nala-e-bebaak / نالۂ_بیباک (noun, urdu): an audacious sorrow
The first signs of verbal violence emerged from a constant comparison between his own literary outputs v/s mine. There was the not-so-subtle casuistry of appreciating me for knowing “so many English words” despite being coming from the “third world.” This slowly lumbered into repeated chants of how white men like himself should stop writing because nobody wants to publish them anymore. Eventually it took shape of the most heinous depravities that included a visible delight in calling me “illiterate” or a “dirty g*ypsy” (a slur for Rroma folks). Somewhere between feeling obligated to apologize for my own polyglot lineage—one that already burdens me with a significant intergenerational trauma—and hiding the news of my poems being published in journals or my winning a major poetry award, I had started to distance from the one thing that had anchored me through the turbulence of my life–writing.
When you are brown—a child of multiple marginalized ethnicities, as I am—the world-at-large is a fraudulent mirror, frequently. At airport security checks or at a mall’s beauty counter, my brownness is either rendered formless or considered suspect. I am Indian, Afghan, Romany. I live with this constant guilt of being more comfortable writing in my colonizer’s language than my own. I don’t even know how to speak half the languages that are threaded through my ancestry. After surviving one and a half years of my abusive relationship with a white American poet who repeatedly tore up my mental and emotional health like they were a bundle of wet paper, the first change I noticed—apart from an official diagnosis of PTSD—was the onset of an unusual form of dyslexia where I could not differentiate between certain letters and words. In his departure, he had still managed to hack enough at my consciousness till the point where the effortless sense-memory of language was getting smoggy and uphill for me.
When my Major Depressive Disorder is most threatening in its flood, I am petrified that if I end it by my own hands, I will not have had a witness for those moments of my life which I consider beautiful, worthy, and well-fought for despite and perhaps due to their tenuous episodes. People will assume that I was only this—this inconsolable body in its muffled abeyance; this pronounced weakness that gave up without fighting. There is no one who has seen my almost hazardous clinging to the last, tender branch dangling above my head in an attempt to rise above these painful waters. I fear I will be gone and no one will know how much I loved life, how hard I tried to keep myself cinched in its mercurial palms even on those days when I could do very little besides breathing from one moment to another as a way to persist beyond the fog of helplessness. I have personally never considered depression to be an illness, but more of a messenger—a beginning. That first alpine vertigo of a wave forecasting the deranged power of the remaining storm. I have struggled to name what comes afterwards because it is so mutable, so beyond the reach of terminology or language as a whole.
I say this as a psychologist, a writer, and a survivor of intimate partner violence.
One of depression’s most authentic synonyms is a “sinkhole.” Have you ever seen one take shape? I remember watching this video when I was a little girl—a random street in Japan suddenly caved and eventually people, animals, cars had fallen into it. How apt, I think now. The way I remember its sagging concrete dig itself inwards, a mouth forming in the middle of a body—starting to eat its own organs first and then its skin and then everything lining the exterior of its shuddered form. That is how it feels when the Afterwards—Ache, Stupor, Mess—settles its control inside my own body. I feel the tiniest pinprick close to my belly button and then it feels like my body is simultaneously erasing its contact with gravity while slowly dropping into the earth, opening up to swallow Every Bad Thing I can fish out of myself, hanging it out to dry, folding it and finally shoving it back to fill up this starved hollow. I have felt this in the brightly lit company of close friends celebrating my birthday. I have also felt this alone in the grips of a dizzying fever that promises to melt every functioning bridge from my brain to my body and vice versa. I recognize this now as abject loneliness—miles and miles of grey asking me to swim against its current as the only way to emerge.
At these moments, I try and fathom the superfluous differences between solitude and loneliness—mostly the common distinction that one can choose solitude but it is loneliness that chooses us. I am reminded of a plaque attached to Simone Weil’s gravestone: La mia solitudine l’atrui dolore ghermiva fino alla morte. [My solitude held in its grasp the grief of others until my death.]
In throes of these implosions that my mind has now grown accustomed to, it is hard to separate the binary of the choices (the binary of solitude v/s loneliness). I personally think they are more of a Möbius strip than a black and white code. I think, sometimes, I am chosen by solitude and sometimes it is I who choose loneliness because I have learned to adapt my inner workings to its company with a hopeless ease. I know this is not true always but at these moments, truth is not only irrelevant; it is unwanted.
His belief in the superiority of his whiteness and the base nature of my being a person of colour was most dominant when he enacted the role of the subjugated in the relationship. Any success I had as a writer was attributed to my being a woman of colour. His dissonant tirades oscillated between publicly celebrating my poems or my writing while privately condemning me, or worse, sending me triggering jokes, images conveniently borrowed from the most racist of Reddit/4chan threads to derail my progress climbing out of severe depressive phases.
“No one is going to hold your hand. You don’t deserve it. Why don’t you see this depression bullshit in a poem?”
“You are not depressed. Why would you be depressed? All colored chicks have it the best now! It is the white men who really are depressed.”
My social and physical location were repeatedly desecrated. I had shrunk myself enough to fit into the narrow crevasses of his hate-filled “reasoning.”
“Hey, saw anyone shitting on your Indian streets today?”
The time he visited me in Bombay, he demanded I keep my fridge stocked with alcohol despite the fact that he often blamed my not moving to the US for his own alcoholic stupor.
“I am an American poet. We drink. Your little Indian family should get used to it.”
Intimate partner violence is already horrific in all its manifestations but when the component of racial power differential adds itself to its math, all escape routes become doubly difficult to access. After leaving him, his white American, self-proclaimed liberal friends—ones with “I’m With Her” Hillary support signs standing erect on their lawns—told me it is best to not invest any more time in this “drama.” If I spoke, I was told I was hunting for attention. If I stayed silent, I was told I was complicit. He continued to sit on the editorial teams of publications, his book reviews of my own WoC friends’ work shone bright on my social media timelines till I wanted to rip out my eyes. He categorically reviewed books by black and brown poets, speaking so confidently about the significance of their work in present day America. No one knew that he also thought Trump was just an honest guy and defended with all his might the work of antisemites in American poetry. He could continue to take up space while I, the survivor or the victim, tumbled through the same digital communities as if a broken wheel of apologies.
All my life, writing had allowed me to look at my future as a possibility not a warning. Especially when all the other chips had fallen in their own wayward directions. I tried to write my way through this pain but I found it harder and harder to trust the presence of my words especially when he had repeatedly made me feel like I was an impostor; a faulty toy in the factory lineup. One side of the coin had publicly curated events where I read and performed like an obedient circus animal, the other was etched with ruthless denigration in the confines of our four walls where everything I suffered through or stood for, in my work, was dragged through shards of glass. I became cognizant of the fact that his stockholming was slowly taking away the companionship of writing from me and this was the loneliest way to exist.
“When am done breaking you, you can become a real feminist example for your other <profanity> feminist friends.”
Yesterday, my twitter timeline informed me that Britain was to have a new minister of loneliness—subtle irony in that the Tories have been so eager to disband from Europe, asserting a self-first mantra that has and will continue to isolate the small island nation. On the other hand, a few minutes later, my Facebook timeline gifted me with the contemplative image of a chubby rock chuck who apparently betters its life expectancy by a couple of years when granted a solitary existence. Both these pieces of information came to settle against my cognitive gaze thanks to social media—a nearly comical term that has served to simultaneously connect and engender tremendous communities while creating a deft, insular thickness around individuals participating in its forever-marching spectacle.
I read both the articles at a crowded bar where handheld screens dazzled like a particularly glossy mirage of a yet-to-be-named constellation. Everyone was fixated on their phone screens—illusive wavelengths of digital trestles to make us believe we were floatingly connected to this throng of multi-dimensional cyber fantasia; something bigger and more receptive of us and our accelerated stories than the insensate routines of clinking glasses while the most tiring of 90s songs ricocheted between the yawning, neon-striped walls. I realized that I rarely feel quite as lonely as I do when I am in crowded places where the performance of togetherness leaves me too drained to imagine being intimate. I am afraid of closeness, and these spaces enforce closeness. The more I speak about depression, the more I feel the chasm between myself and those who level appropriately measured fistfuls of sympathy in the direction during these periodic burials, grows wider.
Reputed psychologist, Robert S. Weiss developed a theory for loneliness—in a matter of speaking, that is—and it accounts for six important sub-factors which contribute to human social adjustment and whose lack can cause prolonged feelings of separation, anxiety and of course, loneliness. These needs are attachment, social integration, nurturance, reassurance of worth, sense of reliable alliance, and guidance in stressful situations. When you survive assault and/or abuse, your understanding of—and by extension the threshold for believing in—these factor is skewed. I have struggled with the idea of attachment and nurturance for so long in my life because early on those who were to provide me with core sustenance betrayed my trust. Even now it is hard for me to believe that anyone values my worth.
When a body is violated, Her first preservation instinct is to seek seclusion; a practiced distance between herself and Other bodies in the world with whom she interacts everyday. In Trauma and Recovery: The Aftermath of Violence—From Domestic Abuse to Political Terror, Judith Lewis Herman writes—“The conflict between the will to deny horrible events and the will to proclaim them aloud is the central dialectic of psychological trauma.”
And so it is. Days when you are hunting viciously for the faintest hint of a witness, an Anybody who will attest to the fact that this happened. It happened to Me. That He threatened to kill Me repeatedly or He told Me it is my fault that my father left when I was a child. That he hurled racist insults at Me daily and I sat through his insurance information to find him a sensible therapist. You want someone to stand in the dark pool of these memories, hold your hand and affirm your escape from this hellish blank. I think after I recognized my own hypervigilance and prior to a confirmed diagnosis for PTSD-induced depressive cycles on account of intimate partner violence, I would sometimes sit on a park bench looking at random strangers jogging, laughing, eating sandwiches, sitting in the sun with their labradors, wondering who could I tell what I had lived through without being questioned or doubted.
I couldn’t tell my mother. She has braved her own infernos, has single-parented two daughters in a country that prides itself on its systemic sexism. I couldn’t tell other family members because they would remind me this was a fallout of dating a white guy, something they had already warned me against. I couldn’t tell co-workers because their first instinct would be to shut me out of work, since a psychologist isn’t supposed to be loud about her own trauma. I couldn’t tell friends because they were his friends also and they wanted a complacent, neutral zone where they needn’t cut chords with either one of us. So, I fantasized survival by imagining an empathic stranger hug me in a chant of “It is okay. You are okay.”
Most people who haven’t personally experienced sexual or gendered violence don’t possess the ability to fully comprehend its aftershocks can last a lifetime. Survival is never linear. It is not a steady grip on the rail before the train comes to a sudden halt. Similarly, consent is not linear. Abusers have internalized the strategies that best keep their victims accustomed to their circumstance.
There were times I cooked while crying, and then we sat together and ate breakfast in pristine silence while the dogs stared at the TV screen with a puzzling anticipation. People want to point that I could always leave. The “He wasn’t blocking the door” argument surfaces rather quaintly. No, he wasn’t, but he did enough damage psychologically for me to block it in my own mind. For instance, this brutally incorrect idea that I held about how as we both had survived childhood abuse and therefore it meant I couldn’t tap out on him because how would I feel if someone gave up on me and my issues arising from CSA? He capitalised well on this “narrative.” He summoned it frequently when his fits would settle into a moody self-loathing and he feared my departure. He had no guilt in pressing upon the rawest of nerves while I had so much guilt even admitting to myself that I was, indeed, being abused, and violently so. I felt a debilitating failure in not being able to surmount it, as if it was my failure that my mind couldn’t decipher the code embedded in the smithereens it had blown up itself.
One of the most gutting aftermaths of surviving assault, abuse, or for that matter, any form of predatory behavior, is the relentless shuffle your own brain performs trying to confirm whether it was ever your fault or not. It took me years to recognize that my boyfriend at 19 had tried to rape me, and when I resisted, he used the classic line—“If you step out at this time of the night, trust me it will be much worse coz it is just 1 of me here. there are dozens of others prowling the streets outside.” I still nightmare myself to bouts of nausea on account of this, but this guy recently tried adding me on FB with a “charming” message about reading my book. It took the patient empathy of a psychology professor to slowly admit and work through the repressed terror of that night, and my general phobia of elevators because that’s where he made his first indirect threat. Just as after leaving my ex, I feared airports and flights because I had come to associate them with visiting him or him visiting me.
After it ended, I thought if I removed myself from the possibility of ever encountering this kind of attack, I would be safer. This is social conditioning at its most deformed vantage. To somehow imagine yourself as the source of your own abuse. So, I chose loneliness, to write my life with no witness. But it is not really a choice, is it? It shaped itself as a link in a chain not of my making entirely. When I settle into this loneliness, I equate absence with safety and even though I find this math utterly dehumanizing, I prefer it to the slightest possibility of being threatened for my life.
In the magnificently designed video game The Witcher 3: Hearts of Stone, a heartsick character is shunted to inhabit a form of perdition inside her own painting. Her name is Iris Von Everec, and she is central to the whole story though, towards the end, she is the one left with the most bloodthirsty of destinies. During a particularly poignant moment in the game, she is expected to hand over a memento from her estranged husband that might lead her into her “final” death. At this point, she seeks a rather simple answer—“What will happen to me after this? Where will I go?” What she means to ask is if the Void she will enter upon death will contain the same repetition of memories she can’t untether from in life. I remember vividly this part because it also reminds me of her answer a question earlier in the game—Who or what is she? And instead of saying that she is a ghost (she is technically dead at this point), she responds—I have become sadness. Iris’ Hell, quite like mine, is Time’s tampered clockwork imprisoning itself in a collection of never-ending memories she can’t escape.
In General Theory of Victims, François Laruelle queries—“[W]ho deserves to arise, who is able to?” It haunts me to debris just imagining a person transforming entirely into an emotion so ferrous in its caging. Trauma makes me want to believe that I am not merely lonely, but that I am Loneliness. That if I can persevere in this limbo-esque state, somehow I might at least have some minimal control over not being hurt again. I am 33 years old. To imagine shutting down all desire for engagement with another individual in hope of a basic guarantee for survival is horrific. But that’s how it is, most days.
At best, when I want interaction, I imagine someone who could protect my loneliness, someone merely allowed on its outskirts. Pizarnik, (Diary entry from 1958):
“Pierdo los días, la vida, el sueño. Pero yo no tengo la culpa si deseo, a la vez, la muerte y la vida, al mismo tiempo, a la misma hora.”
I slither through this like a persistent vine—Pierdo los días, la vida, el sueño.
In another note, Dr. Herman also states—“The traumatized person is often relieved simply to learn the true name of her condition. By ascertaining her diagnosis, she begins the process of mastery. No longer imprisoned in the wordlessness of the trauma, she discovers that there is a language for her experience. She discovers that she is not alone; others have suffered in similar ways.”
I had to nurture myself into some strength for this naming. I had to write through the loss of language, through the language of loneliness. I had to relearn what my zubaan–which stands for both tongue and language in urdu–stands for in this aftermath. I had to do this alone. I am still a work-in-progress when it comes to this naming. It takes a long time to have complete awareness of what has shifted its axis within you; and how; and where to. What of you that you loved is no longer there. Those who wish a comfortable display of courage or a deceptively simple set of breakdowns from me to find agreement about the severity of my condition are mostly embowered in misogyny so hardwired in them, they can’t even bring themselves to verbalise the word “suicide,” when I challenge their facetious concern. But I have also learned that they are not important, not anymore at least. This recovery means the ability to enter a form of catharsis built on sharing of trauma not its hiding, a world co-created with others who have walked this path with me even though invisible to me when they were walking it, by my side. Those who sat on another park bench away from me and looked at the same strangers as me hoping they too would find a receptacle, a willing container to pour some of that rampant anxiety into. Perhaps, in some cases, they were the strangers I was looking at. Those who similarly disappeared into their own loneliness. The vast mouth of its sinkhole. The way Grief can slowly empty out your whole heart. Replace its thudding, deep red with a transparent pallor.
And yet, I hold on to this loneliness and hope that it will teach me how to forge from its iron cage the slightest chance of a window looking outward—one where I remember sitting in my grandmother’s guava orchard with my puppy, the musk of rain-soaked tree-roots, henna bushes thickening the air, a sky uncurling its edges to a lick of roseate—just this one infinite moment where whoever I might become is far better than what happened to make me that. A moment where a poem comes to me as a possibility and the future once again resembles a promise.
SCHEREZADE SIOBHAN is an award-winning Indo-Rroma writer, psychologist and community catalyst who founded and runs The Talking Compass—a therapeutic space dedicated to providing counseling services and decolonizing mental health care. She is the author of three books, Bone Tongue (Thought Catalog, 2015), Father, Husband (Salopress, 2016), and The Bluest Kali (Lithic Press, 2018). She is the creator and curator of The Mira Project—a global dialogue against street harassment, gendered violence and in support of women’s mental health. Send her puppies and chocolate at firstname.lastname@example.org, find her squeeing about militant bunnies @zaharaesque on twitter/IG.