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How my experience of child grooming still haunts me as an adult

'The reality is that an adult I trusted, and maybe even believed that I loved, destroyed my self-worth, my relationships and childhood for the better half of a decade.'

I was fourteen years old when I first met him. He was in his late twenties – I remember because I would make jokes about how he was literally double my age. As time passed, he would tell me later in confidence over and over again how he felt like he was still a teenager.

Other times, he would tell me that I was ‘mature for my age’. But there was no explaining away the reality that I was still a child and he was an adult, and that it was textbook grooming.

Alex was an assistant coach who eventually joined our basketball team and when he started, he made a big effort to befriend me. I was very quiet and didn’t have many friends among the other girls, so I gravitated towards him. He was funny, liked all the same dumb things I did and was exceptionally kind to me. I can’t remember who added who on Facebook first anymore, but we quickly started messaging with more and more frequency until we were talking daily.

When I turned fifteen, I had a nervous breakdown. I’d finally come to terms with being sexually abused by a family friend at a younger age, but I refused to tell my parents because I knew I couldn’t handle their devastation. Alex noticed I was off at sessions and kept pressing me to tell him why, then eventually I told him the whole thing over messenger. He suggested we start meeting secretly for coffee to talk about things. I agreed.

He was living with another woman at the time, somebody I’d met a couple of times. I don’t know what she thought about her boyfriend heading off to meet a teenage girl in coffee shops around town, or if she even really knew how close we were. I definitely know how the patrons in the coffee shops we went to felt though: wherever we were, there was always somebody side-eyeing us a little suspiciously. I joked about it once with him, cracking a quip about how everybody must think he was a creep with a young girl because it seemed so ridiculous to me. He didn’t laugh very hard. We started going to quieter coffee shops after that.

Alex helped me work through my depression and to process what had happened to me. I’ll forever be grateful to him for that – I think that’s why it took me so long to recognise what followed for what it was. I’m not sure what happened to him, but when I was around fifteen/sixteen he began drunk messaging me. Our conversations started becoming more sexual, then he would abruptly cut himself off and tell me, ‘You need to stop talking to me before I say something I’ll regret.’

He had become my best friend and I was naive. I would tell him, ‘You can tell me anything. I’m here for you.’

At first, he wouldn’t say anything. Then as the cycle continued, things began escalating. As he began to speak more and more candidly about sex, I began asking him questions. I was nervous about my own sexuality having been abused in the past so he felt like a gateway to recovery in some respects. There’s one conversation that made me uneasy at the time and I now realise should have been a massive red flag – he’d had a lot to drink again and was describing to me in detail his favourite sex positions.

‘Sex standing up is the best. You have to be really strong though, but if the girl’s really small and light then you can go for ages,’ he told me, before talking about it at length. I can’t remember all of it now, but I remember how it made my skin crawl and that I logged off quickly afterwards. I wiped all my conversations with him, knowing even then that if my parents found them it would be an issue.

At practice, he was the same as he ever was, though people had started commenting on how close we were. I started becoming more popular with the other girls since I was hanging out with Alex during breaks – and I’m not going to lie, I took pride in the small street credibility it gave me. When they saw us together, people would come to hang out with us, but he would mostly ignore everyone else. It felt amazing and for the first time, I felt special.

Occasionally, somebody would laugh about how much of a crush I had on him but to be honest, it had become something more than that – my world had started to begin to revolve around him. I thrived off his compliments, his assertions that I was smart, beautiful, mature and not at all like the other girls (even other women), to give me confidence. Alex began giving me presents, DVD collections of TV shows we had talked about, expensive limited edition books and more. He became my closest confidante and I started to believe that he was the only person in the world who would ever truly understand me. I began to isolate myself from my other friends, who I started to see as less interesting.

At this point, I had known him for roughly two years. Sometimes when my mum would pick me up from practice, she would give him a lift home. When he eventually wound up moving across the street from me with his girlfriend, the lifts became more frequent. We started seeing each other more  – both on accident and on purpose. Once when we went for coffee and his girlfriend was out of town, I mentioned that I didn’t have a mother’s day present. He said he had a book he was sure my mum would love back at his flat and that I should swing by and pick it up on the way home. I’d never been to his house before, so I said yes.

When I got in, I sat down in front of his bookshelf and we went spent a good twenty minutes talking about everything on his shelves. He sat uncomfortably close to me and started flirting. It slowly started to dawn on me that I was alone in an empty apartment with an older man. For the first time, I wasn’t seeing him as Alex, my best friend, I was seeing him as Alex, an adult man. I found reasons to drop his girlfriend into conversation, talking about how cute her shoes were by the front door, how her language classes were going and more pointedly, I asked when she’d be back from her family holiday. He deflected most of them, then I realised that I really needed to leave.

I said goodbye to him and he insisted on hugging me goodbye. Looking back now, it must have only been a couple of minutes but it felt like it dragged on for an hour. It started off innocently then his hands started moving, rubbing my back in circles as he started tilting his head. I didn’t know what to do, so I just went completely still and waited for it to be over. I convinced myself that he would never do anything to hurt me.

I don’t know what would have happened if somebody hadn’t dropped their grocery bags outside in the lift lobby. I just remember I sprang back from him like lightning and left as fast as I could, even as he called after me. I went home – across the street, less than two minutes away – and I locked myself in my room to cry for hours. It felt like something delicate had shattered.

I stopped showing up to practice – I found out later that so did he. I started googling the words paedophilia and ephebophilia, trying to find ways to justify his actions and what had nearly happened. I couldn’t sleep and I had nightmares constantly. Then eventually, he messaged me and said we had to meet up. I agreed, but I remember throwing up that morning before I eventually went to the park to see him.

He told me he wasn’t sleeping, he wasn’t eating and that he had started smoking again. It felt like somehow he was blaming me and I was devastated. I remember I didn’t say much because I didn’t know what to say, especially because I felt like I was the one who had driven him to this point. He kept repeating over and over again how I was more mature than people his own age and about how other couples older than him had huge age differences. He told me how lonely he was because he didn’t have anybody he could talk to about this because he would be judged for it, how he could lose his job teaching and I was totally wracked with guilt, thinking I was responsible for potentially ruining his life. He kept repeating that if I was older, things would be different but it felt like he was only saying it so that I would fight him on it. I lied and told him I was attracted to him, even though it made me feel physically sick to tell him. He cried and he hugged me for a really long time. Eventually I couldn’t take it anymore and had to go, but before I left he pulled his passport frantically out of his jacket.

I don’t remember his exact words, but I remember he told me something like, ‘Ever since that day, I’ve been carrying this around in my pocket wherever I go. And every day, I think about getting on the next plane and just leaving the country because of this.’

I tore myself up with guilt for a week after that, crying about how I had completely ruined him and his entire life. My friend at the time convinced me to block him, but it didn’t last. I still felt like I owed him something, so I would unblock him and we’d begin chatting again though we always ended back in the same twisted place. It was shocking how quickly we pretended each time that it had never happened.

I moved countries and went to university. I started having sex for the first time, but intimacy terrified me. I couldn’t believe that anybody would want to be with me and on some level, I felt like I didn’t deserve a happy relationship. I started talking to Alex again when it got really bad and hid it from everybody I knew. He and his girlfriend eventually broke up.

When I was 19, he ended up coincidentally doing a masters in a poly that was just half an hour’s train ride from my uni. A few times, he would come up to see me or I would go to see him. Even though I was older, I still felt like I was a child with him and every visit started to feel like a chore, like I was repaying a debt to him for helping me through my lowest point. We started to drink together because legally I could now. He’d drink a lot and I’d drink a lot less.

Then he took me out for dinner when I eventually hit 20 and I remember wandering into one of the most beautiful French restaurants I’d ever seen, realising suddenly that he had essentially organised a date. And even though what was going on wasn’t criminal anymore, I had the same twisted feeling I did when I was back in his apartment sitting in front of a bookshelf as he pressed his thigh against me. I drank a lot because I didn’t want to be sober for anything, he paid for all of it. When he asked me to come back to his apartment to watch a movie we’d talked about that night, I said yes. When he put around his arm me on the couch, I let him. When he started trying to kiss me, I tried to turn away to begin with but then eventually, I remember thinking that I needed to do this for him. Like somehow this would finally pay off my debt.

We fucked and I oscillated between feeling like I was going to throw up and at other times like I wasn’t even in my own body. He tried to make eye contact, though I kept my eyes shut most of the time. When I orgasmed, it filled me with complete shame and I wanted to crawl out of my skin, out of my body. Then he started telling me that he loved me over and over again and I almost started crying because the words felt wrong in his mouth. Afterwards, I put my clothes back on in silence, feeling empty, and slept on his couch because there weren’t any trains running. I pretended to be asleep the next morning when he went to work and waited for him to leave, though I was terrified the whole time that he would wake me up and I’d have to go through it all over again. He left me a love letter on the table in which he told me he found me ‘endlessly fascinating’. I read the first few lines and then tore it up on the way home before I could finish it, afraid of what else I would find. I went home and finally cut him out of my life.

I’m writing this because I’ve now accepted that what happened to me was not my fault. I can now recognise all the early warning signs of grooming in my relationship with Alex: the secret meetings, the long sexual messages on social media platforms, the gifts, the manipulation and the total dependency he fostered in me. But the fact that I can put a name to what happened to me doesn’t change the fact that I am 25 and I can still feel Alex’s presence like a third person in every relationship I have or bed I share.

Underage girls and boys all over the UK are groomed sexually and if they were anything like me, they aren’t talking about it. I can’t even begin to describe the mixture of fear, dread and guilt that churned around me at fifteen, sixteen and seventeen – even though I didn’t totally understand what was happening to me, I knew that it was wrong but I felt so isolated and like I couldn’t talk to anybody. I wish more than anything that somebody had stepped in to help me.

If you think you know a child who might be being groomed, please read up on all the warning signs from National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children and say something. I understand more than ever that my situation probably wouldn’t have escalated if it hadn’t been for social media and the internet. There’s now an organisation called the Child Exploitation and Protection Command where you can file reports against people who you believe may be sexually abusing children online. You can also call one of NSPCC’s Protect and Respect numbers to alert them to potential victims if you suspect something.

And to anybody out there who is currently in or has been in a similar situation as me, please ask for help. You can talk to the CEOP, the NSPCC, to counsellors and to your teachers if you’re still in school. If you’re older like me and only just coming to terms with it, the road to recovery is a difficult one but please know that there are people like the Samaritans, mental health organisations and the NHS to help you through it. I know exactly how terrifying it is to reach out for help and what that specific mix of guilt, anxiety, depression and loneliness tastes like. The reality is though that an adult I trusted and maybe even believed that I loved destroyed my self-worth, my relationships and childhood for the better half of a decade. You may have your own Alex in your life and they are not your world, even if right now you think that they are. Please believe me when I say that you are a human being deserving of love, respect and kindness – not manipulation and obsession.

People like me are waiting everywhere to help you. All you have to do is ask.

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