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'I am an overcomer, not a victim'

Marilyn Fuah-Durugo tells Sarah Olowofoyeku about her experiences of sexual abuse

My mental breakdown was eyeballs-on-stalks terrifying

MARILYN FUAH-DURUGO was 18 years old when she started talking to a man she had met at a friend’s party.

‘I hadn’t known him very long,’ says Marilyn, ‘but I’d met him through someone I trusted, so it didn’t raise any alarm bells. I had just moved back to England from the States, so I felt pretty lonely. He was friendly and charming and we liked each other.

‘One day he asked me over to his place to watch movies. I honestly thought that was what we were going to do. But things started getting physical – hugging and kissing – and then it got to a point where I became uncomfortable. I was saying no and I tried to push him off me, but he didn’t stop or listen. Before I even realised, it had happened. I had been violated.

‘The thing that I will always remember is that after he was done, he said: “I feel like I’ve taken something precious from you.” I was so angry.

‘I cried and then I didn’t move. I literally didn’t move until the next morning. I just lay there. And then I went home.

‘I carried on talking to him, but only because I had come up with a plan to bring him down somehow. Eventually I stopped with the plan because it was exhausting and so out of character for me, and then I stopped talking to him altogether.’

In the weeks and months that followed, Marilyn struggled alone. It wasn’t until a few years later that she felt able to talk about what had happened to her and to get help.

‘I knew it was rape straightaway,’ she says, ‘but I doubted myself. I’d tried to open up to somebody once and they told me it was my fault. After that, I shut down and didn’t talk about it. I vowed not to tell anyone at all.

‘I felt as though there was something wrong with me because something bad had happened to me. Again.’

Marilyn says ‘again’ because it wasn’t the first time that she had been sexually abused.

‘When I was younger, I think I was four years old, I was in school and there were some boys who used to bully me. They must have been about a year or two older than me.

‘I told the teachers, but not much was done. So it escalated, and one day the boys were really physical with me. One of them sat on me, one of them pulled my knickers down andthey were touching me inappropriately, putting objects in me. I kicked, screamed and asked them to leave me alone. But they just laughed and carried on.’

The NSPCC reports that about a third of child sexual abuse is committed by other children and young people and 31 per cent of adults who were abused as a child also report being sexually assaulted as an adult.

Such statistics are a reality for Marilyn.

For a long time she did not talk about what had happened to her, but the effects of the abuse manifested themselves through her behaviour.

‘Because it was boys who had been bullying me, I thought the reason it had happened was that I was a girl. So I tried to stay away from anything that was feminine and became a tomboy. No one noticed because it wasn’t that unusual.

‘But as well as that, I started wetting the bed. It was embarrassing, and it took me a long time to connect the dots and realise the abuse was the cause.’

Growing up, Marilyn enjoyed home life despite the abuse she had been suffering at school. Her parents were supportive and loving. They were Christians who encouraged her to take her faith as her own. Eventually she came to do just that. Her faith and relationship with God were part of what helped her to recover from the abuse.

‘When I was 16, I went through a period of depression. I began speaking to people and they helped me to realise that it was the abuse I’d experienced as a child that had led to my mental health problem.

‘So I started to work through it by talking to people more. But sometimes I’d want to talk to someone and they’d be busy or asleep. Having a relationship with God meant I had someone who would listen to me, even at midnight. I felt he was always there.’

Child abuse carried out by other children can be a confusing experience. Children can find it difficult to express or even understand what is happening to them.

‘I struggled with it because the boys were only a bit older than me. At first I was in denial, thinking that I couldn’t have been abused by other children. I didn’t even think anyone would believe me if I told them what happened. What helped me talk about it was when I started googling and discovered that it is real. I found stories of it happening to other children, and it was helpful to know that I hadn’t made it up.’

Having experienced sexual assault twice before going to university, Marilyn was not in the best place mentally when she began her studies. Because she received a negative response the first time she tried to tell someone she had been raped, she didn’t speak to anyone else about it for almost four years. It affected her studies and wellbeing.

‘When I started the degree it was hard for me,’ she says. ‘I had so many moments when I wanted to give up. I wanted to quit uni and go back to live with my parents. I felt lonely and thought that because I had been abused twice, there was something wrong with me. I didn’t have great self-esteem. I felt worthless.

‘I probably would’ve been able to handle everything a bit more if I’d been able to talk about the rape and get the right support. Even having somebody just to listen might have helped me mentally. I was overwhelmed. It was as if I was really full – but full of bad stuff.’

Her relationships also suffered.

‘It affected how I was able to trust people. A lot of the new friendships I made in uni were surface-level. People would try to help, as they saw that I was going through things, but I was closed and wouldn’t let them in.

‘At first, it affected my trust in God too,’ she continues. ‘I felt that he allowed it to happen, and I blamed him. I had thoughts such as: God knew that I genuinely believed I was going to the guy’s house to watch a movie, so why didn’t he warn me?

‘It took me a while, but I realised that I wouldn’t be able to survive by myself and I needed something bigger and greater than me to help me. I don’t think I would’ve coped without God. I also don’t think I would’ve been able to move from coping to overcoming.’

It wasn’t until Marilyn had a breakdown that she realised she had to deal with her problems.

‘I couldn’t take it any more. I was done with life. So I took a bunch of pills and tried to kill myself. But it didn’t work.

‘Thankfully I had good people around me. A friend came to my house just after. Then I stayed with friends for a couple of days, and I just had to let it all out. I realised that everything had been building up because I had been trying to go on with life without dealing with what had happened to me.

‘So I began being more honest about everything with one person I could trust. I told her how I felt, and other friends were supportive.’

As Marilyn began to talk to others and work through her experiences, it was clear that there were some steps she needed to take.

‘I had to come to a place of forgiving the man who had raped me, because I hated him. I also struggled with low self-esteem, so I had to focus on my positives. I would write down what was good about me or ask others what they thought. I was learning not to be so hard on myself.’

Marilyn decided that, as another step in her recovery process, she was going to share her story. She fought to get to the point where she felt able to speak publicly, and it proved significant.

‘Sharing made me realise that I am an overcomer, not a victim, because I’ve been able to help and encourage people by telling my story,’ she says.

‘I spoke at a church once, and someone told me that they were going to end their life but, after hearing me speak, they felt that they could go on.

‘I will never be happy that the sexual abuse happened, but it happened – and while I can’t turn back time, I can do some good with it.’

Marilyn is now training to be a counsellor so that she can help more people.

She still has difficult days but, she says, ‘when something tries to take me back mentally, I have to remember all the good that’s come from this and how strong I have become’.

Marilyn is also a wife and a mother, which she has sometimes found challenging because of her past.

‘I was worried about my daughter in the early days. But then I realised it’s not healthy for her to see her mother so motivated by fear. So now, I try not to put what’s happened to me on her. My husband and I create boundaries and protect her, and when she is able to understand, we will talk to her about those issues.’

And that is Marilyn’s word of wisdom to anyone who has experienced sexual abuse – ‘talk’.

‘It’s the best thing I ever did,’ she says. ‘Talking, letting it all out and not being afraid to cry – it all helps so much. I’d recommend talking to a GP and Rape Crisis, who offer counselling as part of its service. And you should know: there is nothing wrong with you.

‘For me, talking has been important in getting me through, as has my faith. Just knowing that there is something bigger than this big, bad world gives me hope.’

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