It’s been 25 years today since the night of my escape, and it feels like I haven’t truly stopped running until now. Caught up in the business of survival, I’ve had no time to linger on old nightmares, much less recover from the full extent of their impact. My mind could not have coped with certain realities even if I did.
But right now, there is peace around me. My flat is mostly quiet, with the odd muffled shriek of laughter or bickering coming from the children upstairs. The trees outside my window mark the seasons passing by, and November branches cast off their leaves like so many old secrets. My mind should be at peace too, but I still feel like I’m in hiding sometimes, trying to snatch what moments of happiness I can before I’m caught and dragged back into the depths of my own shame. After all this time, I still have to tell myself out loud that I am safe now.
Time has given me enough distance that I’m no longer frantically driven to drink or fuck or spend the pain away before it swallows me up altogether. Ironically, it’s taken the danger of a global pandemic to make me completely stop engaging in destructive behaviours that up to now helped me avoid facing the darkest corners of my past.
The overwhelming feeling I’m left with is one of great sadness and futility. Not only at what I have lost over the years, but what every member of my family has lost, including my abusers, and the younger ones left behind wondering who I am and what really happened. And for what? I’m only able to imagine what their lives are like, because I don’t speak to any of them anymore, except for one sister occasionally. Are they doing well at school? Do they have good friends they can confide in and laugh with until their stomach hurts? What are their favourite foods? Do they like to read? I look in the mirror at the growing number of grey hairs and fine lines and wonder what their faces look like now.
My seismic anger has simmered down in recent years, for two reasons. One is that I have made a success of myself in some important ways, despite all that happened and despite having to do it all completely alone. I have a job (which I love), a steady income for the foreseeable future, and this beautiful flat that I was able to rent alone through a friend of a friend last year, for a rate that in London would normally get me a nice room in a shared place with strangers. After sixteen years of sharing, the relief of having my own space still brings me to tears on occasion. I have my health, a safe place to live, warmth, food, and a few books. I am the luckiest person in the world to have all these things, made all the more precious because I know how quickly it can all come crashing down, particularly in this climate which we all now find ourselves in.
The other reason is that I realised how much my anger was a product of failed expectations. I expected family to protect me and care for me and be there during hard times, because that’s what families do. I expected those things because I believed I deserved them, and to be let down so devastatingly to my mind meant that I did not deserve them. That I was in fact worthless. Those are the beliefs I held in my heart as I sat in A&E several times over the years, knowing I couldn’t be trusted not to take my own life if I wasn’t there. Now I choose to understand that for whatever reason, my caregivers simply did not have the capacity or competence to care in the way they should have done. That didn’t mean I was not deserving of love and protection. When I let go of the expectations, I let go of a lot of the anger. It’s easier to do now that I’m not living on a knife-edge, helplessly waiting for the next catastrophe to happen. I have power now.
I also recognised that my abusers may have shattered the family once, but I shattered it a second time when I went public with my story. Estrangement for me was not a single event. Different relationships were lost for different reasons, at different times. In some cases, I cut the chord; in others, someone else did. I don’t know what each individual has been through over the years as a result of my public presence, or what their lives have been like in general. I abandoned them when I made that choice, just as my own sense of abandonment drove me to share my story with anyone who would listen. They all moved on to create new lives for themselves, but I could not, and I desperately needed my pain to be heard.
It still amazes me to see the change that one person can make by speaking out. It fills me with hope to see the efforts being made to end forced marriage around the world and I’m proud of my own contribution to those efforts. I think of how our family might have turned out differently if the right support had been there for all of us. I don’t regret my choice to speak, but I do appreciate more fully the cost of doing so. While my mental health has improved enough for me to reflect on these things without feeling the need to run away immediately and dive into
the nearest bottle of wine avoidance mode, my newfound sense of peace is too fragile to go picking at old wounds in any great depth, even though a few relatives have made some attempt at contact in response to the COVID-19 crisis. I don’t know if or when I’ll get to a point where I want to think about rebuilding some of those old bridges if the opportunity arises.
In the meantime, I’ve been blown away by the realisation of how the process of trauma recovery shaped who I am over the years. I paid such a high price to be me that I lost my sense of self altogether. Now my days are filled with wonder at the discovery of who I am outside of survival and storytelling. When I was a little girl the first thing I wanted to be when I grew up was an astronomer. I used to balance my telescope from Argos on a stool in the kitchen as I gazed out of the open back door at the moon, mesmerised by its peaceful glow. I loved reading about science and nature. I grew my own crystals, and decided the axolotl was my favourite sea creature. I would dunk my head in a tub of water to see how long I could hold my breath, an essential skill if I was to explore the Great Barrier Reef (yes I see the flaw there). None of this could touch my love of reading. For a few minutes or hours at a time if I was lucky, I could suspend reality and explore a far bigger, brighter world than my own.
These are all parts of myself that existed before my mind erased all memory of them as a survival mechanism to cope with the terrible things that were happening to that little girl. The biggest reward for facing my trauma in recent years is regaining my memory of some of the good things as well as the bad. I’m 37 years old now, and I can feel myself becoming whole instead of residing in absent emptiness. I’m discovering parts of my personality that have remained hidden while my life was consumed by work and campaigning and crisis response.
I’m not sure who I’ll be on the other side of this year of lockdown, but I know I’ve already changed a huge amount. Part of me has used the need for isolation as an excuse to hide away from the world completely, perhaps to make up for the years spent over-working, over-socialising, over-drinking, over-anything-that-made-me-think-about-family. With such tragic loss of life all around us, it makes sense to question what we want the sum of our own lives to mean, and what needs to change for our circumstances to reflect the person we want to be. I know that despite everything, I’m truly one of the lucky ones if I have the time and headspace to consider all this.
I started writing this post with the intention of explaining how my life has changed in the twenty five years since my escape, or perhaps to appreciate the progress I’ve made over time. Maybe all of that will matter more tomorrow, but today I grieve for my family and the lost parts of myself that I’m only now beginning to gather up and cherish with the care they deserved so long ago.