originally printed at http://www.theislamicmonthly.com/reclaiming-my-life-after-sexual-abuse/
By Sarah Rashid
“Until you make the unconscious conscious, it will direct your life and you will call it fate.” – Carl Jung
“The soul always knows what to do to heal itself. The challenge is to silence the mind.” – Caroline Myss
Since I was 8 years old, I have felt as though two starkly different versions of myself existed inside me, constantly at war with each other. One version grew up as expected, appearing as a confident adult woman to the outside world. The other remained a stifled, insecure child imprisoned within. Echoing in the dark chambers of my mind, I would hear an adult’s voice yell, “Why can’t that pathetic child get it together and grow up?” Then the next moment a child’s voice would cry, “How can that woman be so heartless as to hate me and leave me behind?” I was haunted by the child’s cries for help as she begged my adult self to hold her hand, so they could grow together and be at peace. I was filled with self-loathing as the woman hurled hateful insults at her for not being able to keep up on her own. How little my adult self realized the damage she was doing to them both by ignoring that child.
For most of my life I thought there could be nothing worse than anyone knowing that I was sexually abused as a child. The fear and shame I felt had so much power over me, that the only way I managed to cope was to push my feelings as far away from consciousness as possible. Breaking through this state of imprisonment and now being able to share my story with the world has been the most painful and yet most empowering experience of my life.
It started with my friend Hinna*, who had recently come forward about her childhood sexual abuse and curated an art exhibit dealing with her trauma. I remember hearing her say the words over the phone and feeling my heart stop as I struggled to maintain my composure. I wondered, “How was she able to speak about it with so much strength, whereas I could hardly get the words out and was paralyzed by the fear of sounding weak if I did?” I had heard many others speak up before, but never a fellow South Asian American Muslim, and never someone I cared for so deeply. These unique factors were enough to turn my world upside down. In my lifelong effort to try and forget my abuse, I had ended up so entrenched in self-hatred and self-neglect, that I could care for someone else’s situation far more easily than I could care for my own. Then when I was forced to face the glaring difference between the compassion I felt for Hinna and the disgust I felt for myself, a flip switched inside me, and I suddenly felt the urgent need to face my own unprocessed trauma, still bleeding like an open wound.
In the 20 years since the abuse happened, all my energy had gone into trying to ignore it. I minimized it and pushed myself to be the strongest person I could be to prove to myself that it didn’t affect me. I studied karate, I put on a tough persona and I learned to preemptively squash any perceived attempt by someone to take even the slightest emotional or physical advantage of me. I thought that’s what I had to do to gain control over my life. However, the truth all along was that the abuse profoundly affected me on levels I didn’t even detect. On a subconscious level, I thought I must have done something to deserve it and therefore must be an inherently horrible person. Without an outlet to release my anger, I turned it in on myself and sometimes those close to me. It impacted my ability to form trusting relationships with others and, most importantly, my ability to love and trust myself. Both of these skills being so vital to the human experience meant that every aspect of my life had been impacted, that far too many decisions I had made in life were directed by this crippling fear and anxiety, that self-hatred had become “normal” to me. Nothing was more infuriating than having to acknowledge all these effects, and yet at the same, finally confronting their root cause was the key to overcoming them.
Soon after speaking with Hinna, I found a therapist and spent an intense 9 months learning to process my trauma and building up the courage to come forward. I was especially terrified because my abuser is an uncle of one of my closest childhood friends, and I had no idea how she or her family would react. Sexual abuse is a difficult enough topic for any community to deal with, but compounded with the taboo-phobia of the Muslim community and the extreme shame attached to discussing anything sexual, this task felt unbearable. But what kept me motivated even through the toughest parts was scraping together at least enough self-respect to know that I didn’t deserve to keep suffering for what happened to me. I didn’t want to live in a world where victims have to carry the burdens of crimes they didn’t commit while perpetrators get away with them. For my own sanity I had to do my part to try and change that, however slightly, and without a doubt Hinna’s courage is what gave me the courage.
I first talked to my mother, crying so hard that it felt like hours before I finished saying everything I had written down. She embraced me and cried, so grateful that I had broken the silence between us. My mother and I had a difficult relationship since I was 13, when I first came forward to my disgracefully incompetent middle school guidance counselor. Carelessly slumped on a chair in her stuffy office, she watched coldly as I mustered all my courage to tell her something that I had been struggling to understand for 5 years. Her dismissive reaction was re-traumatizing enough at that moment, but it wasn’t until years later that I came to fully grasp how much damage she had done. Moreover she forced me to tell my mother without providing any follow-up support. My mother was heartbroken, but had no idea how to deal with it or how to emotionally support me, and I was too young to know what kind of help I needed. She shut down, leaving me to assume that I was supposed to do the same. This left an unmentionable tension between us, and I learned to just shut up about it and suffer silently while putting on a happy face.
The terrible results of my first attempt to come forward are largely why minimization became my coping mechanism from that point on. I maintained the capacity to feel overwhelming compassion for other abused people in stories I heard, because deep down I related to what they were going through, but I always minimized my experience in comparison to theirs, trying to convince myself how “lucky” I was that I hadn’t gone through “worse”. Growing up South Asian and Muslim, it was all too easy to minimize my trauma when reading the most horrific stories of war and cruelty from overseas. However this self-neglectful thinking only deepened my pain. Whenever I felt bad about my situation, I would beat myself up for being “weak”, the one state I could never bear to be in again. It took me far too long to understand that comparisons meant nothing when it came to trauma. All that mattered was how it made me feel, and as I grew older it became harder for me to keep ignoring the fact that my pain was becoming more disabling over time.
Coming forward this second time, 15 years later, I was mortified of getting equally malicious and unhelpful reactions. But this time, thanks to Hinna’s example and the help of my therapist, I knew what I needed and I was going to make sure I got it. I had struggled with self-hatred, PTSD and Depression long enough. I had become so stunted and stuck in every area of my life that at this point, it was a matter of either walking through the fire or continuing to lose my desire to live.
I had no idea how difficult the next 8 months would be. My mother helped me come forward to my brothers, who then helped me come forward to my father. I was so relieved that they believed me, and that I had their love and support, but I hated having to see people I care about hurt so much, which is one of the many reasons that kept me silent all these years. I remember watching my father go through all the different stages of emotion while struggling to maintain his tough façade. My family members had very different ways of coping than I did, which often meant they couldn’t help me in the ways I needed them to, but simply being able to share my burden with them went a long way in taking some of the weight off my shoulders. I even wrote a scathing letter to the guidance counselor and the school’s principal, detailing every way in which her carelessness hurt me, with the hope that it might spare some other students the same pain.
In the middle of this process, my therapist had to take a leave of absence. To continue getting the emotional support I needed, I kept pursuing mental health professionals until I found the right fit. I went through many therapists, which became emotionally exhausting and frustrating, but ultimately it was worth the trouble once I found the right one. And with the added help of a great sexual assault counselor, I got through the scariest stage of all: coming forward to my friend and her family. I was terrified that I might lose her, that even if she did believe me our friendship could never be the same again. Our families had been close for decades, but I wasn’t sure that was enough to withstand this upheaval. As I sat in front of her, shaking and blinking through blurry tears as I tried to tell her as gently as possible, I had no idea how amazing she would be in that moment. She reacted with compassion, love and support, despite how hard it was to hear that it had been her uncle. It was painful to watch her father, who’s like a second father to me, grieve over the fact that his own brother had abused someone dear to him. As depressing as the whole process was for everyone, we helped each other get through it with love and compassion.
I was extremely fortunate that my friend’s family reacted exactly as I needed them to. Oftentimes people don’t know how to respond to news of sexual abuse (which is the result of our communities refusing to talk about it). Therefore denial and anger are often the knee-jerk reactions. However on top of the terror of coming forward, negative reactions can be permanently damaging to the victim (as I had experienced at 13), and I’m so grateful that this is not how my friend and her family reacted. They believed me, they grieved with me and prayed for me, and they have continued to support me throughout my healing process. My friend’s father courageously confronted my abuser, which meant everything to me, and told his relatives with the hope that it would help any other children who may have also been abused come forward and get help. My friend and her family demonstrated a level of humility and self-sacrificing love that still overwhelms me, and I hope that as Muslims continue to address sexual abuse more openly, more people will develop the courage and perspective to respond as they did.
It took a frustratingly long time to get the point of coming forward, but my patience paid off. I had been terrified of the potential drama that might erupt, but when the moment came there was very little drama to deal with and I was able to handle it. For almost a year I had constantly doubted whether all the pain I had to go through was worth it. Would coming forward actually help me or only make me feel worse? How would people look at me? What if I had gotten so used to my self-loathing, divided persona that I couldn’t handle living any other way? It’s counter-intuitive, but even when you feel imprisoned, you become so dependent on those walls that it’s terrifying to imagine how you can live without them. Perhaps hitting rock bottom and having little left to lose is what allowed me to maintain just enough grit to patiently get through the process. After a year’s work, after my abuser was confronted, I finally started to feel the relief and liberation I had only dreamt of until then. The burden was finally being lifted off my shoulders and placed where it belonged, squarely on the perpetrator.
As I expected, the coward denied it; and I was a constant heap of anxiety as my friend’s father told his relatives, people I grew up with, and I was left wondering if they even believed me or were in denial. Surprisingly, what got me through those months was literature. I used up every spare moment devouring dozens of novels that allowed me to escape my surroundings as I waited for this hurricane to pass. I kept away from my community and focused on working with my counselor and therapist to rebuild my relationship with myself. Doing so allowed me to face the inevitable tension I encountered with my friend’s relatives. I was able to maintain enough perspective to remember that coming to terms with news like this is a long process and that, depending on people’s previous life experience and emotional maturity, they need varying amounts of time to process it. Having the support of close friends and family and a good counselor and therapist is more than I could have asked for, as I know that sadly many victims are not so lucky. I had prepared myself for the possibility that I would not be that lucky, and knowing that I had the strength to go through with the process anyway was a huge step in learning to love and trust myself.
A few months ago, I finally had a major breakthrough. Until then I had struggled with letting go of my self-loathing and learning the language of self-acceptance and love. It was one thing to tell myself to have self-compassion, but a much longer and more elusive process to actually start feeling that compassion. There was no way to rush that feeling, I just had to do what I could to help myself and hope that eventually it came. I remember waking up one morning and feeling inexplicably different. Until then I had been caught in a tug-of-war between pretending that the abuse had no effect on me just to get through the day and acknowledging the impact of my abuse only to feel crippled by pain and rage. That morning it was suddenly easier for me to acknowledge the abuse without the paralyzing reactions. This didn’t mean I had less of a right to feel hurt or angry by it; it simply meant that I was learning to love and comfort myself enough to start feeling safe again. I felt more in control. I no longer felt powerless. While before I couldn’t bear the thought of people knowing, I now suddenly stopped caring if my abuser or anyone else knew how much he had hurt me. He no longer had power over me. I felt like a stronger and more genuine version of my old self, someone who could be loving and be loved.
I strongly believe that this breakthrough came as a result of finally listening to my instincts and feeling my way through the trauma rather than denying it. Although that meant making up for decades of suppression by feeling intense anger and sadness for a concentrated period of time (which unsettled people close to me), it was a necessary step in learning to comfort myself in a way I had never been able to do before.
In sexual abuse recovery there is often reference to an inner child who was developmentally stunted by the abuse and needs to heal before a survivor can feel whole and move forward. I started imagining her, the terrified 8 year old girl, the girl I had long hated. I started hugging her, telling her how strong she is and letting her cry in my arms. This is what she had been needing all these years. She needed me to love and stand up for her, which I couldn’t do until I stopped suppressing my trauma. I’m doing my best to make up for all those years of neglect. Now whenever she feels angry, I support her in feeling through it, and whenever she feels sad, I’m there to comfort her. It makes all the difference.
Deciding to face my abuse and get help was the best decision ever I made. I learned that allowing myself to be vulnerable was not the same as weakness; instead it gave me more strength. Though oftentimes I felt like I was getting worse before I got better, I now know that every little moment of genuine positive or negative emotion I experienced ultimately contributed to my healing. Learning to feel through my pain and anger allowed me to feel all my emotions more fully and to start enjoying life more authentically. Healing from trauma is an ongoing process, but thankfully I believe the hardest part is over, and I can finally move forward in life in a way that feels genuine and much less directed by fear. I can embrace the joy of falling in love with myself and being who I want to be. The sudden outpouring of self-respect and confidence since my breakthrough made me realize that these qualities have been with me all along, they were just being suffocated and masked by my self-hatred. All these changes brought me to a more hopeful place from which I could share this story, that I hope will help others who are struggling to heal from any kind of abuse or trauma. Everyone is different and has his/her own challenges to face, but as Hinna’s example taught me, knowing that we’re not alone can mean the difference between suffering and healing.
Going forward, the woman and child in me are learning to reconcile and communicate. They have found common ground in their shared strength. This is largely due to my counselor once telling me, after many failed attempts to get me to have faith in myself, “You have survived one of the most traumatic experiences a person can go through. Don’t you realize that you can handle anything?” It took me a long time to let those words into my heart because I still felt like a victim, not a survivor. But I realized having been through this whole process that she was right, and I can be proud of myself as a child for surviving and as an adult for demonstrating a level of strength and patience I didn’t even know I had. My experience will unfortunately always be a part of me, but it doesn’t define me, and now I know how to deal with it if and when the pain and anger arise again. Come what may, I can now trust myself to get through anything, God-willing. When I think of this, my inner child stops crying and smiles confidently. Then we high-five each other, hold hands and walk excitedly into the future.
*Friend’s name changed to protect privacy.
To learn more about engaging the Muslim community in ending sexual violence, please refer to HEART’s collaborative toolkit: Engaging Muslim Communities in Ending Sexual Exploitation: A Toolkit and Resource Guide. Download here: Toolkit Ending Sex Exp