A male adult survivor of child sexual abuse speaks out: How silencing feeds the cycle of trauma
Ishank Chibber was eight when he was gang-raped by adults he knew and trusted, and in the 'safe space' that was his home. Now 29, Ishank speaks with Surabhi Yadav in this three-part series, detailing his long road to recovering from the trauma. This account contains descriptions of sexual assault. Reader discretion is advised.
The system of silencing victims of child sexual abuse is robust and adaptive at multiple levels.
Denying his painful experiences like many victims of child sexual abuse do to cope, Ishank Chibber forgot the abuse for a long time.
Eighteen years later, the repressed memories came rushing back.
Editor’s note: This is the second in a three-part series that looks at child sexual abuse in India through the lens of a male survivor’s long journey to recovery from trauma. Read part one here.
The following account contains descriptions of sexual assault. Reader discretion is advised.
The system of silencing victims of child sexual abuse is robust and adaptive at multiple levels.
According to the latest National Crime Bureau report from 2016, in 95 percent of reported cases of sexual offences brought under the POCSO Act, the perpetrators were either a family member or a friend. Only 25 percent of the children reported their abuse to someone, and of these, only 3 percent informed the police.
Most police stations — including Mahila (women-centric) stations — lack a trauma-informed process. The process, involving insensitive re-telling of the incident or moral policing from the cops, often re-victimises the survivor and amplifies their trauma.
At the family level, the abuse is not just about a one-off incident but is centered on the relationship between the victim and the abuser. In a social set up like India’s, where family and its standing in the community is integral to the individual’s identity, and where discussing sex and abuse are considered taboo within families, it is hard for victims — especially children — to reveal or address the issue of abuse to their guardians.
“Ongoing sexual abuse only takes place in the context of neglect, which could be physical or emotional neglect by people who could help you. When the disclosure meets disbelief, it results in secondary trauma that is often as bad as or worse than the trauma (suffered) due to the abuse itself,” says Colleen West, a licensed marriage and family therapist with expertise in trauma-informed psychotherapy.
The world of children is so tender that even conventional measures such as supportive parents and timely education about abuse and how to reach out for help, are sometimes not enough.
Ishank Chibber’s struggle as a child, to find ways to speak out, reflected these challenges.
For instance, when his mother spoke to him about ‘good touch, bad touch’ — an instructive way of helping children understand the notion of their safe boundaries — instead of telling her about the ongoing abuse, all he offered in response was a blank stare.
The trust Ishank had in his mother’s ability to protect him was overshadowed by the fear his abusers instilled. “We will have you killed you if you say anything about this to anyone,” one warned Ishank. “I will tell your parents how much you enjoyed it,” another said. “We will get a car to run over you,” was another threat, as was “I will chop off your private parts”. While the male cousin who abused Ishank did not threaten him, he normalised the act in the name of love, saying, “This is how things work between brothers. I am just loving you”.
The fear of being murdered if he spoke the truth shadowed Ishank’s decisions. He lacked both — the verbal expression to articulate what was being done to him, and the assurance that he would survive if he fought back. As a wise eight-year-old, he bargained on enduring the sustained emotional and physical pain against the cost of his life. He learned how to be secretive and to create a vibrant and chaotic internal world as opposed to the menacing world outside. Scared of people, Ishank engaged in conversations with imaginary friends.
His relationship with each of his abusers had a respectful label — ‘dad’s friend’, ‘dad’s colleague’, ‘my cousin’ etc. Outwardly, there was nothing grim about these relationships that were marked by regular interactions.
Ishank saw his abusers being loved by other children and adults around him. His agitation towards everyone who showed respect and love for the abusers soon turned into a massive source of self-doubt. “If they love him, why don’t I? Why don’t they fight with him?” he would wonder. He began to doubt his judgment about situations and people. The loss of self-confidence was crippling. He learned how to pretend to be okay with his abusers’ regular presence in his life. He practised masking his agitation and confusion by keeping secrets and not opening up to people.
As Ishank puts it: “Solitude became my dear friend very early on life”.
During this period, the lines between home, which was supposed to be safe, and the dark, lonely roads where heinous crimes supposedly take place, were blurred. The abusers and the abuse defined home — the only shelter Ishank had known from danger. The gap between his lived experiences and the worldview painted by his caring parents was widening.
“I do not know how I dealt with all that,” Ishank said, in a recent interview. He remembers being beaten on his genitals by one of his abusers, and curling up in pain until he realised that it was getting late for his tuition classes. “So I rushed and collected myself and somehow managed to change [my clothes]. I went to class but was unable to pay attention to anything. I knew that it [the abuse] would happen again at home the next day.”
Experts say that traumatic sexualisation, betrayal, powerlessness, and stigmatisation of the issue of abuse alter neurobiological pathways in victims, bringing long-lasting emotional and behavioural changes.
Ishank, like many survivors of child sexual abuse, would attempt to deny the reality of his abuse; mentally, he would make himself stop reliving the memories of specific incidents of abuse within 2-3 of their occurrence. He was regular at school, but couldn’t focus much on his books. Any form of confrontation would lead to an emotional breakdown — whether at school, home or on the playground. He couldn’t explain the reason for his tears — which he didn’t link to the ongoing abuse. He developed deep anxiety if there were more than 2-3 people around him at a time. The school library became his haven during the games period or lunchtime.
His peers perceived him as “the weird outcast”, adults thought him “just a shy kid”.
When Ishank was 13, five years after the abuse began, it stopped.
“I don’t know exactly what made them stop. Maybe they lost interest in me. I had started acting very numb during any incident of abuse or rape,” Ishank says.
Denying his painful experiences like many victims do to cope, Ishank forgot the abuse for a long time. Eighteen years later, the repressed memories came rushing back.
“Giving up on the overwhelming situation is the birth of dissociation or denial. Dissociation happens to preserve safety. It allows parts of the psyche that are abused to stay separate from the parts of the personality that go on for normal life. Of course, this integration is not seamless,” explains Colleen West.
At 25, Ishank was an independent and self-sufficient adult. But the terrors of his childhood manifested as night sweats, panic attacks, and seemingly unresolvable trauma.
In 2015, while Ishank was employed at the e-commerce company Flipkart, his father had a severe medical condition that led to a near-death experience. Nearly losing his father brought back memories of being afraid for his own life as a child. The fear proved to be the trigger that brought memories of the abuse flooding back into Ishank’s conscious mind.
According to Colleen West, triggers can be anything — “a sight, a sound, a smell, a dream, a phrase, individuals who remind you of your abuser/s, or even hearing about them”.
A nightmare in which he dreamt of his younger self being molested by several men left Ishank screaming for help; it had a domino effect as more memories of the abuse tumbled forth. His then-roommate, Sourav Mukherjee, struggled to wake Ishank up from his nightmare. Sourav remembers Ishank’s night terrors continuing, along with increased intake of alcohol. Ishank’s conduct changed, and to Sourav his roommate’s behaviour seemed to indicate that he was running or hiding from something.
The old feelings of fearing for his life, feeling dirty resurfaced in Ishank after years. The difference was that he now understood the nature of his childhood experiences — although he still had no idea of how to deal with them. Along with clearly remembering the repressed parts of his childhood, Ishank felt a crushing grief.
Every passing day unfolded another buried layer of the past. The night terrors and ruminating over his abuse became involuntary and uncontrollable. The trauma spilled over into daytime as well, and Ishank had lapses in the office where he forgot the passing of several hours or what work he had done. As in his school days, during the years of abuse, he once again started to have frequent and unexpected emotional breakdowns.
Ishank describes feeling like an exposed, “raw nerve”: “Anything, anywhere could set me off and that was a big challenge to navigate, especially in my workplace,” he says.
With the support of Sourav, Ishank opened up about his ordeal to a few close friends and colleagues. “It was a desperate cry for help. I felt that if I did not speak I would burst,” Ishank says of the decision.
To his surprise, they not only understood his situation but also actively supported him. Be it his immediate manager and teammates or his boss, everyone came together to help Ishank get his work done, or offered him emotional support and care during office hours.
It wasn’t easy despite their best intentions. As Sourav points out, Ishank had trust issues as a result of his experiences. He would get hysterical, and his trauma ran deep. “Sometimes, it was very hard to support him because of the unpredictability of his decisions, but we all knew we had to be patient with him,” Sourav says.
And not everyone was supportive.
Ishank’s disclosure met with some shockingly ignorant responses as well. The culture of toxic masculinity dismissed his pain; some considered his rape a rite of passage — the ‘luxury’ of losing his virginity seemingly qualifying him as a man; others posited that he must have enjoyed the abuse if it happened repeatedly.
Experts cite lack of understanding and sensitivity from peers and family members as being among the top reasons why victims of sexual abuse and rape are reluctant to share the truth about their experiences.
Around this time, Ishank also sought counselling in an attempt to make sense of his experiences. The counselling helped him put the pieces of his nightmares together, in turn allowing him to access parts of his memories. As more of his memories were uncovered, however, Ishank found himself sucked into depression.
Keeping self-care at the centre of his decisions, he decided to move back to Indore, to his parents’. He eventually told them about the abuse — although he didn’t disclose the names of his abusers, knowing how deeply his parents would be hurt to know that their closest friends and family had inflicted such harm on their child.
Nonetheless, Ishank’s parents were devastated to learn that their son had been raped and abused. They felt a desperate need to apologise, regretted their inability to protect him, and despaired as they imagined his trauma. It demanded a new and painful reconciliation between their past and present selves in their role as parents.
(Ishank didn’t want me to speak with his parents as he had no wish to exacerbate their pain. I abided by his wishes.)
Ishank’s parents found him a therapist in Indore. While therapy did help manage his depression, it did not directly address his trauma or recovering from it, Ishank says: “It was like I had a big wound that the therapist just put a Band-Aid on, instead of suturing it.”
Ishank experienced panic attacks, which transformed into periodic episodes of rage during which he’d go so far as to smash things around him. Every such episode would end with unrestrained sobbing. “Why me? What did they gain out of it? What happened? How could I have forgotten this for so long? What did it do to me? How many more times will I have to relive it? When will this ever end?” — these were the questions Ishank found himself grappling with.
Like his eight-year-old self, Ishank was once again confused by the wide gap between his life on the outside and what he was experiencing within. But unlike during childhood, he could no longer deny either reality.
The support of his friends and family, while invaluable, wasn’t enough to anchor his pain sufficiently for him to be able to process it.
This gift of enabling him to process what had happened, came from a group of strangers who, like Ishank, had been victims of child sexual abuse and were open to sharing their experiences with him.
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