‘Not My Shame To Bear’: How I’m Trying To Heal After Being Sexually Abused As A Child

IJMEditor’s Note: This post is a part of #ViolenceNoMore, a campaign by International Justice Mission and Youth Ki Awaaz to fight against daily violence faced by marginalised communities. Speak out against systemic violence by publishing a story here.

“Hello, If you know of any Delhi-based psychologist/psychiatrist who has had any experience of working with adult survivors of child sexual abuse, please let me know.  Thanks”

I typed this email but before I could hit send, I changed my mind and let it remain in the drafts folder. Am I finally willing to accept and admit that I was sexually abused as a child? Do I want to let people know? Oh but I already sent an email to someone where I ended up mentioning this. Why did I do that? Why am I suddenly so unsure of what to communicate with whom? The group I was sending this to is what I would call a safe space, but lately, I’ve been unsure of what a safe space means. I’ve been unsure of everything. I wasn’t always like this. Not so long ago, I was full of joy and excitement. Not so long ago, I was fond of reading and music and poetry and myriad other activities. Not so long ago, I quit my job and set out on a journey that I was excited and passionate about. Today, I don’t remember the last time I had a hearty laugh or opened a book to read or put on a song to listen to. I don’t remember what joy and excitement feel like. Not so long ago, I wasn’t like this. Not so long ago, I was someone who was – in my once-upon-a-time roommate’s words – “nauseatingly optimistic about everything”, about people and about life. Not so long ago, I started having flashbacks, and then everything started changing, gradually.

I was little when my 20-year old cousin sexually abused me, and until recently, it all remained somewhere hidden within the crevices of my mind. These memories had resurfaced some years ago as well, but they had just come and gone, they were hazy and unclear. One day, a few months ago, around the beginning of March, something triggered a vivid recollection of all those memories and it was a flashback like it was happening all over again. Along with it came a strange sense of fear and paranoia, and abrupt feelings of disgust and shame. No, it was never my shame to bear and never will it be, I know that. But at that point in time, I felt ashamed and I felt disgust, and I felt fear-driven paranoia, on and off. That day, when I had first got triggered, was perhaps one of the strangest days among a lot of many more strange days that kept recurring during my break with reality. ‘Break with reality’ sounds like a fun term, but no, it wasn’t. It was dark and strange, and I wish for it to never come upon anybody ever.

That day when the flashbacks started, I was happy and excited about working on something close to my heart. There was an event to be organised and I was meeting someone regarding the same. It was all good until I felt triggered by this same person who I was meeting. It was nothing he had done but something about that conversation triggered in me a strange sense of fear and paranoia, one that I’m still grappling to understand. I reached home, packed clothes to change, and left for my cousin’s place. I was hoping to meet my newborn niece and my cousin ‘V’. ‘V’ happened to be the younger sibling of my other cousin ‘M’ who I now recalled having sexually abused the seven-year-old me. V also happened to be a best friend, mentor, motivator, confidante. The drive to V’s place was nothing less than ‘strange’ either. A half-hour route took close to three hours as I kept getting lost on the way. At one point, I had a blackout while waiting for the traffic signal to turn green. I don’t remember how that happened. I only remember hearing people knocking on the car window, then rolling down the car window to the loud noise of honking and listening to people who had got off their cars to tell me to get the car moving. It had been a while that the traffic signal turned green and I was blocking traffic.

It took a while before I finally reached V’s place. I felt safe. I told him about this strange sense of fear and paranoia that was gripping me. I told him about the blackout I had on the way to his place. I discussed with him many apprehensions that I was having about a lot of things. And then, finally, I narrated to him what my elder cousin and his elder sibling used to do. I spent a lot of my childhood at their home. I was very close to my cousin sister, M and V’s elder sibling, and so their home was a second home to me. He had a computer, on which he would let me play pinball and MSPaint, but while playing I would be sitting on him. He would unzip his pants and take off my underwear and make me sit on him. I remembered feeling disgusted about this, that there was something wrong in what he was doing, but he was my elder brother so he could not be doing wrong, right? I never told anybody.

I don’t remember how long this continued but this wasn’t a one-time incident. It used to happen often, every time when I would be alone with him in his room. I was seven or eight. He must have been twenty. At some point, when I grew up and realised this had been wrong, he stopped being my ‘favourite’ cousin. I still never told anybody. I told V all about what I was now recalling, how it happened, how it then made me feel, and how it was now affecting me. V didn’t say a word for a while. He was neither surprised nor taken aback by what I had just told him, just silent, and then tears streamed down his face. He told me he also remembered ‘playing’ with me when I was little. How could this be ‘playing’ when ‘playing’ is supposed to be fun and not something which leaves scars and wounds? This wasn’t ‘playing’, this was sexual abuse. Of course, I knew that. I wanted to scream and shout, but I was too numb to respond. I had already begun screaming and shouting, but all in my head.

There was more I wanted to tell him. There were more memories resurfacing. My elder cousin was not the only abuser. I was also molested by our domestic help, ‘R’. I had woken up one morning to find his fingers inside my vagina. I didn’t know what it was called back then but I knew there was something definitely not right about this. He immediately took out his hand from the blanket covering me, pretending to look for something under my bed. I sat up on the bed and looked at him. He got up and left the room. Soon after, he was dismissed for some other reason. I never spoke a word about this to anyone, and unbeknownst to me, somewhere this also got blocked out of my memory altogether. How could I possibly have not remembered all of this? Why did I never tell anybody about this? Could it be because of the confusing similarity between what happened here and what so often happened at my cousin’s place? Why did I never tell anybody about any of this right then? I know for a fact that my parents would have believed and supported me. Why then did I never tell them? This pain of not having spoken up then felt unbearably hard to bear, and my mind was spiralling out of control.

How could I have possibly lived so far without being consciously aware of all of this? How could I possibly have no memory of any incident involving V when I was now so clearly recalling what M did? How could I have been sexually abused by my ‘favourite’ cousins? How could I have possibly not told anybody then itself? I used to go up to my father to tell him even if I was slightly scolded by my mother or if I had the smallest fight with my brother. I grew up in a house where I was incredibly loved and pampered. If I tell my parents now, they would feel so disheartened. I can’t let them know. Little would they have known that this could have happened. V cannot possibly be my abuser because I would have remembered something at least. Is there more that I possibly still don’t remember? Maybe he is lying and making this up to make M look less bad. Why did he not seem surprised or taken aback by what I told him about M having done? Did he know about this all along? How could I have blocked all of this out and why is all of this coming back today? Is this even for real or is this all a bad dream that I am going to wake up from tomorrow?  Oh and there’s that event that I’m excited about, but why was that person smiling? Why am I feeling fear? What am I fearing?

As a child, I had possibly lost my voice. As an adult, I was definitely losing my mind, and this was just the beginning. The night turned into day, while I was still there sitting, hoping for light in the darkness. I left soon after, not for home, but to meet someone who I was scheduled to meet before the day turned the way it did. It was an hour’s drive and I had Phil Ochs for company. I rolled down the car window to let the wind dry the tears rolling down my face. I was not going to let anything deter me from doing what I wanted to do, and this is not my shame to bear anyway. I kept telling myself all along the way. I met her and we discussed hate and politics, and it almost felt like the day before had not even happened. This was it. I am going to focus on what I was setting out to do and I am going to become my own light in the darkness that I was hoping for to arrive, just a while ago. Whatever happened yesterday will take some time to process, so I will ‘deal’ with it after some time. So I told myself, except that this was just the beginning of a havoc within my own mind.

Over the course of the next few weeks and months, I had several, fairly not so private, mental breakdowns. I became a person I am still struggling to reconcile with. I am an extremely private person, but here I was, dishing out random personal details to people I barely knew. There were new things that I was working on or was beginning to work on, and I gradually kept ruining all of that. The familiar and the known suddenly started feeling unsafe, and over time I slowly started cutting off all communication with whoever I trusted. As time progressed, I evaded meeting family and friends, stopped taking calls and responding to messages and exiting from chat groups. I started communicating randomly everywhere else, to the point of spamming. I started experiencing hallucinations and delusions. I started becoming different ‘people’, each one dissociating from another. I sought help when my family realised something was very wrong and a course of medication made this ‘break with reality’ disappear, but then it brought forward the very reality I was probably trying to escape. I was able to communicate all that I could recall of this break with reality but the reality that I had been trying to escape still seemed difficult to communicate. And while coming to terms with these decades-old memories wasn’t even done, there was now this prolonged episode of an absolute mental breakdown to absorb and process, making me feel like a stranger to myself.

One can heal from the loss of what one knows of having lost, but how does one reconcile with the loss of one’s own ‘self’?

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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