My counsellor suggested we’d do an exercise where I sit down for a conversation with myself the age when I was abused. The following is a re-imagination of that conversation, in case it’s of use to anyone else.
My counsellor suggests that we do an exercise where I’d imagine sitting down with my younger self, who got abused. Have a conversation with her.
“She obviously has a lot to say. She’s trying to be heard”, he tells me. “Why don’t you sit down with her to find out what she’s got to say?”
I’m sick of that bitch, I tell him. It’s always about the same thing. Oh boo-hoo, boo-hoo, he did this, he did that. I’m so sick of her at this point. Why can’t she just leave me alone and let me live my life? I want to move on.
She’s clearly hurting, he says. There was a time in her life she wasn’t heard. Maybe it would be a good idea to give her a chance.
I imagine an office. It’s not an office I’ve ever been to, more like an architype of what an office is like in an Agatha Christie novel. A lot of polished wood. A fireplace crackling.
I sit in an armchair that’s so big I almost disappear in it. Opposite to me there is another armchair. My counsellor sits in the corner, observing.
There is a knock on the door.
“Come in”, my counsellor says.
The first thing I notice is how thin she is. Her limbs are long and slender. She’s wearing layers upon layers of clothes. A shirt. A blouse. A woolly scarf. A coat. Fingerless gloves. A skirt. Woolly tights. Woolly socks. Tall boots. I know that underneath her clothes she’s strapped a heat pad around her back. I didn’t know it then but I have underactive thyroid. I was always cold.
I look at myself. I’m more than twice her size. My antidepressants have made my body weight double in eighteen months. But I’m not cold anymore. No layers.
My younger self, aged nineteen, glances at my counsellor in the corner but doesn’t say anything. She’s wearing contacts instead of glasses. I used to be bothered back then. Her eyes are green. She does a quick scan of the windows, all the corners, double-checks the door behind her. All of this in one quick movement of the head.
She sits down, with her back firmly against the back of the armchair. She slumps back, one leg over another and her arms crossed, her sharp, pointy elbows digging into her sides. I studied body language as part of training as a journalist. She’s about as closed as you can be. Her shoulders are so high up they’re nearly touching her ears, protecting her neck. In one way she’s melted into the chair but I also know if I were to make a quick dash, she’d be on her feet in less than a second.
We look at each other. Neither of us speaks.
She looks more like my self-image than what I see in the mirror every day. I’ve always been slender. Tall. I’m self-conscious about my weight gain, regardless of the reason behind it. It’s hard to look at her. She’s beautiful.
“So”, I finally say. “What do you want?”
She looks at me, expressionless.
“You clearly have something to say, since you keep bothering me when I try to move on with my life, let’s have it.”
She stays quiet.
“Nothing?” I ask her.
She looks at me. There’s no change in her expression in response to my annoyance. She just looks at me like a documentarist.
“You always have fucking plenty to say whenever I try to move on with my life. You come back in and ruin every moment of happiness. Oh, I’m scared, oh I’m worried, oh he’s wearing the same aftershave. Can you just please fuck off? I’m sick of you.”
Still, no change.
“I hate you”, I tell her.
No change in her expression, or lack of. She blinks, unbothered. She’s so passive that if her eyes weren’t open, I’d think she was asleep.
“I hate you. You ruined everything. Why couldn’t you see him for what he was? I had worked so hard to come to the UK, my parents had supported me so much, I finally got to what I wanted and what did you do the moment you were left to your own devices? You went out with the first boy who was ever nice to you like a fucking idiot and once you found out what he was, you stayed.”
Now she makes a sound, like a soft snort but it doesn’t grow into laughter. A hint of a smile in one corner of her mouth that quickly disappears. Still, no words.
I’m so angry that I’m shaking.
“You stayed. You stayed, you stayed and you stayed. No matter what he did, you stayed. Better yet, you begged him not to leave you! If he hadn’t left you, you’d probably still be with him. How could you be so fucking stupid? I’m so fucking ashamed of you! This wasn’t supposed to happen to me! I was raised to be an independent, outspoken woman! You ruined my life!”
Still, no change. She’s so passive that I want to get up and slap her, just to get a reaction out of her.
“I understand you’re angry”, my counsellor interjects. “But I don’t think yelling at her is going to make a difference. What else has she heard except yelling and being told it’s her fault?”
I look at her now. She looks tired. Her hands are shaking ever so slightly. She’s nineteen but her eyes are a thousand years old. Of a sow’s in a slaughterhouse. I realise there’s absolutely nothing I could say or do that she hasn’t heard or have done to her already. This is a person who’s not surprised by anything anymore.
That’s how she survived, I realise all of a sudden. By being quiet and passive. Like a possum playing dead. She was physically overpowered, she couldn’t fight. She was forced into circumstances she couldn’t escape, she couldn’t flight. So, she froze.
“Maybe you could show her kindness”, my counsellor says in the background.
She doesn’t deserve it, my immediate reaction is to spit. Then I look at her. Her eyes. The dark, sore circles underneath them.
Her body’s inner emergency system is on constant high alert. There’s always an emergency. She doesn’t sleep. She can’t sleep. Her mouth tastes like blood. She has to get up several times a night to make sure she has locked the door, run her fingers along the doorframes, stand by a sink and wash the dishes and wash them again once they’ve been washed because she can’t stand dirt everything is so dirty. She needs to keep it all together somehow, it’s all coming apart, if everything is clean and the door is locked and she gets good grades and it’s told that she’s good and successful, a go-getter, one day she’ll be happy and the black terror inside her doesn’t come and swallow her into a place where she can’t even scream. A doctor who doesn’t know what’s happening to her every day gently puts two fingers on her neck and wrist.
Your pulse is like of someone who’s being chased.
She looked him in the eyes without telling him it was the first time she was seen in years.
I was seen.
“I’m sorry”, I tell her. “I’m sorry it happened to you. It wasn’t your fault.”
One single tear runs quietly down her cheek but her expression doesn’t change.
“You did the best you could. There’s no guidebook on what to do when this happens to you. You were away from your family and friends and he isolated you from the world.
“But you made it. I don’t think I ever told you how proud I am of you”, I tell her. “You still graduated with first honours. You didn’t let him ruin things for us. I don’t know how you physically did it. You’re so strong. You survived.”
The lipstick on the corners of her mouth cracks from drought. She hasn’t spoken for so long. Her voice is hoarse.