Trigger Warning: Suicide, Rape, Sexual Assault, Drug Use & Disordered Eating
The cliché of throwing a stone into a river.
We focus on the disruption’s effects. We watch as the ripples eventually unsettle the water’s edge, lapping at the once still banks. Soon after, calm is restored. Little attention is paid to what becomes of the stone... Have you noticed? Instinctively, we imagine it sinking to the depths, coming to rest on the riverbed. Never to be seen again.
In life, our demons are like stones; causing far-reaching long-lasting proverbial ripples that torment us. If we’re lucky, time permits us to forget. Only the demons don’t sink. They lurk just beneath the murky surface, waiting to re-emerge at any moment.
Me? My demon hasn’t surfaced since I submerged it ten years ago. Although it did haunt and taunt from time to time, it never reared its ugly head. Until now.
Recently, I mustered up the narcissistic courage to ask people’s opinion of me. Aside from having enviable glossy chocolate hair and pronounced golden cheekbones, I discovered that I appear energetic and self-assured. I am full of integrity, care and hope. One colleague described me as soulful in my approach to everything I do. In managing my commitment to full-time work and balancing the demands of the Law/Communications degree for which I gained a scholarship, people see an intelligent and driven young woman with a knack for turning setbacks into successes.
It seems nobody suspects a thing about my wavering state of mental illness. And why would they? I built a brand, a face, a fort, and denied many an inside glimpse. I ruled it from my throne, oblivious to the fact that it wasn’t a castle. It was an asylum.
My clinical psychologist identified in me recurring symptoms of severe depression, emotional lability, ruminative thinking, excessive guilt and suicidal ideation. I repressed a dirty secret to the depths of my mind, where it festered quietly for a decade. I am a textbook case of PTSD: a disorder that manifested in disturbing, self-destructive behaviours. I’ve repeatedly committed sins signalling a constant war between my own body and mind.
These experiences have shaped me, but by no means do they define me. Yet, I am petrified at the thought of sharing the sickening details that follow. The only thing I fear more is that my debilitating silence will ultimately suffocate me into suicide.
From my years of running, I can divulge dozens of ways not deal with your demons: all tried and tested. I apologise for the hearts I break with the specifics – these personal revelations couldn’t be further from my polished public persona. For a while, I’ve debated whether or not to be completely honest about my struggles.
In trying to escape this hell, I’ve been disrespectful of myself. And it has taken me a long time to see it. There are many things that I am not proud of, but paraphrasing Theodore Roosevelt, ‘the woman who makes no mistakes is the woman who never does anything.’ I’ve learned to forgive myself, and that’s all that matters.
I was a promiscuous adolescent, fraught with insecurities and often without a stable friendship group. I’ve never had a ‘healthy’ relationship; one built on open, honest communication. Time after time, I’ve sought validation from others. But this was always a temporary fix. I’ve suffered eating disorders, fleeting addictions and a constantly guilty conscience. I was unhinged.
I cried myself to sleep, threw objects at walls in fits of rage, binged, purged, starved, exercised excessively, hated myself, projected that hatred onto others, hibernated, overachieved, overcommitted, overcrowded my schedule, splurged on expensive shit that I’ve never used, drank to get drunk, chain smoked, got stoned, abused Xanax, cut myself, relished in rough, depraved casual sex, and inadvertently became emotionally detached from previous partners.
I’m stumped at the fact that I have never tested positive for an STI. It would have been the icing on the already spoiled cake. I’ve spent nights in front of bathroom mirrors mauling myself with callous torment. And I’ve come dangerously close to taking my own life.
Last year, at the peak of my muted suffering, I underwent a heart surgery to repair an arrhythmia. Just one of the effects of the uncompromising lifestyle I have subjected myself to. If not for this wake up call, I would have continued to spiral. I didn’t know my limits. Without a doubt, I would have experimented with more illicit substances and probably dabbled in prostitution, if not for poor self-confidence.
This is something I have never confessed to anyone: neither counsellors nor confidants. Yet sadly for many women in similar situations, it is a confronting reality. Ultimately, the choice is not their own.
The cynical advertiser in me wanted to sell all of the above as a package deal. But in my mind, that plug was ineffective. For I needed to be worth something. That’s the basis for any exchange. Common knowledge. I was so flawed that I felt I couldn’t be fixed, let alone sold. Everybody should have given up on me, like I had done myself.
Without official diagnosis, I’ve been all of the ‘ics’. Bulimic, anorexic, orthorexic. Neurotic, psychotic, caustic. Just ick. And I’ve never been completely honest about any of it, because society would automatically call me dramatic. There are no truly encapsulating synonyms for the phrase “fucked up”. I’ve since come to my senses, but my self-worth is still warped.
All of this because my innocence was snatched at an age far before I knew right from wrong.
The only cure for the wounds to my psyche is sincere conversation. And so, I’m sharing a brutally honest account of my harrowing experience, in a search for ‘closure’. I also hope that those in similar agony will recognise the vicious cycle of denial and be encouraged to relieve themselves of the burdens they bear alone.
The wounds will eventually heal if you let them. Although a scar will remain, that scar is a reminder you survived.
A bittersweet bravery medal you’ll wear with pride.
I spent four years of my youth on a British military garrison situated on the dividing line between Greek and Turkish Cyprus. A boundary of barbed wire separated us from a village named after Saint Nicholas to our West, and a ghost town named Verosha, near Famagusta, the panhandle to our East. There was only one route between the two: a faded tarmac road lined with dusty beige grit, and it ran straight through the heart of our camp.
We resided in a community of other military and civilian families; living in identical houses filled with standard-issue furniture in a limited range of equally dull colours. For the most part, we were all drearily similar. Our mothers went to the same coffee mornings and shopped at the NAAFI, whilst our fathers worked in barricaded quarters and addressed each other by rank. As children, we were put through a uniform curriculum in manila folder classrooms. Our after school activates included loitering at the same skate park, and getting dinner from Lambros, the local chippy. I recall the strong scent of SPF 30+ amidst indiscriminate heat haze and crop tops. It was the time reigned by an omnipresent Nokia 3310 and glittery pink jelly shoes.
I was always ‘different’: a bright tall poppy, and the daughter of a ‘foreigner’. Relentlessly curious, with impractical ambitions, I was always questioning the rules. My skin wasn’t white, and I didn’t consider myself particularly pretty. I wasn’t skinny, and my period came earlier than the other girls. I grew up on Thai Green Curry and Chicken Adobo, jealous of the kids who ate tater tots and potato smileys. I laugh at this now, but at the time, it was isolating. My initial vulnerability was that I never truly belonged.
From age eight to twelve, I was regularly taunted with crude racist slurs. But these kids knew no better - as the saying goes, the apple doesn’t fall far from the tree. The ignorance and degradation didn’t have a lasting impact until I was taken advantage of by a boy two years my senior. All I recall is greasy brown spikes of hair, and a mouth full of metal.
On the edge of a dry thorny canyon behind the ‘Old Houses’, I was forced to do things that no child should have to endure. At the time, I thought it was a game. He repeatedly told me that I’d enjoy it. And I did, but I felt ashamed. Violated and confused, I confided in a friend. There was a poisonous grapevine on that camp. My feeble attempts to fend for any remaining dignity were drowned out by the venom of housewives’ kitchen chatter and their prying children.
Soon after, the police became involved.
I walked in on their visit to my parents one afternoon, and was immediately shunned from the house. Eavesdropping from the garden, I overheard the dictation of firm instructions. Do not discuss the incident with me, or anybody else; monitor my whereabouts and my company. My phone was confiscated in a bid to deny me contact with the perpetrator. In my state of panic, I stole it back and texted him what I had overheard.
I was punished for protecting him, but I was only reaching out for help.
At school, the insults turned from “Paki”, because of my tanned skin and a round scar on my forehead, to daily slurs of “liar” and “whore”. I get now why you all defended him. The wool was too far over your eyes. After all, butter wouldn’t melt.
I have vivid flashbacks of retreating to a bathroom in the school’s annexe, away from his popular busty blonde sister and her gang of friends as they vilified me. I curled up in a cubicle and cried for what felt like hours. But they waited outside and hurled abuse when I emerged. Like stones to glassy water. I shattered.
A mother recognises a child’s pain even though no words are spoken. Mine saw the suffering in my eyes and withdrew me from school. I longed for reassurance during my time of need. But such discussions were forbidden.
For weeks, I holed myself in my room, blinds shut, seeking the light of books. I played The Sims for hours on end, controlling the picket-fenced lives of perfect families. I’d only frequent Florentia’s, the local bakery, during school hours when I wouldn’t be harassed. Showing complete disregard to perceptions of truancy, I’d stand in the car park and stuff my face with iced buns, sucking on Marlboro Menthols until my eyes watered. Soon after, I’d run home to the bathroom and force my smoke-scented fingers down my blackened throat until every rancid bite had risen.
One day, I was summoned for interviewing. My parents drove me to an unknown office in a neighbouring base under false pretences. What a fucking wonderful shopping trip that was. Out of the car window, I realised the ruse and threw a tantrum. I left them no option but to drag me in, kicking and screaming.
Mum and Dad, please know I do not resent you for this. Fearing further consequences, you were only doing as you had been ordered. I know that you would move Heaven and Earth to take my pain away, if you could. And I’ll always love you for that, even if you can’t find forgiveness within yourselves.
I remember that converted bungalow on a concrete slab at the top of a rocky hill. Its taupe paint peeling like burnt skin. One side overlooked the valley of fields that hosted little league football games and the annual Dhekelia Dash charity run. On the other side was a magnificent view of the sun soaked bay. That same bay where a summer earlier, Dad taught me to sail in yellow Picos with fluorescent pink plastic sails, and wider-bodied white Bosuns.
From the musty hallway, I was taken from my parents into a room of grey couches and mundane navy carpet that frayed at stained white skirting boards. With a video camera in one hand, and a clipboard in the other, the suited woman ordered me to reveal every intimate detail. It was a harsh, regimental interrogation that reduced me to tears. What had happened on the day I pleasured that boy?
At twelve years old, I didn’t know any better. I came to believe I was at fault. All of this punishment was warranted. To avoid further incrimination, I remained silent. To this day, all I know about the outcome of that investigation is that there wasn’t one.
Whilst no formal charges were laid, the guilt I assumed has quietly undermined every single interaction I’ve had since. Later in life, I’d take on guilt that was not mine to take on. I now know that this injustice was a direct result of the appalling handling of the incident. Had my parents and I been afforded proper education and support, we would have been spared tremendous heartbreak.
Instead, we were betrayed by a system beaten down with ignorance.
Ashamed, and alone, I worked so hard to repress it all.
A few months later, we moved back to the UK, where I attended school for about six months. I enjoyed this newfound anonymity, and worked hard to keep a low profile. Staying with me grandmother meant that I couldn’t have ‘friends’ over, and that I was surrounded by peace and quiet.
Soon after that, we moved to Australia. I packed away my trauma, tightly sealed with the rest of our belongings. I’d hoped it would fall overboard on its voyage, and be lost at sea. For a while, I was convinced that was the case. When we arrived, I was afforded incredible privileges and created so many opportunities, that I didn’t have time to think about my pain, let alone talk about it. It faded away. I felt like a cheat.
I was successful in my deception until last year, when my outwardly ‘normal’ façade collapsed. Even a diagnosis of depression, triggered by the stresses of law school, wasn’t enough to bring the childhood trauma from my subconscious. It had been submerged deep, unwilling to resurface in its entirety. Instead, it manifested into daily habits so hard to break. It was driftwood, slowly washing up on shore.
Now, the more I think about my anxieties, the clearer it becomes.
Maybe I’m uncomfortable with my stomach despite how much I exercise, because I can still feel his bloated belly against mine. Maybe I’m ashamed of revealing my breasts because he burned them with his clumsy groping hands, and gnawed at them with his famished mouth. Maybe I’ve always picked at my skin because I’m trying to rid it of the putrid impurity he left deep in my pores. All of this pain, only to be met with muddied relationships and clouded judgment.
The memories trickled back late last year after my (now ex) partner subjected me to a similar asphyxiating experience in the bedroom. In a terrifying coincidence, both he and the boy share the same first name and last initial. I believe that history repeats itself because the universe has run out of cruel jokes to tell. The silver lining lies in remembering that things could always be worse.
Yes, I am angry at the events that have happened, and the resulting damage. But my only wish for them is that they have found peace within themselves. I hope that they have sought the help they so desperately need. And I pray desperately that others have been spared from similar suffering at their hands.
For the first half of this year, I’ve lived with painful recollections that worsened daily. Nauseating graphic imprints of both assaults, only aggravated by an indecent desire to be objectified for acceptance. I dealt with it alone, playing blame games with my decade-old fiend. Armed with tumult and insomnia, he almost shot me down.
Tristan, my big-little brother. When we lived in Oman, I suffered bad dreams. You once taught me how to fall asleep. You were probably too young to remember - you were only three or four. I should have told you a long time ago that I’ve repeated your formula every night since. Even now, it drowns out my nightmares.
In June, when my anti-depressant became futile, I made the difficult choice to change. I went from making suicide plans to planning my own rescue mission, seeking the help of my GP and counsellors.
In August, I began to pull fragments of my trauma from the trenches. Gradually opening up to my psychologist, by way of vague thought journaling exercises, which soon turned into novellas.
At 10pm one Friday night in September, I impulsively booked a flight from Sydney to the Gold Coast. I flew out at 7am the following morning, just to talk about my ordeal with my mother. It was an excruciating hour-long flight as I obsessed over what to say. Although in the end, this was a conversation full of tears and devoid of eye contact, these were by far the most rewarding frequent-flyer points I’ve ever earned.
Soon after, I confided in a peer who had recently blogged about the tragic circumstances surrounding his rape as a boy living in South Asia. It was a desperate plea to end the crippling silence surrounding sexual abuse – an ignorance that enables the “tacit authorisation of child molestation.” It provoked a torrent of tears.
When I finally stopped sobbing, I poured out my heart into a convoluted email, hoping that that he could provide answers. What followed was an exchange of experiences, raw beyond despair. At the same time, there was a fucked up kind of comfort in learning that I was far from alone. He too has spent much time searching for substitutes for ‘fucked up’, but nothing comes close.
In the end, it wasn’t the overwhelming support that flooded in after his heartbreakingly candid revelations that convinced me to publically reveal the most intimate details of my life. Nor was it about how sharing such a guarded part of oneself could feel so liberating. What gave me the strength to speak out was the sign-off to his initial 1500-word response. He quoted Mandela:
“If we let our own light shine, we unconsciously give other people permission to do the same.”
In that moment, nothing else mattered. I have never been so sure of myself. I feel that I have realised a purpose. Thinesh, I will never be able to fully express my gratitude for your honesty and encouragement. Thank you for demonstrating strength and imparting your wisdom. And most importantly, thank you for letting your own light shine.
Late one night, I sent slivers of this story to a former lover via Snapchat. Intrigued, he offered to help draft it. A fortnight ago, he was one of the people I least expected to care. But he has helped more than he will ever know. Calum, for someone with previous indiscretions, I appreciate your sincerity throughout this whole process. I apologise that the subject line of my first email was “Don’t be a Dick” – it was an unfair assumption of character (and your editing abilities!). The fact that it “gave you the sads” and took a few rereads before you could edit objectively has restored my faith in male compassion.
With these surges of real validation behind me, I am finally ready to shine, sharing my story with whoever needs to hear it. My Cyprus shaped stone no longer weighs me down. The smothering insecurity and guilt have gone, and I can finally breathe. At least I think. Some say the doubts never go away. In which case, I feel better equipped to deal with my triggers. I channel the negative thoughts into creativity, my air.
I won’t lie: it hasn’t been easy to put my tale into writing. As human beings, we are always conscious of our reception by others. There will always be some uncertainty in what we do, but that’s what drives us to keep chasing our dreams. The best way to prove yourself and overcome stifling self-doubt is to remind yourself every day of the light within you. I do this with something as trivial as my laptop login. If you are ever successful in prising it from my grip, my desktop password is ‘smile’.
Despite all the gross exposés, I am now completely clean. My only drug is the occasional glass of red wine… Something I definitely deserve! Whilst there will always be the threat of relapse into a depressive, dependent state, I’m fighting it off each day with a newfound purpose. As a creative thinker, I want to inspire others to express themselves, so that they can communicate the once uncommunicable. I am working on a project that will hopefully stimulate conversation around mental health experiences, particularly as a result of sexual violence and the stigmatisation that ensues.
If you have been through something similar, understand that you are not alone. The more you talk, the more you’ll come to terms with your trauma. Sharing your story with a relative, close friend, or kind stranger is a huge weight off your shoulders. If you can’t find the words to say, please find the strength to write. As Anne Frank famously said, “I can shake off everything as I write. My sorrows disappear, my courage is reborn.”
If you are worried about what people think, heed Thinesh’s advice: “take it one step at a time and trust your close friends enough to know that they will support you… If they don’t, they are not the right people for you.” I’ve come to realise that people’s reactions to you are nothing but reflections of themselves. And that is nothing to be afraid of.
If you suspect that somebody you know has endured the unimaginable, facilitate (but do not force) meaningful discussion. Reiterate that they are not at fault. Although the message is difficult to relay, it is better for victims to initially disbelieve the blatant truth, than to forever accept tacit accusations of guilt.
Don’t cry alone. Don’t let others cry alone. Instead, converse.
Unless we do, it doesn’t matter how far we run. The past has a way of catching up with us. Our demons will swim incessantly below the surface; they will never sink like stones. They’ll feed off the evils of stigma, and eventually rise to take our air.
Before it gets to that, let’s expose them.
Let’s slay them with the speech they least expect.