Trigger warning: sexual violence, anxiety
In 2015, when I was about to graduate from my masters, I was required to complete an online workshop on sexual violence. The workshop had animated videos of different situations and we were asked to identify the ones that represented sexual violence. I could barely complete it because I felt stricken by the similarity of the situations in the workshop to my own life in law school. After finally finishing the workshop I realized that I wasn’t a spoil sport in law school, there were just situations that occurred with one individual that made me feel unsafe. I was simply trying to express this with a vocabulary that I didn’t have at the time.
Over time, I managed to live in denial and worked my hardest to live the life I wanted. On the surface, I was having a great time, but at the back of my mind there was a nagging thought that I just could not ignore. Instead of being content, I was sitting in my room feeling sorry for myself because I met a terrible person who continuously wanted me to say yes to his wishes with no consideration for my autonomy. I was angry that I had “let him” into my life. That despite saying ‘No’ on more than one occasion we still had sex even though I didn’t want to. That nagging thought morphed into something far more intrusive: “how did I, a strong independent feminist woman, let this happen to me?” I was extremely wrong. It wasn’t about letting it happen to me, he was a terrible person who committed sexual violence on multiple occasions. So, how did I shift the blame from myself to where it actually belonged?
In 2018, amidst a difficult doctoral program, the intrusive thoughts became hard to ignore. I felt rage and fury, and didn’t know where to put those feelings. So I seethed internally, and it came in the way of my work. I was angry at myself, I was constantly thinking about the past, and how my life would have been so much better had I never met this person, I brooded on that thought for weeks. Even now, I sometimes have trouble with some of these thoughts. These emotions made it difficult to work and the anxiety of not doing well made me even angrier that this person who I had cut out of my life was still affecting me. I couldn’t break this cycle of thoughts.
I knew things were going wrong, I thought I was going to die, that I probably had some life threatening illness, that my rapist would turn up at my door though he didn’t know where I lived. Any thoughts I had turned catastrophic and they would not go away. The thoughts morphed into nightmares, the nightmares woke me up and once I was awake, sweating and crying, there was no going back to sleep. I kept up my outward appearances, pretending that nothing was wrong. I believed that keeping myself busy meant that my demons wouldn’t find me. I would have difficulty breathing like there was a boulder on my chest. It felt like I was alone and the world was starting to collapse around me. This world, seeped with denial that I had built was slowly fading away and the harder I tried to hold on to it, the quicker it slipped away.
A few months later, at a check-up with my GP I told her how stressed I felt. When I shared some of the thoughts, she suggested counselling. Why did she think I needed counselling? I was just a little anxious, and from what my colleagues told me, all doctoral students feel that. I brushed it off. But, the worse I did in the program, the more I realized that maybe I did need therapy. So, I finally met a counsellor (not a psychologist) within my limited means. It wasn’t very helpful, I went for 3 sessions and didn’t see the point. I would talk to this person about small insignificant things. Then, one day, in the middle of a random conversation I told her that I was anxious. After some questioning, some awkward silences where I pretended I didn’t hear the question, or pretended not to understand it, she finally pulled some of the circumstances out of me. At the end of that session, she said that a psychologist might be better able to handle my issues. I felt lost, I didn’t know how to get therapy.
After a few months and missteps, I found a therapist who specialized in cognitive behavioural therapy. I was going to end up paying almost the same amount as my rent. It was far from affordable, though insurance covered parts of it. What could this person tell me that others had not? I called to cancel on this therapist many times, but some sense prevailed, and the first session was free anyway.
Stigma of Therapy
Despite knowing that “I was rather messed up” for a few years at that point, why did it take me so long to get therapy? I found two reasons, both related to stigma that made it difficult for me to access something I clearly needed. First, the stigma and shame related to discussing sexual violence. Second, the stigma attached to admitting you have a problem and going to therapy.
1. Stigma and shame related to discussing sexual violence
As a woman in India sexual violence is normalised, which is truly detrimental to the psyche of a person who has dealt with it. This was rather obvious from the reactions of people when I told them. I was fortunate that most of the people I told when I was the most vulnerable were empathetic. But, I also encountered some rather arcane ideas, both from others and sometimes even myself. I was told, “Isme kya hai, yeh toh sab ko hota hai” (what’s the big deal this happens to everyone) and that “boys will be boys”.
My own thoughts also internalised blaming myself because that’s the culture in which I was immersed. I should have protested more vigorously, I should not have given in, I should have worn something else. I was so hard on myself.
These thoughts are erroneous and problematic. They are inspired by a patriarchal culture and dances around the core issue here – consent. Moreover, it took me time to realise that the shame and the blame lies squarely on the shoulders of the perpetrator, not the survivor.
2. Stigma attached to admitting you have a problem and going to therapy
When I was finally ready to share with some people that I was in therapy and getting the help I needed, I heard a range of opinions: “Why are you making such a big deal of this;” “It’s been years, why do you still care;” “You don’t need therapy, you need to work hard and forget about these things;” “Just forgive him and move on.” This last one is especially irksome, I can’t fathom the logic behind it and it needs its own discussion, which I can’t have here. But, I’ll talk about the “work hard and forget” notion because that was the approach I used. My mental health was deteriorating, and however hard I worked, it would not have fixed it. In fact, it was quite the opposite, the more I tried to get these thoughts out of my head, the louder they were.
This cultural baggage worked like a script. Therapy isn’t for people, like me, who are just stressed. Us messed up people just need to work hard because the more time you have on your hands, the more you will think dark thoughts. But, if you have no time then you will have no time for the dark thoughts. Scrutinized closely, this just tells us that the problem is that I had too much time to think. Given the demands of my doctoral program that wasn’t likely. Laid out like that, I hope it sounds rather ridiculous because it’s just another form of denial. Until you learn how to deal with those thoughts and process them they aren’t going away. Sure you can bury them in a box stored deep in the recesses of your mind but someday, when you least expect it, the box might suddenly open, and when it does you may not be able to stem the tide.
A simply boolean search for the terms ‘india+therapy’ are rather revealing. You’ll find results like “demystifying therapy”, “why are we still so hesitant about seeking therapy?” and “India is the most depressed country in the world.” If India is the most depressed country in the world, why aren’t more people seeking help? Is it because there is a lack of demand or a lack of supply of good therapists. I believe that due to stigma people are unable to be honest about the fact that they need therapy, and in turn, the lack of demand created a lack of supply of affordable and good therapists. This strange cycle is exacerbated by the fact that many people believe that it’s a waste of money.
Therapy is never a waste of money, yes it takes work and it is a challenge. But, it is so worth it. All it is, is a helping hand. I could have worked and worked on myself and my PhD, it would have done nothing for me, I needed a little help getting out of the cycle in which I was stuck. I can quite confidently say that had I not got therapy at that point, I would have devolved and come unhinged. I’m not even sure I would be here writing this piece today. I’m now on my second round of therapy, and every week I get to talk to a really cool person and can hardly wait for my next session. Therapy is not something to be scared of, it helped me find the right tools. Without therapy I would have been fumbling around just looking for the tool box because I didn’t even know those tools existed.
Also read: Everybody Should Go To Therapy
In another life, Aishani was a lawyer. She is now a researcher and writer. She spends her free time reading, watching tv, and analyzing human behaviour.
Featured Image Source: Shreya Tingal for Feminism In India