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When Secrets Turn Into Stories: Living With PTSD As A Young Queer Woman

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By Anonymous:

Two of my most vivid memories are situated in balconies.

One, age 12: My mother was working late and I was left to babysit my drunken father. I knew that if he passed out, I’d get yelled at. So when he stumbled into the balcony of our uncomfortable — yet seemingly perfect — home, I begged him not to drink his fourth glass of whiskey. He screamed at me, too drunk to form proper words, grabbed my legs and tossed me over the railing. I will never forget wanting to fall into the night below me as I hung onto a black iron railing for my life; I can still feel the cold on my fingertips. I somehow summoned the upper body strength and climbed back to safety, and I regret it every day.

Two, age 15: I was at a sleepover and I had my first kiss. My lips felt like fire and popping candy. I had excused myself to the balcony to soak it all in, in disbelief that another girl could like me. The dawn was blue and I wish I could remember the happy fluttering of my heart.

I am 19 years old now — a fairly successful college student with good grades, lots of friends and tremendous mental health issues. I’ve gone on to kiss a few more girls and collect many more injuries at the hands of my father. I have one foot inside of the closet, but I wear a proud rainbow shoe on the other. My close friends know about the abuse: they have seen my scars, held my hand through panic attacks and seen glimpses of my vulnerability. However, I constantly feel like I am drowning in secrets. And secrets breed shame.

And my shame is the biggest way in which my PTSD and lesbianism are linked.

The first time I spoke about these secrets was at the beginning of eleventh grade, when one of my best friends came out of the closet. When he stared into my eyes and confessed his secret, I knew I had to tell him I was gay. But saying that after four years of keeping it to myself wasn’t nearly as freeing as telling him about my father. Confessing my queerness came with instinctively pouring my heart out about everything that hurt me, and everything I had held in. I realised how all the guilt, hurt and shame sitting in the pit of my stomach was entangled.

Description: An illustration of a girl sitting with her legs bent, head resting on her knees. Her dress is patterned. Credit: Helena Perez García via Flickr, CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

It is common for queer youth to feel ashamed of their identities, and people who have experienced childhood trauma tend to feel a similar way about their experiences. My first memory is of my father getting drunk and burning me with a lighter when I was three years old. I didn’t do anything — three-year-olds aren’t capable of doing anything that warrants being burnt. Thus, I have grown up assuming that my existence warrants burns, bruises and cuts. Since these were things that were wrong with me and my family, I knew it was unacceptable to talk about them.

Once I expressed shame and grief to my friend for the first time, it became more difficult to tuck the pain away into corners and avoid feeling it all the time. By the end of that year, insomnia and suicidal thoughts took over my life. My mother finally took me to a counsellor behind my father’s back. I spent several sessions talking to a dismissive professional in a sterile hospital room, who only suggested medical intervention when she found out that I was a lesbian. To her, that was the hallmark of my trauma.

Although Freud’s theories about sexuality have been disregarded by most members of the contemporary academic community, pop culture is still heavily riddled with assumptions about sexuality and trauma. I spent a lot of time believing that if I worked through my trauma, I’d ‘turn’ straight. I was ashamed of my sexuality because it meant that I was weak — I had let my dad affect me.

Navigating mental health care as a queer person is difficult: I attend a support group to help me deal with the trauma of growing up in an alcoholic household. My current therapist recommended it to me — she thought meeting people with similar experiences would alleviate my loneliness. It’s where I feel most at home, with people who seem to share almost all my dysfunctional traits, people who also have nightmares and flashbacks and live lives wracked with guilt and shame. It is there where I feel most understood, yet I still harbour a secret. I don’t know how my group will react if they find out that I’m a lesbian; most of them are older, slightly conservative and haven’t been exposed to the idea of queerness. So I don’t talk about the immense dysfunctionality that I have had in all my romantic relationships, or my insecurities when it comes to sex.

Trauma recovery is often focused on living a ‘normal’ life, and socially defined normalcy is not something I can achieve. I am learning to make peace with that. However, even some of the most progressive people I know who reject the notion of normalcy, have had unsolicited opinions about my sexuality.

‘Are you sure you’re actually a lesbian?’ my friend asked me a few months ago, when I told her about a crush I had on a gorgeous senior at college. ‘You know how you’re scared of men? Are you just averse to masculinity? The girls you like are always so femme.’

When I narrated how almost all girls I’ve been attracted to consider themselves feminine, another friend accused me of being sexist.

‘So you only like girls who act girly?’ he remarked. ‘Is that why you are so feminine?’

He didn’t know about my father, but sentiments like his are what send me spiralling into identity crises: if a man coming too close to me can give me a panic attack, am I generalising masculinity? Am I legitimising gender norms? Am I sexist? Is #NotAllMen a valid hashtag, then?

Questions like these make me doubt my personal and political beliefs. Although I stand for compassion and treating people with respect, I often find myself being instinctively insensitive and malicious. Most of the time, I manage to force kindness and feign empathy. However, the dissonance between my beliefs and thoughts make me feel like a hypocrite. We often talk about empathy at my support group, and how going through childhood trauma can make it difficult to understand emotions that don’t have to do with deep-rooted pain and traumatic experiences. We hold our own experiences as a yardstick, and when people experience problems that we don’t relate to, we react with anger.

Description: Intricate vines are painted against a black background. From the top of the vines emerges a face in profile, painted in white with a red circle on the cheek. Credit: Helena Perez García via Flickr, CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

When queer friends complain about their parents being concerned about their gender or sexuality, I get jealous. I want to tell them that they’re lucky their parents are concerned about them at all. Words like ‘institutionalised violence’ and ‘emotional abuse’ only make sense to me on an intellectual and theoretical level. A bisexual friend told me about how her mother told her to keep her sexuality a secret from her grandparents.

‘That’s institutionalised violence,’ she said.

To me, violence is being chased up the stairs with a golf-club, being thrown against the wall, having a glass tossed at the back of your head. To me, violence is tangible and destructive and repetitive — it’s never an isolated incident. It’s having a flashback in the safety of my dorm room and having panic attacks all through the night, or feeling so distraught that my body is incapable of doing anything but crying for five hours until I eventually throw up.

The amount of strength it takes to work through all of this grief is not something a lot of people will understand. So when people speak about violence and trauma of a different kind, I react with jealousy. I find myself wishing my definition of violence involved navigating a conservative, but loving family. I know these feelings are wrong, so again, I hide them. I hold them inside, letting them ruminate and make me feel like an insensitive, bad person. My father’s accusations of me being a ‘bitch’ or ‘waste of space’ or ‘child from hell’ all seem valid.

One of my biggest fears is that one day, the world will see in me what my dad sees. However, maybe it is worse that I see these things in myself — that my trauma and shame shape how I view myself. Maybe the ultimate consequence of shame is self-loathing, and there’s only one way to fix it: telling my story.

I write this anonymously because it is not just my story — it is my mother’s and my father’s and the story of anybody else who has struggled with abuse and shame. Writing this has taken strength. It has helped me prove to myself that I have a glimmer of conviction within, and it is with this conviction that I want to let people know that the shame of secrets can sometimes escape when secrets turn into stories. Because our experiences deserve an audience, and because stories are meant to be shared.

This post was originally published on Skin Stories.

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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.

Read more about his campaign.

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.

Read more about her campaign. 

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.

Find out more about the campaign here.

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.

Read more about the campaign here.

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.

Read more about the campaign here.

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
biodegradable sanitary pad vending machines in all government schools across the state. Her petition on Change.org has already gathered support from over 90000 people and continues to grow.

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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