I still remember my first visit to Nottingham Women's Centre. I was surprised by how bright, warm and friendly the welcome area was, and how everyone else seemed...normal.
I sat down nervously on one of the sofas, not quite sure if I was supposed to make my own way up to the Rape Crisis Centre, or if someone would come down to fetch me. Or if people would make assumptions if I asked the way. I wasn't quite ready to acknowledge that out loud.
There was a blonde woman in the kitchen area, who looked up and asked if I needed help. Without any sort of judgement, she asked if I was going up to NRCC and told me to follow her. As we walked, she explained how she had been for counselling there, how it does get better, that life becomes bearable and how that place gets under your skin... you don't just walk away from the women's centre.
I didn't believe her back then. I couldn't see a way that I could live without the hurt, or that other things could be at the centre of my life out of choice and happiness rather than forcing them into the spotlight in order to hide from the horrors I was avoiding. I couldn't quite grasp how I could move on without forgetting, deal with what I remembered, be happy...
And if I didn't believe her then, I believed her even less as counselling continued. As we explored feelings and delved into the problems that I faced, everything seemed more hopeless than ever. How was I supposed to heal from something that was ripped open every time we spoke?
I began to go camping again, do the things that I loved. It gave me confidence that other things could take priority in my life, and that I was still the girl that I was before all this, even though I had changed a bit. I took opportunities and did things that pushed me, such as Roverway in Finland and the Stop The Violence seminar in Belgium. I began to learn that I had a voice. Not just any voice, but a powerful, authentic voice.
Progress isn't measured in perfection, but in the little victories. Camping in the wilderness of Evo, speaking at a feminist event, going back to the scene of the violence. It's measured in the nights without nightmares, going out without panicking, working every day with children the same age as my daughter would have been. Progress is a journey.
I was first raped on 26th February 2005. Every year, I avoid the world in any way possible on that date. Whether it is pretending to be ill or booking a day off work, I barely ever leave the house, choosing instead to curl up in a nest of cuddly toys and watch a film. The only real exception was in 2011, when I was forced to attend a first aid training day and did so whilst suffering panic attacks and flashbacks the whole time.
Last year, I was very aware of the date. I didn't work, but also never panicked or cried. I said at counselling that night that it felt like any other day. I'm not sure it did, to be honest. Not looking back on that now.
This Wednesday was the 26th February. I got up, headed to work, ate my porridge and did my preparations. I taught my first couple of sessions, got my morning hugs from the usual suspects in year three, made a few lewd jokes with my boss. I went for a meeting in his office - just me and him - to discuss a couple of issues, then headed back. And I wrote the date on the board...
"Oh..." I stopped and clutched my head, just for a second. I'd seen it and felt dizzy. Just for a second, because it had caught me completely unaware. The 26th February really was just like any other day, and all of a sudden it caught up with me; how I was stood in that place, teaching, meeting with male colleagues, acting like anyone else.
I suddenly realised exactly what that woman had meant. I hadn't forgotten what happened to me, I hadn't forgotten what day it happened on or anything else, but somehow it was manageable. Somehow, I was able to get up, go to work and just do my normal thing.
After that brief moment, I continued for the rest of the day. And when I got home, remembering the date, I put all my cuddly toys on my bed, and did my annual tradition of nesting with a Disney film. Not because I needed it, not because I was hiding, but because it's part of me - I love my Disney and I deserve it after a tough day.
My past is always going to be a part of me. In some ways, because of the writing that I do and the campaigns I'm involved in, it will be quite an integral part of me and something that I'm not necessarily willing to cast aside. But it's something that I work with, giving myself time to heal, grieve, celebrate and love, as I need it.
These days, I find that I'm the woman talking of experience and how we can heal. I'm the woman that praises the women's centre and NRCC and the amazing work they do with women of all backgrounds. I'm the one that's never really left, still doing things and feeling like the women at the centre are extended family. And I find myself thanking those women from that very first visit for welcoming into their community.