Ruth Salmon: ‘I didn’t want to be a rape survivor… I wanted to thrive’

Ruth Salmon’s dreams of starting a new life in Italy became a living hell when she was assaulted in her apartment. She tells Eimear O’Hagan how coping with the traumatic aftermath of the attack led her to become her own therapist

Sitting on the balcony of her apartment overlooking Lake Garda, Ruth Salmon wept uncontrollably. Hours before, she had been raped in her home after a date with a local man. In the time it took for him to violently attack her, Ruth’s dream of living and working in Italy had turned into a nightmare.

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In April 2007, Ruth, then 31, had boarded a flight from Manchester to Verona, ready for her new life to begin. ‘Previously I’d worked as a producer in TV and radio, living in London and working for ITV. But after holidaying in Italy for the first time in 2002, I’d fallen in love with the country, the people, the culture. I began to dream of living there, rather than just being a tourist.’

Over the next five years, Ruth returned to Italy several times and learned the language, before applying for a job as a travel rep. ‘It seemed the perfect way to test out living there, and when I was told I was being sent to Lake Garda for the summer season, I was over the moon. I was a bit nervous because I’d never visited the north of the country, but couldn’t wait to move into my apartment overlooking the lake and live as a local.’

Life at Lake Garda, however, wasn’t quite what Ruth had been hoping for. Although the backdrop was beautiful, the community didn’t embrace strangers and she found herself feeling extremely isolated.

‘I was the only rep for miles, the community was not particularly welcoming and I was lonely. This man, who was Italian, had been kind to me, friendly, and although looking back there were warning signs – like his very crude sense of humour, which ordinarily would have rung alarm bells – I ignored them because I just needed that human connection.’

On the night she was raped, Ruth had broken the news over a drink that she was leaving Lake Garda – the company she worked for was relocating her to its office in Sorrento for the remainder of the season.

‘I’d been overjoyed by this reshuffle; I couldn’t wait to leave. But when I told him he seemed disappointed. I was surprised because it wasn’t serious between us – we’d only had three dates and hadn’t slept together.

‘He came back to my apartment after our drink, and suddenly he was forcing himself on me on the sofa. I couldn’t get away from him and even if I had, I knew my neighbours were away. There was nobody around to hear me scream or help me. I had no option but to simply let it happen, and my mind and body went completely numb.

‘Afterwards he sat beside me, chatting about pictures on the walls as if nothing had happened, while I sat in shock, my mind screaming, “You’ve been raped.” I was so frightened of him: if he could do this, what else was he capable of? Somehow, I held it together until he left, then collapsed to the floor in tears.’

Five days later Ruth flew south to Sorrento, carrying the secret of what had happened to her. ‘The main reason I didn’t involve the police was because I didn’t think I would be believed. When he was on top of me, I saw something in his eyes – I realised he was determined to make me have an orgasm and so I faked one, to bring it to an end. And that worked because once I did that, he stopped, he seemed to have got what he wanted. But how could I have possibly explained that to the police, and make them believe me when the man I’d been dating would say I enjoyed myself? I imagined him and the police joking about me, and so I wasn’t brave enough to go, which is something I regretted for a long time.

Ruth today; her passion for nature played a crucial part in her healing process.

‘I almost told another rep that week, and I contemplated calling my mum in the UK, but I didn’t. What could anybody do? Telling people I cared for would only cause them upset, so I kept my secret.

‘Naively I thought I could leave it behind in Lake Garda – that moving to Sorrento would free me of the trauma I felt inside – but of course that wasn’t the case. Day and night a voice in my head said the word “rape” over and over, sometimes loudly, sometimes quietly.

‘I went to work, which was an all-female office, so I felt safe there, and to an outsider I looked as if I was functioning normally. But afterwards I’d lock myself in my apartment, cowering away from bustling, noisy Sorrento, haunted by that voice. I’d watch people having coffee on the terrace of a neighbouring café but couldn’t summon the courage even to go there, terrified that a man would speak to me. I now saw men as dangerous, any sort of interaction with them a risk.’

A few times Ruth forced herself to leave her flat and take a ferry to the neighbouring island of Capri, where she found that walking the coastal paths alone, with her camera in her hand, soothed her temporarily. ‘I felt cocooned by nature, and photographing the landscape gave me brief respite from the stomach-churning fear I was living with. It wouldn’t last, though. As soon as I’d return to busy Sorrento my anxiety levels would spike and I couldn’t wait to close my front door behind me.

‘At night I’d stay awake for as long as I could because when I slept, I’d have nightmares. Before the rape I’d regularly meditated but I stopped, too afraid of where my mind might wander to.’

In October 2007, Ruth’s seasonal contract ended and she returned to the UK, moving in with her mother and stepfather in Crewe, Cheshire, where she became increasingly reclusive and depressed. ‘I took on some temping work, but apart from that I rarely left the house. I made excuses not to catch up with friends because I knew they’d want to hear about Italy. My mum Kate and her partner were concerned, but I just couldn’t bring myself to tell them why I’d come home such a different person.’

In January 2008, Ruth developed a raging sore throat. First diagnosed as a virus and treated with pain relief, when it didn’t ease she was referred for multiple investigations at her local hospital, but doctors could find nothing wrong.

‘I was in agony. I couldn’t speak because it was so sore and I had to rely on texting notes on my phone to communicate,’ she remembers. ‘I couldn’t work. I was in pain and I knew life was passing me by as I existed in what felt like a dark tunnel. My one pleasure was gardening, being outdoors in nature was still a balm to my emotions.’

In the summer of 2008 came a breakthrough. After Ruth’s mother contacted a homeopath, desperate to find her daughter a diagnosis and cure where traditional medicine had failed, he suggested to Ruth her painful throat was a physical manifestation of an unspoken trauma.

‘As soon as he said that, I burst into tears. I knew he was right. I was deeply shocked that what had happened a year before was now affecting my physical as well as my mental health. The symbolism that I’d been silenced by the rape was frightening to come to terms with.

‘Finally, I confided in Mum, whispering croakily the secret I’d carried for so long. She held me and we both cried; I felt some relief verbalising what had happened and explaining why I’d changed so much.’

Ruth with husband Drew at their wedding in 2019

Emboldened, Ruth made the decision to have therapy and after spending more than a year on an NHS waiting list, she began cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) in late 2009. ‘Before beginning, I’d had an assessment and was told, to my great shock, that I was suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). I thought it was something that only affected soldiers after wars – I had absolutely no idea it could be caused by a sexual assault.’

Ruth had 20 sessions of CBT but felt it did little to allay her trauma. ‘At each session I had to read an account I’d written of what had happened that night. But reliving it every week, dredging up the memories, I didn’t feel desensitised – I felt more traumatised. It didn’t help me in real life: I was still scared of men, still reclusive. It just wasn’t working for me. I stopped because I believe if I’d carried on, I’d have suffered a breakdown.’

Far from feeling despondent that therapy had failed to help, Ruth, determined to move forward with her life, had begun to devise her own methods of healing.

Recognising that being outdoors among nature and indulging her passion for landscape photography had provided the only release from her emotional turmoil over the two and a half years since she was attacked, she began to focus on drawing further comfort from these practices.

‘I’d drive to a gorgeous little village 30 minutes away and just lose myself in the beauty of the surrounding countryside, the voice in my head silent as I absorbed myself in taking photos, focusing on the flowers and plants, with no fear or anxiety haunting my thoughts. It was incredibly therapeutic and gave me such a sense of peace every time I went.

‘Every day I walked in nature, noticing the changes in the hedgerows, the colours, hearing the birdsong. Gradually I felt stronger, braver, even able to sit in the village pub and have a drink while I chatted with the barmaid – a huge step for me.

‘Alongside this, I read self-help books, meditated, practised mindfulness and watched webinars by life coaches and healers about the power of the mind, and how to release trauma. It took time, but I slowly healed. The voice in my head went quiet, the pain in my throat vanished, I stopped fearing the outside world and men. Finally, I was living in the light, not darkness.’

In July 2011, Ruth met her husband Drew, 55, after he moved in next door, and they married in 2019. ‘By then I felt emotionally much stronger and after chatting over the garden fence, and instinctively feeling I could trust this handsome, kind man, we began to date. Sitting opposite him in a restaurant felt so wonderful – to be out with a man, to feel attracted to him. I’d come such a long way.

‘I told Drew about the rape early on in our relationship, mainly because I was struggling with intimacy and felt tense when we slept together. I wanted him to understand it was nothing to do with him, it was me.

‘I knew for some men that revelation would be too much to cope with, and I was concerned about opening up to him, but felt I had to. He was shocked but so supportive – it made no difference to his feelings. With time that side of our relationship became more relaxed for me.’

Using her personal experiences and methods of recovery, in 2011 Ruth devised and launched her own therapeutic course called Healing with Photography.

‘Originally it was aimed at anyone suffering from PTSD, because I wasn’t ready to reveal publicly my own experience of being raped,’ she says. ‘It began as face-to-face group sessions, working with the mental health charity Mind and the Manchester United Foundation – a charity that works with disadvantaged young people – teaching techniques such as mindfulness and meditation alongside photography as a vehicle for reflection and healing. Over time the course has evolved and now, using the same methods, it’s online and targeted at people who have experienced rape.’

For Ruth, life now is about looking forwards not back. ‘I don’t call myself a survivor,’ she says. ‘It wasn’t enough for me to just survive what happened. I wanted to recover and thrive, and I have. I don’t think of that Italian man and I don’t waste time wishing that night never happened. It can’t be changed, so I don’t dwell on who I might be or the path my life may have taken.

‘Instead, I focus on my gratitude for my recovery, and the strength I have built within myself and which I now share with other women, to help them feel safe in the world again too.’

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