'When I was 14 I was raped'. These are still deeply shocking words to hear and to say, even after speaking about it in the House of Commons on December 8th 2016.
But, and it is for me a very big but: while being raped has deeply affected me, I refuse to allow it to define me.
My speech was made during one of the most testing times of my life. Only a few short weeks after being elected, I was the subject of my first national media story. During the General Election, a constituent had maliciously added my SNP email address to a dating website called Ashley Madison. Some months later that database was hacked and the data released to the world. Strangely, it took only a few hours for my name and face (and ironically only my name out of the 32 million users), to appear on the national news and many media outlets. The fact that I strenuously denied it, the fact that I made a report to Police Scotland and the perpetrator identified and interviewed under caution held little subsequent interest.
As that story died, there then appeared a ‘so-called’ expose about property. Six years before being elected I had held a 25% stake in a small firm, and a solicitor we and many others had used had been investigated and then struck off. As a result I became centre stage of a media frenzy where the truth seemed to be of no interest. I was given advice at the time to remain completely silent – exceptionally poor advice that allowed certain sections of the media carte blanche to write and broadcast what they wanted without any rebuttal. There was even a TV programme about me featuring a house that I had never been in with an owner I had never met! While papers such as The Herald, The Daily Mail, The Guardian, The Daily Record and The Sun were all forced to change online articles or issue an apology, their retractions were small and tucked away whereas their splash of column inches vilifying me had been front-page news. And, of course, it eventually and much later became a non-story once the Lord Advocate declared that the investigation into the solicitor was to be dropped.
During these two years, I was nearly completely alone with little emotional or practical support and having had the whip removed by my political party.
They say in times of great stress one takes flight, fights or flees. Initially I froze in the face of this media onslaught – perhaps repeating how I had reacted when I was raped.
I exhibited clear symptoms of stress; such as cognitive dysfunction where I found it hard to process complex information and had difficulty concentrating. I often had a numb mouth and face, I rarely slept through the night (unless with the assistance of some alcohol) and I rarely laughed.
Despite all this, I made the decision to stick it out. I realised that the only thing I could control was how I chose to respond. I chose to respond with (what I hoped) was quiet dignity. I chose to carry on working as hard as I could despite the continued media interest and I decided (rather than just realised) that I had the resilience to do this without knowing at that point how long it would take.
I had to develop coping strategies. I forced myself to get up early even when I had barely slept. I took each day as it came. I realised that the stubborn streak within me (not always a blessing in certain circumstances) could be very useful after all. The Business Select Committee I was on was a reminder that we were there to help other people such as when we forced Sir Philip Green to change his stance on the treatment of BHS pensioners. I gave thanks for the many blessings I had in my life – although it was tough, I was always aware how much harder an average day is for many people in the world. I found out who my real friends were and who was there for me that I could trust.
And so, my decision to speak about something so deeply personal as my rape, in such a public space was me at my lowest ebb where all I had to give was what I stood for. My back was against the wall.
I wrote the speech in my office the night before. I didn’t research statistics or other writings. I told nobody bar my family and only one of my most trusted colleagues.
And that is another thing I learned. People can feel honesty, they can see it and they can hear it. After my speech I received literally thousands of cards, letters, emails and other social media messages with some stories that were tragic. It was shocking to learn that around 1 in 5 women experience some kind of sexual violence.
It seems strange to say, but the overall experience has been challenging but ultimately cathartic. It made me, perhaps for the first time in my life, truly seek to define what I stand for. But none of these things, from real events like my rape, to false media accusations or political briefing against me defines me.
There will have been traumatic events in everyone’s life. Everyone has their own scars. But, although at times it can be very difficult, don't allow the negative, traumatic events to define YOU. You are much, much better than the worst that has happened to you.
There is one thing we all have in common. That one thing is a future.
As I look to my future, what truly defines me? And what are the pillars upon which I create my future?
In no particular order let me explain just three of my pillars. There is music. To the end of my days, music will be my trusted soulmate. For me there can be no greater majesty than a Shostakovich Symphony and no greater magic than the intricacy and pattern-weaving of a Bach fugue.
There are people of importance. My family, my small group of friends and my community that is Scotland.
And there is business: How we do more than just make a living? My latest business was deliberately named Momentous Change. I have recently been appointed to the advisory board of the African Entrepreneurial Network in Kenya and part of the role will involve mentoring young women. I have also been appointed to chair a strategic board based in Westminster that aims to shape positive change in banking for SMEs.
What defines me is how I have coped. I refer to this as resilience – and I choose to ignore the one journalist who recently referred to me as brazen. I am not sure if it were for daring to continue to exist, for daring to dream or for daring to focus on my own future. Brazen. Perhaps a word used by this man to describe women willing to be unafraid. Willing to make the most of their lives. Willing to wake up every day and make a difference; to their own lives, and to the lives of others.
I feel a strange kind of affinity with the words Hugh McDiarmid wrote in 1943 lamenting (hopefully wrongly) the passing of a particular type of woman. He said: 'I must say here that the race of true Scotswomen, iron women, hardy, indomitable, humorous, gay shrewd women with an amazing sense of values, seems to be facing extinction too in today’s Scotland.' I do hope not. I aspire to being a Scottish woman of that ilk.
Keep going. Get up every day. Have faith that all will be well. Give thanks for what you have in your life and don’t waste time bemoaning your own struggles. There will always be someone worse off than you. Choose to be happy. Learn from adversity with humility.
At the end of my speech about rape I stated: 'I am not a victim, I am a survivor.' I now realise I am more than that. I am a winner. You are all winners. Believe that, live that. And keep on going.
Michelle Thomson was a keynote speaker at MT's Inspiring Women conference in Edinburgh. Check out our events here.