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Alison Heather's story

'I was 12 when I realised what the internet was – "Wow! What is this? Oh my gosh!" But, of course, I had no idea about how to be safe online: I didn't know what any of the signs were.'

But others, waiting at their screens, knew what to look for. A predator saw this girl called Alison appear online in the 2000s and started a conversation.

'I didn't see any problem talking to older people, because I had older siblings, and had spent lots of time with their friends', Alison said. In fact, Eric was just eight years her senior, but far more worldly than the girl who described herself as 'shy but pretty bubbly. I was very outdoorsy, always did well at school’.

'Our family life was good, I had very strong bond with my mum, she was almost like another sibling.' But just at that crucial time her mother was distracted by her own parents undergoing severe health crises.

The online chat progressed to real-life meetings, and Eric was soon visiting Alison at home – after he insisted she tell her family he was only 15.

'My family thought it was some sort of normal relationship, though they were a bit uneasy about it. But he threatened me and told me to tell them he was younger than he was.'

This controlling behaviour cast a shadow over Alison's life.

'He was emotionally, physically and sexually abusive, and I was too scared to tell someone … I was very depressed, suicidal. And I drank. He supplied me with alcohol most of the time – to make it easier, I suppose.'

After nearly two years, Alison plucked up the courage to tell a school counsellor about her situation. She received no comfort.

'I went in there with a black eye … I said, "There's a guy stalking me, he's showing up at my house, it's happening regularly". And she didn't believe me. She said, "That seems a little far-fetched …" It was because I admitted I'd been drinking.'

But Alison soon found the strength to end the relationship by herself. 'Finally I got really angry, I had enough anger to stand up for myself. But it was still quite a long process of me being very firm, locking him out and making sure he couldn't show up.'

With Eric now out of her life, Alison began dealing with the emotional impact of the abuse. To cope, she again sought help at school.

'Tom McDougal was one of the friendliest teachers, the most approachable – and I knew his daughter, she became my best friend.

'I told him about the abuse and he said he supported me. He chatted with me about it for a bit, and then he said he would share this with other teachers. I said that was fine.

'But as far as I know he didn't do that.'

Instead, McDougal began to groom Alison.

'He knew that I was depressed, suicidal and had a problem with drinking … He would sometimes allow me to be out of class, he'd come and do errands with me. At first I felt he was just allowing me some space – but now it looks like it was under the guise of just letting me spend more time with him.'

Alison soon became uneasy. 'It was scary, it wasn't a comfortable connection. I think he was looking for a sexual scenario. He would text me lots of sexual things.'

She says the sex never actually happened, 'though he would grope me sometimes when dropping me home from school. And at Christmas, just after I'd turned 16, he showed up where I worked and brought me a present – a bottle of bourbon and a G-string'.

After two years, Alison moved to another school and again found the strength to end the relationship.

'I stopped going round to his home … I told his daughter, she was not surprised. She said she suspected that he was like that. She supported me, we talked – but neither of us knew what to do about it.'

These two abusive relationships have haunted Alison. 'On a good day, I feel strong. Other times – at best, broken. Mostly fragile … I've recently been diagnosed with complex post-traumatic stress syndrome.'

After nearly 10 years she consulted another counsellor – with a far more positive result. 'She sort of uncovered the abuse, 'cause I never really talk to anyone about it. And she just said, "Are you aware it's not your fault?"

'Then I went and told a couple of friends, and got the same feedback, so the next day I went to the police. And once I'd had one meeting there, I realised I can't keep this from my mum.' Her mother was ‘horrified for me but very supportive’.

McDougal recently died and the police warned Alison that taking Eric to court would probably end inconclusively in a 'he said, she said' confrontation. Alison has decided to let it go and get on with life.

Looking back she regrets the lack of warning about internet safety: she hopes that schools can start teaching children how to avoid dangerous contacts. And she also notes that children may not realise what's being done to them is wrong.

'I didn't really know that I was being abused. I thought this is what happened, this is what all interactions with males and females were like.

'I felt that for a really long time. And no one ever told me differently.'

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