Sarah Grace: Sexual assault – my personal survival guide

Her new book is not just an account of a vicious sexual assault, but a handbook on how to cope

A year after Sarah Grace's story was published in The Irish Times, a new book documents her experience of surviving a vicious sexual assault, physical assault and home break-in. But this book is not raking over the coals of her trauma. It is instead, an instructive, hugely practical, insightful and helpful guide to survival.

Sarah was in her late 20s when she was attacked in her home in Dublin in July 2019. After she waived her anonymity to contribute to the article detailing her experience, she received an outpouring of support, and began to work with both the Director of Public Prosecutions (DPP) and Minister for Justice Helen McEntee. Sarah used her personal experiences to help survivors. Her journey now forms a personal part of a legacy that includes this new book, which offers a new lens on what it means to navigate such a traumatic experience.

In the aftermath of the attack, Sarah filled three diaries back to back. The title of the book, Ash + Salt, is derived from metaphors Sarah thought about to describe both destruction and growth.

“When this happened to me, the common image that was used was it feels like your life has been burned down to ashes and there’s nothing left. Your sense of identity is struck to its core, your relationship with friends, family, colleagues – everything has changed. Your markers and your sense of safety are gone, so it feels like everything has been burned down to ashes.


“But I love the idea that from the ashes things can grow. I knew that volcanic ash is one of the most fertile types of soil in the world. You see green blooming and blossoming over volcanic ash. I guess I’m trying to break down the stereotype that rape victims and sexual assault victims are broken.”

The salt part relates to the symbolic salting of earth, in particular in relation to the idea that the Romans sowed the city of Carthage with salt in 146 BC. “I found in my own journey there were lots of things that were hindering my healing,” she says, “both internal and external. My own thoughts and my destructive patterns, PTSD [post-traumatic stress disorder], anger, all of those things,” along with the criminal justice system itself, and unhelpful reactions from people in her life.

Sarah's experience was terrifying, traumatic, horrific and nightmarish. Brutally, it involved an invasion of her body, and the violation of the safety of one's bedroom

In some cases, she says, people react to the trauma of others by “making it about themselves, people thinking they know what to say and not listening, toxic friendships, toxic environments, even things unrelated to the trauma such as being around negative people or passive-aggressive people. I thought of this image of how you need to clear away the salt in order for the healing to happen.”

Those metaphorical green shoots of growth also had a real-world correlation in terms of healing. Green, Sarah says, is a healing colour for her. One of the things that helped her in her process was the grounding power and comfort of nature.

When she was approached to write a book in the aftermath of The Irish Times article, she wondered if there was a point in doing so. Reticent to replay the events she experienced, Sarah realised that the only point in writing something would be to help others.

She began meeting with the DPP and Ms McEntee to progress some of the recommendations she had made about supporting survivors, and alleviating the unnecessary stress the courts system can inadvertently place on victims of serious sexual crime.

Working on a “checklist” for those about to go through a court or trial process, she also began collating her insights of the police investigation, and what to do immediately after a rape or sexual assault. In writing that checklist, she wondered whether it, along with other material, could be expanded into a book.

The result is an unusually refreshing book on the subject and experience of assault. Chapters are broken up with “survival guide” sections, offering step-by -step instructions and insights into the immediate experience of an assault and how to fight back in the moment, as well as understanding your body’s response to trauma.

She writes that “trauma triggers four different modes, depending on the situation: fight, flight, freeze or fawn. Whatever response your body adopts, understand that all four responses are equally designed to save your life.”

The life-altering event Sarah experienced began at the end of a family trip to Connemara. Boarding an early-morning train on a Tuesday in July 2019, she went directly from Heuston Station in Dublin to her office in Dublin’s docklands, where she worked as a lawyer for a large company.

Returning to her apartment in Grand Canal Dock, which she shared with two other women, it had been a warm weekend while she was away, and her bedroom was “stifling hot”. She put her bedroom window on the safety latch, something she had been told was safe. That night, she woke up suddenly.

“Normally, the amber glow from the street lamp outside my window streams into my bedroom through the sides of the blackout curtains, but my eyes are open and it’s still pitch black.”

She tried to sit up, but a weight on her chest prevented her from moving. She wondered if she was experiencing sleep paralysis, and then smelled a heavy stench of cigarettes and body odour. And then she realised she was being strangled.

The battle that followed in the dark, between her and a complete stranger, was brutal and vicious. Following the attempted strangulation, she managed to thrash around and throw the man off her bed, before he tackled her and pinned her to the ground and tried to strangle her again.

“The last lucid thought that goes through my mind is the image of [my parents] holding each other,” she writes, devastatingly, picturing them “unable to leave this room as their shoulders rock from the never-ending waves of grief. And then the adrenaline kicks in.”

'When I came back to my yoga practice ... I was trying to feel the ground underneath my fingers. That helped counter the experience of disassociation'

Sarah attempted to grab his neck in return and began choking him. She sensed his shock as he took his own hands away from her throat. She then attacked his groin, before being wrestled back down on to the floor. His hand covered her mouth and nose, and unable to breathe, she managed to bite his hand, spitting out a part of it.

Scrambling to her feet, she was then violently sexually assaulted, cutting her internally. She ran. She escaped. She managed to warn her flatmates. They got out on to the street by degrees and managed to call the Garda.

The experience was terrifying, traumatic, horrific and nightmarish. Brutally, it involved an invasion of her body, and the violation of the safety of one’s bedroom.

The lessons she learned from navigating the gardaí, the sexual assault treatment unit and the immediate aftermath of the attack make for a vital, practical, and instructive chapter on what to do in this scenario.

Emotionally, Sarah Grace refers to the time and space of this immediate aftermath as something of a "shadowland". "Have you ever woken up from a dream and you think you're awake but you're in another dream?" she writes, "That's what this was like. I can't take anything in or connect to my surroundings. Looking at the passing traffic, I am convinced that I could jump under a moving vehicle and come out of it perfectly unscathed. I also can't get over how calm I am. It's as though I have glided weightlessly into some sort of trance. This 'dreamlike state', as it was later referred to by my therapist, was disassociation."

“PTSD is a survival mechanism,” she says, “It’s the brain’s way of shutting down something that is too overwhelming and would swallow you whole. A lot of people use the word compartmentalising. But when they start using that word in the context of trauma, more often than not that is disassociation. There’s nothing wrong with it. It helps you cope, and helps you come back to some form of normality.”

But at some stage, you have to reconnect with yourself. A friend of Sarah’s, who worked for the Red Cross, told her for some people, the scale of a major trauma may never hit them. They may be in a state of disassociation for an incredibly long time.

Sarah was not feeling fulfilled in this state. She had no sense of belonging or of true confidence in her own identity. While she understood the state of disassociation, she wanted to dissolve it. As someone passionate about yoga, she used her practice to reconnect with her body.

“When I came back to my yoga practice I wasn’t hopping into headstands. I was trying to feel the ground underneath my fingers. That helped counter the experience of disassociation. I remember looking at my hands for weeks on end and understanding academically that they were mine, but not feeling that connection to them. The physical way out of disassociation for me was yoga.”

The mental way out was “a lot harder”. She began to identify two broad aspects of that, the first being reconnecting to her thoughts, and the second being reconnecting to her deeper sense of purpose. She recommends mindfulness practices, meditation and breathing exercises, even simple YouTube videos that can act as an entry-point guide.

Sarah cites the apps Calm and Headspace as starting points for people, and “trying to create these tiny moments during your day of checking in with yourself. You start to build this habit of self-awareness and checking in. That’s the biggest step you can take towards coming back to yourself.”

Therapy was also a huge help. “I know people say therapy isn’t for everyone. I think maybe that’s people who haven’t found the right therapist. Your deeper sense of purpose is a lot harder. It helps if you had a sense of purpose before, but I guess it’s about finding what brings you joy.

'You feel like an untouchable. At the time of your life when you need people, some people withdraw from you'

“I think about pockets of joy – I stole that from Jonathan Van Ness. For example, I like to bake. One aspect of that is that I love making pretty things, but the other is sharing them and making people happy. The more pockets of joy I found the better. They’re the little markers that point towards what your sense of purpose is, and then you might realise through those, ‘oh, my calling is to help people, or to work with animals, or to write’.”

She also says being kind and patient with yourself is hugely important. Her process was not easy, and not linear. There were periods where she felt great, and there can also be periods where “you binge on Netflix for two weeks”.

Brilliantly, Sarah offers a guide in the book for those who want to support friends, family members, or colleagues who have experienced a similar trauma. It’s a practical and empathic set of very helpful and reasonable instructions. Dealing with others who may not have the tools to navigate or even broach someone’s trauma can be an isolating and upsetting experience for a survivor.

“I remember being on the other side of that,” she says, “not just for assault or rape, but friends who lost a loved one. You don’t know whether to address it. I think that all comes from a really good place where you don’t want to upset or trigger someone, or catch them off guard. I think it’s really important to, maybe people will disagree with this, but if you make a point of being present, of reaching out, ideally in person, that helps.”

When this was lacking in some quarters, Sarah said it added to her anger at the time. But eventually, she reached an understanding that such reticence is often people’s own sense of fear, “because maybe they have never considered this, and they’re not able to put the mental blocks in place to protect themselves. So they don’t want to address my vulnerability because they’re afraid of being vulnerable.

“People can only ever meet you at what level they’re at. It can be incredibly frustrating... You’re dealing with this every day. You feel like an untouchable. At the time of your life when you need people, some people withdraw from you.

'At the police station I was cracking jokes and they were looking at me like I was mentally unwell, but I find it helps bring people into the conversation'

“One practical piece of advice is just take a deep breath in your moment of fear, come back to yourself and just look the person in the eye. It’s a tiny moment of self-awareness on your end, to take a deep breath and check yourself. You’re not going to get it right 100 per cent of the time. Don’t beat yourself up. Just do your best. Nothing stops you from apologising later on if you did something you don’t feel good about.”

It was anger that was her Everest, as she puts it. When she felt she was over one set of anger, another surfaced. “Anger loops,” she says, “Anger is energy, as opposed to depression, which is a paralytic. Anger motivates you to do things. When you’re at a stage in your life where everything is hard, everything is a fight, everything is an obstacle, you need energy to get through that.

“I channelled my anger to get back into work, to go to the gym, to write the book. It was a new emotion to me. I do a lot of mindfulness and breathing, blah blah blah,” she laughs, “But I would be more on the low-energy level. I know how to manage depression; I didn’t now how to manage anger.”

She feels having physical outlets for anger is helpful to a point. She began to go to the gym a lot and realised she was “compulsively exercising”. While that offered a certain release of energy and endorphins, that feeling of release didn’t hang around.

“Ultimately, what you need to do with any emotion is to sit with it, be aware of it, have a moment where you are doing nothing and you are trying to think about only how you’re feeling.”

She feels that anger is an emotion that often covers up another, and realised her anger was a sense of broken-heartedness over what had happened to her, and people’s reactions to it.

After the trial, and after the initial article was published, she thought she was over her anger. But in writing the book she realised a tremendous amount of anger was still circling, and that it was not something that she could deal with just once, and then it would evaporate. Like much of the emotional terrain she has navigated and continues to navigate, it is a process.

The practical language and instruction that runs through the book is drawn from Sarah’s impetus to help, “it’s really important for survivors and non-survivors to get a sense of what happens,” she says, “I think a lot of people are afraid to talk about it, and aren’t sure how to approach it. I remember as a survivor it was really hard to talk about ‘me’. It was only thanks to the article that I was able to share it [the experience]. So I figured I might as well use that to help other people stand up.”

That initial article, she says, allowed her to “stand behind my story, to literally put my face to it. I felt invincible after it. There was nothing else to hide from.”

Very helpfully, Sarah has included a chapter on the question of anonymity, offering a guide to dealing with media, weighing up options and controlling one’s personal narrative.

Societal consciousness has clearly risen around violence against women in recent times. In Ireland, Sarah puts this down to, in part, how the recent referendums here created a shift towards emotions and feelings “being a normal topic of conversation”.

That people are open about going to therapy, or working on themselves, or opening up, or allowing themselves to be vulnerable about things is all “working towards change”.

'It should never have happened to anybody. But it did happen. So what do we do with it? Use it as a force for good'

She says there is no way that this evolution can backfire. She feels that men need to be a part of this process, because the majority of perpetrators of sexual assault against men, women and others, are men themselves. Sarah says society needs the active support of men in calling out behaviours, but also in actively listening to and actively amplifying survivors’ voices.

Within this conversation, people may be surprised to realise that although Sarah is serious about the experience and the tactics and solutions to navigating such an awful trauma, she is also incredibly upbeat, lighthearted, and often speaks about certain elements of her journey with a lot of humour and wryness.

“When we don’t want to read about something grim or traumatic, that’s because it’s so depressing,” she says, “That can turn people off. I’ve always approached my story with humour in a way. Even at the police station I was cracking jokes, and they were looking at me like I was mentally unwell, but I find it helps bring people into the conversation.”

Ultimately, the specifics of her experience – that it was at the hands of a stranger, that the police investigation kicked in straight away, that she was enabled to go to the sexual assault treatment unit, that her attacker was arrested, brought to trial, and ultimately jailed for ten years – places her in a particular position where her selfless act of sacrificing her anonymity and using the experience to advocate and instigate change, and writing this book as a guide to survival, have allowed Sarah Grace to process things in a way that offers a path forward in her own life, and an example to others.

“The message of the book is one of hope,” she says, “Look, there’s a lot of hope in this. In something that feels as hopeless, there is some hope that we can change as a society. It should never have happened to anybody. But it did happen. So what do we do with it?” She answers her own question, “Use it as a force for good.”

If you have been affected by any of the issues raised in this article you can contact the Rape Crisis helpline on 1800-778888

Una Mullally

Una Mullally

Una Mullally, a contributor to The Irish Times, writes a weekly opinion column