Sometimes bad things happen to us. They fall out of the sky. We don’t ask for these bad things, but they happen anyway. And the only thing we can control is how we react. Often, we’re paralyzed. We try and forget. We stuff these bad things inside us, where they fester. Because we don’t speak about them, they take on power and grow strong.
This year, a random bad thing happened to me. It presented me with an opportunity, cloaked in an assault on my autonomy.
But wait. I’m getting ahead of myself.
On January 12, 2013, I went dancing with my friends K and B at a night of DJs playing music from different decades, one decade per hour. I can remember until midway through the ‘70s, then nothing. Several hours later, the sensation of a blood pressure monitor on my finger and the rim of a bucket embedded in my forehead. A male voice I didn’t know was saying my vitals were fine, it was good that I threw up because the drug didn’t have a chance to get too far. I recognized the couch cushions from B’s house. My body felt like concrete. The voice was asking whether I wanted to go to the hospital to get bloodwork, a lifelong phobia of mine. Concrete-brained, scared and sick, I didn’t say yes. I couldn’t even raise my head to see what he looked like. Had I foreseen that I was about to become a posterchild for drug-related sexual assault, I would have chosen to get the bloodwork done, despite everything. Then the words ‘allegedly’ or ‘believes she was drugged’ wouldn’t have appeared in the interviews, like maybe nothing had happened after all.
According to K, I was dancing happily, and then something went wrong. The change in my behavior happened quickly. We’d each had two drinks. Yes, we had laid those drinks down, but they were on a ledge that we were dancing next to, with no one between us and the ledge. The room was full of people we knew. It was about as safe as you can get and still go out, or so I thought. This s**t still happened, though.
With one simple, almost imperceptible action, an anonymous person shook my life to its roots.
I don’t remember the next part, but K told me later that I ran toward the washroom, didn’t make it, and began puking in the corner of the bar. She brought me to the bathroom and I kept vomiting. She said I was, amazingly, puking into actual receptacles like sinks and trash cans before I became so dizzy and f**cked up that I just lay on the floor, crying and apologizing, saying I was going to die. She went to get B, and the two of them got me up off the floor and into a cab. By the time we drove the few blocks to B’s house, I was vomiting out the open cab door. They got me up the stairs and situated with my trusty bucket, and called emergency response.
I’m so grateful to my friends for being there that night. I shudder to think what might’ve happened if I’d been alone. I was disoriented, and my body wasn’t working properly. I wasn’t in control, but was still conscious. I was pretty much a zombie. It would’ve been easy to manipulate me, to get me wherever I was intended to end up when Person X put Substance X in my Jameson whisky. And I wouldn’t have remembered what they did to me.
When I woke up the next morning I was nauseous, with a blinding headache and tingling in my arms and legs, and I was really upset. More than that. I was angry. What kind of person drugs someone else? Who would strip another human being of their independence in such a casual way? Did they mean to hurt me? Rape me? Rob me? Was it peer pressure? Done for a laugh, or by someone in so much pain themselves that they’re driven to harm someone else? I had not been raped, but I’d been violated. I felt used up.
That afternoon, I posted on Facebook that I’d been drugged and over the next few days, I received an avalanche of responses, many in sympathy, but some from people telling me their own stories of drug-related assault. Most of the accounts had happened within the past year, in bars, house parties and cabins. And contrary to the usual stereotype, not all of the victims were young women. I had two people their fifties contact me. I heard from straight men and from gay men. Four people told me they’d been drugged multiple times, and two others said they’d been drinking water when it happened to them. One person blacked out for over 24 hours. Another recounted how, at fifteen, they lost their virginity during a drug-related sexual assault.
Krissy Holmes at the CBC read my post and contacted me about doing an interview. I began to see how this random bad thing could somehow have a positive outcome. I could use this opportunity to encourage public discussion, not just for myself, but for all those other people who have suffered similar, and far worse, assaults without the possibility to speak about it.
A media blitz took up the next week of my life. In between, I cried. I was still shaken from the drugging and reeling from how quickly the story took on a life of its own. People said I was brave, and at first I didn’t understand why.
Then the online comments started.
Once you say something in the media, it isn’t yours anymore. Things get taken out of context, misquoted, passed from person to person like the telephone game. I’m learning some serious life lessons right these days, and a major one is that you can’t predict how something you say or do will be taken by other people. You have to forge ahead, following to your own inner compass.
There have been comments via email, Facebook and on media sites saying I probably just had a stomach bug, or that I drank too much and was embarrassed so I tried to pass it off as a drugging. Or that I was trying to frame the bartender. That I was out to ruin the bar. That women just can’t hold their alcohol. That I shouldn’t have said anything without a blood test, because it probably didn’t happen anyway. That it was my fault. After a few days I just stopped reading them.
Fortunately, those negative voices are, by far, outweighed by the flood of good energy that has surrounded me. Empathy has come from friends and strangers. One kind soul brought me balsam fir tea for my post-vomiting sore throat. Two others made me a cake. Each stranger who sent me their story made me feel less alone. The new Downtown Community Watch group has brought people into my life with similar values to my own (like, say, not assaulting others), and has opened me up to a network of friends and allies that I didn’t have before this bad thing happened.
For every a**hole who commits assault, there are many more good people out there, and that’s a sturdy thought to cling to when times are tough.
Looking back on it now, I think the person who drugged my drink that night got the opposite of what they wanted. Instead of isolating me and taking my power away, they gave me agency. They gave me community.
Next time I go out, I’ll be sure and toast to them for that.
By Sara Tilley
A community group called the Downtown Community Watch has recently formed to discuss ways to make downtown safer for everyone (downtowncommunitywatch.blogspot.ca). Find them on Facebook. If you have questions about drug-related or any other type of assault, you can call the NL Sexual Assault Crisis and Prevention Centre hotline, anonymously, 24 hours/day, 1-800-726-2743.