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How Can You Overcome A Toxic Childhood?

“Conscious parenting is activism. You are changing the world.” – Vivek Patel. 

Humans, as we have often learned and repeated, are social beings. We live in a society that thrives on interpersonal relationships and community bonding. Right from birth, our life begins with connections and unfolds in the form of fulfilling our needs of affection and belonging, forming a crucial part of our emotional development. 

There is an inherent tendency to build relationships with others-which also plays an integral role in feeling safe and finding a sense of comfort. On the contrary, disorganised attachment is understood as “not knowing who is safe or whom they belong to, they may be intensely affectionate with strangers or may trust nobody (Van der Kolk, 2015).”

Childhoods plagued with the trauma of abuse, neglect, control, shame, guilt or overall dysfunctional parenting often find themselves stuck in a world, struggling to build their narratives. They are brought up in a family environment where they learn to be hyper-vigilant, inexpressive and passive because of the routinised cycle of constant fights and uncertainty. The most fundamental aspect while growing up in emotionally dismissive households revolves around a child’s inability to receive love. 

They believe that love is only conditional and eventually painful. In this process, they cling onto the negative core beliefs of being unlovable and convince themselves that the relationship would never work out. The better option is to detach oneself from the potential hurt at the beginning itself.  

woman standing alone
Years of trauma can take a life of its own and result in self-sabotaging tendencies.

They grow up to become adults with unhealthy attachment styles; their true identities masked from most people. They either detach themselves from relationships and develop avoidance coping strategies or form extremely dependent bonds because they fear abandonment, loneliness and the inability to trust. They learn to exist by suppressing their emotions, internalising the guilt and navigating the world independently.

All these incidences also lead to a child getting habituated to body paralysis, panic attacks, suicidal ideations and the urge to self-harm. The physical and mental agony deeply influences social and emotional development resulting in thoughts like, “the world may be better off without me”, convincing the individual that disappearing is the easiest way out of such problems. 

Simplistic notions and suggestions that an individual must learn to cope in such an environment sound ignorant of the lived experiences. The lack of awareness, stigma and insensitivity towards intergenerational trauma fails to recognise the context in which it occurs and its widespread impact. In a collectivistic society like India, there has always been a larger focus on maintaining familial relationships and interdependence, no matter how toxic they might be. 

But what if those with whom you are supposed to feel safe — your own family — becomes the root cause of suffering? What if they raise you in an environment that hampers your ability to feel safe and trust others? In many cases, the parent’s constant preoccupation with their unresolved trauma also transcends onto the upbringing of their child in the form of neglect, emotional unavailability and instability.

It is now increasingly acknowledged that neglect has “a potentially devastating impact on all aspects of a child’s development, including their physical growth and health, self-esteem, attention, socialisation, peer relationships and learning capacity (Duncan & Baker, 2003).”

There’s a certain disconnect from reality as an individual slowly gets accustomed to being brought up this way. Conversations amongst external groups like peers, relatives and acquaintances become difficult because of the guilt and shame attached to living in an abusive household. The trauma makes it hard to relate to others because their reality is entirely different. 

Such incidences become so normalised that the trauma becomes embodied, affecting their bodily responses and physiological arousals. Heightened fight and flight responses, increased stress hormones, and hyper-vigilant behaviour to perceive threats become a part of them. These experiences become so ingrained that undoubtedly their internal conditioning forces them to think that it is the kind of world they would also create for themselves. 

Growing up thinking that they might continue the same destructive patterns of their parents’ behaviour causes greater dissonance and inner conflicts. However, recent research work points out how “abuse breeds abuse” is not inevitable and can be tackled through effective interventions like modified parenting strategies.

Coming to terms with the deep-seated beliefs and years of conditioning that framed one’s entire world view is painful, but must be eventually confronted. There is a greater need to incorporate resilience and self-esteem for the child’s social and emotional development that helps them understand their situation objectively and draw themselves out of the abuse to break the cycle. Learning how to draw boundaries, immense self-love and empathy towards oneself helps them understand their lives holistically.

But it is easier said than done. Recovery from past traumas is accompanied by confronting and acknowledging the incidences that took place. Years of trauma can take a life of its own and result in self-sabotaging tendencies. 

The key is to sit down and nurture yourself unconditionally, no matter how hard it is. Being patient and committed to choosing your well-being should be considered an act of self-love and not shameful. 

Constantly restructuring the inner self is a gradual process, but something that can be tackled through a journey that would require some significant steps, a lot of self-awareness and the ability to receive love for who you are.

By Anushka Arora

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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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