‘My Best Friend Was Raped – And I Couldn’t Help’

Lily, 32, was with her friend when she was raped three years ago. As part of our #BREAKFREE from Shame campaign, she tells Marie Claire how it affected her, too.

‘I can remember Esther telling me she’d been raped. That seems silly to say – of course I remember my best friend telling me she’d been raped – but the clarity of the memory is such, that I feel like it needs to be noted. Every time I think of it, I feel like I’m there again. I can remember the clothes she was wearing (black jeans, oversized black jumper). I can remember the clothes I was wearing (black leggings, cropped black top). I can remember the way she seemed to spit the words out (‘I’ve been raped’). The way she seemed to be angry and broken and sick at the same time.

Mostly I just remember feeling guilty and powerless. Like all of my arms and legs had been cut off – and it was all my fault. I’d been in our flat the evening before, but I hadn’t checked she’d come home. I hadn’t called, or checked she was alright. That night I stayed in her room and lay next to her in bed. Her eyes were closed, but I know she didn’t sleep. My eyes were open – I didn’t bother pretending I could drift off. Plus, I wanted her to know I was there. I think, in some way, I thought it could make up for the fact that I hadn’t been the night before.

I hadn’t been there for her when she’d needed me.

I feel like this is the kind of thing where I should say ‘the next few days passed in a blur’. But the next few days seemed endless, and every moment is etched (carved? burned?) onto my memory too. I remember secretly calling my mum in tears. (‘Mum, something bad happened. I don’t know what to do.’) I cried in front of Esther too. One night the lump in my throat exploded, and all of my emotions fell out, in a chaos of tears and snot.

I didn’t trust myself after that. I didn’t want Esther to feel ashamed, or guilty. I wanted her to know she hadn’t done anything wrong. But I didn’t have the words. So I went with the next best thing: Making her happy again. A week after she told me, I decided we were Moving On. I busied Esther with days out and nights in. I played music in the background of our conversations, lest there be a lull that forced her to think. I sat at the other end of the sofa, so we didn’t accidentally touch; as if to distance us both from the thing that now bound us. There was an elephant in the room, and we were balanced on his back. I felt like one false move would topple us off.

In reality, Esther was already being trampled. Panic attacks and PTSD set in. One time, we took the bus, and I realised her face was pale. One stop later, she got up and walked off (‘I needed some air,’ she said, folded in half and breathing deep on the pavement). I was the only person who knew what had happened, and I was pretending as hard as I could that it hadn’t. While I wanted her to know things were normal – that nothing had changed – she needed me to acknowledge it had. ‘I knew you cared,’ she told me later – when alcohol and time had losened my tongue, and I’d scooched closer on the sofa again. ‘But I wish you’d brought it up. Not just by asking if I was OK – you’d always ask if I was OK. But by asking ‘how are you doing following the rape?’. I winced – without moving my lips, the sentence already felt too big for my mouth.

Then Esther spoke again: ‘I know you’re scared of reminding me about the rape,’ she explained. ‘But you don’t realise that I can’t forget it. It’s always there. And unless somebody asks me how I am, specifically, then I’m all alone with it, in my head.’

I can’t change the way I reacted when Esther was raped. I know it’s not my fault. She knows it’s not hers. Other people know now too. We’re open about it – we’ve practised saying the ‘raped’ together so many times, we’re pretty fluent (‘I was raped’, ‘You were raped’, ‘He / She / They were raped’…). By using the word openly, freely and thoughtfully – by taking it for ourselves – it’s lost some of its power. And it’s lost all of its shame.’

How To Help Your Friend Break Free From Shame

The Truth About Reporting Rape

Why I Live-Blogged My Sexual Assault

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