him up. He wanted me to tie him up and fuck him with a strap on. He wanted me to call him names whilst he licked my boots. He wanted me to whip him. He wanted me to tell him he was a naughty little girl. Then, when we had done the weird stuff, he would switch like magic back to “being a man” and would want straight up rough/ kinky sex, and he expected me to “submit” to that (his words).

It was all controlled and orchestrated by him, he never asked me what I wanted. I had to keep all this a secret from everybody, because he didn’t want to be a woman full time, only when he was with me. Some nights were bizarre; watching TV with this man, wearing my clothes, pretending he was a lesbian, and knowing what was coming later. I didn’t know how to say no.

This went on for months. Every night. I switched myself off. I felt completely trapped, I felt like I didn’t have any other option but to do what he wanted. I was completely dependent on him for everything.

And then I found out I was pregnant. None of the demands for sex changed, if anything, they got more extreme. I wanted to keep the baby. To cut a long story short, George manipulated me into getting an abortion that I did not want. I tried to jump off the trolley on the way to the operating theatre, but they wouldn’t let me.

George wasn’t there when I woke up. He promised he would be. I lay there, in shock and alone. Eventually, they brought a commode, and helped me onto it. There was a grey paper dish in the bottom of it, and when I stood up, it was full of blood. My baby’s blood. I can still see that bowl, the end of all my hope. I collapsed to the floor and howled with grief.

It’s difficult to explain, but that was my baby. That was my little girl. I loved her. I had imagined holding her, I had imagined putting her to my breast. I imagined my life with her, and now she was dead, she was a bowl full of blood, and it was my fault, I didn’t protect her, and I was supposed to protect her. I loved her, and I had killed her, and right then I wanted to die too.

Eventually, I got myself together and got a taxi back to the house. George had put all my things in bin bags and put them outside the front door. He had changed the locks. He wasn’t home. I was bleeding, I think possibly haemorrhaging. I howled on the ground outside the house again, and then got in my car and drove to a deserted layby.

I was technically homeless for the next five years. I look back now and it seems almost incredible to me that I got from there to here.

I did my entire undergraduate degree whilst vulnerably housed – I was living in the squat in the holidays. I was still floored by grief and guilt, but I was starting to heal.

Then I met my wife, Ash, shortly after that.

There’s something so genuine, grounded, boundaried, reassuring, solid about her. I had never had any ground to stand on, any place to stay, anywhere safe in my whole life. Not even as a child. One translation of the Hebrew word for Salvation is to “come home,” and so when I say that she is my salvation, I say it with my whole heart. She is the only home I have ever known.

We have had our struggles. It took us a long time to work things out between us, to work out how we worked. We both brought our own trauma to the relationship. But, unusually for two broken people, we rescued each other. Nearly twenty years later, she is still my connection to the earth, my “rocks beneath,” my harbour, my safe and sound. I’m still her light, her inspiration, her passion, her joy.

With George, everything was always about him – what he wanted. It felt like I just existed as a kind of prop in his increasingly misogynist fantasies, more like a masturbation aid than an actual human being.

With Ash, I feel as if she sees me, at the very centre of who I am, and loves me, there, with her whole self. I feel like that connection is everything, it is healing, and beautiful and it is everything to me. It has healed my broken heart, and “she who heals her heart, heals the hearts of her children’s children”.

Children. My little girl. I dreamed about her for eighteen years after the abortion.

I have found peace with the choices I made. I no longer feel that I tried to murder my child; I was in a desperate situation, and I did what I could to save her. I failed. That’s not the same thing as murder.

One last thing. I believed that I was evil, and that I would be punished for the abortion by a miscarriage, or a still birth, or something like that. I didn’t believe I would ever be able to hold my living child, as punishment for what I had done to my daughter.

When they held up my son, a little squalling scrap, and wrapped him up, and put him in my arms, it was indescribable. I have never experienced such a shift in my emotional landscape, so quickly, as I did when I held my child in my arms. Where there were deserts, now there were seas. All that guilt, pain, grief, desperate sadness all got washed away, by this tiny child, who came into the world with his arms open.

His little brother came along a few years later, and between them, they are the absolute joy of my life. They are smart, gentle, loving children, who love each other, are almost ridiculously tall and handsome, and bring joy to the lives of everybody around them. They’ve had their struggles, and so have I, but my broken heart is healed, and I’m happy, and whole, and well beloved. I have friends and family around me, I have work that matters. I have a sense of purpose and I am at peace.


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