Feminism helped me survive a forced marriage

I have Complex Post Traumatic Stress Disorder as a result of fleeing a forced marriage a decade ago. Writing and feminist activism helped me find a space for survival. Part of Transformation's series on the politics of mental health.

2 April 2014
Alice Walker answers a question at the premier of Beauty in Truth

Alice Walker's writings helped me to heal following honour based violence and a breakdown. Credit: Demotix/Steve Rhodes

Mental health is a journey. I have lived it: from the depth of despair to eventual understanding and onto a semblance of recovery. My feminist activism has enabled my transformation.

I have Complex Post Traumatic Disorder as a result of fleeing a forced marriage a decade ago. At that time, there was no outward manifestation of the trauma; when you are busy surviving you do not have the time to fall apart.

I had to get a place to live, keep my job, function – there was no room for a breakdown.

It was eight years later, as I was in the midst of a relationship with an extremely caring and loving person that something inside of me snapped and my world collapsed. 

Perhaps it was getting a glimpse of love, or the closest I have got to it, that felt so alien, beautiful, frightening and utterly overwhelming. It was my inability to manage that relationship and the eventual self-sabotage that led to the crisis.

An overwhelming fear of abandonment took hold of me. By pushing him away, I tried to get myself back to a semblance of equilibrium, but losing him struck me to the core. In the process, I utterly lost my sense of self. 

A breakdown is both a feeling of losing absolute control as well as losing your sense of self. It builds up incrementally and all the mechanisms that you may have drawn on in the past to ground you to reality – friends, activities, distractions – are not sufficient to save you. It is a guttural howl of pain. 

It felt like the end of some part of me as well as the beginning of a new, more broken, but more aware, me. 

I used to think of my life in terms of ‘before’ or ‘after’ the forced marriage. Later, it was the breakdown that became the dividing line. It changed me: I felt more pain; there was a greater sense of loss, of losing love. But it also, finally, got to the core of who I am. It made me realise that without healing from the past, without recovering, there would never be a full life. Never be a full me.

Does anyone really recover from a breakdown? Certainly, my recovery from this period was slow and painful. It took me far longer to recover from this break-up then the forced marriage. I now understand that the emotions associated with experiencing and fleeing the forced marriage had been suppressed and the break-up was a catalyst for a much wider feeling of loss and devastation.

Once I did access mental health support, I experienced a number of barriers. Mental health practitioners repeatedly misunderstood the difference between an arranged marriage (where two parties are introduced by family members and consent to the marriage) and a forced marriage (where there is lack of consent by one party).

As someone accessing service provision, this can feel alienating. There is a sense of not being heard. As a survivor of HBV, this is particularly jarring. 

There was also a lack of understanding from some practitioners, of the impact of the perpetrators being immediate family and/or extended family members, including parents, siblings and cousins.

This makes these crimes particularly difficult to recover from and requires wider knowledge so mental health practitioners can provide consistent and appropriate support to survivors.

At this time, I also experienced deep-rooted feelings of shame and abandonment. To leave a forced marriage, which to an outsider may seem entirely logical because to be married against your will is a violation of a person’s basic rights and dignity, comes with feelings of huge shame and a sense of being abandoned. This is despite the fact that, physically, I left them. 

I developed a new sense of self after the breakdown. If it was a rebirth, it was about developing and striving for more.

I started to write. I began a short writing course at Birkbeck College, London. It was an outlet and it was a distraction; I escaped for a few hours in language and plot and characters. I achieved. It masked some pain and it kept me busy. It started off as a hobby but was probably the one significant example of my personal recovery manifesting itself in overt activism. I felt transformed when I was able to create again. 

I learnt to swim. The breakdown had shattered me. The process of learning to swim was a way to rebuild my confidence. In the water I felt a lightness of being that I had trouble feeling on dry land. Some of the pain of heartbreak lifted.

It was painstaking work piecing myself and my life back together, day-by-day, brick-by-brick. Perhaps this care that you must show yourself, in order to save yourself, is in its way transformative. The practical recovery helped to slowly heal and transform the emotional and spiritually broken parts.

In terms of my own recovery from a forced marriage, I found feminist activism particularly healing. This began through social media, which exposed me to a range of voices from survivors, to activists and feminist writers. It opened up the possibility that feminism can be a transformative force, both personally for me but also more widely to help tackle the issues I faced as a British Asian woman with mental health difficulties as a result of trauma.

I found a space in feminist blogs such as the F-Word. One of my first posts was a review of the Alice Walker biopic, Beauty in Truth. Alice Walker’s activism was borne out of experiencing deep racial injustice, compounded by the reaction from some to The Colour Purple. This resonated. In my article, I wrote:

“Walker's writing is shown to exemplify the multiple forms of inequality she faced. She fought hard against the discrimination limiting her opportunities in the racially segregated South, but this could not be divorced from the struggle of her gender. The cross-cutting inequalities she experienced, the intersectionality of her gender and race, drove her to campaign and write.”

I slowly realised that within the world of activism there is space for healing. Through social media I was also exposed to the stories of other survivors and activists. Safe spaces online are an important avenue in giving marginalised voices a space to speak about issues which may not be available in the mainstream media. Some blogs, such as by Sam Ambreen and Shaheen Hahmat, were critical. They helped me realise that the shame was never mine.

As I wrote for the Lifting the Veil blog, a space for South Asian women, on the Twitter hashtag I began for Media Diversified on honour and shame:

“I would like other survivors and victims to see this hashtag [#fuckhonour and #fuckshame] and realise it was never our shame; the shame will always lie with the perpetrators.”

Perhaps this is my greatest lesson, my greatest transformation and my most important therapy. I am not sure if you ever entirely heal from the complex trauma of a forced marriage but you can certainly let it control you less. You can use it as a catalyst for fighting injustices.

In many ways I am fortunate. I am a survivor; I have been able to survive where others have not. Where there have been gaps in mental health service provision and a lack of knowledge, there have been other resources at my disposal.

Without the opportunities afforded by social media and developing solidarity with other survivors it is unlikely I would be writing this piece with the understanding I now have. My transformation has meant I am now speaking out. This has been key to my recovery. 

I began this article describing the devastating impact of losing love. I want to end with acknowledging its transformative power. Love touches the core of your soul: it creates intense vulnerability but also the greatest possible joy. It unlocked long suppressed feelings.

It transformed me by making me realise what it really means to love and to to be loved.

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