When I was 18, my high school athletics coach told me he was in love with me. He was 76.
This one event has changed the way I relate to every man that I have met since.
It has also been something I haven’t told many people about. Because who would believe an 18 year old girl over a highly respected, former Olympian with a cult following in the Australian Athletics scene.
To say it caught me off guard is an understatement. I started running when I was five year old; I can still remember my first race. Running was my thing. My freedom. The closest I could get to the feeling of flying. After being coached by this man for six years in my passion, I looked to him as a mentor, an example of the ultimate success in the sport. And just three months after my 18th birthday, he told me he was in love with me. He said I could live with him. He would mentor me and coach me to be the greatest athlete I could be. And then he tried to kiss me.
My 18 year old brain didn’t know how to respond. I had never been taught how to prepare for something like this. I was frozen. I could run away and tell someone… but who would believe me over him? My whole world had come shattering down. I did the only thing I could think of – gracefully decline the offer and say that he was a friend and mentor to me, nothing more. He was disappointed.
Two hours later, I sat in the library at QUT, trying to prep for the exam I had later that afternoon. I couldn’t focus. I told one of my friends what had happened and he said I HAD to go and tell someone. What if this guy had done this (or more) to other girls or even students at the school?
I went back to the school. I walked into the gym. And I saw one of the teachers, who also happened to be a family friend. He saw my face, and said, “What happened?” I was shaking. And all I said was “He made a move on me”. And he knew exactly who I was talking about without me even having to name him.
This amazing, incredible teacher believed me straight away. Without a doubt. The Head of Sport believed me. The Principal believed me. The coach didn’t deny the accusations (which completely surprised me). He lost his job, and every other school was told not to hire him.
But there were people who didn’t believe it. Students. Former students. Parents. People who thought they knew him so well, that it could never be true. Friends distanced themselves from me. I stopped running. I stopped trusting men.
When I ran, I’d have panic attacks. I’d wonder if all those times my coach watched me run around the track – if he was watching my form, timing me and being a coach. Or if he was checking me out. I’d feel dizzy and have to stop. Years later, I found out that this is actually a form of sexual assault. If it had happened 3 months earlier, it would have been pedophilia.
I ended my two-year relationship. I now didn’t trust my boyfriend either.
I started partying. I put on a little weight. Alcohol helped with that. Not enough to feel fat. But enough to avoid people staring at my body. I didn’t want men looking at me.
I couldn’t date. Casual flings were all I could manage. If it was casual, I knew exactly what they wanted. I wouldn’t get hurt. But inside it was damaging my soul and my self-worth.
I finished my degree and got a job. I was miserable. Getting out of bed to get to work on time took all my energy. I began to see a counsellor but felt she wasn’t really helping. I stopped seeing her. I didn’t talk to anyone about what happened.
Four years went by. I started dating someone who believed in me. I never told him what had happened. He believed in me so much he told me I could start my own business. So I did. And from that moment onwards, I began to take myself seriously. My self-belief began to grow back. I relied on myself, and now others relied on me. I had purpose and direction.
Two and a half years later, I found out I was pregnant to an ex-boyfriend. This wasn’t part of the plan. I’d become extremely career-focussed and loved my business. My ex wanted me to have an abortion. He didn’t want this baby.
I had eight weeks to decide what to do. I decided to have the baby.
Because regardless of my choice, this would be the biggest decision of my life. Either choice would be lifechanging. If this decision represented all my life decisions, then I wanted it to be the right one. I’m a person who steps up to the plate. Steps out of her comfort zone. I’m an endurance runner – I know all about pain, comfort zones etc. How you do anything is how you do everything. Did I want to be the Rachel that takes the easy road when the biggest challenge of my life presents itself? Or am I the Rachel who says “Yep, I can do this, because I believe in myself… this decision will make me a stronger person beyond what I think is possible”.
And it has.
I am such a strong person. And this makes me proud. I know my daughter will look to me as a role model… as an example of how to behave and react in certain situations. I am her compass.
In the past 18 months, I have experienced domestic violence. Just writing that gives me goosebumps. I have no bruises to show. I have been bullied. I have been verbally abused. I have been told I am worthless. I have been put down for mourning my late grandfather. I have been told I have post-natal depression and I’m clearly not coping. I have been told I have irrational behaviour and need to get help, and that I shouldn’t be at my daughter’s birthday party in case I act crazy. I have been told I don’t make sound decisions and should have someone else make my decisions for me. I have had my financial decisions questioned. I have been isolated from people I once thought were friends (although, perhaps never really were). I began to question my mental health, because I was being told to by someone who was never, ever wrong. Someone who is a pillar of the community. Respected. Popular. Older. See the pattern?
And I didn’t do anything about it when these events occurred… because who would believe me over this person.
It’s the same scenario again.
Maybe i’m imagining these things and maybe I do need my head checked. Maybe it won’t happen again. Maybe i’m just hormonal and overly-sensitive right now.
What do I want my daughter to do in these situations? I need to take the actions I would want her to take if she were (heaven forbid) one day in my shoes.
Earlier this year, I applied for a Domestic Violence Order against this person. It was one of the most difficult things I have ever done. It was appealed. This led to three months of legal to and fro. I lost “friends” – people who didn’t even care to ask me why I’d done it, didn’t care to find out what exactly I was saying this person had done. People who unfriended me on Facebook on the spot. It was easier for them not to ask. Because for them to ask, meant they had to question the values of a friend. And therefore question their own values. Much easier for them to stick head in the sand (which says a lot about their own values and self-worth). This was a very painful, cleansing experience for me in terms of who my friends really are.
I never thought I’d write about this in a blog. But I’m doing some emotional decluttering. I’ve carried this around for too long. Today is the last day of 2015, and the last day that Rosie Batty is Australian of The Year. She’s done so much this year to raise awareness for DV.
I’m sharing this for two reasons:
One. I know without any doubt that some of you reading this will have had similar experiences or have been made to feel the same way. I hope that by sharing my story, something I’ve kept to myself for ten years, you feel less alone. It’s not just you. And it’s not your fault. You do deserve better. You are worth more.
Two. If you’ve been vocal on social media about domestic violence, sharing posts/news from Rosie Batty or other DV groups – perhaps sharing your opinion on high-profile cases like Allison Baden-Clay – stop for a moment, and ask yourself if you would show the same amount of support for her if you knew her. If you were friends with her. What if you were friends with both Allison and Gerard? It’s not so easy to be vocal when you are emotionally involved.
Domestic Violence doesn’t start with a punch. It starts with words. With controlling behaviour.
Listen to your friends when they speak up. Speaking up is the hardest part. And don’t judge – nobody has experienced what they have except them. If they’re willing to share, listen. Offer support in whatever form you can. This is where your worth as a true friend is truly shown.
Make 2016 the year you look out for and listen to your friends. Because more stories like this are going to be told.