The therapist stares into a space a little beyond my ear as she asks me if I indulge in self-destructive behavior.
I focus my attention on figuring out the etiology of her crossed eyes. She never faces the window, so she could be photosensitive, but she likes the light – the curtains are always drawn.
“Yes,” I state, matter-of-factly.
She scoffs, snickers. I assume the joke is a plane rattling right above my head.
My scars itch. She scribbles in her notebook. I zone out again but keep up appearances. I doubt she can see anything I want her to see.
Sessions later, after helping me understand why I felt the need to end my life around my birthday every year, she callously called my propensities “the most cowardly thing a person could do.” I came back home feeling like a gutted fish still acclimatizing to the atmosphere.
When I first reached out to a friend for help, they met me with, “It’s all in your head.” I remember the rage I felt when the therapist said we would be working on how I react to my circumstances in a healthier manner. After being taken under the broken wings of various forms of abuse, being conditioned and groomed to cater to very specific needs for nearly twenty-one years, I was devastated that I still had more change to grow through.
That’s when the feeling of helplessness regarding my situation hit me. It was hard enough seeking professional help in a society which functions and prides itself on its mental health taboos. Now, I was at the therapist’s office, sweating frustration on a couch only to recondition myself, and my abusers would still squint at the sun, not paying for the ways they rewired my brain.
In neuroscience, a postulation for the mechanics of memory suggests that a specific pattern of neuronal pathways get activated when you recall something enough times. The more times you are put in a situation to recall a fact or event, the quicker you are able to recall it without going through every motion necessary to do so. It is a bit like that with trauma as well; once you have experienced a similar horrible situation enough times, you needn’t go through all the motions to remember and register the incident to experience a complete, potent sympathetic response.
Some days, I can trace the cortisol erosion in my brain substance. It shows in the littlest of ways — staying in bed to avoid responsibility as long as my attendance in school doesn’t suffer too much, keeping quiet and zoning out when my friends get tied up in conversation, listening to my music to have an excuse to space out during day-to-day activities.
The more time I spent with myself in dissociation, the more realizations I had about myself. Most of them were debilitating, particularly one where I began seeing all of the emotionally-stunted parts of me as a five-year-old version of myself. The most traumatic experiences occurred as a child, so the parts of me that still responded to criticism and threats like a child needed something I never quite received: love and patience.
I had repressed so much of my trauma — hid it where no one could lay a finger on it — so anytime failure would hit me, I could pry the traumatized five-year-old from underneath the rug and do unto it what had been done unto me. For example, I frequently held my breath when I was a child, every time things were tough at home. When things began taking a turn for the worse, my attempts became more violent, emotionally and physically. For the longest time, shame was all I felt.
One of the strongest realizations I had was in noticing how much of my self-worth depended on the ways that others perceived my intelligence. This explained my lack of motivation when mentors assumed I was dumb or not worth their time. This part of me only gave its best where it was appreciated – a skill that I now try to extend everywhere else in my life.
In only a few weeks of therapy, I was able to significantly counter a lifetime of trauma because of this emotional resilience. This actually proved to be detrimental to me. In my particular case, my functionality made everyone around me take my resilience for granted. To others, I only lived to serve the purpose of a fallen-angel-in-need-of-saving narrative, or to never move from my pedestal where I inspired them from. The metaphoric and literal bruises on my body looked like skin now; there was no plain reason to complain – supposedly, I functioned better than anyone around me.
Anytime I faltered, cried, or showed any semblance of humanness, people often responded with, “But look at how much you’ve accomplished. Look at what you have made of your life after all of this.”
In response to this, I often found myself asking, “Why should I have had to?”
Healing is in no way a one-size-fits-all scenario; it is a deeply personal, life-long journey – one that requires more patience than I was conditioned to have. My entire self-worth used to depend on what I could do with my intelligence and how fast I could do it. Cultivating a mindfulness practice helped me slow down, and changed the way I saw my dissociation.
For the longest time, my methods of hurting myself included unconsciously allowing myself into situations of abuse similar to the kind I experienced earlier on. Those circumstances were the only thing my warped idea of love could convince itself to deserve. While stress definitely destroys your body in horrible ways, it always starts out meaning well – as catecholamines release in your bloodstream, your body prepares for battle with primed muscles and a strong, beating heart while your rising oxytocin levels help you reach out to your loved ones for help, all to help you survive and thrive in a stressful situation – but when this becomes excessive and without proper check, people start getting hurt, similar to the tactics of many misguided covert childhood abusers.
My dissociation had always been self-protective, but at some point, it became detrimental to my mind and body. So much of the time, when we aren’t mindful, we are the most hurtful people to ourselves, abusing ourselves in the same ways we once were treated. Now, when I find myself retreating, I ask myself, “What about this situation is making me return to this safe space? What does this remind my body of?”
There are weeks when I feel more like a victim than a survivor. I have a love-hate relationship with my resilience; surviving has made me live with a weight I am sure I cannot carry most days. But surviving also allowed me to retell this story the way it was meant to be: with my voice. My words. My autonomy.
There are days when all the strength I can muster barely gets me out the door, only to slam my way back in. But amidst all of this, there are moments when my mind is quieter than it has been for the longest time, taking in each stimulus without over-analyzing it out of existence. Moments when everything around me is not a threat – when my muscles needn’t stay stern and primed, where my toes uncurl and my chest expands fully; and in those moments, I can swear that it lasts longer than the times before it.
In her third year of medical school, Orooj-e-Zafar is a storyteller/spoken word poet based in Islamabad, Pakistan currently working on the editorial board of The Missing Slate. Orooj has been featured on TEDxPIEAS, the 5th Islamabad Literature Festival, and schools across Islamabad, performing, speaking, and training young poets. She was most recently published at Crab Fat Magazine, DERANGED - An Anthology by Picaroon Poetry, and won the 2nd Judith Khan Memorial Poetry Prize. Orooj hopes to unravel emotionally and grow her mental skin with a patience she is learning to cultivate. You can keep up with her work on her Facebook, and follow her on Instagram @oroojezafarwrites.