The impossible question: “how are you?”

This question is an interesting one. British politeness means I’m supposed to answer with “I’m great thanks, you?” unless clearly in a social situation where honesty is deemed more reasonable than wearing a mask…

But when I’m in that situation? Where it’s okay to be honest? What should I say then?

It’s genuinely the hardest question to answer. It’s a lie to say I’m okay. It’s insufficient to say things ‘aren’t great.’ And it’s too painful to go instantly into an in-depth analysis of how I am.

Where does the balance of honesty and wellbeing (for both people in the conversation) lie?

And it also depends on my relationship with the person asking, and how much of my life they know. Perhaps just a fellow student who lives blissfully unaware of the world of ritual abuse, in which case is it better to say I’m okay, when I’m not, or pass it off as coursework stress, which is granted having an impact of some sort? If it’s someone extremely close, do they want to hear for the millionth time that I can smell my abuser, for example? I never know.

And then I know what I’m doing; I’m falling into the same pattern I was forced to adopt as a child: mask the pain, and find every reason why it’s necessary. It’s normally a sign I’m really not coping if I slip back into ‘mask mode.’

So I’ll just answer the question on here, to a blog….

Blog: How are you?

Me: I’m exhausted. In the last week alone I’ve had more memories than I can count smack me in the face, it sometimes feels like a hailstorm. I have no time to process each individual one, I just have to find a way of managing the storm itself. I’ve been remembering the games Grandad made me play when I was 3, like ‘sleeping lions’, where I won the game if I didn’t make a sound or move as he touched me. I loved winning, it meant I was allowed an apple. Or ‘don’t sink the boat’ in the bath where if I kept the boat (his thing) above water then I won. I was getting no attention from any other adult and with Grandad I felt special, adored, loved, useful. A winner. He wasn’t hurting me. He wasn’t frightening me. I already knew what rape was and he wasn’t doing that. What was there to be scared of? I had no idea it was sexual abuse. To me it was games, and so different from every other adult that I decided it must be what grandad’s do to show love.

I’ve been reliving various forms of torture, like the pain of scalding water or lighter-flames held to the soles of my feet. Friends at school asking why I’m limping, and I say ‘my knee hurts.’ Not a lie, but also not the reason I was limping. I was limping because my feet were burnt. But nobody ever sees feet.

Memories appear out of nowhere, sometimes only for a split second. A man holding a tent-peg puller, the curved sharp kind, to my face. The first time this started surfacing, I forced my mind to black out. I knew, rationally, what would come next. I knew what such an object would be used for. I didn’t want to feel that agony again. But, as is the case, the memory fought it’s way into consciousness, and yesterday at 2am I sobbed hysterically in bed as my lower abdomen crumpled and shuddered with remembered pain.

I am in constant physical pain. Some of it may be fibro. Some of it may be remembered. A fair amount is just the aftermath of being beaten up, raped, gang-raped, tortured, etc for 20 years. My body is tired. My head is tired. I feel like all of the exhaustion of the 20 years, the tiredness I could never safely feel, is surfacing now. I have never felt tiredness like this, even when pregnant.

I keep feeling like my mouth is full of water and I can’t breathe, and my face is icy cold. But that’s just a memory too; of being held under icy water, or put in a box or sack and thrown into an unknown amount of water and being so sure I was going to drown. I remember coming round on the floor sometimes, choking on water and spluttering, very weak and spaced out, sometimes vomiting, with a man leaning over me with dead eyes. It never properly hit me how close I was to dying. I think at the time, the prospect filled me with equal relief and dread. Now it just kills me that I was a child and nobody cared about what I went through.

The norm of having to wipe dry blood off my body as a daily routine, which never bothered me before, hit me the night before last…when I was getting ready for bed and realised I haven’t had to do that in a long time. It was so normal. Not always a huge amount of blood, but there’d be some. It was part of my night-time routine…brush teeth, wash face, wash body, wipe dry blood away, go to bed. Normal. Completely fine.

My shoulders ache, throb even, and my fingers keep going dead. Like when they hung my from my wrists, and I’d dangle from my arms. Sometimes I’d be left there for an excruciating amount of time until I was very sure my arms were going to rip away from me. Sometimes they’d take advantage of the fact I couldn’t move, and they would leer over me and touch me in places I didn’t want to be touched. Or they’d take hold of my ankles and slowly pull my body down, increasing the pressure on my arms, until I screamed like an animal for them to stop. They’d laugh and let me go, and with relief my arms would be less under strain and now just hanging. Once I kicked them in the face. The next time they hung me was by my ankles, so I was dangling upside down. This was horrible. I felt sick almost immediately, and dizzy. I could hear my heartbeat in my ears, pumping in my head, the pain in my hips and knees from dangling almost unnoticeable in comparison to the dizziness. Sometimes they’d make me give a blow job like this. He’d stand aligned to my upside down head, and stick himself inside my mouth, and I was in too much pain and too dizzy to give a single damn about it.

There’s just so many messed up truths. I knew how to deliver a baby before I had left primary school. I knew what rape was before I could write. I know what a child needs to hear when they think they are about to die. I knew this before I was ten. I knew it because there were times where I was that child, and a kind older child said the right things to me. “It’ll be over quick. It won’t hurt too much. Just try and go to sleep and think of something else. Go to sleep feeling brave, because you are. It’s okay to go to sleep, it’s not weak.”

I know how to tilt my head when someone’s about to punch me so that my jaw doesn’t break. I know the parts of my skull that are ‘safe’ to be thumped, and not so safe. I know being hit in my stomach is not fun, but is nicer than being hit in the ribs, unless I was pregnant in which case it was my worst nightmare.

I know my body better when pregnant than when not pregnant.

I know my body better in torture than when not in torture.

I currently don’t really know my body at all, therefore. I’m learning new things everyday; its new limits, new skills, new ways of communicating to me.

Otherwise, it’s approaching the end of the academic year and so my life is a blur of deadlines and an exam. And that’s stressful, when my head is trapped in different moments of the last 20 years.

So how am I? Exhausted. Traumatised. Feeling extremely alone in that trauma. Hurt beyond anything I can put into words. Frightened. In physical pain. Stressed. Jumpy. Depressed. Moving from tears to hysterical laughter in a very short space of time. Bewildered by what has happened. Getting angry at people who are getting stupidly stressed about seemingly trivial things; angry at the world for taking for granted their safety and families and friends and life and ability to get through a day without endlessly wondering if it’ll be your last, and how many of your friends you’ll ever see again, for waking up in a morning not wondering what type of torture today will bring…I get so angry. Until I stop myself, because it isn’t right. It isn’t their fault that my life was horrific and I can’t relate to them. They don’t deserve my anger.

How am I? Still breathing, still smiling, still fighting…

But very fragile.


3 thoughts on “The impossible question: “how are you?”

  1. Indeed you are brave. Its not easy to relive trauma daily. Its not easy to keep on fighting. Its not easy to live in a world where very few understand…so yes you are brave. Sending you hugs of support.

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