I didn’t have the courage to tell my husband, Dan, the truth.
I cannot stand it when I’m touched sometimes. It has nothing to do with you. But the words wouldn’t come out. I fumbled when we stood in front of the bathroom mirror brushing our teeth. I turned to him and said tersely, “I can’t do this. I feel guilty when I say no, don’t ask me again.”
Dan replied patiently, “That’s totally fine, you know it’s okay to say no.” Then he kissed me and turned on the TV. I curled up under the sheets and lay awake for an hour in the darkness. We were at a hotel in Toronto, trying to spend the last few hours together before our early morning flights. I was four months pregnant, fighting nausea and fatigue.
For a long time, I fought the questions I had: will it be long? Will I like it again? I was sexually assaulted when I was a child. My family was traditional, and the small Indian town that I was raised in, Sivakasi, was deeply conservative. I still remember my tutor’s touch; his fingers razing up my thigh, his voice telling me that I will enjoy it.
For years, the fear didn’t subside.
Neither did my aversion to touch. But I didn’t know what caused the fear. I didn’t talk to anyone for there was no one to guide me through my trauma. Sexuality outside of marriage is seen as dishonorable in Indian society, more so for an Indian girl, and I was scared to talk to my parents. Girls who faced assault were often shamed by their families for ‘allowing’ it to happen and restricted from activities and learning. I wanted reassurance that I wouldn’t be punished if I told my parents. I wanted to talk about it to my mother, who was at home, and ask her to chase this man away. But I couldn’t. It felt better to keep it secret. Except, I began to loathe my body. Then, in my early twenties, I developed an odd resistance to intimacy. It would become a joke among my friends that I wasn’t a hugger. I hated being hugged. Not for more than two seconds, I’ve told people. And no tight hugs.
Months into our dating, Dan told me he liked spooning. I thought of movie scenes where couples woke up entwined in each other’s arms, hair disheveled, their skin glowing in the morning sun. That tender moment when Clementine leans over Joel in Michel Gondry’s Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind. Carrie Bradshaw and Big reading and cuddling under silken sheets in Sex and the City. It’s a lie, I told him, no one really does that. He said they did. I wanted to tell him that it felt suffocating, the idea that I would have to spend an entire night being held by someone.
“It’s easy,” he assured me, “Try it. Let’s spoon and sleep.”
I gave in a few times, but each time, I’d feel my body slightly roll away from his warmth, his skin, to my side of the bed where I could sleep untouched. I could only fall asleep when I felt alone, when I was sure that my space was my own, where my body felt at peace in emptiness.
We’d been together for nearly six years before the incident in Toronto. I felt safe with him. Yet, that fall, I began to unravel in a way I’d never before. Pregnancy changed my body. My breasts grew, my stomach protruded, my hair lost its shine and fell out in bunches in the shower. Touch didn’t just feel strange, it felt invasive. I began to wrap myself in Dan’s old t-shirts and switched between winter cardigans and sweatshirts. It had become my shield—I felt safe in layers of clothing. It hid the insecurities and guilt of early memories that began to surface three years into our marriage.
Later, I mentioned to our doctor that I don’t like to be touched. She looked at me with piercing eyes and asked me about my history of pain. How did I deal with it? Was I sad? Was I sleeping well? I told her that I managed. I took pills. Long showers. Physical therapy. I suffered from auto-immune diseases and my body had weathered in the weight of pain. I can deal with any pain.
“You know, I think it might do you good to get a mental health assessment,” she said cautiously.
A few weeks later, I sat in an enclosed room with a talk therapist who asked me how I was feeling. I laughed. I felt sleepy, and tired. “I’m pregnant and it isn’t fun.”
She smiled the way therapists do when they’re studying you. I took a tissue from the box she’d placed strategically near my couch and blew into it. “Tell me,” she said, “Why are you here?”
I told her that I was asked to come here, surprised by how ordinary the room was. Unlike the movies. No chaise, no ornamental flowers, no sunshine filtering through the window. When she began to ask questions, I drifted, sighing. I told her of that afternoon that he came home, and pushed my legs apart, and the rush of fear and shame as he ran his fingers up my thigh. She waited. The memories flowed, unleased like a dam. The time when I’d consented to having sex with an ex-boyfriend out of sheer fear, the pain and disgust I felt with myself long afterwards. The time that I stood outside my apartment in Bangalore, shaking in the pouring rain, after two men on a motorcycle groped my behind and stopped to watch my reaction. The many times I consented to acts that repulsed me, each time trying to allay the fear and anxiety with a forced smile. I can do this. I can do anything. I sniffed into a napkin, my eyeliner smudged. Silently, she leaned forward and said: “It’s not your fault. It never was.”
I thought of her words long after the session. The PTSD diagnosis was a long time coming. It’s not your fault. For me, it wasn’t that easy. Sexual assault confused me. I didn’t understand what it had done to my mind. At 33, reflecting on the past felt as if I were dunking myself headfirst in a bowl of ice-cold water. I’d denied myself agency over my own body, unsure if I’d had any power over it at all. Most women in my own family had done the same. I knew that the women in my life hid their experiences. These were not experiences that strong women talked about. Strong women endured. They persevered.
I thought of Dan’s simple advice “You can always say no” – yet, there it was, the uncertainty if situations allowed for it. But what if . . . ? I wanted to ask him. What if someone hit me? Or threatened to spread a rumor? Or assaulted me? When exactly is a ‘no’ enough?
Touch—to be touched—is our first introduction to human affection as children. In my large Indian family, we didn’t really have boundaries when it came to showing affection. Culturally, no one said ‘no.’ Babies were kissed and coddled, children were mouth-fed until they grew out of it; mothers massage warm coconut oil and braid their daughters’ hair. Touch was ordinary yet no one talked about sex—my sexuality remained a mystery to me until I faced those cold, dead eyes of a man who sat opposite me, a math textbook open on his lap, stroking my thigh.
Sex education, too, was unheard of. I’d never heard a woman in my large extended Indian family use the word ‘vagina’. Instead, the word to refer to my vagina was ‘shame, shame’. Even today, discussing sex and sexuality is taboo. In 2015, a study published by the Indian Journal of Psychiatry, found that sex education at the school level was still strongly opposed by all sections of society—parents, teachers, and politicians. Whatever I learned about sex—and sexuality—I learned through friends at school. When I got my first period, my friend Tracy would stand outside the toilet while I changed sanitary napkins to make sure I was doing it the right way. The first time I kissed a boy, I sat with a girl named Susan who had been sexual with her boyfriend back home. We talked about erections, sex, and what constituted boundaries. No one knew much about sexual violence other than that rape was bad—not only because it violated a woman’s body, but because it would deem you unworthy by other men.
So, no one prepared me for the long-lasting mental toll of sexual violence. I expected my friends to tell me about their experiences so I could understand my own. But the topic was taboo to talk about.
Learning on my own became another fight.I began to write my experiences in my journal, often going back days to read if my own feelings made sense. Sometimes, I sought lessons from books I borrowed from friends. The women in Danielle Steele and Sidney Sheldon’s books assessed the men they fell in love with. They also said ‘no’ when they wanted to. They fought back. In college, I learned how to file a police report, to carry pepper spray, and to scream. I talked to the college counselor. I observed student protests.
I could finally open up.
Yet, in 2016, I found myself in bursting into tears watching Mad Men, so much so that my husband refused to watch the series when I was around. It felt too real, I told him, it felt as if I was living my childhood again. Once, after I was groped in a bar in downtown Washington D.C., I came home and washed myself over and over. When I was stalked on the metro on the way home one night, I didn’t have to courage to ask for help. I panicked. In 2016, around election season, the triggers became more violent, aggressively surfacing at odd times. The link between women who have faced IPV (Intimate Partner Violence) and PTSD has long been established—victims of violence react emotionally and physically to recollections, suffer from sleeplessness, and are often irritable. But what about intimacy? What about romance with someone they trust?
I hadn’t asked these questions until recently, when the emotional burden became too hard to bear, I enjoyed discovering the fleeting rush of sex, being held, and rocked, and kissed, and loved in adulthood. But opening up my mind—letting someone wade into the deeper end—always felt impossible because my introduction to intimacy was flawed and inadequate.
While there has been a lot of research into how sexual trauma affects intimacy, it remains a topic that hasn’t been discussed enough. One study done at St. Catherine University in Minnesota points out that flashbacks make it difficult or impossible for a survivor to connect with their partner. Disassociation, it says, can be a useful survival mechanism for survivors to protect themselves. I trusted my husband, but to me he had become a reminder of pain. To avoid confronting the pain, I had begun to disassociate. Not just with him, but from anyone who showed affection. I wrestled and pulled away from hugs from my mother. I hugged my friends to say hello and goodbye, but never when they were sad. I’ve hugged my little sister, partly uncertain how long I could go on before the claustrophobia set in. Touch, for all of them, was an expression of affection. In me, it stirred an irrational panic. To heal myself, I needed a re-education, a way to revive my body and mind.
Does intimacy have to magical? I’ve decided it doesn’t matter to me anymore. I tell myself that love—any form of it—deserves honesty. I sat with Dan one rainy evening, tears flowing down my face. We found an empty table at Mason’s Famous Lobster rolls near our place in Reston, Virginia. The air was cold, wet. Around us, I watched families drift in and out taking with them sandwiches and hot clam chowder. I held his hand and told him that I’m not okay. But, I said, I want you to know that I’m so happy to be with you. I love you. I just need time to get better at this.
He said, gently, looking into my eyes “I know.”
Early this year, after we returned from a short road trip to Lancaster, we moved into our new condo. I dusted, vacuumed, and swabbed. Dan knelt on the floor trying to make sense of our furniture orders. When he’d finished assembling the new crib we bought, we stood in front of it for a moment, taking in a deep breath. We hugged. I felt the darkness slowly dissipate thinking of what this meant: a new beginning. A new start.
Meera Vijayann is a freelance journalist who writes on gender and development. She has contributed to national and international discussions on the issue of gender rights and violence in India. Her work has appeared in Forbes, The Guardian, The Deccan Herald, The Huffington Post, CBC and other outlets. She lives in northern Virginia and blogs frequently about the immigrant experience in North America.