Trigger Warning: Rape, Sexual Abuse, Emotional Abuse, Trauma Bonding
I remember reading Catharine MacKinnon in my second semester of law school. I was so shocked at the state of the Indian rape laws. It triggered me not because I had been sexually abused, but because as a woman I had experiences of being treated unjustly. I had called my best friend after finishing that reading, and he had comforted me that he understood how I felt and how unjust it was. Little did I know that only one month later I would be explaining the concept of consent to him for violating me.
One week after the earlier mentioned call, this friend of mine expressed a romantic interest in me. My summer vacations started, and I called him home one day, thinking we could talk about how things could be in the future. He clearly had other plans. Things escalated really fast and he started taking my clothes off. I said no. I kept saying no and I said it loudly. The interesting part is that I keep trying to justify myself by explaining that I said no loudly and several times because as women we are always questioned, “Did you say no firmly?” and the best is when somebody asks you if you tried pushing him off or resisted it. What most people do not know is that when you are in that position with somebody you thought you loved and trusted; you are in shock for the most part.
Nobody talks about what happens after you are told you got raped or when you realise it, and the time it takes to process the violence. It is a constant cycle of questioning what you remember and what your brain is telling you. I did not know that for months after that I would wake up in the middle of the night, trying to convince myself that I had actually been raped and I was not imagining it. All I wanted to do was forget it ever happened. I wanted to take back the confrontation I had with him too. Because that is what led to the following two months of emotional abuse. Once he accepted that he had in fact raped me and apologised for it, I thought I could move on and forgive him. I did forgive him in that moment, and I met him two days later also. He seemed to be remorseful. Things became normal between us, until he used to get drunk or when I used to not talk to him. This happened several times over the course of two months. He would get drunk and threaten me that he would beat up every important man in my life. The irony is that even his threats were chauvinistic and condescending. But one thing I came to fear was the sudden drunken denial that he had never raped me. In my brain, where I was anyway trying my best to not question my memory, he put in so much fear that maybe I was wrong about it all. The next morning would always be remorseful, he would tell me how much he loves me and how he will change for me. And yet again he would accept that he did rape me.
Our relationship had slowly grown abusive. It was the small things in the beginning – like not letting me meet my best friend on my own, not letting me have any other plans except meeting him since he used to show up at my workplace almost every day and being insecure if I met anybody else and getting angry about it.
My PTSD from the physical violation was also kicking in, I used to have panic attacks every time somebody touched me or hugged me. Things slowly got worse, every time I used to try and leave him, he used to threaten me and say that I was crazy and that he had never raped me. At that point I used to get scared and stay. I had stopped talking to all my friends. I had shut out my mother who knew about what had happened, except she did not know the details and the person who had done it. The threatening and staying became a vicious cycle and I became more and more used to it. I used to forgive him every time he used to mess up. When I got back to college, my friends pulled me out of it. He finally left me alone after months of gaslighting, manipulation, abuse. And that is all I wanted after everything.
Also read: Does Trauma Have A Feminist Face?
When the ‘Boys Locker Room’ incident came to light, I watched a sudden spike in trigger warnings being put on Instagram stories. Suddenly I was reading so many stories of abuse – emotional and sexual. I think it was the fact that all women have been through so many small things enforced by patriarchy that when suddenly people talk about it, it can very well trigger you which is exactly what happened. Those two weeks after the incident were especially hard on me as a survivor. But supporting so many women through their journeys of acceptance and eventually writing about it was an extraordinarily powerful experience, except most of them did not know what they were feeling.
Sometimes you need a term which explains what you are feeling, because then you know it is justified in some strange way. Especially when what you are feeling is affection for your abuser. We as survivors of rape and abuse end up going soft on the very people who caused our entire world to fall apart. I have seen and supported people who suddenly started missing their abusers or going back to them. And then people ask them why did you stay with him? But to a survivor it is so normalised – the persuasion, the manipulation and then the dependency. You do not realise when your abuser becomes such a huge and essential part of you. And most women do not have a support system like I did to remind me of what he did.
I remember googling ‘PTSD after rape’. I realised the nightmares, flashbacks, panic attacks, anxiety and fear of intimacy were normal. I went to therapy and things started looking better but I still missed him. I was missing the person who had caused me to lose all my sense of hope and trust in people. I used to miss him, and I thought that I still loved him. It was like I was dependent on him. I would have breakdowns over how much I need him in my life and how I wish I could take back everything I did and said to him. It was not like I did not know it was strange. I knew it and I was so confused and ashamed. You think one would just cut off their abuser and be happy with that. But here I was wanting him back in my life. It was around this time I started reading about emotional abuse. That is when I read the term ‘Trauma Bonding’. It does not refer to the bonding among rape survivors which is what everyone assumes when they first come across the term. Trauma bonding is a term given to the strong emotional attachment a victim has with their abuser.
Most women do not know about trauma bonding and that is a shame since most of them go through it after abuse. And that is why they stay with their husbands or partners. Within a trauma bond, the victim, who often has co-dependency issues, first feels loved and cared for. However, this begins to wear away over time, and the emotional, and sometimes physical abuse takes over the relationship. The victim usually sees the change and hence the abuse, but does not know why it is occurring. They believe they just need to understand what they are doing wrong in order to bring back the loving part of the relationship. So, most survivors end up trying to fix their issues to get back their abusers, not realising that they are a part of a vicious cycle. And if they eventually realise that they are a part of that cycle, all the abuser has to do is go back to the courtship phase to win them back. This means that the victim will stay in the relationship when the abuse escalates, creating a destructive cycle. This was something which comforted me in so many ways. It validated everything I had felt and allowed.
This entire journey has shown me firsthand the deep internalisation of patriarchy within each one of us. We end up normalising layers and layers of such deep-rooted misogyny and toxic masculinity, even when one has been severely traumatised and tortured by them. Unless the society rejects these evils and proactively creates robust support systems, a victim would always feel extreme loneliness and depression like I felt.
Aayomi Sharma is currently a student at the O P Jindal Global Law School, especially interested in using law as a tool for advancing equality and social justice. She can be found on LinkedIn, Instagram and Facebook.
Featured image source: Onlinegrad.baylor.edu