The hustle of having a wedding in the family had just passed over. A truckload of north Indian relatives had only now begun to unload themselves off the close quarters of an old Delhi house. The morning seemed much quieter than what the family had experienced in a long time.
A newly wedded young woman sits in a corner examining the inconvenience of her wedding bangles. She seems to be quietly contemplating the rashes hidden underneath her wedding bangles. Which incapacitate her and keep her from going about everyday activity with the ease that she is used to. Her sister-in-law lets her know that the rashes are normal. She had to face them too.
In another corner of the house a 13-year-old girl wakes up with a writhing pain in her stomach, anxiety eating at her insides. Her mother notices the red stain on her bed. Her grandmother lets her know that the pain is normal. She had to face it too. As did her mother.
Years later, the 13-year-old in question has learnt to internalise the pain and the associated anxiety. I learnt to deal with it like I dealt with that unwanted buaji that I could not avoid at family gatherings. Since skipping college or work because you’re too weak to function those days of the month was not an option, I learnt to go about both – the conversation and the pain; like nothing had happened.
Until one day, when I had a mild epiphany. That something as routine and as recurring as this, shouldn’t really be this painful.
Coping is not healing
Growing up, we are made to believe that coping with pain is a rite of passage and not a lifelong condition. There is a cultural idea that pain or trauma of any kind has an eventual destination. A possible purpose. And the inbuilt mechanism of leading us to a point where we can emerge out of pain and find ourselves healed.
However, as I watched the second season of Phoebe Waller Bridge’s brilliant ‘Fleabag’, I had the strange suspicion that all of this is merely an assumption. An imposition.
In the second season, when we see Fleabag miserably trying to get her life back together, engaging in a performance of coping with her trauma; her seemingly put together sister Claire, lets her know how unrealistic and unsustainable this performance is. She scoffs at this display of escapism that Fleabag and the audience was rooting for and lets us all know that the only way to live is not by improvement, but by simply having to face who you are and “suffer the consequences”. Suddenly we’re all in on this joke of vain self-improvement.
You see, Fleabag, like countless of us, was under the impression that coping was the means to healing. And that she’d eventually get there. She, like all of us, was made to think that her trauma had an eventual destination.
But, truth be told, the art of female coping as we know it doesn’t lead to healing. Female coping is, indeed, a lifelong condition.
We emerge, Aphrodite-like, from the ocean of generational conditioning, and learn to deal with pain. Not with the intensity and attention that something like child-birth warrants. But with the stoicism of silently going about your day with period cramps without letting anybody around know.
When Claire undergoes a miscarriage in the middle of a family dinner, she chooses to latch on to the pain. Takes pride in suffering alone and lets anybody who’d wish to help her know that the pain is solely hers to bear.
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“Keep your hands off my micarriage. It’s mine! It’s mine!”
This fragmented female rage has less to do with the physical pain of having lost a child, but more with the burden of the lifelong conditioning that she has to bear this alone.
And if you think about it, this is how trauma plays out in most women’s lives. Not as markers of specific events, not as major plot points in their story but rather as an everyday occurrence that is usually impossible to let go of.
“…Women are born with pain built in. It’s our physical destiny. Period pain, sore boobs, childbirth… We carry it within ourselves throughout our lives.”
Generation after generation of women lock away this pain somewhere they can’t access. This locking away is a mechanism that provides the outward appearance of emerging untouched and unaffected by this pain. And just as this pain is passed down from one generation to the next, so is the mechanism to deal with it.
Fleabag’s mother died an untimely death leaving two daughters behind to cope. Claire’s husband constantly seems to objectify her own sister and Claire chooses to turn a blind eye. That’s her coping mechanism.
My grandmother was in an unhappy marriage throughout her life. Her daughter was in a physically and emotionally abusive marriage for the better part of her own life. Both of them carried the normalisation of this trauma into the socialisation processes of their third generation. They let her know that all that pain is normal. And that they went through it too.
Many women go through their entire lives without any control over their bodies, their pain, or their trauma.
The period post World War II saw a significant rise in literature discussing intergenerational trauma and how it is carried down. Relevant studies till date suggest that severe trauma tends to impair the genetic model of an individual. An impediment in the gene structure that is very likely to be passed down to the next generation.
Depending on where it falls in one’s lineage, there is a good chance that certain aspects of trauma can be mirrored and perpetuated in the future generations. So what does all that inherited pain do to us?
How women’s trauma affects their life and work
Essentially, the biggest damage that it does, both on a personal level and at a societal level, is that it normalises it. We suffer without questioning, making it alright for us and everyone else to suffer in silence. And in the process, making the questioning of it seem like a rebellion.
As daughters, we inherit our beliefs about our bodies, and our worth from our mothers. My grandmother, on more occasions than one, let my mother know that raising a child with an abusive husband was her destiny and there was nothing she could do about it. My mother believed her.
When Farida Jalal told her daughter in DDLJ on that 70 mm screen that pain is her destiny, I and countless other little girls believed her.
We all know how impressionable our societies are to everything pop culture, and how Bollywood has been setting (and reflecting) the guidelines on how to live in this country for the longest time. (If you don’t, then click here to know all about it!)
When my aunt chose not to remove her wedding bangles and to deal with the consequent rashes, she believed and participated in the narrative that women around her were themselves participating in and passing on.
Comes in the way of our work
The result of all that normalisation is the belief in the inescapability of this cycle. The normalisation of feeling secondary and subjected to general pain, makes it alright to feel the same at work.
So when we’re caught in the trap of doing too much, or have difficulty in saying no to tasks outside of what we agreed to, we treat that as we treat our pain. We normalise it. When we are denied our dues and feel out of place in celebrating our accomplishments, we treat that denial as normal too.
Impairs our sense of self worth
How can one have a sense of self worth when having it attacked is made out to be alright on more occasions than one. What this normalisation attacks even more however, is the process of setting healthy boundaries for ourselves.
Without healthy boundaries, standing up for ourselves can be hard. We’re not taught how to say no. And We stretch ourselves too thin, not knowing how to function in a healthier way.
We don’t ask for the promotions and the credit we deserve or we believe that we have to go about getting it through indirect means. Let go of opportunities because we are not sure we can handle them. We are afraid to put ourselves in the limelight.
Breaking The Cycle
If watching your own life experiences on the screen is cathartic, watching someone overcome them is even more so.
So when I saw Fleabag finally taking ownership of the cafe that she couldn’t run because it was too painful and reminded her of her dead best friend, it gave me hope. When she finally managed to break through the wall that Claire had built around her and helped give her the strength to walk out of her painful marriage, it gave me hope.
It made me think about all that it takes to find your way out of this cycle is to acknowledge the pain. All that it takes, is not massive strength, the struggle, or even going out of your way to heal the pain. But just the acceptance that it exists, as your inheritance, perhaps, but never as your lot, and never as an unalterable destiny.
Don’t get me wrong. I haven’t stopped having menstrual cramps. Neither have I stopped writhing in pain for three days straight, month after month. But I do know that if I ever have a daughter and she feels the need to skip out on life for three days every month, I will let her know that it’s ok to do so.
Pain is not normal, and it certainly requires her attention, if not also the attention of those around her.
“If I wanted to remove my wedding bangles someday because they were hurting too much, would you say the same thing to me as you did to my aunt?”, I finally asked my mother. “ Would questioning this practice be considered rebellion?”
“Not rebellion”, she said, “but your duty towards yourself.”
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