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6 Years After Abuse, My Mind Still Tricks Me Into Believing I’m Re-Traumatising Myself

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So here’s one of the most fun things about being a sexual abuse survivor in a world which just loves telling us that somehow everything is always going to be our fault—in a society where sexual abuse is almost a rite of passage to being a woman, to the extent that we aren’t really allowed to be traumatised and are criticised, mocked, disbelieved, harassed etc., if we dare not to be perfectly “normal” even after horrifying abuse, apparently, that could be burdensome to our loved ones, to that same society, to anyone but ourselves. We start believing all this, internalise it, and only if we’re lucky, will we start that gruelling and never-ending process of de-socialising ourselves and learning how to show basic kindness to ourselves.

I’m one of the lucky ones, in so many ways. Despite not having any support when I was actually being abused, I was able to get enough smatterings of it towards the end to survive. A few years after it all ended, my privilege allowed me to find a therapist who helped that de-socialising and relearning process to kick off. And yet, six years after the abuse ended, three years of therapy later, I’m still a frustratingly slow work in progress.

I lost my sleep around the time the abuse started. I went from the person who could sleep in the loudest of settings—who had interesting dreams but rarely any nightmares, who once asleep, stayed would be asleep until the alarm went off—to the one who battled with sleep before, during, and after every single day. In the beginning, I couldn’t sleep because of pain; I couldn’t find positions where my body didn’t hurt, and I’d wake up in the middle of the night because I had moved and aggravated some ache/hurt.

Then came the nightmares. I started avoiding sleep; then sleep started avoiding me. At some point in time, the nightmares became more infrequent. But the memories did not leave me alone, and they brought the nightmares back with a vengeance. When I was living at home, the nightmares were more in control, apparently even asleep, my brain knew to traumatise me enough inasmuch as it could be hidden from my family. And then I moved, my brain realised there weren’t parents around and even that weak filter disappeared. Now, there’s rarely a night I don’t have nightmares, usually a few a night. I wake up exhausted.

Psychiatrists have prescribed medicines which helped me fall asleep, but they did nothing to take the nightmares away; instead, I’d be locked in them even more, unable to wake myself up. When I didn’t have the nightmares, I’d be plagued by these intensely vivid dreams, again in which I wouldn’t really know I’m dreaming, and feel everything just as intensely. They are less traumatising but no less exhausting. I’ve never been able to explain this to a psychiatrist or a doctor truly. I wanted to get a sleep study done, but that was going to be harder to hide, not to mention there were very few places near me which were reputable.

So, a few months ago, I got a Fitbit. More than the steps or exercise components, I just wanted to measure my sleep. I was excited! I would finally have actual tangible proof of how fucked up my sleep is!

But no. Fitbit showed my sleep to be pretty normal, with cumulatively anything between 20-60 minutes of “restless” sleep and one or two times of waking up. I was surprised, confused, and disappointed. Despite that, it made sense that my sleep wasn’t as bad as it felt to me; it would explain why I’ve been able to be so functional even through it all. My therapist helped me realise that a single nightmare could taint the entire night’s sleep, even if I did get actual rest during it. It made sense.

So, on point with what society has been telling me forever, I believed that I was obviously making things worse in my head than they actually were. I started feeling like, maybe, I was doing what I’d been told by so many: victimising myself. That I was trying to make my situation seem more dramatic, sympathetic, maybe because this could have been the one tangible struggle of my daily life, whereas all the others were too internal.

A few weeks later, I realised that Fitbit is just not as accurate as I thought; it would show me asleep when I was clearly awake, not mark the times I woke up at night when I know I did because I sent a text, or took a call or something and could see that on my phone. And yet, I’m still feeling like I exaggerated my sleep issues because a stupid app isn’t showing it to be as fucked up as it feels. This is what being a survivor means too often; finding ways to blame ourselves, feel bad about ourselves, feel like we’re making things up just because we can’t measure all the bad thoughts, the struggles, the deep dark emotions.

I know what I feel. I feel exhausted to a point where I genuinely don’t know how I’ve been keeping myself running for years. I know the terror I feel every time I wake up from one of those nightmares, needing ice-cold water to literally jar myself out, spending too much time trying to make myself believe that I’m safe, that it was a nightmare, that I didn’t have any new bruises, aches, pains, so I must be safe.

But an app doesn’t read all that. It didn’t read each time I woke up with my heart racing so hard, adrenaline flooding my body, almost ready to scream, sometimes with tears on my face because I wasn’t just crying in the sleeping reality that is my nightmares. . . It literally leaked into my waking reality. It didn’t read it, so of course, it’s all in my head. I must have exaggerated that pressure in my chest which made it hard for me to breathe. I must have imagined feeling the cold water force me back into my waking reality, even if the bottle was full when I slept and half empty when I woke up. I must be victimising myself into feeling as tired as I do in the morning because the app told me that I only had some 21 minutes of restless/awakeness and slept for a total of seven hours and thirteen minutes.

I feel like I’m doing it to myself. I spend my night re-traumatised by my nightmares and then when I wake up, I add to all the trauma by berating myself, by hating myself for having those nightmares in the first place, and responding to the nightmares. This is another super fun aspect of being a survivor; we traumatise ourselves through self-hatred, self-criticism, impatience, and an overall lack of compassion. We haven’t been taught how to be kind to ourselves; how could we, in a society which is rarely ever kind to us?

I kind of wish I hadn’t gotten a Fitbit at all, because even though I know it isn’t reliable, it’s done society’s work of making me feel like I’m doing all the nightmare+exhaustion thing to myself, that it’s all in my head, that I’m not doing enough to be better or that I’m refusing to believe that I actually am better. The simple solution would be to stop using it at night; it’s uncomfortable; it isn’t accurate; it makes me feel worse about myself. But another part of my survivorness is this need to not let my being a survivor stop me from doing something because then it feels like he wins.

If I stop wearing it, maybe I’m scared of it, denying what it says. Maybe if I stop wearing it, all I’m doing is avoiding the “proof” of how okay I actually am and just enabling my victim behaviour. I have enough actual proof to know that the data isn’t perfect. And yet, all my brain really believes is that I’m doing it all to myself. Even though I know I’m being unnecessarily mean to myself; I cannot stop—just another fun aspect of being a trauma survivor.

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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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