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September 30, 2019 | by  | in Features | [ssba]

Elephant in the Room

CW: Mental Illness, Sexual Abuse


There’s an elephant in the room, and we’re not sure how long he’s been there.


For most of our lives, we have associated the elephant with depression, alcoholism, addictions, and racist remarks. As a group of boys, we’ve progressed so far that we can actually say we need a mental health day. I can hit up the group chat and let them know it’s ‘sad boi hours’. There’s five of us, and we’re honestly completely average at realising each others’ signs for depression, but we’re on the way up. We were boys whose skin once crawled at periods. That’s not a laughing matter; that’s just factual. We are now in a space where we can openly talk about our sexual orientation, differing political opinions, and subtle/overt racism. It took a while, but we’ve mustered up enough strength to talk about this. I’m totally proud of us, as I reflect on how we used to deal with problems.


There are still some things we choose not to talk about, however, sometimes a topic will thrust itself onto us: This month, we found out that one of our best friends sexually abused one of our mutual friends. My coffee turned sour and my eyes began to water as I received news at my local café. My mornings watching Lil’ Bill had already been ruined by Bill Cosby; my obsessive, hip-hop influenced dream of cornrows by R Kelly. The greatest memories that remind me of the very worst of people. Now this. 


There had been an elephant in the room for a year, and we only just realised.


My train ride back into the city was cold. Dark blue sky, and a racing mind. Head numb as it leaned against the cold glass of the rattling window. I don’t have all the details, but I can’t bring myself to imagine it all in my head. The scene itself, the aftermath, each of our locations at the time it would have happened; they’re burned into my mind. They may as well be branded onto my eyelids.


We will never understand what she has gone through; I could never articulate it on her behalf. I cower every day since, knowing that she suffered in this. I can’t even begin to apologise for his actions, but I hope this gives breath to the conversation we all needed to have.


We heard the full story and the facts from all parties, and it hurt us in many different ways. How do we respond as a group of ‘lads’ who have now outcasted one of our own, the elephant? The group chat is quiet; the one-on-one whisperings are happening in DMs. The staff at our go-to café banter that they don’t see us often enough now. We shrug them off with a gentle laugh; we have nothing to say about our absence.


Nobody has the appetite anymore.


It’s been more than a year since it occurred, but only a few weeks since we’ve become aware. I think about the elephant—we’ve shared drinks, prayers, and meals. We made you family and you allowed us into your world. We’d all shared our ideas and aspirations; there had always been healthy support and discourse. Now I think back to our handshakes and feel sticky. 


Any recollection of the handshakes are now as visceral in my mind as if we had been covered in syrup. Sticky, uncomfortable—wanting to let go but not being able to. We can only imagine that is a snippet of how she felt when she saw us all in a herd. Some of the boys are worried, because they had been shaking hands with him in public. Sharing jugs and laughs. At parties, BYOs, university classes. As if we were in support of all he did, publicly so—the herd that supported each other through everything.

Not this. If only we’d known sooner. Not this.


I was luckier than some of us, having been educated about boundaries and consent from a young age. I’m learning more and more every day, because there is still so much to learn, but it’s a journey that we are all openly doing together as a friend group. Whether it’s the conversations we have in our long-term relationships or with one-time flings, we are slowly getting better and having that discourse. But this—it made us angry.


We hate cancel culture and it’s something we’ve always debated about. Disgusting things happen in the past. I am not proud of some of the things I’ve done in the past, and neither are you. We can learn to accept them, apologise, feel humility, and move on—or not.

(The latter is not recommended.)


However, we aren’t coping. I can see our mental health deteriorating as a group. I feel selfish for thinking about us, as brothers, and not her. Recommending that we don’t reach out to her, but allow ourselves to be contactable if she ever chooses to do so. But how do we deal with this?


I cried. We cried. The thought of what we had to overcome mentally was horrifying. Live with what he did, and understand that we were the dust beneath his feet. We were the fruit and twigs that he used to nourish himself. The river he used to quench his thirst. The first thing we did was blame ourselves for creating an environment where the elephant felt safe; a jungle in which it felt at home. The blame felt strong and emotions were high.


Had we created an environment where we let our best friend feel hidden? Never allowing jokes about abuse of any form, and openly dismissing any support of such. The feeling that all we had done was in vain—taken for granted—hurt. Had we done enough?


We sought support. Some of us individually, with professionals, and well-known counsellors in the area. Looking for role models who could offer a way out. A pathway that would offer a shining light at the end. Preferably male. Our mothers had no answer for us, because they’d never handled something like this from a male perspective. Some of us sought support at a bar through rum, coke, and lemon. Neither avenue was leading us to the pathway we wanted.


Most horror films have an ending with somebody getting away. The villain being held accountable and dissolving in their own evil, or disappearing into the night, banished into their own solitary confinement. The black guy dies first and love saves the day. The hero is left alive; spared at the expense of the others, most likely their loved ones. Lucky enough to see another bright sunny day.


This is incomparable. This horror film never ends, and I can’t shake the shivers it gives me. It feels like it rains every day and the sunlight feels unwelcoming. My pink and white feelings turn to grey and white. Water tastes like TV static. Advice is unwelcome, and I think of the victim more often than not. I can’t shake the images out of my head, the ones I never saw. The signs we missed are clear as day now. My fuse is shorter and my patience is miniscule. The world we built together is scorched.


We are told by our peers that we need to talk about our feelings. It’s taken us a while to realise that this hell isn’t going to get any better. 


But that’s okay.


Not everything has a silver lining. There’s no light at the end of the tunnel, there’s no happy ending. The sequel will never come and the elephant’s footprints will fossilise in the carpet. There are some things we can never forgive, and that’s okay.


When I started primary school, my mother gave me a five-minute speech at the gate. I can’t remember most of what she said, but one sentence has stuck with me—“Remember, not everyone is nice.” My mother predicted that I would run into racism at some point. Unfairness, people with ulterior motives, thieves, and energy vampires. But I couldn’t tell you if she had the foresight for this.


This path is dark. It’s treacherous and filled with obstacles. Paying your respects to the victim from afar, understanding that they are combatting this their own way, in their own support circles. All I have is memories of a friend group that gave me life, support, and energy to pursue my dreams. These memories aren’t ruined, and I will be forever grateful to the boys I have around me. I know we don’t have the energy to keep going, and I know sometimes we call each other at 2 a.m. because we can’t get to sleep. This will haunt us for a while. 


This is the hardest thing I’ve ever had to write, but I did for all of the group chats out there going through what we are—the boys who are finding it hard to hold each other accountable.


To my friend: There is nothing I can do. I refuse to allow us to be the leaves of your jungle. I refuse to let us be the river you drink out of, the plants you eat. The dust that rises above your shoulders when you dance for joy. We cannot make the elephant in the room feel at home.


To my boys: We go again. We rebuild each other and come out of this with the scars on our mentals. We don’t push each other to share, just ensure we are all creating spaces where that conversation can happen. I love each and every one of you.


And thanks Mum.


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