A survivor recounts the lack of empathy for his experience of sexual abuse, and how it impacted him
It happened thirty-five years ago, but I still vividly remember it. I was a nine-year old student. One afternoon, when I was walking down the school stairs with my lunchbox, it fell down. The headmaster, who was known to be a disciplinarian, saw me and got angry. He said I needed to be punished, because I did not respect food, and took me to his office. And that’s where he molested me.
This sexual abuse continued over different instances for six years. Yes, six.
I remember everything - the contents of the desk on which he lay me down, his pen stand, and how the room was arranged. I also remember the moment when I gathered the courage to walk up to a teacher to tell her what I was going through. Her response? “I’m sure you’re making it all up. He’s such a nice, caring man, he could not be doing all of this.” Over the next few years, I kept hearing these words or variations of them, as I tried to tell someone what was happening to me. I was afraid to tell my parents because the headmaster was a family friend and a well respected man. My brother, who belonged to the same school, heard rumors about my ordeal, and dissociated from me in school. He would hardly look at me or even acknowledge my existence - I was practically alone.
I was leaning towards giving up on talking about what was happening to me, because people were unable to relate to it, either due to ignorance or simple foreignness. I thought this would allow me and my thoughts to drift away from what was happening to me, until the memory itself felt out of place, which I thought would help me forget. That never happened.
Meanwhile, the headmaster had established a story with my parents, that I was a troublesome student, slow at learning and in need of extra tutoring, which he would happily provide. My parents believed him, unable to understand why I didn’t like school or shrunk away in fear every time I heard the headmaster's name.
Finally, after six years of experiencing abuse, I gathered up the courage once more to confide in someone - this time, a family friend of my parents who I trusted. This man had a certain degree of influence and he took it upon himself to ensure that action was taken against him. The headmaster was fired, and I didn’t have to see him again.
While I was relieved to know I did not have to face the ordeal, there was still something missing. It didn’t help me emotionally at all. The new headmistress had been briefed about what had happened to me. She took me aside and asked me to express my feelings by writing on a paper. She then took me to the playground and asked me to burn it so I could move on. That was it. I was expected to find closure from just that. I had started to think that finally, someone would help me address all the confusion, rage, frustration and anger - and this was how it ended.
I isolated myself
I was so disappointed by this that I withdrew. I stopped trusting that someone else would be able to give me any space to talk about this, or listen to me without doubting my experience. The impact of this incident stayed with me.
As I grew older, I was constantly feeling low. I realized that I didn’t like others touching me - it gave me the creeps. Emotionally, I withdrew from family and friends. I was glad to be in a job that kept me out of my home for more than three weeks a month. I would come home only to unpack, pack and leave again. Gradually, I began using alcohol. My parents began getting concerned about me. I did not recognize depression at that point in time. I attempted suicide several times, and failed each time.
A few years later, at another low point in my life that stemmed largely from my loneliness, I attempted suicide. I was rescued by the police and referred to a counselor. When I confided in my counselor, he said, “But this happened because you didn’t stop him.” And more painfully, “It happened, you let it happen again and again” Again, another letdown. I decided that if this was what counseling is about, then it wasn’t for me. This was so similar to the responses I’d been hearing from the few people I’d trusted enough to share my story with - and to hear a counselor say the same thing just destroyed my hope.
At 23, I found support from an unlikely quarter - a college mentor, who I ran into by chance. He took time out to meet me every single day and just let me talk about my worries, my alcohol consumption, and the abuse. He was the first person to acknowledge the gravity of what had happened to me. I remember when he had said the words, “Yes, you were raped,” I broke down. For the first time in my life, I was sharing this ordeal with someone I could trust, someone who understood how this impacted me. That was tremendously helpful.
Unfortunately, my mentor began having health problems and we stopped meeting. My only source of support was gone. Later, I reached out to a counselor at my workplace and slowly, began feeling better, though the memories were still painful.
Seeking help and the life after
I got married, had two children. I did stumble a few times - discontinued counseling, faced some setbacks in my life that made my depression worse, even attempted suicide. I took for granted that life moves forward. But I moved like a rower of a boat, facing backwards: I could see where I had been, but not where I was going. And my boat was being steered by the younger version of me. I longed to imagine what life would be like facing the other way.
The last time I tried to kill myself was in January 2016, and I survived. I went back to a wonderful set of counselors and psychiatrists at St John’s Hospital, Bangalore. It felt different. I was 43 years old, and I was learning about myself all over again - my fears and insecurities. The magical point was when they helped me realize that I always had hope. I understood that I had responsibilities towards my family and with their help, got back on track.
After 14 years of marriage, I shared my story with my wife and I cried. I felt both sad and relieved sharing it openly with her, as I knew that she would accept me and listen to me without judgment. While there is still emptiness and hurt, there is no rage. I am happy with the life I’m living. It took me so long to understand that it wasn’t my fault. I’ve heard so many people say that child sexual abuse doesn’t happen to boys - that’s just not true. I wish I had known then that stories such as mine exist, and it’s okay to speak about it.
I wish someone had been there to tell me that it wasn’t my fault, to listen to me, and support me. I remember feeling lonely, not knowing who to reach out to. I wish I’d been able to share this story with someone I trusted - a parent, a teacher, an adult who could have supported me. If only those people who I confided in had responded differently, in a supportive manner, it would have made me feel less lonely.
As told to White Swan Foundation. Names have been withheld on request.