There’s a broken light above the waiting room chairs that is flickering on, off, on, off.
I’ve lost all control of my limbs, which have been fighting a battle with gravity since I arrived. Or maybe it was before that — I can’t remember.
My head hurts so much that opening my eyes is excruciating. How long have I been here?
I can’t remember where I put my phone. I vomit in a bin that has been left on the floor next to me.
I’m lying across three metal chairs, and can feel my body is bruised. I am suddenly aware that my tights and skirt are soaked in urine. Shame hits me hard — I have wet myself.
I squint through my partially closed eyelids and try to make sense of my surroundings. There’s a lot of noise and commotion, and people moving past, talking to each other quickly and animatedly. They don’t notice me.
‘Maybe I’m not really here’, I think to myself — ‘maybe this is just a bad dream’.
I’m in a hospital — that much is clear. Suddenly I am aware of a soreness radiating from a point on the top of my left hand, where I notice a cannula is attached.
‘That’s odd’, I think to myself. I try and fail to prop myself up in the chair. There’s something lumpy under my head. A bag — my bag. Inside it is my phone. I hold it closely to my eyes.
The screen is smashed, which is weird. I don’t remember that happening. There are millions of missed calls and messages from different people. I’m confused.
Just as I begin to try to dig through the sludge-like memories of the night, the screen lights up with my best friend’s name.
‘Hello?’ I answer. ‘I’m scared’. I feel a thread of warm tears tickling my cheeks. ‘I don’t know how I got here or what happened’.
‘I know darling. You’re in the hospital. Your drink was spiked. You’re safe and your friend is on his way’.
The idea of completely losing control of your mind, body and senses sounds fun until it’s happening without your consent. I know this because it happened to me in February while out celebrating my brother’s birthday. And it was truly terrifying.
Despite the huge emotional impact that the experience had on me, it’s not one I’ve spent much of the past few months considering. The global pandemic that since took hold has succeeded in eclipsing the events of that night.
And yet, last night as I eagerly watched Michaela Coel’s brilliant new BBC series, I May Destroy You, patchy memories came flickering back in and out of my consciousness — on, off, on off — like that broken light in the hospital waiting room.
Each flicker delivered a different fragment I’ve carefully pieced together into a vague chronology, with the help of a lovely lady at Uber’s head office, my medical records (which I requested from the hospital), and the memories of my brother and his girlfriend.
An inability to really know myself — without borrowed recollections — what happened to me that night is perhaps the most frustrating (and scary) part.
Even with others’ accounts, thinking back on that night just brings up a series of different vignettes that I have somehow managed to lightly glue back together, even though their edges don’t match up.
Michaela Coel has been open about the fact that the new series was inspired by her own traumatic experience of being victim of a drink spiking, and the series follows Arabella — an internet-famous writer — as she tries to understand what has happened to her after she blacks out on an unplanned night out.
I imagine the story is familiar for anyone who’s fallen victim to this hideous crime, particularly in London, just like me.
Between my blackouts I remember feeling tipsy and then suddenly feeling very different — like someone had turned the volume up on the surface of my skin, which was now rhythmically pulsating.
Everybody there that night has a memory of me articulating to them that I felt ‘weird’.
Now, to address what I imagine is the top question on the list for many of you – how do I know I wasn’t ‘just drunk’?
Yes, I had consumed a fair amount of booze that night — but no more than usual — and at a steady pace over a long period.
Let me be clear; as someone who came of age in peak binge-drinking Britain, I know what ‘wasted’ feels like. This was not the same.
I also know when I’ve had enough; I know the drinks that affect me badly (and avoid drinking them). I gave up shots and spirits a long time ago.
In short: no, I hadn’t just had too much to drink. It saddens me that I feel the need to clarify this point, but such is the pervasiveness of the ‘wasted woman’ victim-blaming trope in our society.
My next memory from the night is of me sitting in the back of an Uber that my brother put me in, where I suddenly felt like each one of my limbs was melting one by one.
I began to slur and tell the taxi driver to take me to hospital. I remember thinking ‘I hope this driver is a good person’ because I wouldn’t be able to fight anyone off me in this condition. ‘Please keep me safe’, I pleaded.
Then I blacked out.
I woke up (I think?) face down on the hospital floor in the middle of a vicious panic attack. I couldn’t breathe. I couldn’t stop crying. My throat hurt. My head ached. I couldn’t stop urinating… all over myself. Most terrifying of all, I couldn’t move my body, as hard as my mind tried.
My memory of the next 10 hours spent in the hospital is patchy. I remember crying a lot. Vomiting on myself. Pleading with people to take me seriously, but overwhelmingly feeling ignored — discarded as another ‘drunk girl’ on a Friday night (something I heard one doctor refer to me as).
I remember screaming inside my head but not being able to vocalise it and thinking ‘what more do I need to do for people to believe me? How more incapacitated do I need to be?’.
I remember begging the staff to notice me as I drifted in and out of consciousness. They were, of course, completely overrun and under resourced. I don’t blame them.
When my friend took me home the next day, I shut the door and bolted it. I slept all day. Sunday came and so did Monday, and then Tuesday and Wednesday. I couldn’t bring myself to leave the safety of my house. Every time I tried, I had a panic attack and had to go home. This continued for weeks. I went back to therapy.
While I was in hospital, the doctors didn’t do an essential toxicology screening. This careless mistake meant that I didn’t have enough evidence to build a case and a police investigation was dropped 24 hours after I reported it.
Yet, I am still lucky that nothing worse happened to me that night.
Even writing that I feel ‘lucky’ that I wasn’t sexually assaulted feels wrong. But when the experience of so, so many other people (predominantly womxn) is markedly different, it feels important to express my gratitude to my family, my friends, the Uber driver and the NHS workers that kept me safe that night.
Still, it could have been so very different.
Following the incident, I tweeted about the experience and hundreds of people got in touch to share similar stories, either their own, or those that had happened to their sisters, friends, daughters, aunties. It was overwhelming.
The overriding distress many described, like I have, was the product of not feeling believed. But there’s also a problem of women struggling to believe themselves, which Coel articulates so well in the show.
According to data obtained by a BBC investigation last year, the amount of cases of spiking in that year was on track to hit a five-year high. Of those cases reported, 72 per cent of the victims were women.
The imposition of lockdown has put an indefinite stop on our usual social habits. This could be an opportunity, if we use this time to think about what we want the world to look like when it restarts. In the case of spiking, this is particularly important as pubs are rumoured to reopen within the next month in England.
At the moment, we put the responsibility on victims to protect themselves from crimes – like teaching people not to leave their glasses unattended, or covering them with their hand. That’s wrong. We all need to be better citizens if we want to create safer social environments. First step to achieving that is educating ourselves and each other on what this crime looks like.
In my experience, it looks like someone being completely incapacitated. Falling all over the place. Confused. Unaware of where they are or how they got there. If you see someone acting like that – or you feel like that yourself – call 999 or ask someone else to. And if you do end up in hospital, demand a toxicology screening with your bloods, which should be a routine procedure.
Pubs can and should implement (and rigorously enforce) anti-spiking policies. If bouncers and those working the bar spoke to each other more, they might be able to better recognise when someone has been spiked. There is training in place for those working in pubs and clubs, but it’s not mandatory.
Ultimately, we need a fundamental shift in thinking around this issue that is built upon a strong foundation of believing womxn.
I May Destroy You shows us an example of what that looks like, while also articulating with haunting accuracy the bewilderment, self-questioning and fear familiar to many of those who have fallen victim to this hideous but all too common crime.
It’s a horrible and isolating experience for anyone who goes through it. The very least we can do is believe them.
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