Challenge: Survival

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Words ||  Harpreet Kaur Dhillon

A personal disclosure of my experiences as a survivor, post severe family violence, sexual violence and alcohol addiction.

In order to have the ability to keep going, fit in, keep my head above water, be normal and to function and survive, I have needed to either minimise and/or box and pile away experiences of abuse. There is the challenge of survival and trying to regain normalcy after traumatic experiences. Pretending everything is okay – putting on multiple masks, faking a smile, being strong for others. This leads to never putting yourself first or being truthful to yourself, thus the authentic version of you is lost in a spiral of conscious/unconscious lack of feeling and being grounded. This is particularly evident when starting the process of trusting others again, of being vulnerable again, and hoping I will not be taken advantage of again. All this whilst re-learning to love yourself.

It is a challenge.

Healing while also using the experiences, the pain, and the invisible and visible scars as fuel and passion to fight against the systemic gender, climate and racial injustices that exist, can come, at least for me, at a cost. Especially if strong boundaries are not put into place. As activists, we so often advocate for others, but fail when it comes to ourselves. Often, we are the worst advocates for ourselves, for our wellbeing and what we deserve.

Regaining trust, love, respect and hope again is the challenge of survival.

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Survival can be seen as a short term, life threatening or ephemeral occurrence. Survival can also be long term, life long in fact. Particularly for those that have experienced so much trauma in their life. When it comes to switching off survival mode, it may never be an option. 

As young as I can remember, I have needed to survive. To be independent. I come from a long line of survivors. Trauma in my family has been intergenerational, passed down over the past century. It is for this reason that I understand the actions of my family and how over time, I have learned to forgive them. Their wounds were never healed themselves. 

Therapy in my culture and family is seen as shameful – frowned upon, as is speaking out. Nevertheless, my experiences: the privilege of having an education, being the first female in my family to finish high school and go to university, my passion for gender justice and fighting against the system, led me to rebel, to speak out and break the taboo, shame, silence and stigma of social issues in my family and in the communities I am apart of. To do this in the hopes that I can help others to do the same.

Here I share with you my journey of survival. I do not want you to feel sorry for me. I do not want to receive an “I am so sorry this happened to you” after reading this. I instead ask you to keep an open mind when you meet someone or see someone with a mask on, not to judge them or label them as fake. There is a lot going on beneath the surface for all of us. And for those that have a similar story to mine, I want you to know that you are not alone. I am thinking of you and am always here if you ever need someone. It has taken me a while to come to terms with my past, a journey I know will always be an ongoing process.

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When I was 16, I lost my childhood innocence.

Taken away from me in a moment. My trust was taken advantage of, my naivety was taken advantage of and my body taken advantage of. A piece of me, ripped away by sexual assault. Trapped at a house, tricked by someone I looked up to after meeting at a leadership event held at NSW Parliament House. I still hear his laugh. I still feel the panic of seeing him in public. I am still fighting to survive him and the amount of appeasing I did to get out of there alive.

I was just starting my final year of high school, my whole life ahead of me. I knew I could not, and would not, let it end there. The biggest pain of all was not the event itself but what followed. My trust was again misplaced, in a close friend, the first person I told. They told my family, not understanding the level of cultural shame that exists when this happens and especially for people to know about it. I, myself, was not ready for them to know. No choice of my own, but the choice of another.

The response was violence – something to be further punished by, I had no choice other than freeze, appease, and to be released. 

Hit with a shoe. “Your fault, your mistake. Never speak of this again.”

It took years to be released from these words. 

This all happened at the beginning of my HSC, in the middle of an assessment week. I felt lost, ashamed and numbed to the point where it felt like there was no light left in me. Almost like a zombie. I had no motivation, no desire within this continuous mode of survival, wanting for the pain endured to not go to waste. Seeking justice for what occurred to me. To have the choice as to what and how the justice would occur.

The day after the rape, I went into work, as the nerd in me loved the work I was extremely privileged to do. I was a young women’s policy adviser for New South Wales Council of Social Services – back in my NGO days, I didn’t know grassroots activism was an option. I was told by my boss that there would be a meeting with the sex discrimination officer wanting consultation on sexual harassment policy.  At that moment I knew that I could not stay home or be afraid to leave home. I did not want what happened to me to happen to someone else. If there was a way I could prevent this from happening to someone else, I would do it.

I left my room, where I felt the safest and most protected. I travelled on public transport, hypervigilant, scanning my surroundings every minute. The consultation was around sexual harassment and later, of my own doing, turned to a discussion on the prevalence of sexual assault. It was obvious to others, though I tried to act otherwise, that I was not my normal self, bubbly, happy, goofy self. Survival numbed everything, good or bad.

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A year later, just before I turned 18, my brother nearly killed me out of anger.
The scars, both physical and mental, have never gone away. My mother watched it happen and just stood there, not knowing what to do. My father to this day blames my mother for provoking him, which she did not. It was not her fault that he was furious, it was not mine. But we were made to feel that it was.

That day – the room where I felt the safest and most protected was lost. It is now a room where terrible events occurred. I lost my innocence and happiness, my safety net. My journey and experiences of secondary homelessness – also known as couch surfing – began. It was ‘only’ a couple of weeks, but those weeks were when I was already trying to survive again from the events that occurred a year before; regaining trust, love, and happiness.

I could not look at myself in the mirror. I was numbed to the point where it was completely easy to trick others and myself about where I was, who I was. People – friends, lovers – thought I was fine, that I was normal, that I was no longer affected by it. Unfortunately it never works out like that. Survival challenges us to adjust what is fine/what normal looks like.

Seven months later, struggling with alcohol and drugs, I went to a house party with friends I’ve known for ten or so years. I got drunk, black out drunk, vomiting drunk. But that was no excuse, no fault of mine for the events that occurred straight after. Three guys took advantage one after the other. They can say I was asking for it. But no, no one does. No one deserves to be treated the way women have been treated. No one should be taken advantage of – yet in this culture, the mass media we see, the music we listen to, we so often, unknowingly support this by being bystanders to it. By making it completely shameful for those that speak up.
Yes it is incredibly important for survivors to seek professional help. As it is so incredibly important for us if we ever need to speak up/call out about it. We do not want anyone to help us on what to do – we are not helpless. We do not need anyone to advocate on behalf of us, we have a voice. We just want and need people to listen to us for ourselves to verbally understand what the fuck happened to us. For it to not only be in our head. But to also be acknowledged in society.

Recognise our story, don’t erase it for someone else’s comfort. People should sit with the discomfort that this exists. Because it does. And I hate to say it, but we will not be the last unless proper changes are made, accountability exists both legally and in communities.

Break the taboo. Break the cycle. End the pain.

The trauma will exist with us forever.

At the end of the day, all we really have is ourselves, so it’s up to us on what we do. The choice of survival is the one we have made. The challenge is each day living with that choice.

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Carrying the blood and bones of those that came before me
Pain repeating itself through each generation
Oh it will end with me,
It will end with me I promise it will
And I shall fight anyone/thing that gets in the way of that promise.