"You will get through it, we will get through it. Together, we will set this world on fire with the truth because we are not victims, but survivors."
Priyanka Unadkat recently graduated from Pratt Institute, New York, with a Masters in Interior Design. She is a 23-year-old survivor of child sexual abuse. Over the past year, she has worked on her thesis project, designing a community retreat home for adult women survivors of child sexual abuse. She hopes to make this project a reality someday. She also has a blog called The Tipping Point, through which she is building a community and safe space for survivors through her own personal journey and also in the hope of creating more awareness about sexual abuse and tips and resources for healing.
SWY: If you don’t mind sharing - What is your story with childhood and youth abuse and trauma?
PU: I hid my story for so many years, mainly because I was afraid no one would believe me and because of the “society”. I grew up in Mumbai, India. I grew up in a well-to-do family, we lived in a good area, my parents and family are healthy. I always felt like I didn’t have the right to feel this terrible because of what happened to me because I grew up more privileged than others in many ways. There was also the fear of the things I might stir up and people I might hurt back home. My abuse was downplayed for so long; I went about like everything was okay that somewhere I started to believe so myself and learned to live my life as though everything was completely normal when it really was not. I was hiding, running, and in major denial for so many years... That’s why I think it is important for me to break that cycle as I know one thing for sure, I never want anyone to struggle with themselves the way I have struggled with myself all these years. Things need to change. I still have to remind myself that what happened to me was not okay. There is so much that is wrong in being “okay” with being sexually abused. I think my childhood has left me fairly confused. Sometimes I wish it could be all black or white, because then, I could leave behind the things that traumatized and troubled me for years, without feeling the amount of pain I still feel today. I grew up in a huge joint family. I lived in the same house with my father’s five brothers, their wives, and two kids each, and my grandparents. My mother, too, has five sisters and two brothers. I can’t even begin on the list of second cousins and so on.
So you can imagine what a closed knit world I grew up in? Growing up in India is not easy. You constantly have to live in fear growing up about what “people will think”. The society comes first. I always felt like I never fit in. The things that most people in the “society” around me cared about, I could never resonate with for some reason. But I never had the courage to speak up or say what was on my mind because I was shut out or told I was too young and that I would make mistakes, time and again.
The first time I went to therapy was when I was in the 9th grade. I felt so abnormal about it then, that I stopped going. I still remember going to therapy every week my whole teenage life. In therapy, I would speak about how lonely and different I felt, how I hated where I was, and didn’t know “what was wrong with me”. But, the second I left the room and stepped out into the world, it was like I put on a mask, played my role…the cycle was never-ending.
I was sexually abused by a cousin brother of mine when I was around 6 years old. He was dominating and a bully. We always had to do whatever he told us, or we would be slapped or made to kneel in a corner for hours. I was relatively notorious when I was younger, so I was scared of him. His grandmother was obsessed with him and she was the head of his house so we were always ordered to listen to him and never question anything. Since it was my mother’s sister’s house, no one said or did anything about it so that things would not become awkward or tense. We used to play dark room or hide and seek - that was my biggest nightmare. I couldn’t say no because I was forced to play even if I tried. Who would I tell? What would I say? I had to play, I had to hide with him or I would get punished. There was no choice. The flashbacks are so intense even when I get them today. Fortunately, I have had the chance to read more and talk to people outside the tiny little world I grew up in. I question so many things that I didn’t know about before, and sometimes I feel like I was living in a whole other life and it makes me angry. I never ever want to go back there and I want to make sure I can change this mindset and the way things are approached back in India.
SWY: How have your experiences with trauma and abuse changed your life?
PU: After all these years of self-doubt, self-hate and just constantly feeling empty and having this feeling of chronic loneliness, what’s even worse, is having to feel like there is no way out. The truth is, you never have to settle and you never should. I was a very dependent person because I felt like I never had the strength to handle my life on my own. I was terrified because I wanted to live differently than what I grew up knowing and learning all my life and I never knew that I could live differently and think differently and it wouldn’t make me wrong or corrupted. I always thought I was making the wrong decisions because I was told so. I was told that I was too much to handle and that I wasn’t smart enough. Ever since I was a kid, my “best friends” in school, who I had to carpool with for a long time and do everything with, would bully me, call me names, tell me I was too ugly to be touched. Even their parents would deliberately leave me out of study groups and tell my mom I wouldn’t fit in. They used to leave me stranded at school in the heat, even though they were my way home. They would invite me to places just so that they could make me feel left out. This went on for a long time before I finally confronted them around the sixth grade.
I still don’t know how all of this affected psychologically but later on in school, I became a bully, which I am not proud of. A few years later, I was boycotted and slut-shamed by those same friends. I spent my final years of school in the black-list for constantly missing classes. I have been betrayed way more times than I can remember. I became very scared over time. Today, I understand how important it is to believe in and stand up for yourself. I wish I would have had the correct support and been guided in a very different way. I still blame myself for not doing all these things and being stronger myself. But, I can use my pain to help make lives better and be there for people who are going through the things I once went through. I think my experiences made me want to understand the bigger problems in the world, rather than the unimportant rubbish that people kept ranting about, back home. I think it made me more open-minded, accepting and I found the need to have a more diverse life. Most importantly, it made me develop the courage to believe in myself and not feel ashamed or scared because I think differently than what I had learned all my life. Healing is a process. It is something you have to decide to do every day. It is definitely easier when you have people by your side.
SWY: What is one piece of advice you would give to a child or youth who is suffering from abuse and trauma?
PU: Never think that you are alone or crazy. Don’t stay silent because you think this happens to “everybody”. Don’t normalize your pain. I know it’s really hard to not drown in guilt, or feel ashamed but you did not deserve this! Trauma affects you way more than you think and mental-health is a very real thing. Don’t listen to people when they say “this happens to everybody”, or “get over it”. If you think you don’t have the support you need, please reach out! One of the thoughts that have always helped me make really tough decisions and get over my fear is - the best time to jump is when you fear it the most. If you are reading this, you have taken the courage to question things and to find answers, and you are on the road to recovery!
SWY: On that same note, what is one piece of advice you would give to a child or youth who wants to heal but doesn’t know how?
PU: Most importantly, take your own time! Don’t feel rushed or pressured, don’t be afraid. Listen to that inner voice and never lose your belief in yourself. Just know that it is not your fault and you didn’t deserve it. If anyone ever tells you that, tell them where to shove it because you will find people who will love you and support you, the way you deserve. When it comes to your mental health, family, friends, society…nobody matters. There are resources available like support groups, blogs, and survivors out there who are without any judgment. Please take a chance. Get in touch because you are not alone and you deserve to be heard and loved and supported.
There is hope in numbers and we are stronger together. If your problems are downplayed by people who say they “care” about you or “love” you, know that those are not the true meanings of those words. There are techniques that I have personally developed to help me cope - I started saying positive affirmations every day, multiple times a day. I try to read more and educate myself more so that I can understand and breakdown the things I am feeling, and through that, I realized that I am really not alone. I can find a family and safe space elsewhere. It took me many years, but I joined a support group online which I have found to be really helpful. I try to meditate and take time to myself so that I can self-reflect. Even small things work, like sticking positive sticky notes on my mirror or rewarding myself for small achievements. After you have been through trauma, I strongly believe that your mind and body send you vibrations and over-time you will learn how to listen to your inner thoughts. Even though I went to several wrong therapists for many years, there was some ray of hope left in me and I decided to try one last time. If you do go to therapy and it feels wrong, don’t doubt yourself or lose hope and give up. I know it is mentally and physically exhausting to repeat your story time and again, but it is the only way you will find the right person to help you.
"There is hope in numbers and we are stronger together. If your problems are downplayed by people who say they “care” about you or “love” you, know that those are not the true meanings of those words."
SWY: What would you say has helped you the most throughout your healing journey?
PU: I think, not losing hope. I know that this sounds so arbitrary because there have been so many times where I have really given up, and I thought I was just done and that there was no way out of this dark hole, but this really faint voice inside me would always make me get up and try again, even if it was after days, weeks or months of suffering. You have to believe that it will get better because it will. Take the chance, because sometimes you are just one decision away from changing your whole life and if you don’t try, you will never know what you are capable of. Personally, my pain helped me realize that I would do everything in my power to try than be stuck in that place forever.
SWY: What is one thing you want others to understand about being a childhood abuse survivor?
PU: I think the most important thing to know and remember is - IT WAS NOT YOUR FAULT. You do not need to feel ashamed or scared by anyone or anything. You are not alone. You are not crazy. Remind yourself every single day that you are a Warrior and you have an Army.
SWY: Finding courage in the face of severe adversity is very difficult – How were able to face your adversities and find the courage to overcome them?
PU: I think the best thing I ever did for myself was to take a leap of faith. The very first time that I completely and wholeheartedly believed in myself was just a little more than three years ago. I woke up one day and decided the best thing I could do was to get the hell out of there. I set every single thing aside and worked towards getting into the school that was calling out to me. I still ask myself what about Pratt was it that drew me towards it. It was such a strong intuition that I didn’t listen to a single soul with regard to the matter. I think it was this sense of freedom that I got looking at the website and seeing the diversity and culture. It was the first time I ever felt like I would fit in somewhere. I really don’t have a concrete answer to this question, in all honesty, because for me it was just a leap of faith.
SWY: What are some things that others can learn from your story that can help them overcome whatever trauma they may be enduring?
PU: So many times, even the people who love you, love you until it’s convenient for them, so you have to learn to love yourself first and put your needs above everything else. Remember that you are your own support system. Listen to that faint voice inside your head that tells you to hang on when you want to end it all. Taking a leap of faith and starting to believe in yourself, are much understated. You are strong, you are beautiful and you are meant to be here. You are wanted and loved so please don’t ever forget that. Just because you grew up in the wrong place doesn’t mean you are the one at fault even though it really may seem like that at times. The silence killed me more than anything else. Always believe in yourself, even if nobody else does. You will get through it, we will get through it. Together, we will set this world on fire with the truth because we are not victims, but survivors.