A year after being attacked I am stronger than I ever have been

Women's writing for Women's Day: Rosanna Cooney recounts her ongoing journey of recovery after a brutal assault in Spain

Rosanna Cooney: Without friends or the lure of the city, I changed. I woke up daily for sunrise

Rosanna Cooney: Without friends or the lure of the city, I changed. I woke up daily for sunrise

 

It has been one year since I was attacked, beaten and abused by a man in the Spanish city of Granada. In the aftermath of that attack I wrote an article that was published in The Irish Times. That piece has come to define how I have approached my life and what is still now my recovery.

Then, I urged people not to let fear inhibit them, not to allow inherited fear to determine their limits. “I plead with girls and women not to . . . bear the sickening weight of a society that addresses the victims but does not take preventative measures.”

I was concerned that my story might be appropriated and become one of horror, contributing to the narrative of sexual violence that permeates our media and binds people in fear. Instead I urged women “not to lock themselves indoors . . . not to be wary and afraid”.

I have tried to live by those words. The past 12 months have become the most consistently exhausting days of my life. Since I woke up blind in an emergency room, my eyes crusted shut from swelling, I have held trauma in every movement.

I have changed, yet the only things that appear different are my bumpy nose and a left eye that weeps constantly. I do not know which of the thousand moments have altered me since I was dragged down. But I do know all of the moments I have created since to strengthen myself and burn clean the label of victim from my consciousness.

I often read about healing being a game of time, but I wonder what is it that you are supposed to do during this time. Where do you go? How do you live? What occupies the morning, the afternoon, the night? Rather than the vague language of recovery, I can tell you what I did.

To an outsider, perhaps, my journey looked effortless, but it hasn’t been smooth and it hasn’t been conventional. Moments of bravery and adventure purposely outshine the weeks of crying in my parents’ house, the relentless paranoia and the uncontrolled panic attacks if someone confronted me in any way.

I am not an example of recovery, nor am I an exception. Everyone finds a way that, with luck, works for them. But I didn’t retreat; I just fought every day to be where I am now.

Initially I spent a lot of time alone. I stopped hanging out with my friends, despite the support that flowed from them. I didn’t want them to see me and compare me with who I used to be.

I broke away from my boyfriend and my best friend. I feared that anyone who knew me too well would be able to scrape the veneer from my act or judge me for not having moved on fast enough.

Crowds exhausted me as I imagined blows coming from every passerby. And so, without friends or the lure of the city, I changed. I woke up daily for sunrise and swam in the peace of Hawk Cliff, overlooking Dublin Bay. I had beach bonfires and mountain bonfires and I learned never to be in a situation where I couldn’t leave when I wanted to.

Months after the attack I still wasn’t ready for the dark. And so I would wait in the restlessness of my body for sunrise, for light and the chance to bellow profanities into the forests of Dublin’s mountains. I was furious at the role I felt beaten into. I felt lost in the label of victim and the congratulations of survivor.

After a summer of hospitals, waiting rooms and retraumatisation with every new doctor, and every retelling of what had happened, I knew I needed change. I had spent months crying on my mother’s chest and turning to my parents whenever something went wrong. I was 23 and a child again.

It was clear that the longer I stayed in the familiarity of home the more dependent I would become, as the fear of the foreign grew. So by the consistent placing and surmounting of small obstacles I gathered the confidence to leave Ireland alone once again.

The first time I left I dragged myself through Dublin Airport for a 6.45am flight, tears falling as I calculated how long it would take me to get the Aircoach home. I arrived at the departure gate to a closed sign and a high-vis-vested man finalising the flight paperwork.

“It’s closed. Why are you so late?” he asked. I decided to be honest. “I was having a crisis of self-belief.” It was 6.30am, and he stared. “Jesus, stand over there and I’ll bring you on to the plane.”

I didn’t thank him, not yet sure if he was doing me a favour, but I knew that, if I didn’t go, the next time would be harder.

And so I spent a week in the south of France, hung out with mystics and artists, and wondered if it would be easier not to be alive.

This feeling has taken a long time to change.

But how I felt and what I did were markedly different. Every little step built me for the next, and so from France I went to San Francisco. I spoke to almost no one in the time I was there, distrustful of those unknown, but I read and I walked and I started to feel the possibilities of my life return.

I felt it would be not by quiet reflection that I would dilute the influence of the past but by action and excitement.

So after a month of San Francisco’s fog and inequality I flew to the Caribbean island of Roatán, off Honduras. Without consideration of consequence, I just lived. It was there that I stopped crying, stopped clawing at my skin. I felt myself regain the confidence to laugh with strangers, to hitchhike, to not worry about who I was or who I no longer could be.

A month after arriving I was working at the local cigar bar when I heard that my room-mate had been robbed as she left our Roatán apartment earlier in the night. It was New Year’s Eve, and two hooded men had grabbed her, gagged her and stolen everything. They had pressed guns into her back and instructed her to walk slowly away from them and into the darkness.

My parents pleaded with me to return to Dublin. They were drained with worry and constant fear for my safety.

I imagined what that retreat would be: I would return to Ireland and know the city’s pavement better than its sky. I would fall back into a well of fear, believing that I was a magnet for danger and that no place was safe. I realised then that it didn’t matter where I was, because there is no refuge from disempowerment.

Since being attacked in Spain, anytime I do something that is not cotton-ball safe I question myself. What right do I have to take a risk? Did I not learn my lesson? Am I tempting fate?

But being a victim of assault should not be a determinant of your future. It does not mean you are damaged, nor does it mean you have to hide. Ultimately the implications are yours to decide.

So I didn’t run home to my parents. I accepted what had happened, I moved apartment and I continued to thrive, constantly redefining the limits I once set for myself.

I flew home from Honduras in March, for one final operation. Despite knowing its necessity, I was furious. How, eight months later, was I still dealing with the repercussions of one man’s decision? What gave him the power to take away my health and put me once more into a hospital gown, my body to be weakened with medication?

Lying waiting for the consultant I told myself, “I am lucky. I am lucky I wasn’t raped. I am lucky I wasn’t more broken. I am lucky to be alive.”

Wait. What? Lucky not to be raped? How have I been infected by this language of luck when the only language that should be spoken is of conviction?

This year has brought great learning, and I have never wasted my mind by wishing for the past to change. I am, however, demanding a change for the future.

I am a woman of privilege, and that privilege is not lost on me. But what is the point of writing an article that the men guilty of its motivation will probably never read? My comment is worthwhile only when I make it my constant to retaliate, to be a human of dignity and not just a woman of polite manners, grateful to a man for not raping her.

And so I speak to you, you who have read my story and you who too must demand change, whether it is from yourself or from those around you.

This year I have heard from so many women. I didn’t ask for the stories but they came – on buses, on boats and in the honesty of the written word.

A Canadian girl who was attacked and gang-raped at 16, walking home through her small town.

A Irish girl molested by her brother-in-law when she was 15.

An Australian girl anally raped by her manager when she was 19.

The stories are individual, the disempowerment international. But again and again I hear them. With bravery they are told, and with great injustice these girls continue. Continue to travel, to live and refuse to be governed by the acts of others.

It doesn’t matter where you are from; it doesn’t matter where you go. By being a woman you are at risk of being attacked, of being raped, of being so bound in fear that you never feel free. This is not a sensationalist thing to say. This is horrifyingly true.

The majority of women I have heard from this year, those who have written to me and those who have told me their stories in person, share one terrible denominator: they never told anyone else.

Their stories are buried in the statistics of unreported violence against women. Yes, their reasons are varied and their circumstances complex, but for these crimes to become uncommon in our apparently progressive society women must know that this was never their fault.

The oxymoron of “the mitigating circumstances of rape and assault” must be annihilated. There are no mitigating circumstances for these crimes – none.

We must ensure that when women choose to tell their stories they are met with support and rightful fury at those who pervert the most basic right of humanity: the right to your own body. We must ensure that when sexual violence is reported it is met with action.

By making known what happened to me I triggered responses not only from women but also from men, the victims of random acts of violence who saw their trauma reflected in mine. These stories are just as horrendous, just as sickening and just as under-reported. Men are rarely given the space to recover, to explore the impact of being jumped outside a nightclub or beaten on a public street.

There is an expectation that when this happens men will fight and forget. But on an anecdotal level this is not what I have heard. Trauma lives for years. Random acts of violence infect every aspect of your life. Where no walk to the shop is without threat and no approaching body is without a knife.

These incidents disempower. They isolate and strip identities. They need to be spoken about.

After I was attacked I didn’t just tell my parents or the police what had happened. I publicly told everyone I knew. In writing about it I reclaimed my story and my body. I hid nothing, and there was an unexpected safety in that.

My pain has publicly lived on my skin, but by the light of exposure it is largely shed. I was not silenced by brutality or ashamed of what was done to me. To hide would have sheltered a steeping darkness and given it the power to become more potent than every other wonderful thing in my life.

Sexual violence is not about sex. It is about power, and it must now be returned. I am stronger now than I ever have been, stronger for me and stronger for others. I have lost nothing by making public the deep trauma incurred by random and sexual violence. I have lost nothing by speaking out.

So please do not cover up your power. Please do not quieten your voice.

There is nothing to lose but fear. And fear can never win.

You can read Rosanna Cooney’s original article here