‘I am fighting still’: Navigating my mental health as a survivor of child abuse

Description: A young person reclines on green grass, resting on one arm, which is folded below their head. With their other hand they are clutching a notebook and pen to their body. There are white flowers, green apples, and sheets of paper strewn around them. Credit: Upasana Agarwal.

I was only six when it all began, and I was unequipped to either handle or understand the situation. So I put the thoughts behind me, locked them up in a corner of my mind.

It’s a lazy July afternoon. I am standing in the kitchen of our newly renovated house when my neighbour comes to me, asking if I have a little time. As I butter my toast, she talks. She tells me about a birthday surprise that has been planned for her brother-in-law. She wants me to say something nice about him — a fond memory, if I can recall any. I have several of those.

I once got into a bet with him over a few guavas, my favourite fruit as a kid. He asked me to eat a spoonful of salt, and if I did that, I would get to take as many guavas from the tree in his backyard as I wanted. So, I ate a spoonful of salt, and was told I would get to take the guavas.

On the tree, as I tried plucking them, the smell of guavas that were ripe just the right amount was in the air, and there was a flood of saliva in my mouth. He climbed the tree to help me, and it was the first time I felt something poking me hard from behind. It was strange, it hurt a little, it was confusing, and it was also exciting. The guavas fell from my hand, and I didn’t ever climb that tree again.

It became a routine. No game of hide-and-seek was ever played without me being in hiding with him for several minutes. I was six, and I really wanted to be out. I was the one supposed to catch them. But I could not. A friend walked inside a room seeking the seeker, and turned away.

No one was supposed to see that. I was angry. She asked me, I told her, and she felt sad. Why is no one loving her, she asked me. And we didn’t ever talk about that day. We still haven’t. I often wonder if she remembers, but I don’t ask. I turn my rage into poetry.

Another fond memory I have is of an afternoon spent listening to him as he narrated stories of people who lived in our small colony, in this small central-Indian town. They sounded like fun people in his stories, spending time making ice cream and sandwiches, and guarding the colony against thieves by patrolling its roads at night.

That day, brother-in-law told me the story of a woman, the grandmother of a colony friend. She lived much before I was born. She was a local legend, almost. She was old and the matriarch of her family, who he said had ‘gone insane’ with age. She used to roam the colony streets in her petticoat and blouse at night, he said and laughed — and I laughed too. Only ‘mad women’ roam around in their petticoats and blouses. And she was ‘mad’, he said with a smirk. She was the first ‘mad woman’ I learnt about, from a man who eventually became the reason behind my madness.

Fond memory number three: I was in standard six. A group of men had raped the Jhabua nuns. We were officially learning the word rape in school, but most of us, thanks to Bollywood, already knew what it meant. And some of us had already experienced it.

It is then that my convent school decided we should be given sex education. This meant that we were to abstain lest we became pregnant or contracted the HIV virus. So an idea took shape in my mind — I had AIDS. What else could explain my viral fever turning into a kidney infection? A ‘normal’ 11-year-old wouldn’t even blink an eyelid over a kidney infection, and here I was, weeping silently into the nights, counting my days that soon would be over.

It has been close to two decades now, I am no longer a scared eleven-year-old, and I did not contract the HIV virus. But I do believe that this is where my journey with illnesses began. For a period of three years, I was a victim of sexual assault.

I was only six when it all began, and I was unequipped to either handle or understand the situation. So I put the thoughts behind me, locked them up in a corner of my mind. I told myself these things don’t bother me, a façade that broke a few years ago, when they did start bothering me. A serious bout of illness brought back my anxiety in full swing, and that brought back all the memories of the past. It was harder to put them behind me this time, so I decided to seek help.

It was three years ago, while I was finishing my MA, that I was diagnosed with clinical depression, anxiety disorder, and, unsurprisingly, hypochondria. As crippling as my depression was, it was also high functioning. So I was doing well in studies, and I was trying to run a literary magazine of my own even as I was struggling with the idea of getting out of bed, leaving the house, climbing down the stairs, riding the metro, entering the class, eating my food, everything. Every action demanded serious thought. I would sleep very close to a wall, stare at the marks left on it by my oily scalp, and wonder if it would ever be over.

There was a time in my life when my abusers (yes, there was more than one) decided, without checking with me, that they had had enough of me. And so, it all stopped. By this time though, I had fallen in love with the brother-in-law. Do 10-year-olds fall in love? And since I had stopped receiving love from him, I was desperate for answers and his attention.

Description: This is a photograph of a person with long hair, their face in shadows. Credit: Sodanie Chea via Flickr, CC BY 2.0.

In my mind I knew this was wrong, there were days when I was running away from him and all others. When I was trying to play alone, not step out of the house, or pass by his, lest I be summoned. But now that it had gone away, I felt rejected, I blamed myself. I developed hatred for my bodyhatred that has lasted a lifetime.

My mind and my body since then have shared a strange connection. Mental illnesses have helped forge these connections. My hatred for my body has come out in the form of diseases it is plagued with. A lot of the pain I suffer from is psychosomatic, but this doesn’t mean it isn’t real. For instance, a few days ago, I was talking to my aunt who was complaining about her aching knees. This reminded me of the pain in my knees.

This pain, that hadn’t made its presence felt in quite a while, was something I started experiencing when my mother was diagnosed with rheumatoid arthritis. I got my blood tests done and nothing came up, but the pain persistedand one day, it was gone. It left no note, it gave no indication of return; it just went away, rejecting my body. But the minute I started thinking about it, it came back. Like it was waiting for me to miss it, like I needed to earn its attention, to name the devil.

For someone suffering from health anxiety, attention to diseases is easy to come by. What’s not easy is to be able to express this anxiety and be taken seriously. Hypochondriacs are often mocked for their belief in diseases that don’t really exist; what people fail to understand is that even if the illness isn’t real, the fear of it is. It is why a lot of my problems are centered around my struggles with health anxiety.

In a twisted way, my hatred for my body manifests from the abuse my body was subjected to. My body gets blamed for my abusive past, and I have abused my body in order to avoid abuse, developing hatred for it in the process. My obese body is now a vault of diseases, and for the longest time I used it as a shieldno one violates a fat girl, after all. But obesity, physical illness, and this hatred have lead to a life of loneliness, which has translated into depression.

There have been days when I have broken down in the middle of the road and started crying for no real reason. Every other day, I suffer from a panic attack which often mimics a heart attack. I still find it hard to breathe normally, I have to take breaths deep enough that my lungs feel stretched, or else breathing is impossible.

I almost always put my phone on silent because the buzzing scares me to an extent that I cannot function. I am afraid of talking to people most days, even if I know them, so meeting people is a real effort. I go silent mid-sentence, and sometimes rush to the washroom because I have to cry. I have to let out this angst somehow, or it will consume me. My depression casts tall shadows on me, rendering me invisible, which, in all honesty, isn’t something I mind all that much. I’d much rather hide than be seen.

For the past couple of years, I have been obsessed with the idea that there is something wrong with my stomach. My stomach that has on very few occasions really bothered me, suddenly became the bane of my existence. I couldn’t eat out, I couldn’t attend classes, I couldn’t travel in trains because what if I get diarrhoea and there were no clean toilets around? So I was restricting myself to my house.

My therapist and I spent sessions discussing this obsession. And one day it became clear. My body and my otherwise healthy stomach were involved in a purging of sorts. Now that I was willingly talking about my past, my body was getting rid of the shit gathering around my organs. This was my body’s way of healing, and my fear was about losing the comfort of misery. Could I identify with myself, if I were healed, if I were cured of my past? My bowel, said my therapist, was like a sieve, filtering out my abusive past. So I let it.

Description: This is a black and white photograph of a person lying upside down in a bed, looking at a blank wall. Credit: Sodanie Chea via Flickr, CC BY 2.0.

Description: This is a black and white photograph, taken upside down, of a person lying in a bed, looking at a blank wall. Credit: Sodanie Chea via Flickr, CC BY 2.0.

I am not saying I am healed. I still struggle on a daily basis. But now I let my body decide its destiny. I fight depression through a routine of healthy eating and exercise, I try to reduce my social isolation by calling friends and making mindless conversation. I am fighting and often losing against my body hatred.

But I am fighting still. I am talking about my struggles and finding empathy in return from an army of abuse survivors who unlike me have been openly talking about their experiences, on the various online communities and in university spaces, and who I wouldn’t have discovered without initiating this journey.

When my neighbor came to me with the request of recalling a fond memory, a friend suggested I record a video narrating my experiences of abuse under the hands of the man, and send that as a birthday gift.

I am not the one to seek revenge, but it did make me wonder, what would his reaction be, if I did send him such a video? Would anyone take me seriously? Would they question the brother-in-law, who was the dream child of my parents — a great student, an IITian no less, an obedient, funny, quiet child, whose dedication to his education was the stuff of legends in our colony?

Would they, like me, blame him for all my manic episodes and anxiety attacks? I don’t think I will ever know. So, I told my neighbour I would think about something to say. And, to tell you the truth, I am still thinking.

Manjiri Indurkar is a poet-writer from a small Indian town called Jabalpur. She is one of the founders and editors of the literary magazine Antiserious.

Featured image credit: Upasana Agarwal