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My journey from rape to healing

Michaela van Nierop describes her harrowing experience of rape as a first-year university student after her drink was spiked in a night club. She speaks about the impact that the incident has had on her life, but also demonstrates her appreciation of family and friends who helped her begin her journey towards healing.

I finally closed the case against the men who raped me, nearly three years after it happened. It’s so hard to know where to begin, but let me tell you my story.

I was in my first year at Stellenbosch University, and a friend and I were having a great girly night at our student residence over a bottle of wine. Later that evening two of her friends wanted to go out, so we agreed to go with them.

We went to a club. We had another drink or two and then decided to go to another club. This is the part of the night when my memory became fuzzy. I later remembered being quite harshly bumped into at the first club and I’m fairly sure that is when my drink was spiked. I vaguely remember a few things from the second club we went to, but all my memories from this point took on an odd dreamlike quality. I was later told and vaguely remember that one of my friends had passed out in the club, and two guys who’d been dancing with us offered the four of us a lift home.

This part bothered me for quite a while, because I didn’t understand why the other three girls made it home, but I did not. I later remembered watching them walk through the gate. Two of them were supporting the girl who had passed out. I was walking behind them when one of the men called me back and spoke to me through the window of the car.

I can’t remember what he said, but the next thing I remember was being in the backseat of the car. They took me to a bed and breakfast.

… the next thing I remember was being in the backseat of the car.

I woke up the next morning completely naked next to a man in his 40s with almost no memory of the night before. I was groggy, disoriented, ashamed and confused. The man was really nice to me; he spoke to me, asked me questions, and answered all of mine. He told me that I’d also slept with his colleague, who was in the other room.

The man took me into the next room to fetch my clothes, and I had a sense of déjà vu when I saw the other man, whom I’d never met before. He was in his 20s and also answered my questions about the night before. He even drove me home.

Between them they managed to convince me that it was a one-night stand and I had agreed to the whole thing.

I was young and naïve, but the whole story was completely out of character for me. I’d been a virgin before this incident. I was ashamed to mention the older man to anyone because I was disgusted myself.

For me, the shocking realisation in the weeks and months that followed is that when we hear the word “rape”, we almost immediately think of a shadowy figure in a dodgy alleyway. But it’s more often family members, drunken opportunities, and spiked drinks. In most of the stories I have heard, and through my own experience, rape is often a crime of opportunity.

I didn’t go to the police immediately. I started to come to terms with what happened to me only when I began to experience some discomfort and needed to go to a doctor. This was approximately 10 days after the rape.

By God’s grace alone, all my blood tests have come back negative, but the doctor diagnosed me with herpes. That was the slap in the face that made me accept that what had happened to me was real, and couldn’t be written off as a mistake or only a bad memory. I had real physical consequences.

… what had happened to me was real, and couldn’t be written off as a mistake or only a bad memory.

I had the option of going to the police at this point, but I knew they wouldn’t believe me. There was very little evidence to support my case, and it was two against one. I was in a state of shock for weeks thereafter, and I knew that reporting it would be traumatic in itself.

I eventually did report the rape two years later.

Having been violated on such an intimate level shattered my view of the world. My self-esteem dropped, because you begin believe awful things about yourself. One suffers from a lack of self-worth and you start to believe that it was your fault and you deserved what happened.

My trust in humanity was lost for a little while. I’m beginning to restore my ability to trust, but it’s a slow process and I still have issues with this.

… despite everything that happened, this journey has also been beautiful in so many ways.

I fell into a state of depression for months. I suffered from several anxiety attacks. I have since been diagnosed with a major depressive disorder, anxiety, and post-traumatic stress disorder

My journey of recovery has been brutal. I’ve had more rough times than I can count. There are days I can’t get out of bed and days where I’ve done nothing but cry.

However, despite everything that happened, this journey has also been beautiful in so many ways. My world has been shattered and I am still working on rebuilding it, but there are so many incredible things I’ve learnt and I’ve received such inspiring love from others.

I’ve made so many good friends and my family has been amazingly supportive. Those are the people who have shared the burden, wiped away my tears, and never failed to make me laugh.

* The opinions expressed here by Spotlight.Africa contributors and editors are their own and not official statements of the Society of Jesus in South Africa or of the Catholic Church unless explicitly stated.