By Freddie Cocker
Since I started Vent, I feel like I’ve opened up about every aspect of my mental health story; every crevasse dug out, every suppressed memory released and every painful wound opened up only to be sealed again through support and love. I thought I had told it all. I was wrong.
One thing was left in the darkness and remained buried in the deepest recesses of my mind. Something so stigmatised, something I was so ashamed of, something which took place in literally a few seconds and yet one which has haunted me ever since; my sexual assault.
To this day, I still have that much anxiety over it that I can’t stomach putting it in the title. I still feel so uncomfortable mentioning it by name even though, ironically, I’m about to go into great detail about it.
When I wrote my ‘True Story’ for mental health magazine Happiful, the commissioning editor wrote back to me with a list of questions that would help them when putting the finishing touches to the article.
One question they asked me was about the section in my piece that stated that my cry for help when I was bullied was initially ignored. They asked me to expand on this.
For some reason, this triggered the memory of my sexual assault coming back to the forefront of my mind and I began to think back to how other people’s sexual assaults have been played out in the public eye.
As the ‘Me Too’ movement has swept the world, we have seen more and more women come forward about their experiences of being sexually assaulted, raped or worse. I saw the conversation slowly shift from one of immediate victim-blaming to, at least in some sections of the population, belief in the victims’ story.
I watched with interest as Professor Christine Blasey Ford took to the witness stand to tell her story about Justice Brett Kavanaugh’s alleged crimes against her. With the entire world watching, she bravely said she couldn’t recall specific details about what had allegedly happened to her some 36 years ago, despite knowing that it would create doubt about her testimony.
However, she clearly remembered the incident itself, the effect it had on her and why she felt compelled to come forward.
I now see so many commonalities with her story and can truly empathise with her memory recall of that alleged horrific incident because that is exactly how I remember mine.
Whether it happened in Year 4 or Year 5 is something I can’t pinpoint exactly, nor the day it happened nor the week, month or even year. All I know is that it happened between 2002-2003.
As I’ve stated in previous articles, my primary school bully was an extremely manipulative boy and looking back, some might say a disturbing child for that age.
He was successfully able to pick on things about my character or personality i.e. my weight (I was slightly overweight for my age at the time), my unfashionable football team, my surname and label me as ‘annoying’. He would constantly weaponise these things to create a narrative so that no one in the class liked me or wanted to be my friend.
Trivial though this may seem, he was able to rationalise these ideas, implant them in each of the boys in our class carefully and forensically. He then utilised that coercion in group situations.
Through this, he would be able to control the other boys whose characters were largely extremely immature and vulnerable to group-thinking (as they would be at that age).
A lot of these boys have gone onto adulthood to develop severe mental health issues of their own, are struggling in their own lives or are just horrible people by the way their environment has affected them. With some, it’s a combination of all three.
Once he had control of all the boys, he psychologically recruited a few ‘lieutenants’ he could use for support when bullying me in case I tried to stand up for myself verbally.
They probably know who they are if they read this but I’m pleased that some of them (not all) since then have shown contrition for their actions, changed their characters and developed into better human beings. I hold no ill will towards them.
Once he had completed his hostile take-over, no one would step out of line in a group situation out of fear of him, of being socially ostracised or being picked on themselves.
Another factor he used to his advantage was that my primary school was extremely small, both in its population and geography. There was one class per year and we had a combined total of around 25-26 kids in our class, with only 10-11 boys.
In such a seemingly claustrophobic environment, all the boys essentially became one homogeneous entity, with no separate cliques to speak of. Because of this, he was able to carefully assert his dominance in a hierarchical structure which he had constructed himself. It’s hard to believe this could happen to a bunch of 7-8 year olds right? Well, the parents thought exactly the same thing.
One day, after another tiring day of being abused by everyone which was being led by him, I decided to stand up for myself, in a rare moment of self-respect. I temporarily ignored my parent’s advice that would go through my head like; ‘just ignore it’, ‘tone it down a bit and it might stop’ or ‘if you don’t rise to it, they won’t do it anymore’. I had enough.
I got into a physical confrontation with him and we grappled like 7 year olds do in a fight. He then pushed me against a wall. As we began to swing punches against each other, his hand moved to my genitals and that’s when it happened.
The pain he inflicted upon me there was short and only lasted for maybe 2-3 seconds at the most. It shocked me and I had no time to react to it. I instinctively pushed him away and a teacher ended the fight but that feeling is something I will never be able to forget.
Now I’m older, I know exactly why he did it. Power. He knew he could do anything to me and none of the boys would stand up for me. He knew the damage it would do to me but he didn’t care. The level of status he had acquired amongst his peers gave him the freedom to do this without consequence, in his head at least.
To their credit, when my parents found out what happened, my mum sat the Headteacher down and demanded action be taken.
Shortly after the incident happened, my Headteacher took me aside privately and asked me what happened in the fight. To this day, I don’t remember how he found out as I don’t recall who I told about the incident.
My parents initially didn’t believe I was being bullied when I had confided in them prior to the incident happening so I’m unsure if I would have told them, such was my lack of trust at the time in their ability to protect me, despite them later finding out what happened.
My hunch is that a member of support staff must have seen it, or I had told my class teacher at the time when they asked me my side of the story.
I was terrible at telling lies so I must have just blurted it all out. I can only imagine what the reaction must have been from their perspective. My Headteacher asked me matter of factly, ‘Did X do Y to you?’. I replied quickly and without thinking said ‘Yes’, as if this was a normal thing to happen in a fight or to a child of my age.
At the time, I wasn’t self-aware enough to think about the child protection laws and confidentiality procedures he was having to follow just by asking me this. In my head, this boy had done far worse to me over the course of the last 2-3 years through verbal abuse, coercion and other physical assaults. By comparison, this short-lived altercation seemed pretty low on the scale of misery I had endured.
After I told him, he hauled my bully as well as several other boys into his office to lambast them for what they had done. I know this because the Headteachers office was visible through a window in our playground and most of our class watched the whole thing.
Back then, female sexual assault victims were in constant fear of stigmatisation, being victim-blamed and their stories discarded. For a boy, I can only shudder at what the environment would have been like amidst the searing white heat of the toxic masculinity our gender was still heavily embroiled in.
In the months and years that followed this incident, my Headteacher did his best to include me in as many class activities as possible, make me feel loved by all the school staff and help me forget the horrific incident I had experienced.
In the winter of Year 5, our school were invited to a local 6-a-side football tournament. I was never particularly good at football I’ll happily admit but I still loved playing it and still do to this day. He put me in the team and in the first game we had, he put me up front, much to the surprise of the rest of the boys. My bully immediately spoke up, telling him I wasn’t very good and that it was the wrong decision. Immediately, some (not all) of the other boys joined in.
My Headteacher immediately put them all in their place, reminded them who the coach was and to give me a chance. I played okay. I didn’t excel but I ran harder than I ever have and will since in those 10-15 minutes, knowing for one of the very first times I had a figure of authority who had put his trust and faith in me.
I cannot thank him enough for being what a good teacher should be; compassionate, supportive, protective and trusting. In many ways, he probably did more to save my life back then than most others and yet, I’ve never been able to thank him properly for it.
Since writing my Happiful article I quickly realised that this incident has been the cause or factor in many of my anxieties towards girls. When you have severe and complex mental health issues, you can feel that to friends, romantic partners or family that you are “damaged goods” – that your covert or overt mental health problems are a disqualification from having friends, sex, partners, jobs or love.
I now know that my alignment with this irrationality stems directly from this incident; feelings of inadequacy, being surprised when a girl likes me, low self-esteem and confidence issues are all things I’ve carried with me my entire life up to this point.
With every article I write, I always state that “it was the hardest article I’ve had to write” like some talking clock stuck on a perpetual loop ad-infinitum. However, this genuinely has been the toughest and most emotionally draining article I’ve ever composed. Now I feel like I can finally be free of every mental shackle which had been weighing me down.
My main hope is that through this article, I can help other men who have been sexually assaulted either as children or adults realise that we are not lesser men because of it. We are greater, we are braver and above all, we are human.
Disclaimer: Although it may seem like I had a horrendous time during these three years of primary school, I hold fond memories of the school, the teachers and the experience I had within it. They supported me, nurtured me and always tried to help me believe in myself.
None of the staff, nor the school itself were at fault for anything that happened to me nor should they be held responsible for the behaviour of the other children in my class. The issue was dealt with properly, the right procedures in my opinion, were followed and I am happy that direct action was taken to address it.
Freddie is the Founder and Editor-In-Chief of Vent.
You can follow him on Twitter @freddiec1994.
Read more articles like this in our Experiences section here.