Our eyes are the windows to our soul, is a quote I saw once. I can’t remember who said it but it struck me as being very true. Looking at people’s eyes has always been one of my strongest survival strategies. I can detect coldness, apathy, cruelty, sadness, guilt, happiness, grief, fear…anything…even if you’re trying to mask it behind a smile. If you’re about to hurt me, I don’t care what your smile and gentle tone says, your eyes have just given you away.
So what do people see when they look in my eyes…when they see my soul…
Sometimes I wish they could see the memories. Could see the person I was and am. That I am not a vulnerable mess, I am probably the strongest person they know. This isn’t to sound arrogant. But you don’t look down the barrel of a gun several times, get raped tens of thousands of times, lose children, watch friends die, be sold, be tortured…you don’t go through all of this and survive by being defeated. You survive by finding a level of strength that is in itself wrong. I should have never needed to be this strong.
Do you see the girl who spat in the abusers face, when he tried sticking a finger inside me whilst I was being held by another man? The man with the knife in his hand, ready to rape me with it, ready to do whatever to me with it…and I spat in his face. I was terrified. But I was determined I wasn’t going to be his plaything, his objectified ragdoll. Tiny acts of defiance kept my soul intact even if the physical punishment was intense. Pain is much easier to manage when you feel like you’re winning.
If I was going to die, I wanted to die with my eyes full of fire, staring at them, my last screams but my eyes of rage and strength, of my intact self, staring at them. Telling them, that even though my body had lost, they still had never won. They had never broken me. They had come close, but in the end, I was always unbroken. I refused to give them that. I saw what happened when people broke. They either turned into one of them, or they died. Suicide, mostly. I have been incredibly suicidal many times. But what mostly pulls me back, is the refusal to give them that. At the very last second, when I am immersed in pain and despair, and even in hospital, I find that strength, that resolve, that refusal to give them my dead body. That is my revenge. Their efforts were for nothing.
My first girlfriend, a girl in the ring, broke. I watched her do it. I was being restrained and she was kneeling, murmured “I do love you.” I said “don’t you dare, don’t you dare.” But she did. They’d broken her. Her soul had shattered and she had nothing left. Sometimes when I used to feel like I couldn’t go on, I feel her somehow, her hand on my shoulder, or her smell, briefly. A protection. I saw their smug faces and heard their cheers when she left me. I saw precisely how much it was them winning. She showed me what I must not do.
Our relationship was a complex one, and now that I’m in a safe one, I wonder if we ever really did love each other, or simply needed each other. It doesn’t matter. We did need each other, in our secret lives of hell. We needed the closeness. We needed the intimacy, we needed to learn that sex is supposed to beautiful and gentle, not painful. That crying in such moments was supposed to be out of love, not fear. We needed to know there was someone else who wanted us alive, who believed. We needed someone else to dream with. A future we deep down knew we would never spend together. If we’d both managed to escape, rather than just me, we could have never stayed in a relationship. We were together as a survival function. And to this day, she is still there for that. Sometimes when I feel myself slipping into depression, I dream and hear her voice, or her singing whilst playing guitar. It reminds me of my strength, of my promise to live, and live fully. I tell my current partner about her because I truly believe that it was through Holly that I was able to find my partner today. I had experienced something other than abuse. I knew there was something more than abuse. I knew I deserved it. I knew I was loveable. My current partner is almost polar opposite of my girlfriend in the ring…but the crucial elements remain: she loves me, she doesn’t hurt me, and we learn from each other.
When you look in my eyes do you see the girl who helped patch up other children in that dreadful place, in the evening, when we were back in our ‘room.’ Myself and any other children who weren’t too injured, would go around each child, sing to them, soothe them, clean their injuries, and if that wasn’t going to be enough, just hold them.
Do you see the girl who in a single night, when being sold, was raped by over 50 men? Who preferred this to the ritual ring, because they didn’t try and hurt?
Do you see the girl who negotiated with abusers, played mind games with them, to forbid them to have total control?
Do you see the girl who was so frightened and nobody helped?
Do you see the girl who held her child close to her?
The girl who when being marched to a van, growled at the man – twice my age and heavy built, with other men around – “I can walk in myself.” He had my arms behind my back and was insisting on pushing me into it. I wanted my own dignity. I wanted to walk into myself, calmly, not as the child I was being pushed in. He didn’t let go so I said louder, “I can walk in myself” and pulled my arms away. We stared at each other, but he let go. Whilst my heart was thumping with terror, not knowing what was lined up, I was also proud. I had established some small slither of dominance, despite being so young. Some small amount of control.
Do you see the girl who prayed to either be killed or taken out of the place, after having spent too long there one school holiday, because they had taken everything from me, and all I had left was my heart, and I was frightened they were close to taking that away from me, my compassion, my soul, who I am. Either kill me or get me out of this. I prayed, through tears, dirty and grimy, curled up in a makeshift bed.
The next day I was taken out and taken home. As I sank into the bath, wincing with pain, I wept. My prayer had been answered. My heart was being protected.
Do you see the girl who was chained to a wall for days, with barely any food or water, terrified of rats nibbling my toes, with other children, each of us begging each other to stay awake, because to fall asleep would be dangerous? I reached a point of no longer feeling the cold. I felt delirious. But I survived.
Do you see the girl who screamed THAT IS ENOUGH! And was listened to?
Do you see the girl who ran at a man, threw myself into his side to stop him strangling my friend?
Do you see the girl who survived childbirth on her own? The lioness mother?
Do you see the girl who sobbed and screamed in prayer, why have you taken my baby again, why do you take them and not me?
I needed to believe that my babies were safer now than they would have been in there, and that one day they would send me the gift of a child who could be safely cherished, loved and protected, and that I would always be a mother.
Do you see the girl who wrote a song with other children, and we’d sing it loudly in the faces of the men, who sometimes wore clown masks just to be scary, and we’d sing, “CLOWNY CLOWNY BASH BASH BASH”
We were not reckless or stupid. It’s not even bravery. It’s a refusal to hand over our souls.
Do you see the girl who when facing a group of men, whilst standing with a group of children, stared at the tiny girl who started singing Christmas hymns as if she was mad? There she stood, in such danger, and just stared at them and sang haunting Christmas hymns. And slowly we all joined in. We won that battle.
Do you see the girl who has nearly given up more times than she can count? Who has, on several occasions, clung to her partner in bed at night, sobbing into her neck, just clinging and sobbing, crying for all of it?
Do you see the girl who doubts herself, and needs you to not doubt her too?
Do you see the girl who did breathing exercises so that she could hold her breath for longer whenever men held her underwater?
Do you see the girl who snorted coke so that she could face the man about to buy her, as he turned the photo on his bedside table, of him and his apparent wife, away from him?
Do you see the girl who feels the burn of cable ties on her wrist even now? Who has to put up with people who don’t understand why I couldn’t “just run away.”
Do you see the girl who remembers the man behind her hissing in her ear, “I will kill you.” And part of you wants him to, part of you is terrified.
Do you see the girl who has a preferred tool to be raped with? Because the only way to survive is to think “oh thank god, at least it’s not (x)”.
Do you see the girl who threatened “put that in my mouth and I’ll f*cking bite it off” (he didn’t listen), then proceeded to bite, hard, when he shoved his d*ck inside my mouth?
Do you see the girl who sobbed for using the wrong milk and the punishment that resulted?
The girl who still feels maybe it was all her fault?
The girl who feels she could have done more to protect herself and her babies?
The girl who wishes she’d been braver?
The girl who sometimes just needs you to hold her? But not doubt her?
Do you see the girl who survived hell?
Or do you see the girl put through hell?
I survived and I am succeeding in my life. I am gaining high 2:1s and firsts in my degree. I am engaged. I have life plans. My therapist has heard all these memories more and still I am here, still I am fighting.
I have survived.
Never forget that.
Look into my eyes and see a woman who by all rights shouldn’t be alive, but she is. And she is smiling, and laughing, and is strong.
Look into my eyes and see the lioness that I am.
I am a survivor.