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September 24, 2018 | by  | in Features |
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A Survival Story

CW: Child abuse, sexual violence
I don’t really remember the night I was sexually abused.
Oh, I remember bits and pieces. I remember my dad sliding a glass of wine across the table, imploring me to drink it. I remember his drunken gaze, lewd smile, his body gently swaying back and forth in tipsy anticipation. I remember his words — key phrases that haunted me for years, through every sexual experience I’ve ever had: “Your mother was promiscuous before she met me. I’ve always wanted a virgin. If you give it to someone else I’ll understand but I’ll be disappointed. You’ll make an old man very happy.”
It felt like someone stabbing me in my gut — the worst pain I’d ever felt in my life. I remember telling myself to be brave, and see the night through — things would be better the sooner we all forgot.
What I didn’t realise was that there were things I would never forget. But so many more things that I would never quite remember. But this isn’t a story about sexual abuse — what I want to share is a story about stories.

Introduction

I’d always been a daddy’s girl, desperate to please him and earn his attention. But as a man from Southeast Asia, he was culturally difficult to please. Words of affection did not come easy to him, so whether he intended it or not, it felt like his love had to be earned. I topped my class academically, learned to play several instruments, and was happily trotted out as his show-pony on more than one occasion, all under the understanding that I was his world, and he would protect me.
So when he did what he did, both our worlds shattered. He hurt the one person he loved most, and I subconsciously decided that if my father could destroy me as he did, I must have been unworthy of love and protection.
So begins the story of the end of my family. We didn’t know it then, of course. We were too busy writing other stories, ones that would allow us to go back to the happy-family ideal we’d lived before. These stories would cloud the truth and create rifts between us for years and years.

Conflict

As soon as my mother found out, she kicked my father out of the house. But divorce was out of the question — you don’t do that in our culture. Nor are men allowed to ask for help. So he went to live at a relative’s place, licking his wounds and denying his actions, while mum tried to put things back together. Keep daughter away from father, keep sons in the dark, let space and time heal what’s been broken, and then we’ll be a family again.
But that narrative conflicted with other stories that were being written at the same time — my dad’s, the rest of the family, and mine.

Villains?

Dad felt he’d been cast out unfairly — yes he’d transgressed, but was what he did so bad that we couldn’t work it out? He sent us angry emails, trying to manipulate his way back into his rightful place.
The extended family were placed in the position of mediators and counselors. They tried to support my mum in her quest to keep things together, but this sometimes turned to putting the blame on me. Their story was that I was being unfair, even petty, in my desperation to keep myself away from him.
“You’re tearing this family apart,” one aunt told me, crying.

“Is it really that big of a deal?” another asked.
“Can you not let him come home, and work it out?” a wise uncle posited.
Meanwhile, I was desperately telling myself my own story, about resilience and duty. I told myself that I had to stay away from my father, but be strong, and I would be completely fine. All the tears, all the breakdowns, they were all overreactions — quash those, and I would save my family.

The Climax

Mum told me to tell myself every morning that the day would be a good day, and it would be. So I did, every single day, for three years. And I believed they were good days, until my friends pointed out that I was actually fucking miserable and sent me to counselling. To my surprise, I was diagnosed with PTSD, severe depression, and anxiety. I had tried to control the truth by pretending I was okay, and I had failed. My narrative of strength was shattered.
But my family still refused to take my problems seriously. It was all in my head, my life was wonderful, why was I ruining everything with my complaining?
That was their story, and they stuck to it for years and years. I use the word story, not perception, because it wasn’t that they couldn’t see the truth, it was just that it was easiest not to. My extended family often told me how wonderful my dad was, how he’d just made one mistake, and that I was lucky to be his daughter. Despite knowing and feeling the effects of that traumatic night, their narrative overwhelmed my truth, and I began to doubt myself. I thought I’d been reasonable in protecting myself from my abuser, but maybe I’d really been selfish. After all, I wasn’t the only one suffering — my brothers had suffered too, although they didn’t know what had happened. Their version of events was that Dad had yelled at me one night, and I had thrown a hissy fit and demanded that the family break up. They resented me, and I felt it. That added to my guilt.
And oh dear lord, did I feel guilty. My parent’s marriage was ruined, my dad was contemplating suicide, and it was all my fault. If only I’d kept my mouth shut. If only I’d been stronger. Any self-confidence I’d had was decimated in the conviction that my dad had abused me because I deserved to be abused. I suffered from depression and anxiety because I deserved to.

So a new story was cemented, and it was a doozy.
I was useless, not worth loving, a waste of space. I sought out romantic relationship after romantic relationship, in a desperate attempt to prove my worth — and it all blew up in my face. University went downhill — I went from being a mostly A student, to flunking out. I punished myself mentally for failing, failing, failing.
Where were the dreams I’d had as a little girl? My whole life I’d been told I was smart, and here I was being trash. I would curl up in bed day after day and dream about who I could have been had nothing ever happened, and then blame myself for not being her. I was isolated and lonely, with no confidence, no self-esteem, no prospects. The desperation I’d once felt to earn my dad’s approval turned towards other people — I would go out of my way to please everyone around me, and if they ever expressed ire for whatever reason, I would cower and cry. Like a puppy. It was exhausting. But. I. Deserved. It.

Redemption Arc

One day, I was in the car with my dad, and we were having an argument. I could feel my anxiety starting up, so I asked him to stop the car so I could get some fresh air. He refused. I asked again. He refused again. I raised my voice and demanded that he stop the car. He stopped the car, let me out, and drove off.

In that moment, I realised that my dad would never be able to make up for what he’d done. I’d stuck around for years and prayed that if I proved my dedication, I’d be taken care of in return. But that wasn’t fair — it was expecting too much of a tired man with his own heavy burdens. It was time for me to stop blaming him and start supporting myself.
I decided to make a fresh start. I changed my name, changed my phone number, and vowed to rebuild myself into a person I could be proud of. Every story has a redemption arc, and this would be mine — I would become a survivor, and like every other survivor I’ve ever read about, I would become famous and secure and finally feel worthy of my life. I put together a plan — work hard, ace uni, start a career that would catapult me quickly towards stardom, earn enough money that I would never have to live with my father ever again, and shine so brightly I could never be invisible.
I filled page after page in my diary with inspirational rhetoric, plans and to-do lists. I joined a gym, fired up my CV, vowed to eat healthy and get the appropriate amount of sleep. My writing was my key to success — I was destined to become a big name in the literary world, and my debut novel was bound to be a smash hit. I was going to prove to everyone once and for all that I was worthy of everything I’d had to give up — my family, protection, respect, love, admiration.

The Truth

And now, here I sit, in mediocrity, a sixth year student of a four year degree. I’m overweight. I never wrote my novel — I never really started. An empty bottle of Pepsi next to me accuses me of not taking better care of myself. It’s getting dark outside quickly, and I realise that I have to go to a pub quiz in about an hour, which my team will most definitely lose despite our best efforts.
But I am so fucking happy. I haven’t redeemed myself, but the potential gives me hope. Now, I live day by day, and look to the future, because the past is blurry, fragmented, and convoluted. Whatever I think of my father, I don’t know the truth — only he knows what drove him to do what he did, and maybe he’ll never be able to tell me why. How can I tell the story of us with only half the picture?
And stories change, with time and distance. The same aunts and uncles, who once told me I was being selfish, began to tell me that I was strong. An aunt once told me she admired me for isolating myself, after she had to isolate herself, because the family’s narrative machine had bulldozed us both. Another said that had she been in my mother’s place, she would have called CYFS. After years of being told I wasn’t important, that I was overreacting, the acknowledgement of my struggle was a massive relief.
To this day, my personal version of our story remains hazy and genre defying. Some days, I see it as a tragedy. On other days, it’s a Victorian-esque bildungsroman. Some days, it’s all my fault. On others, my father takes all the blame. Trying to shoehorn life into a single narrative is like trying to hold water in our hands — somewhat futile, but how else do we drink?

Stories can help us, or hinder us. But our greatest hope lies in our ability to rewrite them.

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