The power of telling your story
cw: sexual violence
A few years ago I wrote a play and got a bit of a surprise. I'd thought my interest in a subject was purely intellectual, that I was setting out to write a certain thing, and that I knew where it was going. But in the process of writing the play I released a memory of something that I had lived through 10 years before. That something was sexual violence, and the realisation resulted in a breakdown. I was seriously unwell for quite some time, though I functioned well on the outside. I got help, but in secret.
Why am I telling you this, especially when there was a long period time where I wanted absolutely nobody to know this? Well, I suppose I've come to realise that there is a power in telling your story, or parts of it, if you want to.
It took me years to want to tell anyone about what happened to me, but I knew I did want to make work about it. So I continued to write the play, once I was feeling well enough. I knew about the link between its content and main character and myself, but nobody else did. I didn't want them to. I wrote a fictionalised account, about a fictionalised person, who had a similar, but fictionalised, experience.
This allowed me to write about something personal in a way that didn't feel exposing. I wrapped myself inside a narrative, could get at the heart of what I wanted to explore without having to connect it with my own experiences. The play was quite good as it turns out. It got some positive feedback from theatres, mentors and friends. I planned to perform the play myself, and even applied to some festivals.
Tentatively, at this time, I spoke to a very small collection of people about what I was going through.
But then someone asked me, casually and not unkindly, if this was an autobiographical story. I wanted to run away. This wasn't what I wanted - I'd made such a clever plan that nobody could tell it was really about me, surely? People seeing through this, now admittedly not very clever or subtle, ruse was one of my deepest fears. I can tell you now that this was because I was still ashamed of what happened, but I wasn't conscious of this at the time. I didn't know whether to continue developing the play, or to drop it.
Then some time later I did a week's workshop on autobiographical theatre-making with Bryony Kimmings and some other lovely artists. I tested how it felt to explore my idea in a way that owned up to it being about me, Carys, not someone made up. I told a room of people I didn't know that this was what I was making a show about and why. It was terrifying. But it also started to feel honest.
I had been worrying about the fact that there a myriad of experiences of sexual violence, and that I could never present them all. That it happens to 1 in 4 women, 1 in 20 men and 1 in 6 children, and I am only one person. That my priviledge means I'm not the right person to talk about this. And who did I think I was, exactly? When I started using my own experience overtly, I didn't worry about these things so much. Because of course, I was only trying to talk from my own experience. I felt relieved, and scared.
Something that has stuck with me is the fact that most stories of sexual assault end with the assault itself. It's often something that results in death (naked female bodies on beaches in mystery dramas), ridicule (moralistic she-shouldn't-have-been-so-slutty romances), or a total anihilation of spirit (insert other cliche here). Thing is, assault was only the start of the story I wanted to tell. Actually, assault was also the least interesting thing about the story. It was so uninteresting in fact that it's not actually in the show. Spoilers.
I looked for these stories, where life continues, and couldn't find them. I wanted the depression, PTSD and anxiety to be worth something - to get me somewhere and at least be a means to an end. I wanted to belive that things got better, that my future self would be ok, be thriving, but I had no point of reference at the time. So I set out making something along those lines. I eventually found them in the podcast Life Continues After, by the way, a great thing to listen to if you're looking for this too.
I had lots of moments of doubt, by the way, when I started this version of the show. Lots of moments of thinking what I was doing was narcissistic - maybe it is - and thinking I was just being obsessive about this thing that had derailed me for a bit. But then I'd calm down again and think no, this is something I want to do - somehow. I don't know how yet but I do want to.
The challenge was, I was still not well. The first drafts of the show were dark, disjointed and downright confusing. This echoed what I'd found to be true of a healing journey - that it's not linear, that it's messy and a bit chaotic. I shared some work in progress and got a good reception, but I felt the work wasn't right yet.
At one sharing, 100% of people fed back that they, or someone they knew, had experienced sexual violence. This felt devastating, but also affirming. If I could make just one person feel less alone, I'd be happy that I'd made the show.
I was due to perform the work in 2020, the day theatres closed, and still I felt something wasn't right yet. I was terrified of performing it. I think it's partly because I was still in the middle of things, mentally, emotionally. This isn't to say you can't make art when you're unwell, of course you can, but for this particular thing, I couldn't.
So I sat with it. I had a lot of sitting time in 2020. I didn't work on it, but I sat with it. I got older, I grew further away from the assault, grew further into therapy, into unlearning things. And then I re-wrote the text. It felt better. I had more hindsight. I had a bit more of the story to tell. The show was programmed in VAULT 2022, then VAULT 2023. It was due to be on almost exactly 6 years after my breakdown.
Less tentatively, I spoke to more people about what I was going through. I said the words without getting upset. I felt like there was some separation there. Perhaps uexpectedly, perhaps obviously, the more I took hold of being up front in the show, the more separation there was. I'm not ashamed anymore, of what happened. I think I've finally shed that layer. That's not to say I don't still live with the impacts, unfortunately. But they don't feel debilitating like they used to. So I think there's power in telling your story. To yourself, to one person, to hundreds - it doesn't really matter. You might not have been able to control what happened, but you can control how you tell your story. It's yours, afterall.
I've been working on this version of the show for the past 6 months, on and off. And this time, it feels like it's possible, ok and even a bit exciting to share it with people. I'm sure it's not perfect. But now I don't know if I'd want it to be.