Where did my body go? This is a question I have asked myself repeatedly over the last two years. My own body became invisible to me after enduring abuse that was physical, emotional, and perhaps even sexual. It is too much to continue to endure pain, to feel it in its fullest as you flinch, as tears brim in your eyes, as you feel a violent pressure on your skin. The too- muchness of this pain reduced as I lost contact with my body. However, even after two years of the end of this abusive relationship, I cannot imagine how to connect with my body again, how to feel desire, how to rethink my idea of pleasure, and how to feel and let go of the pain of all that which happened to me.
It is with time that I realised that my identity as a woman dictates my relationship not only with abuse, but also with healing. The ‘Indian woman’ has existed on the margins for centuries, and she is awarded love, care, and acceptance if she complies with this position. It is quite paradoxical that the ‘Indian woman’ is perfect as long as she forgets herself in the service of others. A self dissolved when you place less food on your plate and leave more for your brother, or if you set aside an important official submission halfway to attend to your fathers’ sudden hunger, a woman learns that to attend to herself is too much. How does a woman see her inner experience then, if it has seldom been seen or allowed by anyone else? To engage in self-care becomes a deeply shameful act for someone who has been taught to deny the very existence of a self.
My experience of abuse, and consequent state of mental crisis was marked by shame. How can I put myself first, I wondered, when I see that the person who is being violent with me is himself in a state of pain? After a year of preparing to leave the distressing situation, I was able to voice that I could no longer exist in pain and that I had to leave. The pain, however, did not leave me. Why am I in pain, I asked myself, why doesn’t it leave now that the situation has been exited? It is here that it struck me, I was in pain because of being in pain, I was ashamed of being a self who feels something intensely, who carries scars of violence, and who will require self-engagement and outside-help to deal with what happened. As I speak to colleagues who have faced abuse or institutional harassment due to their gender, sexual orientation, or caste identity, they often say something along the lines of, “I am ashamed that this happened to me, and I don’t think I can do anything to feel better, this is just how it is.” Suffering becomes a private battle, because a self that has been branded invisible cannot suffer visibly, it will simply be taking up too much space.
Perhaps another socially upheld idea adds fuel to this shame: to suffer in silence is seen as a sign of strength, endurance, and wisdom. It is like putting a band-aid on a failing organ to tell oneself that suffering is best borne silently. In classroom spaces, during discussions about families and intimate relationships, it is often spoken of with immense pride, “No one knew what I was going through, I hid my pain, silenced my sobs, and went about functioning as I would normally do and complete my usual chores.” This is also echoed in what a number of women face in romantic relationships: experiencing the need to leave their feelings and fears at the doorstep to attend to their partner’s needs. In a group space where relationships were being discussed, a woman said, “I keep my intensities out, when he (her partner) needs me, I will be there for him entirely.” The intuitive knowledge of another’s distress is as rewarded in relationships as keeping one’s feelings invisible. Individuals already struggling with marginalisation because of their socio-political-cultural and economic location are further damaged by this invisibility because they are kept on the outskirts as this shame is reinforced by the social setting we live in.
My own response to abuse was to make myself invisible, deny my pain, suffer silently, and wish to still make space for a relationship that slowly chipped away at every part of me. Being a woman – a gender that occupies the margins – and inhabiting an invisible emotional world, I wonder what a safe space looks like. Psychotherapy is a form of healthcare and self-care which is now gaining momentum in India, yet how does one access these spaces within a cultural matrix of shame around being a self, having feelings, and suffering? This is further complicated with questionsaround the affordability of therapy. How much is the self worth, to invest money in it? Am I giving an aspect of my life too much importance when the same money could be used by other family members for things that are ‘more important’? How do we detangle a sense of internal shame from economic investment in healthcare and self-care? These questions only arise if one has the economic resources to invest in care, and a large section of society, especially marginalised groups, do not have such resources, and are thus invisibilised by the very institutions that promise care.
For me to begin to think about my body and to give words to my suffering has taken two years of distance from my body,and it is a task I am still grappling with. A body that has suffered, perhaps after care will become a body that can desire, feel her skin, feel pleasure, feel joy, and admit to pain. This complicated task of being a self, of reaching out for care and reworking internalised ideas of shame that seem to have quick resolutions, yet to word these complaints, questions, and hopes is perhaps an act of resistance in itself.
Cover Image: Pixabay