I Escaped Date-Rape, But The Aftershock Broke Me — A Cautionary Story

Time I came forward with something, in order to move on. Because I need to — I miss many people, I miss my projects and we owe the city of Belgrade money for three most recent heating and utility bills.

I picked February 13th to share this story. To me, it’s the day you share your demons with the world and carry your flag, whatever that flag is. I told myself that I would go back to whatever resembles normal on February 13th, out of respect for this one particular person, but also everybody else, because — in a way — finding about that person led me to meeting everybody else and my career path. Does that make sense? To me, it does.

So, something horrible happened to me in June 2016. And I did not put the puzzle pieces together, but in the meantime, I went on a downward spiral. I progressively became reclusive, stressed and got to the point where not even my hyper-focus helped me get work done and socialise with others the right way. It was mid-December when I even assumed that one of my most faithful friends was angry with me to the point of not being able to forgive me, realised that I was not able to start or finish anything, went off the radar, because I felt like everybody else was out to get me. I spent almost two months visiting only one place on the internet, talking to a couple of people at that place and ignoring everything else, because I was feeling like I could die if somebody said as much as “hello”.

At some point during thus sabbatical, my online labour of love went down. A thing stopped working and could no longer be fixed. This forced me to be “normal” for a couple of days, and mostly fix the problem. I even posted a Facebook status and stayed there for some twelve hours, but not enough to make amends with my friend and address the clients whom I owed some now long-overdue work. Then I ran away, again.

All along, I didn’t know WHY. I knew the WHAT — I was super-anxious and there was no sign of improvement, but…WHY?

It was only in the first days of 2017 that I found out what happened.

This is the story where I was way too lucky, but still unlucky at the same time.

An Unlikely Target

I’m plain, 164 cm tall, slightly cross-eyed, hyperactive (likely ADHD), bad hair. I had a big, protruding belly even when I was underweight; and, until recently, I was obese. Right now I have a hourglass figure, but I never considered myself special in any way, even though they called me a pin-up when I was a baby on the department for the prematurely born back in March ’83. I never did drugs, I am allergic to maltose so I don’t drink alcohol. I am somewhere on the asexuality spectrum and I’d rather write, design or program stuff than waste my time at a cafe in a cloud of cigarette smoke or go to a wild party. Riding a rusty bike on hairpins above shallow sea at sunset appeals to me more than reading Cosmo and going boy-crazy over somebody with the following criteria: OMG, a guy who smiled. It’s my kind of a thrill.

All these factors combined, by the age of 33, I have had a more positive or — shall we say it better — less traumatising experience with sexual harassment than most women. Boys have convinced me that I wasn’t girlfriend or eff-buddy material so early on that it was almost astonishing, and a proof of deeply-rooted misogyny in ex-Yugoslavian society. I did get groped in elementary school because my breasts developed early and the whole class ignored me when I told on the boy; and somebody did try to dry-hump me in front of a bunch of others for no apparent reason once. There was this boy, who is a lawyer nowadays, who would proudly say that he and his friend hated girls and the teacher, a woman of my current age, just smiled — he used to follow me and yell “Iva, Iva, your ass is not even”. Okay, hormones. Okay, boys will be boys. Okay, pink and blue. Okay, women are from Venus and are from Mars. Okay, I am crazy and so bloody sensitive. Okay, okay, okay.

When the internet became widely-available, I was noticeably confused to see that most guys online were nicer, that they did not call me ugly, yet that most of them could be my friends without flirting with me and take no for an answer. That’s a rare thing here — when you reject somebody, you’re “frigid”, a “stupid whore” or both. Sure, I experienced my share of insults, especially in a niche dominated by adolescent and young adult men and treatment that I would not have received had I been male — in that case, they would’ve built me a shrine and consider my eccentricities impressive rather than compare me to Hitler, Goebbels, Gollum and Harley Quinn. They would’ve considered me dedicated and not obsessed and they would have assumed that I was doing other things in life. I had two people act like pick-up artists — one wanted to come to Serbia and get some in exchange for letting me watch a rare video and another wanted photos and then antagonised me online for four years because I would not give him any.

Still, I could handle the foreign folks.

Deeply-Rooted Misogyny And Mind Games

I could not handle the local internet community. But I resolved to give them a chance.

They — both women and men — were trying to fix me, mold me to what they thought I should be, find me a boyfriend and brainwash me into thinking that I actually needed one to be normal, attempt to convince me into wearing “something that turns heads”, suggest me makeovers and mesotherapy for my “awful” dark circles, scare me into doing web work for free or promise pearls and diamonds if the wannabe startup ever works out and — in the cases where we did work together — call me at seven in the morning to hear that I was eating, solely to call me again in twenty minutes and tell me that I had been eating for way too long. I would get unwanted advice, even on fictional pieces where the first-person speaker clearly wasn’t me, people would try to convince me that my code was outdated when it was they who made an error and that my writing was unrealistic, because “nobody speaks like that”.

There was this man who’d get drunk and then bug me and talk about how his girlfriend should have been happy to be dating such a perfect piece of DNA, and a couple that I could not get rid of, who assumed that I would happily jump under the sheets with them, just because I was, in their minds, “too old and too unattractive to be single”, or whatever. There was this one middle-aged man, with a photo of a snake on his hand, who randomly messaged me on Twitter and asked me to come over for “drinks”. It’s like, I was around thirty and I NEEDED TO BE CLAIMED, otherwise I had no worth as a woman. All these women who claimed that motherhood was the ultimate goal for every single person born with a slit between their legs and an on/ogg button who gets the slit to open-Sezame, they were not helpful, either.

I had enough on the day when I saw people I considered educated defend a right-wing newspaper article series blaming single women in their thirties for the country’s negative population growth. Somebody was like “Oh, there’s no excuse, you earn 200€ more, get with the guy who wants to settle down and have a family”. Oh yeah? Who are you to cement my future with a random stranger and tell me what my uterus is for? I had enough and stopped paying attention to these people.

Yeah, I just went numb for a bit and tried to mind my business. Due to my lifelong proneness to anxiety, I snapped once or twice and made some unwise decisions, burned a bridge or two that mattered, but I was somewhat productive. In fact, I made so much money that people wanted my advice on freelancing. This lasted for a couple of months, until I became really hungry and tired, all the time and gained even more weight. A couple of tests after, it turned out I had a metabolic and hormonal disorder combo. Once I started rapidly losing weight — and I lost 28 kilos so far — my stamina was better than ever, but my stress levels were through the roof and I was more and more anxious. I walked off a great, dream gig in February 2015 for reasons I cannot even understand and spent most of the year hiding from people. I had some good money stashed and when that ran out, I was paid loyalties for my clips in Asif Kapadia’s Oscar-winning documentary, Amy. And wow, my stuff was in a film that won an Oscar. Yeah.

Maybe They Are Not THAT Bad?

Of course, money runs out, and there came a point when I just HAD to resume working, no matter what. I took in a client I had a not-so-nice experience with in the past due to his stubbornness, lack of ideas and inability to communicate what he wanted to me, but something was better than nothing. Once again, he had no clear idea of what he wanted, so there was a significant delay almost from the very beginning.

A little later, a man who once urged me to get checked for anxiety and thanks to whom I did not chicken out going to the show where I recorded the above mentioned clips, contacted me out of blue and asked me if I wanted to work for him. I knew he — let’s call him V — was a bit of a flake, likely to emotionally blackmail, kind of hyperactive himself, but I felt like he genuinely understood me and I thought that I had owed him a favour. He also wanted to set me up with other people who needed websites, one of whom was S, a successful and admirable owner of REDACTED. S was not as chaotic as V, I completed a website for him and I instantly clicked with one of his employees who worked on it with me — thought that, someday, there could be a place for me in S’s company.

Unlike him, V was a bunch of red flags from the very start — he knew that I had always been sensitive about women’s issues and he was never sexist to me, but there was a lot about SOMETHING, the event he organised, that just screamed sexism — from the very colour scheme he insisted on and the corporate identity pack, to some of the event’s personnel and speakers. Women were of the “here is yet another pic of my cleveage” kind and, among men, the worst was B, a thin guy with a somewhat successful business, who always had pretty women by his side, but was passive-aggressive in public, the kind who would respond to a long message with “OK” and go as far as to touch me without my permission. Hello, you don’t put your hands on mine just like that. My fiend dubbed B as “Angry Baby” and I thought that his passive-aggressive jabs, casual sexism and V’s meltdowns at everybody — whether they had been genuine or a form of clever manipulation, would be the biggest issue here.

I complained to V about B and another man, a classic obese pseudo-geek, who was saying deliberately disturbing things to ALL women on the team. V told me that I was paranoid, that they don’t hate women and, while the other man, whom I remember yelling at once in 2011 for brushing against my rear in front of then-government-minister, avoided me, while V continued with his carefully-coded insults.

After almost four months of way too much work and no single mention of payment, I became worried about what I had to gain from this, so I changed my mind and decided to take part in SOMETHING, too…

This Is Normal, You’re One Hysterical Wet Blanket

…big mistake!

We had a ride to SOMETHING. The bus was packed, yet the only likeable people on it were two women from S’s company and a pair of mild-mannered hair stylists, whom I had a group hug with at some point. Other than this, the bus was a cacophony of everybody from age 16 to 50 acting like a moron, talking non-stop, getting up from their seats and such. Some of them were under the influence of alcohol — and they were not high school kids.

Fast forward twelve hours and we arrived to the Location. Some of us got rooms, some apartments, my roommate bailed on me because I was boring or whatever, a woman who harassed me over my weight and whose blog can be described with “shame on you, you’re fat because you’re a woman and we need to get healthy to be pretty”, ignored me while I took silent pleasure with how I looked better than her, despite not following her crazy fad diet and consulting a well-known homophobic, transphobic and sexist “therapist” who would probably fit well in KKK.

We went to eat at the fancier of two hotels, sat together and help ourselves from the buffet. I was hungry and I had a lot of otherwise pretty bland food and then went to my room. I heard people sneak around, but the key was in the lock and the only time I opened the door was to let in an unpleasant woman with her teenage son, my new roommates. She was confused by me and she directed all of her attention to teaching her spoiled boy — who didn’t even say hi or introduce himself — how to sneak into the main venue and crash with this top dog and his gang.

This photo could have costed me more than a fancy car.

An I was unusually, unusually tired. My limbs were almost numb. I wanted to write on my laptop, in bed, but I could not. I was falling asleep.

Sometime in the middle of the night, I woke up and reached for the blanket in the closet. I tucked in again and, sooner than later, a swarm of tiny black bugs emerged from the woolly patterned cloth and headed towards the white ceiling. They first formed a perfect circle and then they transformed into an arrow pointing downwards. I could see that it was dawning and I assumed that the hotel was unclean. I closed my eyes.

Once I woke up, there were no traces of bugs. I smelled the blanket, it was perfectly clean. I assume it was a dream. The woman was drinking coffee in the lounge and she nonchalantly told me that we had missed breakfast. She was making her plans on how to get to the event, talked about an impromptu drunk party at the lobby last night and at some point, asked me what I was doing there. When I disclosed my profession, she more or less mocked me.

There was no offer to hop on their ride to the main venue. Nothing. It was a mockery of my being slightly skint at that point. So, I felt unwanted. Disappointed. Sad. Confused that there was no word from V or the girl whom he called his right hand — I thought she liked me.

Hoping to catch a ride, I went to the reception. The bald receptionist from the night before, who didn’t want to help me carry my suitcase even though I disclosed back pain if I’d just as much as sneeze, was not there. The one present was handing out vouchers for the spa and pool at the main venue. A large man in a red T-shirt was just taking his. I went on a word-salad type of tirade on how everybody working in marketing and public relations was in it for leeching, more money than they deserved and free drinks.

The large man turned to me, flipped the bird and his eyes nearly bulged in anger. “Suck a dick, you whore!”

“What did you say?” I asked.

“I said suck a dick, you stupid whore, suck a dick!” He was now flipping the bird on me using both of his hands.

In the heat of the moment, I attempted to push him. Nobody ever called me a whore to my face, only people online did it, for nonsensical reasons.

He proceeded to twist my arm, I pushed again and he pressed hard into my radius. The receptionist just looked on. I was a crazy, hysterical woman, or whatever.

Friend In Need vs. The Opposite

Not knowing what to do, I packed up all my stuff, in tears, shivering and I proceeded to the hotel where we had dinner the night before. The receptionist at the fancier hotel was a younger woman with blonde, curly hair. I have nothing but tremendous respect for her to this day and if I ever go back there, I will bring her a gift. She asked me what happened, I told her.

The girls from our bunch looked on from the corner of their eyes, but none of them reached out to me, because that would have been unprofessional, or whatever. The receptionist noticed this and took me to an empty conference hall, showed me the spot where the wi-fi was stronger than ever and I messaged my mother, two of my closest foreign pals and the only of my close RL-friends who was active on Facebook.

The receptionist then came to check on me.

“Should I call police?” she asked.

I was horrified. “No, please don’t. Some people around all this know folks who know other folks, and this is not our country and all…plus, this was not sexual assault.”

She insisted, but I told her that I didn’t want trouble. I told her that I wanted to go home, to Serbia and she offered me a ride in the hotel’s van, on their next supply run to the nearest city.

Luckily, this was not just any city. It was the city where one large family of long-time friends of ours lives to this day. It’s a city I know reasonably well and hold dear to my heart.

Having assured the receptionist that I was fine, I continued the conversation with my mother and then I saw that the wife of our friend’s son was online. I messaged her and explained what happened. I was sort of scared that she was not going to believe me, but she did. She immediately phoned her husband and then got back to me, telling me that he’ll come to pick me up within thirty minutes.

By the time my friend arrived and I jumped to hug him, the professional girls were all gone. We went back to his place. He left me with his wife and twin boys and then ran back to work, assuring me that he was not going to have problems with his boss. His wife, whom I finally had the honour to meet, was a sweetheart and so were the boys. We had pizza, played with LEGOs, then I slept all afternoon because I was still unusually tired. After supper, I had a friend who suffers from clinical depression send me a nice note, a person who maybe talks to me every 18 months. My mom kept on checking on me, a couple of close online friends did.

Two people whose reactions surprised me were a friend I thought had abandoned me — she was more caring than I had ever seen before, and a friend who called me her bestie come a month earlier — she just called these people “crazy” and stopped responding to me. She did not even ask me how I was.

My friends lent me their twin bed, but I could not sleep. Thoughts were racing through my mind, I went on a binge-read of somebody called “The Captain” on Twitter and Instagram, and then I had this sudden urge to listen to Meghan Trainor, an artist I never cared about before, for hours.

During this pop-culture binge, V’s “right hand” finally messaged me on Facebook.

“I have not seen you at the main venue today! I was sick worried about you!” she claimed.

“One of your event’s participants left me bruised, called me names and he was big enough to beat me up, had he wanted to. I checked out and I am at my friend’s home now, I do not want to go back to SOMETHING.”

”You’re overreacting.” She said. “Anyway, you have a spot on our bus back home on Sunday.”

To me, in that state, that was enough. She dismissed me I rage-blocked nearly everybody who was a part of this and then I posted a Facebook status detailing what happened, without mentioning any names. I was slightly disappointed with people who responded to my Facebook status as well, because they were notably neutral towards the man I had a brawl with and they really, really need to hold on to their places in the food chain or whatever.

I woke up for lunch, had a wonderful afternoon with my friend and his family. Eventually, his parents, two of the most sensitive and caring people I know, returned from a road-trip and I got to see them and their angry little dog, too. They gave me a ride to the plain ol’ bus station and even a little envelope, because “I’m the late kum’s daughter”. They even found a friend of theirs who happened to be heading to Belgrade as well and asked him to watch over me, because I was stressed. And so he did.

In the morning, I was home, with my mom holding me, my dog on my lap and my parrot chirping “Come here, come here!” from the other room. I was immensely grateful for what my friend and his family did for me, I wanted to buy the toddlers some LEGO Star Wars in near future, send over the pics of our little afternoon in the nature and thank kum for the €€ he gave me. But I was blocked. Petrified. Rusting, not rustling. Yet, I still tool pride in being “strong” and in my mind I had photoshopped my head on Rosie the Riveter, flexed my muscle and told myself that I could do it.

Survivors, Survival and Denial

Fast forward to late next month — the local friend who didn’t seem fazed about what happened to me and was silent to my urging her to talk to me more or less threatened to beat me up over something I did not give her. I had a nasty panic attack, begged her not to hurt me in a text message, then I cut some 10 cm of my ponytail and cried on the living room floor. I am not mocking this person, just wondering if there was something related to her own experiences of abuse and family violence that made her shut down and change the way she was with me. My therapist recognised her when I cried about it and showed the text messages and told me to “stay away from that person, forever”, but I still feel for her. I might be a fool. But that set me back even further.

My anxiety was rising like yeast in hot water with a pinch of sugar, but I could not afford to shut down. I knew that I had to finish at least this one website and get the only thing I aimed for in 2016 — a vacation in a town I feel a bond for. The vacation was an avalanche of emotions — first time at the seaside after 22 years, with people I considered the kindest ever when I was a child, in a town that is a heroine in her own way — I call it a “she” and I look up to “her”, because she was broken so many times and managed to stay alive. She was the first place where I could be me and feel no shame. And so it was this time, though I had moments or refusal to go out, I was somewhat restless and too anxious to meet up with a couple of people.

In my sanctuary, below the mulberries, with a plastic cup.

Once we were back in Belgrade, I broke. I went out like a flat tire, like a balloon. My first cousin died from alcohol abuse, I could not bear some message boards and social networks, everything but writing poetry became a chore. I was suspicious of people, I kept on postponing work and things kept on getting worse.

Moreover, I was slow, slow, slow.

Why was I so slow? That was not fair!

I was inspired, I was and I still am a meteor shower of ideas.

I wanted to make money for mom and I to live well and help my aunt when I could-

I wanted to write stuff, attempt to direct some sort of a short film about Her, participate in events that interest me, stand up for what I believe in, reach out to people I like.

But the world was cruel. And I was a weakling.

Why did nearly everybody suddenly seem so cruel, calculated and uncaring?

Why was my friend’s other half, whom I always thought good things about suddenly scaring me to the point where I feared that they’d send me an angry message about how much I suck?

Why was every single convo with every single person causing my heart to beat fast?

Why was I slower and slower? Was I going to gain weight, crave enormous amounts of food and sleep for 16 hours a day again, just like I had been doing when my insulin resistance was at my worst?

Why would I stare at my work, the work I knew would pay well and yet, my mind went MEOW MEOW MEOW MEOW RATTATTATTA TATTTA TATTTA TRALLALA LOLURSTUPID?

Why was I deleting my Facebook shared items, ashamed that I wrote a poem or shared a link?

And — most importantly -why I was finding reasons not to renew my health insurance ID and see a doctor? At that point, all my weird fears — ranging from “X hates me and he always has because I’m irredeemable, forever” to “A, B and C will see my poems, figure out what they’re about and never want to see me again”, or “M will no longer want to talk to me because it always happens with people when I pour my heart out in some artistic form” — seemed rational. Everybody was evil, and I was a weakling unworthy of the world as it is, a mistake of evolution.

By December, I withdrew from nearly everything.

The Ugly Truth

One morning, mind-month I got up and accidentally opened my inbox to a client message titled “Pure hate for you”. I freaked out. I had no courage to read it, but I thought that I would break to pieces, have a heart attack and die on spot.

I rushed to renew my papers and see a neuropsychiatrist ASAP. I had a minor argument with an aggressive neighbour who puts people down at the health insurance centre, so by the time I got to doctor, I was even more shaken and I spoke in sentences that did not always make sense, oversharing as I often do when hyper. When I told her that I had no suicidal thoughts — then or ever, extreme will to work just too many fears and inability to “just do it”, she diagnosed me with a mild depressive episode and prescribed me Prozac every morning and Xanax in afternoons and evenings. I did use Prozac long, long ago and I remember being confident, less anxious and able to focus like other people did — I even managed to pass an exam that I had failed a whooping total of NINE times before.

But something was not going quite right.

Three days into my therapy, I took the Xanax and went to sleep. I did not think about how I had not gone to bathroom since day one and how I didn’t remember if I had already taken the evening pill with my supper. Sometime at dawn, I woke up to the same bugs from six months earlier. This time they were on the wall next to me, a couple of metres away, and they were forming circles and triangles. I got up and waved my hand to chase them away, and I was surprised that my dog, Judi, who was right below them, slept soundly. I slapped some and some bit me.

I cannot remember how much I had slept after this, but there was already a stripe of sunlight on the parquet when I saw my parrot, Agi, open the door to his cage, get out and fly on my right hand’s knuckles. I was concerned that he and Judi could hurt each other, so I shoo’d him away, but he did bite me once.

When I finally woke up for real, there were no bug splatters, Agi was still covered in his very much closed cage and there were no signs of bug or bird bites. Nothing. I grabbed my tablet and googled “xanax hallucinations”. I ended up on a forum for recreational drug use, where some people described the thing with bugs. On a more, err, socially acceptable website, I found a comment made by a person with a combo of metabolic issues, who appeared to have been as scared as me.

I rushed to the clinic. I asked the doctor to allow me to skip the line and she was sympathetic. I told her what happened, sung my usual refrain about how my only poison is Pepsi Max and she wrote it all down. Then she said that, yes, some people have frightening reactions to Xanax. She insisted on an anti-anxiotic and replaced Xanax with Bromazepam. I asked her if that was really necessary, fearing benzos in general, she talked about winter, darkness and the amount of stress I had experienced for not having been able to figure out that something had been generally wrong with me.

I got home and made sure I combined milk with fruit, I asked mom for string beans and, after a day or so, I started, err, getting Xanax out of my system. It took a while, more than the doctor and a bunch of medicine websites claimed, some four days, but it worked. And then, until Prozac finally did its magic, I was as panicky as ever. I chickened out from the Christmas lunch at my aunt’s place. I still didn’t call this lovely girl I met in December over a possible playdate for our dogs. This one morning, my phone rang, I screamed and thought, “It’s my client and she hates me!” The woman in question is, of course, harmless and a class ahead of most individuals in this country. But tell that to my brain!

It did not take me long to compare the two experiences with bugs. I mentioned it to my two people-that-did-not-scare-me. I then googled “xanax as date rape drug” and “benzos date rape” and found plethora of results, most of which were downright frightening and all of which confirmed my suspicions — somebody had poured something in my drink in the Other Country, likely during our group’s buffet dinner. I did get up once or twice and left both what was left in my Pepsi Max bottle and the fruit juice I got from the available drinks unattended, because I needed more food. And I went to take a picture of the sunset.

Somebody wanted to sexually assault me. Rape me, if you will.

Somebody thought they could get away with it.

Somebody then saw that I went away, assumed I was an ugly slut or whatever and gave up, but the drugs still gave me hallucinations and I acted out of character.

Perhaps the receptionist girl should have called police. Perhaps there should have been a scandal.

But whom am I kidding? I wouldn’t have been able to prove anything. Those people knew everybody, everywhere.

Still, I wish I had known this before.

I wish I had known that I wasn’t crazy, maladjusted, and that I was under influence. I wish I had known that my most pessimistic assumptions about that niche were true.

I am glad I did not get raped and that the worst that happened was a huge man insulting me and giving me some bruises. But still…

So, what now?

I could waste what’s left of my youth trying to figure out which one of the successful young entrepreneurs and/or bloggers thought I would be an easy target and slipped Xanax or, possibly, Klonopin, into one of my drinks.

I could leave V a threatening message, smash into his bike with mine the next time I see him on my rides. Because of money, because of the red shirt incident, because he failed to protect me, or because of how he was like overall.

I could blackmail S, just because he’s the well-to-do one, despite his general kindness towards me and how much respect I have for him.

But I am not that kind. I do not do that kind of stuff. I do not need more stress. And they all know it.

I just cannot move on, face the world, start working again, stop avoiding everybody and function normally if I don’t go public with this. So, that is what I am doing. Names have been changed at all.

I do not want investigations, people to come forward or whatever.

I just want to warn those who are like me — an oddball in a particular group of people, a woman who had never considered herself attractive and a person who had been experiencing a significant amount of stress. I am sharing this as a cautionary story for those who think that it could not happen to them because they don’t show too much skin, they’re not flirty, they’re too careful already and they’re stereotyped as recluses, eccentric, nerds — or all that.

Some men are horrible and capable of pretty much anything. While they NEED to be taught not to do things like this and punished more strictly for any attempt of sexual assault and/or date-rape; the society will take some time to move in that direction. And some women were groomed into thinking that this is no big deal.

So, run like hell from situations you cannot handle, even when that means not accepting job offers. Most of them will, on the long run, turn out to have been too good to be true.

The Sun will rise, eventually.

Photographs and illustrations are my own work. This was originally published on my blog, iva-is.me.