Trigger Warning: The following article contains details about rape, assault and abuse.
Here’s the thing about trauma. Most of us have our own vague idea of it.
Most of us are too busy living our lives to actually pause and think about life after trauma. Like most of us, growing up, I assumed that an incident can be called traumatic only if it fits the world’s idea of trauma.
I mean, so many things happen every single minute of the day across the world. What terrifies me is the mere fact that while I am here offering the only thing I have to offer, i.e. words, there is someone experiencing what they would classify as trauma from the next living minute of their life.
It took me a lot of learning and unlearning to figure out that trauma changes a life. Trauma doesn’t have a perfect face. Trauma is not necessarily that stranger who puts on a scary mask and makes you count each step till your home safe.
Sometimes, trauma is that friend who violated you.
That’s the first lesson that Unbelievable – Netflix’s original mini-series – teaches you. Trauma doesn’t look a certain way.
Time and again, society wants to know the perfect story of abuse. The one with a mourning victim who will recollect each and every horrific detail from his, her or their story of abuse.
All for what? For people to believe, for people to empathise.
But here’s the sad truth – every human being is different, just like the trauma they carry. Just like the story they carry.
And that’s the wish I really hold for humanity. The ability to not judge someone’s trauma. The ability to not invalidate someone’s trauma.
There is a scene where Marie Adler, the central character, seeks court-mandated therapy after being accused of making false rape allegations. In a back and forth of painstakingly recollecting what she was put through, she asks her therapist: “Aren’t you curious to know what happened?”
The therapist says how she is not here to find out what really happened, and rather, she firmly believes that “Marie Adler has been violated”.
To someone else, this might be a simple affirmative statement but to me, as a sexual abuse survivor myself, this is all I need to hear sometimes. Whether physically, mentally, or emotionally, the truth is that ‘you have been violated’ and sometimes, all you need is for another person to acknowledge it.
For someone to make you feel less alone and more understood.
And that’s the second lesson about trauma that Unbelievable teaches you. Personal space and boundaries differ from human to human. And the fact that any incident, however trivial in your eyes, that violated someone’s personal space, is worthy enough of being heard, worthy enough of being addressed, and above all, it is worthy enough of empathy.
After weeks of pitching this article and getting it approved, I honestly gave up on writing it. The fear of re-living the trauma was something I thought I wasn’t ready for.
But then, the world didn’t stop.
Every single day, I would wake up to news: articles discussing the #MeToo movement, articles discussing rape cases from around the globe, articles discussing if the said allegations making rounds in the news are true or not. And honestly, that’s what helped me open my laptop and put down the words ringing in my head.
In the final court scene of Unbelievable, where the rape survivors confront the rapist, one of them says: “I have nightmares. I am scared, all the time, every minute of every day. My friends try to help me but I have a hard time trusting people. You think it’s just one night compared to all of the other minutes of my life. How could this one short incident make a difference? But it does.”
Before this sinks in, another survivor, an old woman, requests to question the defendant. Once permitted, she says: “What was I doing that made you want to come for me? They say that routine makes you vulnerable. So anything routine, I just stopped doing it. This has made my world very small. Think if I just knew what it was, what I did. If I knew what that one thing was, then I would stop doing it and then maybe I can get my life back again.”
I kept thinking of how easy it is for people to dismiss someone’s story of abuse. I kept thinking, “Is it the unfortunate truth that until someone doesn’t experience abuse, it’s hard for them to truly empathise with a survivor of abuse?”
I have been told how my anger doesn’t help. I have been told that yet another angry person will not change the course of things. That the world is too large and my worries are too trivial to truly matter.
And that’s the third lesson in trauma that Unbelievable teaches you.
Neglect, bullying, any form of abuse, death of a loved one, difficult breakups, chronic illness, or anything that causes distress can be classified as trauma.
Do not compare trauma. Do not compare the way one reacts to it.
As a privileged person, it’s easy for me to beat myself up with guilt. It’s easy for me to rage with fury at every person who asks me to ‘calm down’. But that’s the problem.
Elie Wiesel once said, “We must take sides. Neutrality helps the oppressor, never the victim. Silence encourages the tormentor, never the tormented.”
I think this line gave me a reason. I think by not voicing an informed opinion, I am becoming a part of a hostile process. None of us are necessarily wrong. However, indifference is a problem. It refuses accountability. It refuses outrage.
And that, right there, is how I finally got to writing this.
And that’s also the final lesson in trauma that Unbelievable teaches you. Do not diminish or invalidate someone’s issue because their mental health limits their ability to deliver and contribute to your benefit. It was hard enough for them to acknowledge it. If you do not understand, go educate yourself. They are learning too. Do not look to them for everything you need to know about their trauma. Learn with them but do the work to understand.
Marie Adler, the central character of the story, towards the end, calls the female detectives to thank them. She says: “I have been waking up feeling hopeless and I would think things like, if this world is this bad, do I even want to be in it? I wake up now and I can imagine good things happening. I wanted you to know that you did that for me.”
Maybe, I want to be the voice of faith, the voice of hope, the voice that promises a better future. Nobody did it for me when I needed it but that’s the choice I make going forward.
The choice of truly listening, the choice of taking charge when the world refuses to.
Conversations make us uncomfortable. Especially when these conversations drive change, but no change in our history ever started with comfort.
Karen, the detective from Unbelievable keeps a note in her car. The note is a reminder as to why she does what she does – it’s from god, looking for someone to be of service; someone who would clean things up a bit. He says, “Whom shall I send?”
Here’s the actual answer, a good lesson for you and me. An answer I promise to stick to. An answer that will truly change the course of things if we want it to.
The answer is, “Here I am. Send me.”
Bhuveneswari is a marketing professional by the day who also runs her own initiative that aims at facilitating a conversation around mental health. She hopes to make people smile a little more with each passing day with her words.