My Eighth Summer

(Note: Trigger warning)

Once upon a time, we were all children. I'm sure that for the most part, we look back to our childhoods with great fondness.

I too was once eight years old. There are many times when I re-experience a set of events that happened overseas during the summer of my eighth year. I am not fond of these memories but couldn't make sense of why until a year and a half ago.

I knew before this point that the memories were definitely not positive. I have very strong emotions tied to what I can recall of what happened to me. My body becomes very tense and I want to curl up into a ball and protect myself - to create a cocoon or layer of armour around me. Stress and anxiety levels start to rise, and I become incredibly agitated.

And when I'm asked to keep a family member in my prayers, who died a year after giving me these memories, I flinch and can feel my jaw tighten as a result of hearing his name. There used to be a picture of him in my parent's house and to this day, I still cannot look at it. I feel angry and disgusted at these reminders of him. I was nine years old when I learned that he had passed away and rather than feel upset, I felt relieved because I knew he could no longer hurt me.

Yet I didn't know why until recently.

It was only when I started to work in the area of child sexual abuse education that things started to click. Even then, it took me a while to reconcile what I was learning with my own experiences. I was well aware that so much of what I had been experiencing up until that point - the emotions, tension, stress, strong selective memories around an event that I would label as "traumatic", and feeling triggered - finally made sense. But I continued to struggle with what had happened to me and was terrified to label it as sexual abuse. 

But it was.

Upon coming to this realization, I sat down with my now ex-husband and attempted to tell him what had happened to me. I had to tell him. He was my husband and he had to know what I was going through - I needed his support and needed him to be there for me. There were times in our marriage when he would trigger me and as much as I tried to stop this from happening, my brain wouldn't let me. The only way this would stop is if we worked together to figure out ways in which I could control or calm down the triggering, with the help of a counsellor I had started to see.

But there wasn't any support or understanding from his end. The first words out of his mouth, somewhat frustratingly, were "but you were eight years old, can't you get over it?"

In my desperation for him to understand how trauma impacts the brain and body, I tried to explain why I was dealing with this, in between bouts of tears at his lack of compassion. I had expected him to act as my protector, to empathize with me, and to say that he would do whatever it would take for us to get through this. I expected him to feel anger at the man who had exerted this control and trauma on an eight-year old girl. That this trauma I hadn't chosen to be inflicted upon me wasn't my own battle to fight. But in his eyes, it was. And he didn't understand why it had taken me so long to "tell him" this news. 

That he wished he had known about this before he had married me.

While my ex-husband and I faced many issues that eventually led to our divorce, it was difficult not to blame myself and my trauma as being the "final nail in the coffin." I carried a lot of guilt for our divorce, blaming myself for us having to go down this path. I was already carrying the burden of financially supporting us, in addition to the demands of work, family, household management, etc...and now this?

Our second year of marriage, before we separated, was the year that I had the most difficulty dealing with the understanding of what my trauma was. It didn't at all help that I was running child sexual abuse education sessions, which essentially re-triggered my own experiences multiple times during the week. I was mentally exhausted at the range of emotions I would feel and the number of breakdowns I'd have at home after work. My ex-husband was not around that much, so he didn't see this happening. I didn't have any support - I disclosed my sexual abuse to a couple of close friends (not my family), but I knew that I needed professional help. I eventually reached out for help and started to see a counsellor last Ramadan.

I've heard many people wonder why those who have been sexually abused sometimes "take so long" to disclose and understand what had happened to them. While I find this thought insensitive, I would hope that it stems from ignorance around sexual abuse. Speaking generally, people need to understand that there are many different forms of sexual abuse. It's not solely about rape, which is what people's minds tend to go to when they hear "sexual abuse." Most children who are sexually abused will not know it's sexual abuse until they are educated about it, and this may depend on what they remember, the duration of the abuse, and what else was happening in their life around the same time. And given that 85% of those who sexually abuse children are someone the child knows, this adds to the confusion already surrounding the situation. He/she wouldn't hurt me, I'm family and they love me.  This holds true in the schools I run programming in and explains the spike in disclosures we receive from children after our educational sessions.

Also, as I've experienced myself, the brain has an amazing capacity to act in a way that facilitates the survival of the individual, and this can be done by blocking access to specific memories around events that cause distress. I only remember certain things around what happened to me that summer and nothing else, and my counsellor has told me that I may never fully remember what happened, which I am completely fine with. I don't know how many more times I was sexually abused that summer, but my mom telling me that my uncle enjoyed spending time with me makes me sick to my stomach. My brain has memories but so does my body - hence the automatic kicking in of tension, anger, clenched fists, feelings of stress, tight jaw muscles, etc. I've tried using a cognitive approach to prevent this from happening, but with minimal results. I've now turned to EMDR therapy, which has great outcomes in terms of healing from childhood trauma, which I'll blog about at a later time.

I've also started to become aware of some of my coping and self-soothing strategies. I struggle with personal space, especially if I'm in public and around men I don't know. When I'm standing in line at a coffee shop or the grocery store, and there's a man behind me standing too close, I tense up. I've had to turn around and ask the person to please take a step back. The same happens when I'm on a crowded subway when traveling or anywhere else that gives the feeling of being confined or too close in proximity to men. I am also incredibly sensitive to getting unwanted attention from men, especially when I perceive it to be aggressive or violating of my personal space in any way. So when a man came up to me while grocery shopping two weeks ago, called me "exotic" and said he'd like to take me out for coffee, it took a millisecond to become triggered, anxious and angry. I wanted to abandon my shopping cart and run out of the store. It took me the rest of the evening to calm myself down and feel safe again. I try to avoid riding the elevator in my apartment building alone with another man and when I've had to, I have my keys in one hand and my phone in another, pretending to look busy so I can avoid conversation. This may all sound extreme, but it's my current coping mechanism to feel safe. The brain does not differentiate between types of threatening situations when you have an overactive amygala. Which I do.

I've been blessed with a handful of male friends (i.e. defined by those I can speak to more about than solely work), whom I also work with as colleagues. Trust has obviously been developed through a working relationship, so there's no discomfort during interactions. But the thought of "getting to know someone" for the sake of marriage isn't something I'm comfortable with at this point in time. I know that I have issues around safety and trust, and these will have to be reconciled before I can even think about that.

I'm sure there will be people who read this and wonder if I'm making things up about being sexually abused (Note: The false reporting rate for sexual abuse is around 1%-2%, which is the lowest of all crimes). Or they're confused about why it took me so long to know what "happened" to me and to finally get support. And both of these thoughts are OK and again, most likely stems from ignorance on this topic. The reason why I am sharing all of this is because I know that there are many girls, boys, men and women who may be reading this and they too have been sexually abused. Both within the mainstream community, but also within the Muslim one too. I'm currently working with a couple of families to get their daughters support for the sexual abuse they've endured. I met with a family last week and for the first time, I disclosed that I too had been sexually abused. I explained that I know how their daughter is feeling, that I am so thankful for them being such supportive parents, and that they're doing the right thing by getting her the support she needs. I spoke about their daughter's need to process what happened and to learn healthy coping strategies. And that the sexual abuse was not her fault, and it was definitely not theirs.  

Seeing the difference this made with the family leads me to believe that I've been put through this trial for a reason. I don't think Allah puts anyone through anything without a very strong and valid reason, although it may take us a while to understand what this is. For me, it took approximately 24 years. But I finally know where the passion and conviction comes from when I speak about sexual abuse: it's directly from my own experiences. I know what it's like to live with shame for so many years and what it does to you. I know what it's like to feel anger, anxiety, and stress after being triggered, yet not being able to stop it. I know what it's like to play certain memories over and over again in your head, with certain parts blank, so you're never able to know the full extent of your trauma. I know what it's like to have difficulty trusting people, even though their intentions may be pure, because there's too much risk involved. 

I get it. 

To deal with the truth of having been sexually abused has been incredibly challenging, on top of going through divorce and supporting my mom with hers - but I have hope. Both my faith in Allah and giving purpose to my experiences are the two things that keep me going. I can't take away what happened to me, but I trust that I will reconcile with it and will heal inshallah. Allah has given me platforms to use my experiences as a means to educate others about sexual abuse, especially within our communities. I do not take "no" as an answer from anyone when I propose that initiatives be undertaken to educate children, youth and parents. And Alhamdulillah, while it has taken a lot of patience, great strides have been made. 

Giving up is not something I've ever done. And I never will.

On a personal level, I'm starting to get the support I need and inshallah, it's going to help me heal from this. Twenty-four years is a long time to carry the burden of trauma on your shoulders. I know for certain that there are others even within my own social circle who have been sexually abused - whether they are aware of it or not. I don't mean to be restrictive to the Muslim community since sexual abuse knows no boundaries, but there's such a stigma that I imagine many Muslim survivors are not getting the support they need. And everyone deserves to heal.

If you're reading this and need support or you know someone who has been sexually abused, there is support available.

If you're local to Calgary, contact Calgary Communities Against Sexual Abuse for information and to set up free counselling. They have a team of dedicated and educated counsellors available and a 24-hour crisis lines.

If you're not local to Calgary but located within Canada, the Kids Help Phone has a 24-hour number for support and they also offer online support via a chat feature on their website. They take calls for kids and youth up to the age of 22. Naseeha, a Muslim support line, also has counsellors available, but their call lines are only open for a limited amount of time each day.

For more specific resources in your area around sexual abuse, search for and contact your local agency. Every major Canadian city, and I am sure the same holds true in the United States, has such agencies and crisis line.

For information about sexual abuse and violence, please visit the HEART Women and Girls website. They offer a virtual peer support program for girls and women who have been sexually abused, and these individuals have been trained in this area. There are also blogs written by women who share their experience of being sexually abused, as well as many other resources.

If you need more information, you can contact me via HEART under the "Who We Are" tab. I'd be happy to try and help out in any way that I can.

I plan to continue blogging about this topic, both around my own healing process and also for educational purposes. One in four girls and one in six boys will be sexually abused or assaulted at some point in their lifetime. This statistic holds true for our Muslim communities. And the only way we can support survivors and hold perpetrators accountable is if we start talking about this without any shame or guilt.

I've started the conversation. Now let's see where we can take it.

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