I May Destroy You: Michaela Coel shares the real-life experiences that inspired Arabella’s story

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“I sat there sort of realising that the course of my life was forever going to change,” says I May Destroy You creator Michaela Coel.

The final episode of I May Destroy You may have aired, but you better believe that the world is still talking about Michaela Coel’s comedy-drama.

For those who have yet to watch it, the BBC series tells the tale of social media star and author Arabella (Coel), who wakes up after a night out with the hangover from hell and very fuzzy memories of what happened. However, as the day progresses, she begins experiencing a smattering of intrusive, frightening flashbacks – flashbacks that indicate she’s been the victim of a sexual assault.

Essentially, I May Destroy You is the kind of breathtakingly brilliant TV show that will make you laugh out loud and snap your heart in two. And now, speaking on The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon, Coel has now opened up about her semi-autobiographical tale further, sharing the real-life experiences that shaped her story.

“I based the character of Arabella on myself, especially in the beginning,” Coel told Fallon, speaking via a live-stream from her East London flat.

“She’s a writer and she takes a break from work, she goes out for a drink, her drink is spiked, and she’s sexually assaulted by strangers. 

“This was also my story… but it’s also about loads more.”

Michaela Coel in I May Destroy You
Michaela Coel in I May Destroy You

It was at this point that Fallon noted how impressed he was with the show’s expert balance of comedy alongside its serious themes and topics, prompting Coel to reflect on how the tone evolved from her “own reality”.

“I think back to my own reality when I was in the police investigation room getting ready to give my first witness statement, and I sat there sort of realising that the course of my life was forever going to change,” she said. 

“I was sort of realising that something bad had happened, and my friend was taking care of me, and as I looked at him, I noticed he was playing Pokémon Go on his phone.”

Dissolving into giggles, Coel continued: “And that… that was just kind of like… where am I? What is everything? What a circus. What’s going on? 

“It’s rape and Pokémon Go and I don’t know what to do with those two things. But, here they are, in one room.”

Coel previously explained to Radio 1 Newsbeat that she found the process of writing I May Destroy You to be incredibly “cathartic”, as it helped her to confront and make sense of the emotions she experienced after her own assault.

“We respond to trauma and triggering situations in many different ways, it’s not always a pity party,” she said, via the BBC.

“Sometimes we’re in deep denial and it’s not that we’re begging people to believe us, but actually people are pleading for us to believe them about what’s happened to us.”

I May Destroy You on BBC One
A scene from the I May Destroy You finale on BBC One.

Coel added that she hopes that her show and her experiences will not just give survivors a voice, but help those around them to better understand what they’re going through – particularly with regards to self-blame.

“The whole show deals with that moment where consent was stolen from you and you lost the moment where you had agency to make a decision,” she said.

“Pointing to ourselves and blaming ourselves is the most unhelpful thing. We need to be kinder to ourselves a bit more and forgive ourselves for the times when we didn’t say ‘no’ loud enough.”

During the interview with Fallon, Coel also revealed her own unique method for calming her anxiety during the coronavirus lockdown: to dance in the park like no one’s watching.

“My brother came to stay with me, and I asked him, do you want to dance in the park?” she said.

“He’s got his own headphones in, I’ve got mine, and we go to the park, and we start dancing. Every now and again, even though we’re listening to separate music, the beat falls into the same time, and we start doing the same movement.”

When Fallon asked if she attracts any attention with her Covid-inspired dance moves, Coel admitted: “I’m too nervous to look. I just keep my head down and do my own thing.”

According to Rape Crisis, 20% of women and 4% of men have experienced some type of sexual assault since the age of 16 in England and Wales.

If you or anyone you know needs help and support, you can call the Rape Crisis national helpline on 0808 802 9999 (open 12-2.30pm and 7-9.30pm daily). You can also find your nearest centre here or visit the website for more information

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Images: BBC

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Kayleigh Dray

Kayleigh Dray is Stylist’s digital editor-at-large. Her specialist topics include comic books, films, TV and feminism. On a weekend, you can usually find her drinking copious amounts of tea and playing boardgames with her friends.

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