Wednesday, July 29, 2009

Coming Out

Being home over the past few weeks has reminded me just how strong, and potentially dangerous, emotional memories can be. I've always know that I have pretty a strong emotional memory, but being home has put it in overdrive. Unfortunately, a substantial proportion of these are not happy, pleasant memories, but unresolved negative ones, those that I can often hide from in the States. What in the States gets manifest as occasional nightmares, here take on the form of waking panic attacks.

Last night I was hanging out with one my closest friends here - we've known each other since I really don't when, but atleast for almost all our lives - and we started talking about intimate relations from our past. Listening to her talk about her most serious relationship, made me think of my own long, not serious, relationship with someone back home. Incidentally, the person she was dating then was also my "first boyfriend" - although while mine lasted less than 2 months, and I was 13 then, her's was her first adult relationship and lasted almost 3 years.

Unfortunately, for most of the duration of their relationship, I was in the States. I am not particularly good about keeping in touch with folks back home while I’m in the States. (As another friend recently complained to me, how is it that we can talk through the night while you’re here but once you’re gone, I hear 5 words from you once in 6 months? What to do though, I’m like dat only.) So, I just heard snippets from my parents a few times about what was going on with them, and I hung out with them a couple of times while I was back home for a couple of weeks in August 2004. From what I could gather then, the guy wasn't particularly ok with my friend hanging out or communicating with me. When I returned home for the summer a couple of years later, they had just recently been through a bad break-up. Consequently, we had never really spoken much about their relationship while it was still on, or in the immediate aftermath.

When we spoke yesterday, though, she was a bit more open and forthcoming about her experience in that relationship. And that made me re-live aspects of my own long relationship back home. Comparing our experiences, our reactions to them, and where we are each now in relation to them, made me wonder, what does it mean, what does it take to come out, openly, publicly, as a survivor of violence and abuse. I generally do not use the word survivor in reference to myself… and I think that that in itself has a lot to do with how I see myself, how much I have, or have not, come to terms with being, someone who has experienced, lived through an abusive relationship.

I use the phrase "coming out" quite deliberately. Because, as I understand it, the process of coming out involves developing the strength, the confidence, the sense of security... whatever one chooses to call it... to acknowledge one's own experience with, or existence as, something which is perceived as undesirable, unacceptable. When I say that coming out as a survivor of abuse or violence is a difficult, emotionally taxing process, I am not making an ground-breaking statements. But I guess the reason yesterday's conversation affected me a great deal is because it somehow brought to a head what I had been gradually realizing over my time home - that I have not truly resolved my experiences in an abusive relationship, that they still haunt me in extremely problematic and dangerous ways, and that in so many ways, every time I'm back home, I'm reminded very starkly of those experiences, although it's been almost 10 years since that relationship.

What brought all this home yesterday was when I asked my friend if she had ever witnessed my ex being violent towards me. Her response was incredibly hesitant, as if she'd rather not acknowledge that she had - not because of any sense of accountability that I might lay on her, but in order to spare me feelings of embarassment, and perhaps even shame. In order to spare me perhaps, the same feeling of discomfort that she appeared to be feeling in talking to me about her own relationship.

Thankfully, within the context of the States, I am more willing to, and more comfortable in, coming out. But the same is not true with folks back home. And yet it seems to me that it is with and among friends back home that this conversation is so essential. Although I have no actual "proof," just from the point of view of hear-say and, if I might be so bold as to add culture, the problem of abuse in intimate partner relationships seems to be a problem among folks of my generation in my community. And this is precisely a signifier of the intense heteronormativity that is privileged among us. With "boys" and "men" super invested in being "male," in protecting "their women" as their property, as they do their imported bikes and cars. I am not suggesting, obviously, that this is true across the board. But I feel safe in saying that is, as anywhere else, undoubtedly a problem.

And what is more problematic in this context is that the issue of domestic violence and abuse is, as far as I am aware, not really spoken of, even among a community that is supposed to be relatively "modern" and "progressive," like mine. It wasn't until I came to the States that I came to recognize that what I had lived through was not normal, and that there was a term for it - domestic, or intimate partner, abuse. The more I began to read, and think, and talk about it, the more angry and frustrated I became with my high school teachers who were more invested in protecting us "girls" - I went to an "all-girls" school - from "boys" by preventing us from talking to and interacting with them - I was reprimanded a few times for "talking to boys while in school uniform," and warned to think about "the school's reputation." They might have been able to "protect" us much better if they had engaged us in conversations about taking care of ourselves in relationships, in recognizing abuse, in encouraging us to talk to parents, friends, mentors about the nature of our relationships, in emphasizing to us that abuse is not normal, is not normalizable, regardless of which communities one belongs to, or which circles we socialize in.

If we can have sex-ed classes, which we did have some weird form of, I'm sure it requires no stretch of the imagination to include instruction on what a healthy relationship should look like. I know that I could have definitely benefited from that... and I know at least a few of my friends back home could have too.

I know that my teenage relationship has definitely haunted my adult ones too. I have not yet stopped having unpleasant dreams about my teenage ex, and I have most certainly projected my fears, anxieities with reference to him onto those who came later. I think much of my inability to excorcise this ghost is related to an uncertainity about what I went through and whether it was really significant. For instance, does the fact that I was between 13-17/18 when I had this experience make it more or less significant? Ironically (or is it?), while it is here, at home, that I have the most discomfort in dealing with what transpired, what the conversation yesterday made me realize, or reminded me, is that is was definitely real, made more so by the fact that little has changed over time, or as teenagers have grown into adults.

published 4.17.09

In India there is a crime against women in every three minutes, one rape every twenty nine minutes and one recorded case of dowry death in every seventy seven minutes. Cases of cruelty meted out by husbands and in laws are seen in every nine minutes. Patriarchal terrorism where one partner uses economic and social power to maintain control over another human is very common in India and other Asian countries due to the subservient status of women.

The world statistics of domestic violence translates into 960,000 reported incidences of violence, against current or former partners every year. Three million women are abused every year by their husbands or boy friends. Around one out of three women in the world has been coerced into sex, beaten or otherwise abused by their boy friends. Women are seen to be more vulnerable to intimate partner violence then men world over.

D.V. & Other Resources for Women in India

India Together

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