While I’ve been doing all this self exploration in therapy recently I’ve noticed a bunch of random memories come up, things I haven’t thought about in years. I wouldn’t exactly call them repressed memories, but some of them would seem to be important experiences that I haven’t consciously accessed in a long time. On my way to therapy on Friday morning I suddenly thought about something that happened to me when I was twelve.
At the school I went to there was a cadets club where boys would go every Friday evening to march around in military uniform and shoot plastic bullets from air rifles. It was the coolest club that you could belong to at my school, everyone who was anyone had to join. Having recently learned that I was not like the other boys and that this was a bad thing, I joined the club along with everyone else as soon as I could in the second year, even though I hated the idea of it and I could tell it was going to be a disaster, because I needed the kudos really badly.
I didn’t like the uniforms they made us wear, I didn’t like the guns and the marching, and I didn’t like how the other boys saw it as an opportunity to be more boisterous and aggressive than they could ever get away with in the course of a normal school day. For about two months I made myself go every week, as on some level I seemed to believe I could learn to become a man there. Becoming a real man like the others was crucial: I wouldn’t survive life if I couldn’t do that.
Just before Christmas that year there was a weekend trip to this boot camp in the middle of rural Hampshire. I didn’t want to go; the whole thing seemed like a nightmare. I had no concept that I could choose to pull out of it, that I could decide I wasn’t going to be a cadet any more. I thought that now I’d joined I was in it forever. To drop out would have been humiliating. When we got to the camp it was like a prison. I desperately scanned the horizon for any women, thinking that it wouldn’t be so bad being away from mum for a weekend if I had a female authority figure to turn to. But there were no women, just hundreds of boys and men, all gearing up for a weekend of swearing and jostling for position.
We were put through our paces with military drills and mapping exercises, all designed to turn us into men. I don’t remember how I got through it, but I did. My struggling must have been obvious, because one of the teachers, known to everyone as the colonel, took me aside on the second day for a private chat. While everyone else was outside for target practice I found myself in the dorm room with this man who was all of a sudden interested in me. The colonel (I have no idea if he was ever actually an army colonel or if he just called himself that for effect) was in everyone’s eyes an eccentric. He spoke in commanding, clipped tones that were reminiscent of a 1950’s old school authority figure. Most people found it funny, and often laughed about it behind his back. It was difficult to know how to have a conversation with him. He didn’t seem quite human. Occasionally you’d hear some whispered, not so funny rumours about him. He liked being tactile with the boys, apparently. You had to watch yourself with him, apparently. Lots of sniggering, half joking gossip that I only took with a pinch of salt because I didn’t believe anyone who taught at our school would really be able to get away with that. That was until the start of the boot camp weekend, when the colonel had stood in the bathroom watching us shower, ordering us to take everything off, including underwear, because we wouldn’t get clean otherwise. “No one leaves the shower until they’ve taken everything off,” his voice boomed, making it certain that he meant business.
Even at that point I couldn’t believe there was really a pervert in our midst. It just didn’t seem very likely. I don’t know, I guess I was just naive in thinking that kind of thing only happened in the news. When I was sat with him in the dorm room I thought about what had happened in the showers, and I felt uncomfortable, but again it didn’t occur to me that I could make a choice about leaving. I’d have had nowhere to go, anyway, the whole place was one big prison with no escape.
The colonel was eager to find out why I was so shy and why I couldn’t enjoy the weekend like the other boys. He asked if I had a girlfriend back home and whether I’d had sex with her yet. I didn’t know what to say, other than ‘yes’. It was the answer you gave to such questions at school if you wanted to stay safe. Answering ‘no’ would have been a giveaway to my dirty secret, I was sure of it. The colonel became really interested in what I liked doing with this girlfriend. He put a hand on my leg, asked me where I had touched her. Moved his hand up to my crotch, asked if I had ‘put myself inside her’.
I was trapped, and really scared. I wanted him to get his hand off me, to let me out of that horrible room. I didn’t know what he was going to do to me. He was sitting so close to me, I could feel his breath on my cheek. I was overpowered.
Before that day I’d had wet dreams that featured sordid encounters with the teachers at my school, but this wasn’t like a fantasy. The colonel was a wrinkled old man, and this was all too real, and out of my control. After a minute he let me go, perhaps deciding that he had got enough pleasure for one day. I spent the rest of the weekend in a state of shock, hoping he wouldn’t come near me again, and by some miracle he didn’t. Back at school the next week, I dropped out of the cadets, never to return.
I couldn’t understand what had happened in that room, and so I put it out of my mind for years. When I heard friends in adulthood talk about abuse, I didn’t think of what I had been through in the same light. Until now I didn’t even see that the colonel must have been getting off on the power he had over me. I thought…actually I don’t know what I thought. It was always one of those moments in life that didn’t make any sense. So I’ve left it out of my narrative until now. I haven’t written about it before, never told anyone about it, not even a therapist.
When it fell into my mind on Friday morning I knew I had to talk about it. With my therapist this week, for the first time ever, I could call it abuse. It always seemed wrong to lump it in with the more general idea of sexual abuse that friends and people in magazines talk about, because it only lasted a minute, and it didn’t go very far; but this week for the first time, I saw it differently. With everything that has been in the news recently about abuse, I don’t think I can dismiss it any more. It was one of the most frightening experiences of my childhood, one that seemed to make everything I was going through worse, because it suggested to me that being gay invited men like the colonel to do that to me.
As I was talking about it in therapy on Friday I began to make all kinds of associations between that experience and things that happened later during my drinking years. I could finally see that some of the frightening things that happened in my twenties were almost a repetition of that afternoon. The feelings I felt with men like N, men who’d found me in blackout and took advantage of me, were exactly the same as those I felt with the colonel. Trapped, alone, helpless to stop the older man from doing whatever he wanted.
Instead of recounting the story objectively in the past tense, I actually found myself reliving it in the therapy chair. Real therapy took place, then, as I regressed and became my twelve year old self, expressing the deep feelings as they happened. For a while I forgot where I was, and my whole countenance became that of an awkward, unloved teenager as I hunched down in my seat and spoke words that burned with anger. The pain was real; but afterwards, once I was back in the room, it felt wonderful. To have finally told someone what happened, to have finally named it for what it was, was amazing.
A difficult part of me is still inclined to shy away from calling all of it abuse. I experienced many, many things during my drinking that are similar to what happened with the colonel; do I say that my whole drinking career was characterised by a string of abuse? It feels like very difficult territory, considering that I put myself in those situations repeatedly, with full knowledge of what might happen. I never said ‘no’ or indicated that I didn’t want to be there. None of the men who took me to bed would have any reason to think I didn’t like it. But here’s the rub: I didn’t like it. I didn’t know what I was doing. I was always a child, right up until the day I stopped drinking. It’s hard when you listen to these people now who are coming out with stories about the abuse they’ve suffered in Hollywood, how they can confidently name what they experienced and achieve catharsis from it. I, meanwhile, have struggled for so long with the grey areas of what I went through; the murky, elusive truth about just what happened, so much of which I’ll never remember because I was in blackout for most of it.
At the end of Friday’s session I knew that I could be on the verge of a breakthrough in this area, if I could value myself enough to call myself a victim of abuse like all those other brave people currently in the spotlight. I knew that there’s just too much evidence to keep dismissing it. I also knew that I had to start talking about it to other people, in AA, in counselling class, because that would really mean valuing myself. Whether I could take that step would remain to be seen.