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‘At The End, Neither My Abuse Nor Anxiety Is Bigger Than Me’

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Dealing with mental illness as a survivor of child sexual abuse. 

By Binita Mukherjee

I always had a knack for reading fiction which I guess I inherited from my father. I particularly remember when I was in the 8th standard and he got me the entire set of “Feluda” books- a detective fiction series. I kept these books along my bedside shelf, neatly organized with the rest of my many books. A part of me was happy to have so many books in the room. But another part of me felt extremely anxious.

I was gripped by a notion that all these books would magically multiply in numbers and then there would be no space left for me in the room. The books would keep cornering me until I suffocate and die.

I wanted to scream, to run, to tear these books and throw them out the window. Instead, I froze. I would start panting heavily. I would cover my face with a pillow and hold it tight until my body felt relaxed and safe. I grew up experiencing many such short, sudden panic attacks, sometimes accompanied by hallucinations.

Eventually, I began distancing myself from the things which made me uncomfortable. This reduced my world to an irritable unknown affliction. It was much later that I would be diagnosed with clinical anxiety disorder.

Anxiety is a strange feeling. A massive spider in your head crawling down to your stomach. The itching under your skin where you can’t reach. The immense fear of standing at the edge of a high building and looking down- if you move, you fall.

You feel responsible for all that is going wrong around you but when you try to mend it, you feel rather helpless. Anxiety begins in your mind and then arrests your body. Gradually, you lose control of both.

I remember this one night in the monsoons of 2006. I was with my lover, on one of the most romantic dates I ever had. Suddenly, the throbbing sound of rain pierced through my ears. I could sharply perceive the dreaded pull that one associates with drowning, with no one around who could save me. I tried to concentrate on the songs running on the nearby television. But anxiety does not let you concentrate on the things you choose. I tried to convince myself that my thoughts at the moment were not logical. But anxiety does not get convinced by logic. And in the middle of this intense moment, when my lover tried to initiate intimacy, my body reacted by pushing him back. My logical mind knew that I was safe with him. But I could not fight back the gnawing fear that he would sexually abuse me. I ran inside the washroom and locked myself.

We never spoke again. I really liked him and I was embarrassed with what I did. At times like this, you tell yourself many things- that you are sabotaging a perfectly healthy relationship, that your true feelings are getting paralyzed, that you are unlovable. Most people didn’t seem to understand that my anxiety was not an occasional incident as many of us experience it. My anxiety interferes with my regular day-to-day functioning. I wanted someone who could understand this.

Feelings of shame, guilt, confusion, and fear were lumped somewhere inside my body. Image via Getty Artist: Elisabetta Stoinich

It was with much anticipation that I finally reached out to a counselor. The counselling process involved me going back into my past and resolving unresolved conflicts in my mind.

When I was only 9 years old, an older boy in my neighborhood had sexually abused me. Feelings of shame, guilt, confusion, and fear were lumped somewhere inside my body. I was re-victimized by other people while growing up but couldn’t do anything about it. I couldn’t process the trauma and had buried it deep inside. Even today at 33, I sometimes struggle to navigate many of my feelings.

What helped me the most was accepting that I was ill and that illnesses could be cured. With time I discovered possible avenues to treat my illness.

  • To start with, I became more regular at my counselor and then, at my Cognitive behavior therapist. CBT, as defined by the NHS, is based on the concept that your thoughts, feelings, physical sensations and actions are interconnected, and that negative thoughts and feelings can trap you in a vicious cycle. It aims to help you deal with overwhelming problems in a more positive way by breaking them down into smaller parts. You’re shown how to change these negative patterns to improve the way you feel.
  • What helped me personally was speaking about my abuse more openly. Sharing my story not only empowered me, but also other people who were going through similar experiences. I surrounded myself with like-minded people, friends who valued me as an individual without reducing me to only a victim of sexual abuse and anxiety.
  • While having anxiety attacks, I practice some grounding techniques. I try to sit down, breathe and drink water or talk to a friend, which I find the easiest to do. This brings me back to reality.
  • Since my anxiety is a clinical disorder I was referred medication. It took me a while to deconstruct the stigma around medication. Many people around me still aren’t convinced about it. But in my experience, it helped me in a major way.

Experiencing abuse as a child and having anxiety is a multilayered and complex shade of grey. I don’t try to separate the layers or find out where they are overlapping. What was done to me in my childhood is irreplaceable but also curable. I know now that my illness doesn’t make me unlovable. And my past doesn’t make me difficult.

I fell in love and this time I didn’t stop myself. I fell in love with men. I fell in love with women. The journey involved me talking about my abuse, my anxieties and shedding light on my realities and vulnerabilities. When relationships do not work out, I now know that my illness and me are not responsible. At the end, neither my abuse nor anxiety is bigger than me.

Binita Mukherjee is a social worker and a proud feminist. She enjoys challenging the stigmas in society as much as she enjoys painting abstracts.

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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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