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‘I Am Fighting Still’: Navigating My Mental Health As A Survivor Of Child Abuse

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By Manjiri Indurkar:

It’s a lazy July afternoon. I am standing in the kitchen of our newly renovated house when my neighbour comes to me, asking if I have a little time. As I butter my toast, she talks. She tells me about a birthday surprise that has been planned for her brother-in-law. She wants me to say something nice about him — a fond memory, if I can recall any. I have several of those.

I once got into a bet with him over a few guavas, my favourite fruit as a kid. He asked me to eat a spoonful of salt, and if I did that, I would get to take as many guavas from the tree in his backyard as I wanted. So, I ate a spoonful of salt, and was told I would get to take the guavas.

On the tree, as I tried plucking them, the smell of guavas that were ripe just the right amount was in the air, and there was a flood of saliva in my mouth. He climbed the tree to help me, and it was the first time I felt something poking me hard from behind. It was strange, it hurt a little, it was confusing, and it was also exciting. The guavas fell from my hand, and I didn’t ever climb that tree again.

It became a routine. No game of hide-and-seek was ever played without me being in hiding with him for several minutes. I was six, and I really wanted to be out. I was the one supposed to catch them. But I could not. A friend walked inside a room seeking the seeker, and turned away.

No one was supposed to see that. I was angry. She asked me, I told her, and she felt sad. Why is no one loving her, she asked me. And we didn’t ever talk about that day. We still haven’t. I often wonder if she remembers, but I don’t ask. I turn my rage into poetry.

Another fond memory I have is of an afternoon spent listening to him as he narrated stories of people who lived in our small colony, in this small central-Indian town. They sounded like fun people in his stories, spending time making ice cream and sandwiches, and guarding the colony against thieves by patrolling its roads at night.

That day, brother-in-law told me the story of a woman, the grandmother of a colony friend. She lived much before I was born. She was a local legend, almost. She was old and the matriarch of her family, who he said had ‘gone insane’ with age. She used to roam the colony streets in her petticoat and blouse at night, he said and laughed — and I laughed too. Only ‘mad women’ roam around in their petticoats and blouses. And she was ‘mad’, he said with a smirk. She was the first ‘mad woman’ I learnt about, from a man who eventually became the reason behind my madness.

Fond memory number three: I was in standard six. A group of men had raped the Jhabua nuns. We were officially learning the word rape in school, but most of us, thanks to Bollywood, already knew what it meant. And some of us had already experienced it.

It is then that my convent school decided we should be given sex education. This meant that we were to abstain lest we became pregnant or contracted the HIV virus. So an idea took shape in my mind — I had AIDS. What else could explain my viral fever turning into a kidney infection? A ‘normal’ 11-year-old wouldn’t even blink an eyelid over a kidney infection, and here I was, weeping silently into the nights, counting my days that soon would be over.

It has been close to two decades now, I am no longer a scared 11-year-old, and I did not contract the HIV virus. But I do believe that this is where my journey with illnesses began. For a period of three years, I was a victim of sexual assault.

Description: This is a photograph of a person with long hair, their face in shadows.
Description: This is a photograph of a person with long hair, their face in shadows. Credit: Sodanie Chea via Flickr, CC BY 2.0.

I was only six when it all began, and I was unequipped to either handle or understand the situation. So I put the thoughts behind me, locked them up in a corner of my mind. I told myself these things don’t bother me, a façade that broke a few years ago, when they did start bothering me. A serious bout of illness brought back my anxiety in full swing, and that brought back all the memories of the past. It was harder to put them behind me this time, so I decided to seek help.

It was three years ago, while I was finishing my MA, that I was diagnosed with clinical depression, anxiety disorder, and, unsurprisingly, hypochondria. As crippling as my depression was, it was also high functioning. So I was doing well in studies, and I was trying to run a literary magazine of my own even as I was struggling with the idea of getting out of bed, leaving the house, climbing down the stairs, riding the metro, entering the class, eating my food, everything. Every action demanded serious thought. I would sleep very close to a wall, stare at the marks left on it by my oily scalp, and wonder if it would ever be over.

There was a time in my life when my abusers (yes, there was more than one) decided, without checking with me, that they had had enough of me. And so, it all stopped. By this time though, I had fallen in love with the brother-in-law. Do 10-year-olds fall in love? And since I had stopped receiving love from him, I was desperate for answers and his attention.

In my mind I knew this was wrong, there were days when I was running away from him and all others. When I was trying to play alone, not step out of the house, or pass by his, lest I be summoned. But now that it had gone away, I felt rejected, I blamed myself. I developed hatred for my body — hatred that has lasted a lifetime.

My mind and my body since then have shared a strange connection. Mental illnesses have helped forge these connections. My hatred for my body has come out in the form of diseases it is plagued with. A lot of the pain I suffer from is psychosomatic, but this doesn’t mean it isn’t real. For instance, a few days ago, I was talking to my aunt who was complaining about her aching knees. This reminded me of the pain in my knees.

This pain, that hadn’t made its presence felt in quite a while, was something I started experiencing when my mother was diagnosed with rheumatoid arthritis. I got my blood tests done and nothing came up, but the pain persisted — and one day, it was gone. It left no note, it gave no indication of return; it just went away, rejecting my body. But the minute I started thinking about it, it came back. Like it was waiting for me to miss it, like I needed to earn its attention, to name the devil.

For someone suffering from health anxiety, attention to diseases is easy to come by. What’s not easy is to be able to express this anxiety and be taken seriously. Hypochondriacs are often mocked for their belief in diseases that don’t really exist; what people fail to understand is that even if the illness isn’t real, the fear of it is. It is why a lot of my problems are centered around my struggles with health anxiety.

In a twisted way, my hatred for my body manifests from the abuse my body was subjected to. My body gets blamed for my abusive past, and I have abused my body in order to avoid abuse, developing hatred for it in the process. My obese body is now a vault of diseases, and for the longest time I used it as a shield — no one violates a fat girl, after all. But obesity, physical illness, and this hatred have lead to a life of loneliness, which has translated into depression.

There have been days when I have broken down in the middle of the road and started crying for no real reason. Every other day, I suffer from a panic attack which often mimics a heart attack. I still find it hard to breathe normally, I have to take breaths deep enough that my lungs feel stretched, or else breathing is impossible.

I almost always put my phone on silent because the buzzing scares me to an extent that I cannot function. I am afraid of talking to people most days, even if I know them, so meeting people is a real effort. I go silent mid-sentence, and sometimes rush to the washroom because I have to cry. I have to let out this angst somehow, or it will consume me. My depression casts tall shadows on me, rendering me invisible, which, in all honesty, isn’t something I mind all that much. I’d much rather hide than be seen.

Description: This is a black and white photograph, taken upside down, of a person lying in a bed, looking at a blank wall.
Description: This is a black and white photograph, taken upside down, of a person lying in a bed, looking at a blank wall. Credit: Sodanie Chea via Flickr, CC BY 2.0.

For the past couple of years, I have been obsessed with the idea that there is something wrong with my stomach. My stomach that has on very few occasions really bothered me, suddenly became the bane of my existence. I couldn’t eat out, I couldn’t attend classes, I couldn’t travel in trains because what if I get diarrhoea and there were no clean toilets around? So I was restricting myself to my house.

My therapist and I spent sessions discussing this obsession. And one day it became clear. My body and my otherwise healthy stomach were involved in a purging of sorts. Now that I was willingly talking about my past, my body was getting rid of the shit gathering around my organs. This was my body’s way of healing, and my fear was about losing the comfort of misery. Could I identify with myself, if I were healed, if I were cured of my past? My bowel, said my therapist, was like a sieve, filtering out my abusive past. So I let it.

I am not saying I am healed. I still struggle on a daily basis. But now I let my body decide its destiny. I fight depression through a routine of healthy eating and exercise, I try to reduce my social isolation by calling friends and making mindless conversation. I am fighting and often losing against my body hatred.

But I am fighting still. I am talking about my struggles and finding empathy in return from an army of abuse survivors who unlike me have been openly talking about their experiences, on the various online communities and in university spaces, and who I wouldn’t have discovered without initiating this journey.

When my neighbor came to me with the request of recalling a fond memory, a friend suggested I record a video narrating my experiences of abuse under the hands of the man, and send that as a birthday gift.

I am not the one to seek revenge, but it did make me wonder, what would his reaction be, if I did send him such a video? Would anyone take me seriously? Would they question the brother-in-law, who was the dream child of my parents — a great student, an IITian no less, an obedient, funny, quiet child, whose dedication to his education was the stuff of legends in our colony?

Would they, like me, blame him for all my manic episodes and anxiety attacks? I don’t think I will ever know. So, I told my neighbour I would think about something to say. And, to tell you the truth, I am still thinking.


Manjiri Indurkar is a poet-writer from a small Indian town called Jabalpur. She is one of the founders and editors of the literary magazine Antiserious.

This post was originally published on Skin Stories.

If you are a survivor, parent or guardian who wants to seek help for child sexual abuse, or know someone who might, you can dial 1098 for CHILDLINE (a 24-hour national helpline) or email them at dial1098@childlineindia.org.in. You can also call NGO Arpan on their helpline 091-98190-86444, for counselling support.

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An ambassador and trained facilitator under Eco Femme (a social enterprise working towards menstrual health in south India), Sanjina is also an active member of the MHM Collective- India and Menstrual Health Alliance- India. She has conducted Menstrual Health sessions in multiple government schools adopted by Rotary District 3240 as part of their WinS project in rural Bengal. She has also delivered training of trainers on SRHR, gender, sexuality and Menstruation for Tomorrow’s Foundation, Vikramshila Education Resource Society, Nirdhan trust and Micro Finance, Tollygunj Women In Need, Paint It Red in Kolkata.

Now as an MH Fellow with YKA, she’s expanding her impressive scope of work further by launching a campaign to facilitate the process of ensuring better menstrual health and SRH services for women residing in correctional homes in West Bengal. The campaign will entail an independent study to take stalk of the present conditions of MHM in correctional homes across the state and use its findings to build public support and political will to take the necessary action.

Saurabh has been associated with YKA as a user and has consistently been writing on the issue MHM and its intersectionality with other issues in the society. Now as an MHM Fellow with YKA, he’s launched the Right to Period campaign, which aims to ensure proper execution of MHM guidelines in Delhi’s schools.

The long-term aim of the campaign is to develop an open culture where menstruation is not treated as a taboo. The campaign also seeks to hold the schools accountable for their responsibilities as an important component in the implementation of MHM policies by making adequate sanitation infrastructure and knowledge of MHM available in school premises.

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Harshita is a psychologist and works to support people with mental health issues, particularly adolescents who are survivors of violence. Associated with the Azadi Foundation in UP, Harshita became an MHM Fellow with YKA, with the aim of promoting better menstrual health.

Her campaign #MeriMarzi aims to promote menstrual health and wellness, hygiene and facilities for female sex workers in UP. She says, “Knowledge about natural body processes is a very basic human right. And for individuals whose occupation is providing sexual services, it becomes even more important.”

Meri Marzi aims to ensure sensitised, non-discriminatory health workers for the needs of female sex workers in the Suraksha Clinics under the UPSACS (Uttar Pradesh State AIDS Control Society) program by creating more dialogues and garnering public support for the cause of sex workers’ menstrual rights. The campaign will also ensure interventions with sex workers to clear misconceptions around overall hygiene management to ensure that results flow both ways.

Read more about her campaign.

MH Fellow Sabna comes with significant experience working with a range of development issues. A co-founder of Project Sakhi Saheli, which aims to combat period poverty and break menstrual taboos, Sabna has, in the past, worked on the issue of menstruation in urban slums of Delhi with women and adolescent girls. She and her team also released MenstraBook, with menstrastories and organised Menstra Tlk in the Delhi School of Social Work to create more conversations on menstruation.

With YKA MHM Fellow Vineet, Sabna launched Menstratalk, a campaign that aims to put an end to period poverty and smash menstrual taboos in society. As a start, the campaign aims to begin conversations on menstrual health with five hundred adolescents and youth in Delhi through offline platforms, and through this community mobilise support to create Period Friendly Institutions out of educational institutes in the city.

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A student from Delhi School of Social work, Vineet is a part of Project Sakhi Saheli, an initiative by the students of Delhi school of Social Work to create awareness on Menstrual Health and combat Period Poverty. Along with MHM Action Fellow Sabna, Vineet launched Menstratalk, a campaign that aims to put an end to period poverty and smash menstrual taboos in society.

As a start, the campaign aims to begin conversations on menstrual health with five hundred adolescents and youth in Delhi through offline platforms, and through this community mobilise support to create Period Friendly Institutions out of educational institutes in the city.

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A native of Bhagalpur district – Bihar, Shalini Jha believes in equal rights for all genders and wants to work for a gender-equal and just society. In the past she’s had a year-long association as a community leader with Haiyya: Organise for Action’s Health Over Stigma campaign. She’s pursuing a Master’s in Literature with Ambedkar University, Delhi and as an MHM Fellow with YKA, recently launched ‘Project अल्हड़ (Alharh)’.

She says, “Bihar is ranked the lowest in India’s SDG Index 2019 for India. Hygienic and comfortable menstruation is a basic human right and sustainable development cannot be ensured if menstruators are deprived of their basic rights.” Project अल्हड़ (Alharh) aims to create a robust sensitised community in Bhagalpur to collectively spread awareness, break the taboo, debunk myths and initiate fearless conversations around menstruation. The campaign aims to reach at least 6000 adolescent girls from government and private schools in Baghalpur district in 2020.

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A psychologist and co-founder of a mental health NGO called Customize Cognition, Ritika forayed into the space of menstrual health and hygiene, sexual and reproductive healthcare and rights and gender equality as an MHM Fellow with YKA. She says, “The experience of working on MHM/SRHR and gender equality has been an enriching and eye-opening experience. I have learned what’s beneath the surface of the issue, be it awareness, lack of resources or disregard for trans men, who also menstruate.”

The Transmen-ses campaign aims to tackle the issue of silence and disregard for trans men’s menstruation needs, by mobilising gender sensitive health professionals and gender neutral restrooms in Lucknow.

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A Computer Science engineer by education, Nitisha started her career in the corporate sector, before realising she wanted to work in the development and social justice space. Since then, she has worked with Teach For India and Care India and is from the founding batch of Indian School of Development Management (ISDM), a one of its kind organisation creating leaders for the development sector through its experiential learning post graduate program.

As a Youth Ki Awaaz Menstrual Health Fellow, Nitisha has started Let’s Talk Period, a campaign to mobilise young people to switch to sustainable period products. She says, “80 lakh women in Delhi use non-biodegradable sanitary products, generate 3000 tonnes of menstrual waste, that takes 500-800 years to decompose; which in turn contributes to the health issues of all menstruators, increased burden of waste management on the city and harmful living environment for all citizens.

Let’s Talk Period aims to change this by

Find out more about her campaign here.

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A former Assistant Secretary with the Ministry of Women and Child Development in West Bengal for three months, Lakshmi Bhavya has been championing the cause of menstrual hygiene in her district. By associating herself with the Lalana Campaign, a holistic menstrual hygiene awareness campaign which is conducted by the Anahat NGO, Lakshmi has been slowly breaking taboos when it comes to periods and menstrual hygiene.

A Gender Rights Activist working with the tribal and marginalized communities in india, Srilekha is a PhD scholar working on understanding body and sexuality among tribal girls, to fill the gaps in research around indigenous women and their stories. Srilekha has worked extensively at the grassroots level with community based organisations, through several advocacy initiatives around Gender, Mental Health, Menstrual Hygiene and Sexual and Reproductive Health Rights (SRHR) for the indigenous in Jharkhand, over the last 6 years.

Srilekha has also contributed to sustainable livelihood projects and legal aid programs for survivors of sex trafficking. She has been conducting research based programs on maternal health, mental health, gender based violence, sex and sexuality. Her interest lies in conducting workshops for young people on life skills, feminism, gender and sexuality, trauma, resilience and interpersonal relationships.

A Guwahati-based college student pursuing her Masters in Tata Institute of Social Sciences, Bidisha started the #BleedwithDignity campaign on the technology platform Change.org, demanding that the Government of Assam install
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Bidisha was selected in Change.org’s flagship program ‘She Creates Change’ having run successful online advocacy
campaigns, which were widely recognised. Through the #BleedwithDignity campaign; she organised and celebrated World Menstrual Hygiene Day, 2019 in Guwahati, Assam by hosting a wall mural by collaborating with local organisations. The initiative was widely covered by national and local media, and the mural was later inaugurated by the event’s chief guest Commissioner of Guwahati Municipal Corporation (GMC) Debeswar Malakar, IAS.

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