By Shirani M. Pathak
As he moved in and out of me, suddenly my uncle's face flashed before my eyes. For a brief few seconds it wasn't Ryan having sex with me, it was my uncle.
My chest tightened and I couldn't breathe.
"You know what, Ryan, I can't. I'm done for tonight," I said to him.
"Are you okay?" he asked me.
"Yeah, I'm fine. I just can't tonight," I lied. I was a pro at hiding my feelings.
I tried to shake off what happened and put it out of my mind, but I just couldn't.
The image had been imprinted onto my brain, and the feeling into my body. The tension, the tightness, the constriction, the horrible feeling.
"You know what, Ryan, the other night something really weird happened," I said to him a couple of days later. "I had some sort of a flashback."
"What was it?" he asked curiously.
"It was this weird image," I paused. "I think I may have been sexually abused," I continued, uncertain at how he would respond.
"Yeah, I'm not surprised," he replied, his tone changing from curiosity to nonchalance.
"What do you mean you're not surprised?" I asked him. My uncertainty turned into anger at his nonchalance and surprise that he seemed to have picked up on something I hadn't.
"Because I've been with other women who have been sexually abused and in a lot of ways you act like them," he said somewhat dismissively.
"What does that even mean?" I asked, getting more irritated with him.
"Well, you're hella controlling like they were, and there's certain things you won't do. You're also really closed off at times."
"What the fuck?" I said to him, "How come you never mentioned this to me?"
"I don't know, I thought you knew."
That was the end of that.
At that point I had already been a mental health professional for a good six years. How did this banking professional know more about sexual abuse than I did? Me, who actually worked with sexually abused children?
I began thinking about my experiences through my therapist lens and started putting all of the pieces of the puzzle together. The low self esteem. Always chasing after someone. Believing that the way to get a guy to love me would be through my body and through sex. The years as a teen when I wanted to be a stripper. As I pieced it all together I remembered that sex workers are amongst those with the highest rates of sexual abuse and other violence experienced as children. That last awareness cleared up any lingering doubt I may have had in my mind.
My biggest question was how had I been sexually abused as a child and not know about it until my mid-twenties?
I never liked that particular uncle. There was something about him that gave me a creepy vibe. Being anywhere near him gave me the heebie-jeebies. My breathing became shallow, my insides turned, my whole body tensed up, and all I could think was, "I don't want to be anywhere near him." Even hearing his name or hearing people talk about him grossed me out— especially when they sang his praises and talked about what a wonderful, helpful, good person he was.
"Bull shit," I always thought angrily in response.
Complex-PTSD (c-PTSD) can occur when someone has repeatedly experienced traumatic events, such as violence, neglect or abuse. It can be more severe if the traumatic events happened early in life, and/or if the trauma was caused by a parent, caregiver, or close relative. One symptom of c-PTSD includes forgetting the traumatic event. Other symptoms include low self-esteem, negative self-perception, difficulty with relationships, and a loss of systems of meaning (religious or spiritual beliefs that help us make meaning).
Check. Check. Check. Check. And check. I checked off all the boxes of c-PTSD.
I began thinking through my family history. I knew another woman in my family who had been sexually abused. I thought about my mother and her life experiences, and realized she had likely also been sexually abused.
Generations of women, all of whom experienced c-PTSD, all of whom had lived through violence, alcoholism and abuse. Yet, no one was willing to talk about it. Colluding with it through their silence. Secrecy. Collusion. Turning a blind eye to it.
They told the female children, "don't ever be alone with men, especially your uncle. Never be alone with him."
In my years of unpacking this in my personal therapy the thought I kept coming back to, the thing I felt angriest about, was how they must have known and yet they still let me, a little girl, get harmed by this person. Protecting him, another collusion, and putting all the responsibility for safety on me as a young defenceless child. Rather than telling the uncle to get the fuck out and protecting the innocent ones, the innocent ones were given the responsibility of never being alone with the grown man perpetrator uncle. A reversal of roles and responsibilities in the family system. Another trauma to layer onto all of the others.
Part of my healing process was to look back at old family photos. What I saw in his eyes as a youth was the same hollowness that I've seen in traumatized individuals. The emptiness, the confusion, the cloud of darkness, the deer caught in headlights look. I realized then that he too had likely been sexually abused. I never asked him because it was best for me to maintain no contact (by that point I never really had contact with him anyway).
Looking back at the legacy, I see the intergenerational nature of the trauma. One generation of abused becoming the abuser. One generation of abused remaining silent while protecting the abusers and placing responsibility on the young, innocent female children. Men acting out and women staying silent. Men acting out and women thinking they're protecting the children by teaching them the terms of engagement with men and how to keep themselves safe (never be alone with them).
One generation of dysregulated nervous systems, passing their dysregulation down to the next, and them the next. Until someone comes along and says, "No more!"
These are the legacies nobody talks about.
Our bodies always know. Trust yourself. If you were ever told as a child, "never be alone with your uncle, never be alone with men" and you experienced abuse, you might carry the shame of your perpetrator and the other adults who not only were unable to keep you safe, but those who also may have colluded to allow the abuse to continue. I want you to know it's not your shame to carry. I give you permission to return it to where it rightfully belongs: with the perpetrator and all of those who colluded in making it possible for them to abuse you and kept it secret while protecting them.
It wasn't your fault. You're not to blame. In cultures which have experienced so much trauma, oppression, and colonization, secrecy, violence, and collusion are part of the legacy.
If you're reading this then I know you are amongst the generation of cycle breakers. You are amongst those creating new legacies. You're healing. You're speaking up. You're not willing to pass down the intergenerational trauma. You're creating the legacy of health and healing. Even when it feels lonesome. Even when it feels like you're betraying your family.
You've got this and I'm cheering for you.
Shirani M. Pathak teaches people how to have amazing relationships by dismantling the internalized effects of supremacy culture and oppression. Her book and podcast are both titled Fierce Authenticity. She’d love to connect with you over on Instagram. You can find her @shiranimpathak.