In November 2009, I bought a dress. It was a red, silk bandage dress and it was a bargain at just £29.99. I bought it with the intention of making it that year's "Christmas Day Dress" (I always like to wear something nice on Christmas Day) and as soon as I got home, despite it having been raining the entire time I was out and my hair therefore resembling something from an 80s power ballad video, I took a few photos and put them up on Facebook.
Seriously, the hair...
So, why am I harping on about this, six years later? Well, Facebook has a feature called "On This Day." For any given day, you can check and find out what you were up to in years gone by. It's become something of a habit of mine to check this feature first thing in the morning and on the whole, I quite like it. Sometimes, I see something funny and it makes me smile. Sometimes, it brings back bittersweet memories. But every now and then, I see something that I didn't want to be reminded of at all.
Yesterday, when I checked the "On This Day" feature, I saw the photos of me in my red dress. I actually thought to myself: "Blimey, I haven't worn that for years. I wonder if it even fits, anymore?!" I then thought absolutely nothing more of it and got on with my day.
Today, when I checked the feature, I saw a public comment on my Facebook wall, written six years ago, by a man who, back then, I hadn't actually met. It said simply: "I added you as a friend just so I could click the "like" button on your red dress album. :)" Seems harmless enough, right? Just a bloke I'd spoken to via a mutual friend's status updates, who'd cheekily added me as a friend himself, after seeing some photos he liked. I took it as a compliment. I thought he was gorgeous and I was pretty chuffed that he liked a few pictures of me, especially since all I could notice when I looked at them was the state of my windswept hair. He jokingly added that he wasn't a stalker, honest. I joked back that "it's not stalking, it's selective walking," thanked him for the compliment and deliberately put a kiss at the end of the message, because did I mention I thought he was gorgeous?! We took the conversation to private messages and did some harmless flirting.
If it had ended there, seeing that perfectly innocent-seeming comment in my "memories for today" would have had no effect on me, whatsoever. The trouble is, it didn't. That "gorgeous" man whose cheeky message flattered me and made me laugh became, over the course of the next two years, the man who emotionally, psychologically and sexually abused me. He's someone who, for very obvious reasons, is supposed to be blocked on Facebook. Why he wasn't is beyond me (he is now), but I found simply being able to see his profile picture and his cover photo shockingly triggering, even though he looks different now to the way he looked six years ago.
People talk about being "triggered" online a fair bit, these days. We put "trigger warnings" on posts about sensitive subjects and many of us - myself included - talk quite openly about what our "triggers" are. But only if you've ever been triggered can you possibly know what it feels like.
I saw his photo and, when I hovered over his name (wondering why the hell it was clickable when he was supposed to be blocked), I saw his cover picture, too. And instantly, I had to cup a hand to my mouth, as though I was about to be violently sick. My breath started to come in short, shallow bursts. I felt too hot and too cold at the same time. My hands began shaking, until they shook so violently that my whole body joined in. And that reaction happened years after the abuse did. That reaction happened well after I've put my life back together and moved on from what he did to me. That reaction had nothing to do with not being over it, or needing further counselling or anything like that. It's just what my closest friends refer to as my "abuse hangover."
In the four years since I left my abuser, I've actually walked past him in the street. And bizarrely, it didn't trigger me in the same way that seeing that he was suddenly unblocked on Facebook did. I think it's possibly because I've had a bit of a low week this week and Facebook has something of a part to play in that, so seeing him there was the cherry on the lousy cake.
The thing is, in true Carrie Bradshaw-esque style, once I'd stopped the shaking and the nausea and the general feeling of "ARGH!", I started thinking more and more about that red dress.
I suddenly realised that there's a subconscious reason I have barely worn that dress in the four years since I left my abuser. And it's purely because it was that dress that brought him into my world - or at least, onto my Facebook friends list - in the first place. I suppose, in a totally stupid way, I blamed it. I associated it so much with him, that it became ugly; the very last thing I would want to wear.
It's no coincidence that, in the semi-autobiographical novel I'm in the process of preparing for publication, the character loosely based on me wears a red, silk bandage dress on the night she first meets a mysterious, dark-eyed stranger, who becomes her psychological tormentor for the rest of the book. And yet, I never realised that when I was writing it. I didn't think anything of it at all. I just thought "I like red, so she can wear a red dress." But somewhere, deep down in my brain, a voice was obviously trying to make a point.
It's weird when you realise stuff like this. It's strange to suddenly understand why there's an item of clothing in your wardrobe that you feel you can't wear. But it's a wonderful moment when you realise that you can and you bloody well will. What happened to me came so close to breaking me. But I stuck all those pieces back together again - with a little help - and I got stronger. Stronger than I ever thought I was capable of being.
I met my abuser on New Year's Eve. For the first two years after I walked away, New Year's Eve wasn't a nice night for me. It brought back too many memories and made me think about stuff I had worked really hard to push out of my mind.
Then, in 2013, my friend Lizzie and I went away together for New Year. We spent it at Butlin's, having fun and getting a bit drunk and dancing, singing and doing all the things you're supposed to do at New Year (minus kissing anyone at midnight, but you can't have everything...). Ever since, I actually look forward to the date. We have our routine of going there now and it's fun. Getting to the point where I could enjoy New Year's Eve again was a big deal for me and it was a way of realising that I was over what happened and ready to move on.
This year, I'll be doing the same thing. I'll be having fun, with one of my dearest friends and I will be wearing a smile.
And I'll also be wearing a red, silk bandage dress. Because, sometimes a trigger is more of a call to action. It makes you realise that the bad things are in the past, however painful it is to remember them. It forces you to realise how far you've come, even if it feels like a tiny thing can open up old wounds. Seeing that supposedly harmless memory wasn't harmless for me, at all. But I refuse to let the past spoil the present or the future.
I will be wearing that dress on New Year's Eve. To make a point to myself. To create new memories to replace the old.
Because I can.