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Friday, 24 October 2014

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‘I felt dirty. I couldn’t bring myself to tell anyone what had happened’

As a 19-year-old university student, Penelope Elias suffered one of the most terrifying ordeals that anyone will ever face.

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HARROWING ORDEAL: Penelope Elias, of Workington, who was raped when she was a 19-year-old student, has spoken out about the importance of specialist support available through charities such as West Cumbria Rape Crisis

She went out for an evening with a man, who then forced his way into her flat and raped her.

Forty-seven years on, Penelope, of Ramsay Brow, Workington, has waived her right to anonymity to speak out about the importance of the under-threat charity West Cumbria Rape Crisis.

Penelope, 66, recalls: “It was so unexpected. He took me out to dinner, so I thought, but it wasn’t.

“He took me instead to a strip club. I was starving. I couldn’t wait to get home.

“He took me home in a taxi. I thought my flatmate would be there but she’d gone to a study session.”

Penelope said she was longing to get indoors and lock the door behind her. But it wasn’t to be.

She says: “He was there before me. He pushed me through the door and into the living room.

“I can hear my own scream to this day, and struggling, that’s all I remember.”

It was then, she says, that she must have passed out.

She adds: “When I came round I was on my bed, stripped, and it was quite clear what had happened to me.”

Though she does not dwell on that night in 1966, the ordeal is clear in Penelope’s mind.

It is a wound that can flare up without warning. The catalyst could be a story in the news or a throwaway comment by someone.

In this instance, it has been news of the closure threat hanging over West Cumbria Rape Crisis.

Last month news broke that the charity, which has supported 400 people so far this year alone, faces closure on November 15 if £25,000 cannot be found to meet a funding shortfall.

The threat of losing such a valuable local resource prompted the 66-year-old to relive her experience.

Describing the morning after she was raped, Penelope, who was living in Canada at the time, says: “I felt so dirty. I couldn’t bring myself to tell anybody what had happened to me.

“Going to the authorities was totally out of the question. There weren’t organisations like West Cumbria Rape Crisis. I became really withdrawn.”

The ordeal left the previously sociable student fearful of going out.

Within weeks Penelope lost over a stone.

She says: “My clothes were falling off me. I couldn’t eat. I survived on cigarettes and coffee and the odd slice of Boston cream pie.”

Her studies suffered as she found herself unable to store information.

Family and friends rallied round and, slowly, she began to regain control over her life, but her trauma was still there.

She says: “My friends and family knew what had happened to me but they respected the fact that I couldn’t or wouldn’t talk about it.

“You lose your self-confidence. Your self-esteem isn’t just at an all-time low, as you don’t have any.

“You lose your belief in yourself and your belief in others.

“It look me years to learn to trust people.

“I have realised over the years what a long shadow it casts over your life.

“I lived with almost crippling fear for years and most people would never have known. I was terrified of the idea of being on my own.”

While family and friends did their best to help, Penelope says no one in her support network had been trained in how to counsel a rape victim.

She adds: “There’s no one formula for how someone deals with the trauma of rape. You need specialist help.

“People need time and space in a safe place where, if you end up crying what seems like uncontrollably, the counsellor can withstand it.”

Shortly before her wedding, Penelope sought such help.

She says: “The level of anxiety was almost incapacitating. It was like I’d suddenly been hit back five years. I controlled it and went for counselling. I spent the first hour crying.”

In time and geography, those days are a long way back now for Penelope.

She married, lived in Hong Kong, had four children, 28 years ago moved to Workington where her children grew up and, now a widow, has learned to live alone.

She has been active in Workington’s community, from first becoming secretary of the pre-school at Our Lady and St Michael’s Church to, more recently, helping to launch Workington and District University of the Third Age.

But, she admits, thanks to the mask she has perfected wearing, she has gone through life with many people knowing nothing of the trauma that has shaped her life.

They have no idea how long it took to regain the gift of spontaneous laughter.

Penelope has developed mechanisms for coping with the lasting effects of her ordeal, but through everything she has retained hope.

Penelope says: “When you lose hope you give up. West Cumbria Rape Crisis gives people hope.”

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