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.
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.
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.