This is the hardest post I have ever had to write. I am reminded of the quote “Courage is not the absence of fear but rather the judgement that something is more important than fear”.
I always knew one day I would tell this story, but I was not sure when or what the reason would be. It was just a feeling I had that this story would be important. Twelve years have passed, but now it is finally time to write the story that changed my life, almost took my life and ultimately shaped a huge part of who I am.
When an old school friend invited me to a Facebook group this week titled ‘Northumberland Domestic Abuse Services – Save Our Community Services’ I immediately joined. It was a group set up as an S.O.S because the charity will be closing in March 2019 if funding cannot be secured to allow them to continue. You can find Northumberland Domestic Abuse Services on Facebook here https://www.facebook.com/ndaservices/. And find the campaign group here https://www.facebook.com/groups/2218952018429395/.
The charity supports all victims and survivors of domestic abuse; men, women and children living in terrifying and unpredictable circumstances. It is a vital service and it cannot close. I don’t dare to imagine the devastating impact losing this service will have. This is the service that saved my life. My name is Rachel Tait, and this is my story.
Opening The “Memory Box”
When I sat down to write this I noticed my hands were shaking. My heart was racing, and I felt slightly sick. My decision to share what happened to me twelve years ago is not one I have taken lightly and has not been straight forward. However, the cause matters so much more to me than the pain this will temporarily cause me to write. I say temporarily, because I am strong, I am capable, and I am a survivor.
To write this, I had to do something I have not done in many years, drag my “memory box out”. This memory box has travelled with me to four different towns and has lived in seven different houses. This box contains my diaries from 2001-2010, it contains letters I wrote but never sent, it contains records I had to keep for the police and it contains the newspaper article that I’ve never been able to throw away.
I can feel myself getting stronger with every word I type; the shaking is easing and I know I am doing the right thing. One question which looms over me though, “Will he see this?”. I won’t be naming names, but I am aware this will be on my public website and however slim the chance, he may see it. If he sees it will he think he won? He will finally know that what he did changed my life forever, and I still live with the very real consequences of what happened. There are parts of me that are forever changed.
I was 16 when it started. My story is not typical though, because the perpetrator was not a romantic partner. He was my best friend. In this article I will call him Jim. Jim and I had always been at school together, but one night I stayed late after school and caught the evening bus home. That one small decision changed my life.
A Dangerous Friendship
The friendship was intense from the first day. He was not a popular kid, in the typical high school sense of the word. He didn’t have many friends. That day I spoke to him on that bus ride home, he said I showed him kindness that no-one else had. When I’m asked what my greatest strength and weakness is I give the same answer, my compassion for people. Until I met him my compassion had only been a strength, but it also led me into a dangerous relationship and made it almost impossible to escape from. He later told me, as a way to control me, that I had saved him from ending his life. He had gone to the train tracks that very same day I had sat with him on the bus, but couldn’t go through with it so planned to return the following day. He said my kindness that night stopped him. I am older and wiser now, and I suspect this was entirely fabricated, but it worked. A simple conversation turned into a dangerous friendship because I felt this huge sense of responsibility. That was not the only time he threatened to kill himself to control me.
At first it seemed a positive friendship, it was never healthy, but at the time it didn’t seem harmful. We saw each other all the time in school, he integrated with my friendship group and then we would see each other all the time out of school. He lived a 5-minute walk from my house. It all fell into place too quickly for me to catch my breath. He opened up to me very early on about his fascination with guns and death. In my memory box I still have a letter he wrote me, thanking me for helping him understand his obsession with guns wasn’t healthy. He owned dozens of realistic replicas and would frequently talk about ways he could adapt them to be working guns. He was highly intelligent and knew exactly what needed to be done to convert a replica into a real gun. One of the first times I felt afraid of him was when he took me up to his room and showed me the guns, showing me how he’d adapt them, and he just had this look in his eye that scared the shit out of me.
He was obsessed with graphic violence. He wrote a book about a young man named Victor, a 17-year-old serial killer hiding in plain sight. This was his alter ego, and Jim said as much himself. The book was the most disturbing, graphic thing I have ever read, and I have worked in prisons. He would make me proof read it and I hated it. There were just enough similarities to Jim in real life to make me scared, especially when he wrote me, “Rach”, into the book.
I am now 30 years old, have an MSc in Forensic Psychology and worked in forensic settings for several years. Looking back, I see it all so differently, he was deeply disturbed and the red flags were numerous. As a 16-year-old I didn’t have any of this knowledge, I didn’t stand a chance. In my counselling with Northumberland Domestic Abuse Services (NDAS) one of the things I remember most was when my counsellor spoke to me about forgiving that girl. I was so angry with myself, even at 18. I should have known better, I should have told someone sooner, I should have seen the red flags, I should have walked away. It took me many years to fully process that none of what happened was my fault and show kindness to that young girl that still resided in me. I was asked what I would say to 16 year old me in my counselling and it was a pivotal point in my healing.
The Longest Kept Secret
The violence didn’t start straight away, and it didn’t happen very often, but the psychological abuse was vast, and it left scars that will never fully heal. There is so much of what happened that I very purposely blocked out. This is one of many reasons why opening my memory box was so difficult. It forced me to remember just how bad it was and how deep the damage went.
I had forgotten that he banned me from eating apples. It sounds odd, and it was, but it was about control. He isolated me from my friends. He damaged my relationship with my then boyfriend and was a key reason in my decision to ultimately ended our relationship. I was so deeply traumatised after what happened, I couldn’t bare for any part of my present to be a part of my future. I left my home town and very deliberately did not keep in touch with anyone from school. It was too painful. He damaged my relationship with my parents and brother, those relationships thankfully healed with time and are now the strongest relationships I have outside of my husband.
I couldn’t bear to be around anything that reminded me of Jim, even my home. I moved to Preston for university in 2008 and vowed I would rarely return home, and indeed I rarely did, although my parents visited a lot thankfully. I wanted a new town, where no-one knew me, and I could start over. There are two very distinct periods in my life, before Jim, and after Jim. No single person on this planet knows both of those people entirely. They know me as before Rachel or after Rachel. I even sheltered my parents from many details, for my benefit more than theirs. My Dad knows more than my Mum or Brother, because he sat in the police interviews with me, but no one will ever know it all. They don’t need to.
In this article I will be sharing more than I have ever shared collectively before, but I will never share all of it. It is my story, and mine alone. There are somethings too painful to recall, and I had to heal by myself.
Two friends stuck by me when it all came out, and actively helped keep me safe in school. I never thanked them properly, so I want to take a moment to thank Alice and Zoe now. Reading my records for the police back, I had forgotten how involved you were, and I am sorry I haven’t thanked you properly before now. Alice, you never left my side after I finally went to the police, you drove me to school, you missed lessons for me, you let me attend your classes that I wasn’t even studying so I’d feel safer. I would not have survived that year without you, and I am sorry it’s taken me twelve years to say thank you.
The most distinct memories of violence, that I have never managed to block out, both happened during school. There was an old building and walled garden over the road from my school called ‘The Lodge’. It became our regular hangout because it was usually empty. These two incidents happened there. The first was when Jim forcibly picked me up and held me over a dead rabbit, taunting me. He dropped me onto that dead animal for reasons I will never understand. He claimed it was a sick joke. I had to walk back into lessons that afternoon like nothing had happened. I feel sick every time I remember it, dangling over a dead rabbit, screaming at him to stop.
The worst incident, aside from the incident that brought it all out in the open eventually, was when he strangled me. He held me by the throat against a wall in the garden of The Lodge and choked me until I thought I’d die. He was laughing and later told me it was a joke. That feeling of gasping for breath and realising that there was no one to help me, no one to see me, no one to hear me struggling remains one of the most terrifying moments of my life. To this day I cannot stand to have my neck touched, even by my husband. He knows why, and he understands. I am due to have surgery on my neck next year, and one reason this terrifies me so much is because of what happened to me. The idea of doctors and nurses touching my neck sickens me.
After things turned violent I tried to distance myself from him, making excuses not to see him but this only served to intensify the situation. Thinly veiled threats came by email and sick games began. I remember he made “MySpace” (a popular social media platform at the time) profiles for the characters in his book. He created entire personas, including the smallest details and photographs and used these to contact girls in my year at school. He knew I would recognise the characters and it messed with my head. He tricked one girl into believing she was talking to two different boys, both of which were him pretending to be a serial killer character and his friend. I remember feeling so alone, but knowing I had to tell the girl. She had been a close friend, and I remember the look on her face even now. It went so much deeper than she could ever have known, but in my mind exposing him saved her from having to know how dangerous it really was.
He also wrote more for his book and emailed me fictional conversations he and Victor had about me, about me saving him from suicide and about how I wasn’t spending time with him anymore. The character Victor asked sexual things about me in one chapter and my fear was reaching peak.
I ended the friendship in June of that year, but my story was far from over. One email will always haunt me. It detailed the MySpace incident and described me ending the friendship as emotional rejection and torture. He told me he’d done stupid things to cope. It talked about an occasion when I’d spoken to him again, after he had sucked me back in. How he thought we would be okay after that, but then I’d texted him ending our friendship. This text had followed a conversation with my mum. As I lay on my mum’s bed one night in 2006 she came in and asked me five simple words “are you afraid of Jim?”. I broke down, and finally told her what had been going on. She’d seen the change in me and had pieced things together. It was after that she took me to the doctor who diagnosed me with depression and I sent Jim that short text to explain we couldn’t be friends anymore. The email he sent me in response told me how angry he was with me, stating specifically how angry he was that I thought I could do that to him. He told me I could not do that to him and he wanted to talk to me in person. I owed him that. I’d gone back on all the promises I had made, and he was back where he started and he hated that. It ended with the words “You gotta face me sometime Rachel. You know you have to”.
Reading those final words gives me chills even now. I will never forget feeling sick with dread at what would come next. I knew he wouldn’t let this go and thus began months of watching over my shoulder, skipping school and being afraid to be alone even in my own home. My parents involved the school after this, but they did nothing. I believe in forgive and forget, but I will never forgive a handful of teachers for the ways they so bitterly let me down. They had a responsibility to keep me safe in school. I was being stalked and threatened. They chose to do nothing. I told them what he’d done, and they left me to survive alone. It almost cost me my future at university, and ultimately my life. I spiralled badly, I wasn’t eating, I was drinking in secret and I was self-harming.
In October 2006 I turned 18. Turning 18 is an exciting time for anyone, but the 12 months following my birthday were hell on earth for me. On 12th October 2006 I went for drinks with friends and Jim was there. I hadn’t expected him to be, but he was. He threatened to beat my then boyfriend up and followed us around. We decided to leave, I wasn’t drinking because my medication for depression meant I couldn’t. We gave two others a lift home, I later found out they were involved in what happened next but had no idea at the time. As I sat in my car waiting for people to get sorted to leave, Jim stepped in front of my car and stood staring at me. He then raised a gun, looked into my eyes, smirked and pulled the trigger twice. Time stood still for those few seconds. I thought I was going to die. The boy who had showed me how to adapt replica guns to be real, the boy with a fascination with weapons was pointing what firearms later called ‘the most realistic replica Glock semi-automatic pistol they’d ever seen’ straight at my head. I thought it was real in that moment. Writing about it brings this sickening dread to my stomach even now.
I dropped my passengers off, who I later found out had been with Jim that day and had purchased replica guns too. I rang my parents, who were away visiting family and they told me I needed to call the police. The next thing I knew I was sat in a police station with my Dad telling an officer everything. The police were incredible, I will ever forget how kind they were, how they believed me and how they vowed they’d make me feel safe again. I owe a great deal to PC Mark Hudspith and Sergeant Mick Lucton.
Jim’s house was raided by armed police that next morning and his arsenal of replica weapons seized. He was then arrested for having an imitation firearm in a public place. He was also given a harassment order and his bail terms stated he couldn’t come near me or contact me in any way.
Living in Fear
That isn’t the end of this story though. Jim continued to intimidate me. I had to keep records for the police, as he continued to push every boundary as far as possible without technically breaching his bail. He would stand and stare at me from just the right distance, follow me around school at just the right distance. Yes, he was allowed to stay in school despite all of this. In fact, I was made to leave lessons to comply with his bail. I’d like to think the positive changes made in the law regarding stalking and public attitudes to domestic abuse changing would mean this wouldn’t happen these days.
He would slam doors when he saw me coming knowing the noise would scare me, stand in front of exit points so I couldn’t leave a room and made sure to spread a few rumours for good measure. I was an absolute wreck by this point, I was barely surviving.
I remember one day I was due to attend a revision group for English and when I arrived, he was there. Despite not being in that class. The teacher, Mr Perry, told me Jim had just as much right to be there as me and if I didn’t like it to leave. School knew everything that had happened, the police had liaised with them. Yet I was told the boy who had strangled me, psychologically tortured me for almost two years, threatened me numerous times including with a weapon, was currently on bail for that offence and had a harassment order in place to prevent him stalking me had just as much right as me to attend a revision class he wasn’t supposed to be in, even if it breached his bail conditions. I left and called my Dad who came to school immediately. My Dad is a very calm, collected man and I have rarely seen him truly angry. In all my life I have never seen him as angry as he was when he stormed into school that day, I don’t think I will ever see it again. He dealt with it but the head teacher still refused to do anything, so we went home. Years later I saw that spineless headteacher again, Mr Dawler. I was out with some friends while on a rare visit back to the North East, and he came and sat at our table. He tried to speak to me and I ignored every single attempt he made. Refusing to even meet his eyes. I hope that day he realised how much the decisions he made, based on Jim’s parents being more affluent than mine and having an expensive solicitor, almost cost me my life.
The case went to court, he pleaded guilty and he was given a slap on the wrist, allowed to continue his life with no consequences. He was 17, a juvenile, so wasn’t named and the conviction will have had little affect on his adult life. The papers reported it, including vile comments made by his solicitor effectively calling me a silly little girl. My whole world imploded, I was so depressed I was barely functioning. However, I still sat my A-Level exams, counting the seconds until I could leave that school forever. In a later diary I reflected on 2007 and reading it back it breaks my heart. I lost out on so much that a normal 18-year-old should have had. I didn’t go out, I didn’t party, I didn’t celebrate leaving school, getting my exams results or getting into University. I was 18 for one week and then Jim pointed that gun and destroyed 18-year-old me. Too many friendships had broken down for me to repair, I couldn’t leave the house without being terrified, I used to obsessively check doors and windows were locked, I used to check the footwells of my tiny car every time I got in it just in case he was hiding there. Seems crazy? But I was living in terror. I was so depressed at this time that I tried to end my life. Thankfully something in me clicked. I had swallowed a bunch of pills and realised if I stayed in my room I would take the rest. I left my house at 2am and drove to the middle of nowhere until I knew I was safe again.
The day I collected my A Level results was the last time I entered that school. My parents were away for their 25th wedding anniversary so my brother came with me. I went in, grabbed the results and left without saying a word to anyone. We went and sat on some fire escape steps and I remember so badly wanting to have got my grades, knowing if I had I could escape, and I never had to come back. When I saw those grades on that small bit of paper it was the best feeling in the world, I whispered, ‘I did it’ and shoved the paper in Dan’s face. It suddenly dawned on me, despite it all I had passed my exams and gotten into university. I was free! I can remembering the lump in my throat and tears in my eyes as I screamed “I FUCKING DID IT!!!!”. The tears, the hurt, the anger, the isolation, the fear, the pain, none of it had stopped me. He hadn’t stopped me. That day I was happy. It didn’t last long, I quickly spiralled back into depression, but for that one day I remember feeling free.
I eventually sought more help from my doctor, I knew I was self-destructing and if I ever wanted to see University I had to get help. I had deferred University for a year to focus on getting well and I knew I had a year to turn myself around. My doctor referred me to Northumberland Domestic Abuse Services (known as 60-80-30 at the time). I was reluctant to go, and on the day of my first appointment I changed my mind about 20 times. I have recently found out that the manager who allowed me time off work to attend those appointments, with no expectation I’d make up the time, is now the Board Chair for NDAS. Her support helped me a lot and without her giving me that time off I wouldn’t have been able to attend those appointments. The counsellor I worked with had survived domestic abuse and I felt a fraud being there. Jim had been my best friend, not my boyfriend. She helped me to see that that wasn’t what was important and that what I’d experienced was valid. It turns out I was displaying the same trauma symptoms as many victims of violent crimes such as rape and domestic abuse. I worked with that amazing lady for almost a year and I credit her, and NDAS, with saving my life. I would not be here telling you this story now without their help. I would have, without doubt, ended my life. Looking back at my diaries it breaks my heart when I see how desperate I was. I do not know how an 18-year-old survived that.
Without NDAS I would not have attended University, made a fresh start and rebuilt my life. I wouldn’t have been able to trust men again and have healthy, happy relationships. I wouldn’t have met and married my incredible husband or met my amazing best friends. I wouldn’t have travelled, obtained two degrees and worked in jobs where I got to help people change their lives. I wouldn’t have done anything I have done since I was 18, had it not been for them.
There is so much more to my story, I could write a book but I’m aware that this is turning into a book as I write so I will wrap it up. There are some parts of my story that I cannot bring myself to talk about yet, and maybe never will. What happened still affects my life to this day and it took me a long time to find myself again. I still will not go out alone in the dark, I tend to see the worst potential in situations in order to protect myself, I still cannot cope around violence even if it doesn’t involve me, I still cannot stand my neck being touched and I refuse to ever be around anything to do with guns, even paintballing. My children will never be allowed toy guns.
However, I am owning what happened to me. It made me who I am today, and that woman is strong, compassionate, determined, focused, resilient and brave. I am incredibly proud of the woman I am and of the life I have built.
The reason I am sharing all of this with you is because if Northumberland Domestic Abuse Services does not get funding soon it will close in March 2019. What about the next 18-year-old girl, who will save her? We need this service, it is absolutely vital, and it does save lives. Many women and men experience much, much worse than I did. What about them? What about their children? Who will save them?
Please join me in supporting their campaign to remain open, donate to their fundraising efforts if you are able (https://localgiving.org/ndas-sos), share this story (and all the others) with your friends, join their campaign and spread the word. If you live in Northumberland, UK then write to your MP, contact local radio and media outlets. Together we can keep this incredible, life saving service open. They gave me my life back, and I owe it to them to do everything I can to support this campaign.
Thank you for reading. This has been the most painful article I’ve ever had to write. It is the first time I have written this all down in one place and it is the first time I have shared what happened with many people, including many people who are close to me now. I am aware some people I went to school with may read this, that is probably the hardest part about posting this. However, courage is not the absence of fear, but the knowledge something else is more important than fear. This campaign, and this service, are more important that the fear I have about posting this.
As always, your support is so appreciated, and you are welcome to share your own stories with me. I know this will be a shock to some people who know me, and I know that people may want to comment which I totally welcome. However, if I don’t respond immediately please know it is because it is a painful thing to remember and I will be prioritising self-care in the coming days.
Donate to keep NDAS open: hhttps://localgiving.org/ndas-sos
NDAS Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/ndaservices/
Save NDAS group: https://www.facebook.com/groups/2218952018429395/
NDAS website: https://www.nda.services/
NDAS contact your MP event: https://www.facebook.com/events/2218031588413412/