Reclaiming my life after sexual abuse: Part II

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 I ever 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.

Sarah Rashid studied comparative literature and photography at the University of Pennsylvania and fashion design at the Fashion Institute of Technology. She currently works as a freelance fashion designer and social activist in New York City.

This piece was originally published on The Islamic Monthly.

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