‘The Letters’: Talking About Sexual Abuse

‘The Letters’: Talking About Sexual Abuse
Trigger warning:   This article contains references to sexual abuse and rape.
Sexual abuse continues to plague Arab and Muslim American communities, as it does all communities, because like any form of abuse, it doesn’t discriminate. Cultural traditions that emphasize collectivism, where the institution of the family takes precedence over the individual, have been reproduced in damaging ways as survivors of sexual abuse are forced into silence through mechanisms of gossip and the stigma of reputation.
We can no longer turn a blind eye to what can only be described as a cultural oppression that affects young girls and boys who are taught that issues confronting families are private and must be handled internally, no matter the harm.
The following is an exchange between two women, Salam Aboulhassan and Teri Bazzi, from the community of Dearborn, Michigan. Both made personal decisions to speak publicly about sexual violence they both endured within their families. Creating a system of support, the women decided to speak to each other publicly as a form of healing with the hopes of inviting others to join them. This is the first exchange under what has been called “The Letters.”

Teri,

You are my sister in struggle. I write you this letter with intention, with the purpose of healing. To talk to you about an experience that is currently transforming me. An experience I believe very few people understand. An experience I now know you share.

So isolated we are in our pain, that we forget we share the bond of struggle, a shared story, shared methods to process, and shared pain.  tweet

I have experienced pain recently that shook me. A pain that I could only describe as one that coursed through my blood. It scared me, Teri. It lasted about 3 weeks and there were moments I thought I was dying. While I had a support system, I found little comfort. So few people to turn to. People who were struggling in their own ways and couldn’t bear my burden. And then I felt your pain when we spoke recently. So isolated we are in our pain, that we forget we share the bond of struggle, a shared story, shared methods to process, and shared pain. And who better to confess my pain to than my sister in struggle.

Teri, my experience was so painful that I am now sensitive to everything around me. Bright lights, loud noise, touch, smells. My senses have caught the flame burning inside me. I am experiencing triggers. So much so that I now wear headphones everywhere I go, whenever I am alone, listening to music to calm me. It has made me question my sanity, it has made me walk until I was sick, it has made me take two or three showers a day to find relief in water. Water has given me the most comfort. Using it to heal was taught to me by another one of my sisters, who I owe so much to. I hope she knows who she is. I hope to one day write to her.

I thought it would only happen once. It didn’t, T. It came back. I was so terrified that I called Pam. Many have heard of Pam. She is my therapist and has helped me in the most profound ways. And she reminded me of what I need to do: instead of fighting it like I always do, I had to accept the pain. Accepting pain is one step to accepting what happened to me. I had to let the pain take center stage. It was more painful than the first time. So painful that I needed to cover my eyes, curl up in a fetal position, and put on soft music to shut out any and all noise.

It hurt so bad Teri, that I called out to my mom, knowing she couldn’t hear me. I just wanted to see what it felt like. I know what it feels like to speak about your mom. When you talk about your mother Teri, I hear you. The experience may be different, but the pain is the same. I still can’t go to my mom even while experiencing pain and knowing she will help me.

And who better to understand my pain, in its uniqueness, than the woman who lived a life similar to mine, whose fears come from the same place as mine… tweet

I write you because I don’t want to live in this pain alone anymore. And who better to understand my pain, in its uniqueness, than the woman who lived a life similar to mine, whose fears come from the same place as mine, who speaks like me, writes like me, makes demands of the world like me.

If this physical pain is bought on by haunting memories, I understand now that I probably experienced pain like this at 9. I need to accept it.

I have felt your pain recently. I have seen you request time off. I have felt your need for a break. From life. And there is only one time when I needed that kind of break. When I experience pain. There are some who will not agree with our methods and our decisions may not always be right. We have no way of knowing how to do this. We have no one to follow. Those who have tried have crashed and burned as we feel we are crashing and burning. We are allowed to be flawed.

But I don’t want to do it alone anymore. I’m too tired to do it alone. I want to do it with you, alongside other women who want to join us in writing to each other, in letters, in love.

Teri, when you are unable to pick up your pen, when you need a break, when it becomes too heavy and you just can’t anymore, I will pick up my pen for you.

Your sister in struggle,

Lulu.

**********

My dearest Lulu,

I have found that to heal, I must break myself open whole. I am giving pieces of myself away, again and again; some do not deserve my pain, some seep it up as I harm them unintentionally—and there are others who I drain, not realizing that my pain does them no good. My pain becomes their burden, a burden that I cannot bear alone.

Where do I turn? Where can I heal in the safest places? Where can I find this all-encompassing knowledge to move on, to let go, to digest it entirely and completely? Where do I go to find love and forgiveness and promise? I haven’t found it, Lu. I keep searching and I cannot find it. Where is it, Lu? Do you know? Will I ever know? Will I know it if I see it?

I felt the dark creep in on me again and no therapy or anti-anxiety meds could stop this train wreck force from pummeling me to the ground… tweet

We cycle, Lu. I was fine. On top of the world just two short weeks ago. In fact, just two weeks ago I told someone who was asking how I was dealing with all of this that I was invincible, that I was indestructible, that no one could touch me. I was untouchable. I am not sure what changed. Something shifted. I felt the dark creep in on me again and no therapy or anti-anxiety meds could stop this train-wreck force from pummeling me to the ground, flattening me and rendering me useless. I am useless. Today, I am full of doubt and fear and disbelief. The confusion sets in and gnaws at my inner core. I mistrust this process…

I have a horrible time in the winter because I have little access to the water. Like you, my sister, I am pulled to the water. It is where I do my best thinking, where my fears are quelled, where God reveals himself to me. God dwells in the air above my head, in the clouds and birds and sky, and he speaks to me in the waves and currents of the water that washes over me— cleansing me of any sin, granting me dispensation.

He has absolved me of all my wrongdoings. He holds me in his obligations. He owes me this debt. I have been exonerated in His eyes. Allah, He tells me this. But I cannot hear him right now. I can’t get to the water. Allah resides in the fluid waves and crests of water that wash over me, cleansing me of all my transgressions; transforming shortcomings into pieces of hope and tiny glimmers of what is mine, what is yet to come. Love and preservation and protection and the guarantee that I will find what HE has promised all of us, in every prayer, in every uttered divine invocation. His will is mine. But I cannot hear God. I cannot accept the assurances of his promise. I cannot hear him right now.

Allah does not attend such atrocities. He waits. He listens. He calculates. And then He will send down grief and mercy and hope and permission. tweet

Why? Because He could not save me when I was a little girl. Because He was not present when I was injured, attacked, bruised, yanked, touched, forced, beaten, scared, hurt, or maimed. Allah does not attend such atrocities. He waits. He listens. He calculates. And then He will send down grief and mercy and hope and permission. He sends me these attributes in doses and in different quantities as He sees fit. Right now, Allah is crying, as I cry so often. Because I have not figured out how to pick myself up off of the ground, because I have not realized my potential, because I do not realize that I am worthy of love and kindness and consideration.

It is out there, Lu. Take my hand. I love you. In this shared pain, in our parallel universe of self-discovery and pain and heartache and beauty and confusion, take my hand. Let’s go find this together. Help me navigate, Lu. I cannot do this alone. I am scared and lost and confused.

Teri.

Image courtesy of @recepti_lu
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‘The Letters’: Talking About Sexual Abuse
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