A letter to my ex-lover: Letting go your way
By Erin Botten
Why We Don’t Leave was one of the hardest articles I’d ever written. Not just because of the events that took place in the article, but because my story was finally out, cemented in time. Never before had I so openly exposed the details of what I’d endured, but then again I’d never really digested it either.
Once the article went live it suddenly felt real. What had happened to me was real, and not just a faded recollection. But, to this day, it may as well be. That’s why I wrote my ex a letter… then sent it.
Those I exposed in Why We Don’t Leave have never once been held responsible for their actions. Each of them walks freely, weightless with absent guilt. In fact, most of them unnervingly deny any accusations thrown their way, brushing it off as an event of the past. I still live in the past, and it’s something I can’t shake off. So I took action and started to let go.
“Why is sexual assault illegal if it can’t be criminalised?!” was a question I repeatedly asked my Dad after breaking the news to him. I’d decided to consider charging both exes for sexually assaulting me. Yet, it seems even with evidence, any form of official conviction isn’t easy. I was clueless as to how the reporting process worked and had no idea what I’d really be getting myself into with my father warning me of all the consequences that hadn’t occurred to me.
The problem with the Criminal Justice System isn’t that they often ignore women in cases like these, with personal accounts now being viewed as evidence in court. It’s the sheer amount of time it takes. If you’re lucky, the process only takes a few months, otherwise, it could be much longer…
Why would I spend my remaining time at university dragging up trauma from the past in an effort to get a court to believe me? Worst still, if I lost the case, why risk being counter-sued for defamation? These were the realities that my Dad had made clear to me, and something UoM’s advisors had subtly alluded to.
That’s not to say court is a worthless option for all, particularly in cases of rape or domestic violence. In fact, there a many benefits to the reporting process these days. With diary entries and the victim’s experience itself now accepted as evidence, the process is far less stigmatising than the media portrays. But, I’m just not ready for that, and writing the article highlighted it.
One Friday evening, just before their closing, I went to UoM’s Advice Service, found by the SU’s Hive. After filling out a form privately disclosing why I needed help, they took me into a quiet room. Not once was I rushed, talked over or made to feel worthless. They listened to every word, never pushing me to make a decision. If anything, they were apologetic for my experience, working hard to make sure I felt heard and safe.
I can’t praise them enough as they provide support for whatever decision I wish to make, being transparent about wait times and the process behind each possible action.
By the following Monday, they’d followed through with their word and received an email from a UoM Advice and Response caseworker (again, a really lovely lady). During our meeting, she shared the same compassion as her colleagues. If she didn’t know something, she made sure to find out, making it clear that she was available no matter what.
It was from reaching out to them that I was to find specialised counselling services for those affected by sexual assault (listed at the end of this article). Previously, I’d been rejected by the university’s counselling service after two sessions. The counsellor informed me that I should simply find myself, she never broached the trauma I’d experienced. Had I given up based on that failure on the university’s part, I’d have gotten nowhere. But, by exploring my options and seeking professional help, the burdens of the past are starting to slowly ease.
I learned there was no right or wrong move. The only person getting penalised was them, not me. You can even make a statement to the police, and they will investigate on your behalf to see if they’re able to make a case in court without having to inform the perpetrators. The same goes for universities: even if you do not attend there, you can make a formal complaint against a student followed by an investigation. Again, every decision is student-led with no pressure guaranteed.
So, after confiding in those I trusted, I decided to act on the anger I felt. If I couldn’t bring myself to criminalise these men, I’ll certainly condemn them. Why We Don’t Leave was just a start, shielding each man behind false names and anonymity. But, the shield was about to lift, and I was finally going to expose them not to the world, but to themselves.
In both letters, I outlined what each of them did, setting out the scene in detail lest they forget. Every line was one condemnation, bringing to light the world I now lived in. Unlike the article, I didn’t need to hold back. In doing so, feelings I’d previously fought to keep buried came pouring out, not just in sorrow, but in rage. If I was to be listened to, the bubble had to be burst with a blunt awakening in response to their own actions …
“The kicker of all this is? You will never face the consequences of what you’ve done. You will never have to ever consider piecing yourself back together or be asked how you’re coping. You will go on about your life as if nothing had happened. That’s what hurts the most. You can just walk away.
“But, after reading this, I know you can’t ignore what you did. You can’t just forget it ever happened and you’re not getting off scot-free. I hope this has made you realise what you’ve done and the weight it holds, and that you don’t even think about doing it to anyone else ever again. What you did was disgusting. To do it again after this letter would be repugnant.”
So, why write a letter? Because not only would I finally be heard by my exes, but by myself. By spilling my guts without fear of judgement, I began to process how I felt and what needed to change. Regardless of if I burnt or sent the letter, I was in control. That’s what this was about for me, control.
Addressing your trauma is a very personal decision, but it is your decision. Choice for you may have been abruptly robbed in the past, but this is where you steal it back with every decision you make moving on. They’re now powerless to you and your voice. The tables are turned.
With that in mind, it was time for me to charge. How did I want to move forward? How did I want to reclaim my body? How was I going to heal? Writing it all out physically meant I was able to make peace with the past. They hadn’t gotten away with it, and I wasn’t just a victim. Unofficially, I’d won, refusing to remain silent or accept the past. After that letter, it’d be hard to walk away guiltlessly. I’d changed and so would they, both for the better (hopefully).
Writing a letter is one of the millions of ways of letting go of trauma, grief and pain. I chose to send the letters I wrote because I knew no danger or consequences would come of it. Had the opposite been true, I would’ve instead burnt them as I know others have done.
Writing it out in a diary can be therapeutic. You get the same safety in knowing no one will judge you, again giving you the space and freedom to let out how you really feel. Talking about it can help alleviate the weight of the past too. Venting and having someone hear you, empathise and share your emotions can provide a sense of validation and reduce isolation.
By speaking to people you trust, they can guide you and help you make sense of what happened, maybe even suggesting professional help. They provide a clear mind where sometimes you can’t.
The best advice anyone can give you though is save everything. One day, I may change my mind, and that’s ok. If I still want a fair shot in court, I’m absolutely going to hold on to every shred of evidence I have. The texts? Screenshottted and sent to friends for safekeeping, and saved to my phone. Diary entries? Kept in my drawer. The advice service emails? Archived, with all the information you give to the service stored for 5 years. The letters? Got a copy of them mate.
In the end, the only way to let go of a painful past is to distract yourself. For me, that’s through writing. For others that may be through sports, arts, music, or even just reading. Finding a way to express yourself productively in a way where you feel something has been done is essential in providing closure.
Had I not written the letters, I’d still feel justice hadn’t been done. But knowing I hand-wrote and delivered both letters, refusing to be forgiving in my words, I feel like I’ve won. They haven’t walked all over me whilst I sat there in silence. One way or another, they’ve been informally condemned, and I can move on. I hope you can too.
UoM Advice Centre: Floor 2, Student’s Union. 10:00 – 16:00. Call 0161 275 2952
Brook (sexual health service): Lever Street, NQ. 13:00 – 18:00. Call 0161 237 3001
St Mary’s Sexual Assault Referral Centre: The Old St Mary’s Hospital, Oxford Road. 24 hours. Call 0161 276 6515
Manchester Rape Crisis: Ardwick Green North, Ardwick. 10:00 – 16:00. Call 0161 273 4591
Refuge: 24 hours. Call 0808 2000 247
Rights for Women (free legal advice): Mon-Wed, 18:00 – 20:00. Call 020 7490 0152
Chayn (advice and coping courses): https://www.chayn.co/