Trigger Warning: Intimate partner violence and abuse
According to the WHO, ‘Intimate partner violence is one of the most common forms of violence against women and includes physical, sexual, and emotional abuse and controlling behaviours by an intimate partner. Intimate partner violence (IPV) occurs in all settings and among all socioeconomic, religious and cultural groups. The overwhelming global burden of IPV is borne by women.’ According to the National Family Health Survey-5 (NFHS), one in every three women in India is a survivor of intimate partner violence.
When I was 23 years old, I met an individual who was a few years older than me and while we had mutual acquaintances, our paths had not crossed before. Upon meeting we struck up an immediate friendship which grew into a relationship after three months. It was my first serious relationship. The controlling behaviour started slowly and it started pretty early on. ‘I don’t like your friends, I don’t want you talking to so and so.’ It was never anything that was said in a mean or what seemed like an unjust manner. Every point was put forward in detail and was explained coherently.
I had just turned 24 at this point and chose to believe what was being told to me by someone I trusted and someone who I thought had my best intentions at heart. It felt easier to keep the peace than put up a fight in the moment. Gradually the violence and controlling behaviour seeped into other domains. The demand to be available on call/text at all times, the constant need for reassurance at an unhealthy level, the weaponisation of information discussed in private, the constant monitoring over my interactions with each and everyone- the list went on and on.
As time passed the tone in which things were conveyed changed, for the worse. There was constant violence, gaslighting, screaming and incessant verbal abuse over and over and over again. I on my part at that point in my life did not even know what the term ‘gaslight’ meant. I find it funny in a cruel, sad sort of way that I was an educated, to-be-lawyer, privileged in all aspects of my very existence but there was someone making me doubt my own reality and I was falling for it.
In the midst of this dynamic, I knew none of the things that were playing out were healthy or conducive to either one of our well-being or growth, but still the relationship failing to me at that point felt like a bigger failure than the reality of the situation at hand. At some point in this never ending cycle, I started fighting back and not too soon after that happened, I could barely recognise myself in the mirror. I did not know who I was becoming through the course of this relationship, but I knew for a fact that I did not like the person staring back at me in the mirror.
I was living with anger, fear, resentment, hurt and deep confusion within me, all of which was never my burden to bear in the first place. That realisation came later but when it finally did and after the weight of all of it became impossible to carry anymore, I gathered the courage to end this relationship for once and for all. This decision was met with a lot of resistance by the other person, but at this point the only way forward and out of this hell was to stand my ground, which albeit difficult was made easy with the support of my parents and trusted friends.
For a long time afterwards, the shame spiral persisted. I struggled to forgive myself and my internal dialogue mostly comprised of thoughts to the tune of, ‘You should have known better. You are educated. How could you let this happen to you? Why did you not leave earlier? Why did you not stand up for yourself from the start? What’s wrong with you?‘. The inner voice was loud and not easily silenced. Even then, I found, I was wrongly redirecting all the anger and shame towards myself.
To cut a long story short, upon removing myself from this unhealthy dynamic and violence, and as more time passed, slowly and gradually I started getting back to myself, the person I was before this experience. It felt like a huge burden had been lifted off of my shoulders and that I could finally breathe easy again. The world did not seem like such a bad place after all. People were actually kind. Another thing I sadly realised upon having honest and open conversations with other women, is that most women have had similar experiences of facing violence and stories of their own. The degree of violence and abuse and the details vary from person to person but the underlying theme remains the same.
Looking back at my 23/24 year old self, I wish I knew what I know now, so I could have protected her. As women, we are taught so many things but never how to leave a relationship when it is time. Nor are we told that it is okay to leave a relationship or a marriage in Indian society. Never do we learn how to identify violence and unhealthy behaviours from the get-go. We are never taught that someone’s else’s demons are not our burdens to bear. We are not taught how to differentiate between unhealthy and healthy love. We are not taught that having boundaries is not selfish. Why do we as individuals and as a society always wait until it is too late?
As Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie wrote, ‘We teach girls shame. Close your legs. Cover yourself. We make them feel as though being born female they’re already guilty of something. And so, girls grow up to be women who cannot say they have desire. They grow up to be women who silence themselves. They grow up to be women who cannot say what they truly think. And they grow up — and this is the worst thing we do to girls — they grow up to be women who have turned pretense into an art form.‘
I was not sure if I should write about this at all. Is it too much? Too personal? I was again playing into the same culture of silence and ingrained shame that propagates the stigma around women speaking up. I know for a fact the comfort and the sense of understanding and strength I have derived upon reading the words of brave women, strangers on the internet who chose to speak up about their lived experiences. So, this is my open letter to my 23/24 year old self, as well as to anyone who has gone through any kind of gaslighting, violence and abuse and come out on the other side. You were never the problem, and I am glad you made it out, stronger and better than before. Now do your duty and speak your truth- you never know who might benefit from the same.