An event is felt to be traumatic when it places a strain on the mind that feels like “too much.” The mind tries its best to manage and cope, but feels stretched to its max, and beyond. This results in a whole host of feelings that include, but are not limited to, profound helplessness, fear, lack of safety, lack of control, intense anxiety, and anger. For children in particular, experiences that shatter their usual sense of safety , their trust in others and their belief that they will be protected, can feel particularly traumatic. When such experiences are repeated, over and over again, the sense of trauma increases.
Hena Husain has written a brave, bold, and beautiful book about traumatic experiences in her earlier life, her “recollection” of these in her adult life, and her quest to heal herself. Although she had been working on this book, on and off, for the past several years, in the recent wake of the #MeToo movement, she decided to complete and publish it. And in doing so, Hena has done all of us a tremendous favor.
Hena writes with a directness that is poignant and takes us right into the heart of her story. She shares with us her very painful experiences of being molested (in different ways, to different degrees, at different times in her life , by different males) when she was five, ten, and fifteen years old. These experiences occurred within the context of an intact nuclear family, and a loving extended family. Her account reminds us of the necessity of conveying to our children, through words and deeds, that there is nothing they could tell us that we wouldn’t want to hear. It is conviction in a child’s mind that usually allows a child to share unpleasant, scary, and shameful experiences with a parent, safe in the knowledge that they will be heard without being doubted, accused, blamed, or being told that it must be their fault. I cannot count the number of times in my day to day work as a psychoanalyst ( and in accounts of the work of other therapists and analysts) where patients have been told (when they report abuse and molestation) that what they are saying could not possibly be true. This disbelief on the part of the parent then becomes an additional trauma, superimposed on the primary one, as the child’s sense of safety and expectation of being looked after/protected, is shattered, again.
Hena’s account is also a reminder that sexual predators do lurk in unexpected places, so parents have to walk a fine line between being overprotective (thus instilling fear in a child) and being reasonably cautious when leaving a child unsupervised, or with other people. We know that try as we might, and despite our best efforts, children may still be placed in unexpectedly dangerous and abusive situations. As notes, it could even be in the familiar kitchen of a family member’s home. Or at the hands of a so-called “Man of God.” The child’s best defense under such circumstances is knowledge (to be forewarned is to forearmed) that in such a situation, what is happening is never their fault, and they have a right to scream for help. If, despite all precautions, a child’s body or mind (through threats and efforts to intimidate) are abused, the next important step is for the child to be able, quickly, “to tell” a trusted adult about what happened so that the child can be protected and helped, and the predator called to justice. Hena describes, like many children, not being able to do so. And nobody asked. Nor was anybody curious or suspicious. Thus the first set of traumatic experiences (at age five) laid down painful scar tissue in her psyche, as though she was to blame for what happened to her at the hands of her family servant’s thirteen year-old boy.
Hena’s account of a later molestation by the family chauffeur when she was ten, is heartbreaking. She blames herself for what was happening, feeling that somehow, this must be her fault, as though she was responsible for the transgression of the adult. This is not an uncommon response in such situations. The traumatized child, bewildered about how or why their parents failed to protect them, can easily feel that their parents must be uncaring and “bad” parents. This is of course a very difficult feeling for the child, since it feels then as though they have lost their previously good enough parents. In order to maintain a good image of the parents in her mind, the child starts to feel “bad” herself. After all, something bad has happened to her, her parents did not prevent it, and yet they must be preserved in her mind as good parents. So an important defensive step the mind takes is to make the child decide that all that happened is somehow her fault.
Then Hena surprises us (and maybe she herself was surprised!) by the courage and determination she shows when a Moulana coming to her home, approaches her sexually. She is fifteen then. And finally, even though she is still not able to share details with her Mother, she is able to say to her mother that she will not study with the Moulana again. Something had already started to shift in Husain’s mind by then. And it is with this same determination and courage that Husain would later take on the challenge of recovering from her traumas.
We see that Hena has realized over time that in addition to sexual molestation, death, loss, and separations have placed a major role in her life. These experiences added to her sense of anxiety and her worry about the fragility of life. At the same time, her sense of her father as strong and loving, and the sustenance she experienced from her extended family, also comes through. Human beings and their lives are highly complex and multilayered. Hena’s is no exception. And she allows us to experience all the layers, discreetly and with subtlety, but with complete honesty.
She details her journey of becoming a Clinical Hypnotherapist. In fact, it was while she was training for this that she became clearly aware of feelings and memories surrounding the abuse. She started allowing herself to feel the locked up, compartmentalized parts of herself, tucked away for so long. She writes, “The more you feel, the more you heal.” She used various well-researched and established modalities in her own healing process. and she shares seven of these with us, her readers, in a most useful way. It is a road map to recovery, to healing from trauma.
With unusual candor, Hena discusses the struggles in her marriage to her dearly loved husband Nasir. She comes to recognize, wisely, that the best relationships are built not on a lack of disagreements and differences of opinion; rather, it is the understanding of the disagreements and the tolerance for differences of opinion that makes a relationship stronger. So she and Nasir keep working at their relationship and Hena keeps using the tools she has learnt to change the way she thinks about situations with her husband. She points out to us that such internal work allows her to experience herself as having the choice to be happy or to feel embittered, on any given day. Hena’s love for, pride in, and joy about her three children pervades her life and has clearly been of great value in helping her heal, even as she provided for them emotionally.
Hena’s internal growth is evident in the way she deals with her own struggles recently about wanting a beautiful two million dollar home on a lake. After days of anguish, and wanting the house, at almost any cost, while her husband and children kept pointing out they could not afford the house, Hena prayed, meditated, and exercised. In the moments that followed, she realized that “I had created it all in my head. The drama, the anxiety, the story was in my head.” She had a breakthrough. She writes, “We get so caught up in material possessions that will satisfy our need to feel good and be successful. The lake that I desired,” Hena explains, “is really the peaceful, tranquil emotions that I create from inside. I AM THE LAKE (capitalization mine);our bodies are seventy percent water”.
May we all find the wisdom to understand that what we are trying to find outside ourselves is but an illusion : and that if only we could discover the lakes and mansions within our own selves , we would easily lead lives of great contentment and be able to be at peace with who we really are.