ETCETERA / ANgST: Expert advice on your problems

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The Independent Culture
I was mugged six months ago by three men and they threatened me with a knife. One started touching me sexually and making very lewd remarks and I was transfixed with fear and horror. They could easily have raped me, but one of the men suggested they go before someone came down the street. The incident has preoccupied me since, but I have never reported it. I have told only one close friend. I hate myself for being so feeble. Even though it might have been dangerous to try and fight the men, I feel I should have let them know how disgusted I was. I don't think I'll ever feel safe with myself again.

You are feeling guilty about not being the kind of person who could have dealt with this incident better. Many of us have the idea that those who do not stand up to aggressors are failures. In truth, there is probably nothing you could have done, and it certainly wasn't your fault that it happened. You are also experiencing anger, but instead of directing it against the people who deserve it you have turned it on yourself. You need help in letting go of the guilt and sensing your own strength again. If you wish to remain anonymous, we operate a telephone helpline. We also provide free face-to-face counselling.

Victim's Help Line, St Leonard's, Nuttall Street, London N1 5LZ (071-729 1252).

I am in my mid-forties and my children have left home. It is a strange and scary time, but rather than brood over my empty nest I want to do something to boost my confidence. I have never had much dress sense, wear the same make-up I did 20 years ago and look dull and middle-aged. But I don't know how to set about changing my appearance, and fear I will go out and buy things that don't suit me.

A great many women have spent years looking after other people's needs, and have put their own - including their appearance - on the back burner. They now have no confidence in who they are. The first thing to do is decide what you are least contented with and get to work on that. Often it is hair, and you could try talking to a friend whose hair you like about her hairdresser. Look into your wardrobe and select the clothes you like best because they make you feel best, and think about how you could add to them. A lot of middle-aged women feel they cannot risk making fools of themselves and so go for a very conservative look, but in fact many can wear an adult version - a slightly looser fit, a few inches on hems - of the look they had when younger. But for people who really do not feel confident, the best thing is to go to an image consultant who will advise on a total approach - from the colours and styles likely to suit you best in clothes and make-up, to how different hairstyles will work on your face.

Bel Hislop, Working Image, 17 Aubert Road, London N5 1TX (071-354 2944).

My father, my last parent, died a year ago and I would never have guessed how empty life would seem. A month ago I felt so alone that I went to the West End of London because I wanted to be among people. I went into shops, and found myself really wanting a beautiful sweater on display. I couldn't afford it and walked away, but I kept going back to look. In the end, because nobody seemed to be taking any notice of me, I put it into my carrier bag. A store detective stopped me, and now I am due to go to court on a shoplifting charge. I am terrified and terribly depressed, and I don't know where to turn for help.

What you describe is pure depression and loneliness linked to your father's death. Shoplifting in the way you describe, an isolated incident which you fail to comprehend afterwards, is a compulsion and often people cannot prevent themselves doing it. It might comfort you to know that something like this happens to 60 per cent of people. But obviously you need help. Could you confide in a good friend and get her (or him) to go to court with you? I also suggest you contact us. We can sometimes help by letting the authorities know when psychological circumstances may have played a part in shoplifting, and we can give you advice on practical matters.

Portia Trust 24-hour helpline (0785 222272).