[iSpeak] Owning my trauma, no matter how 'small'

Warning: This piece contains sensitive and graphic content that may trigger certain readers, particularly those who have experienced a form of sexual abuse, no matter how small. 

Let me begin with what I remember. 

I was 14. I was a skinny sophomore in high school and I loved reading about wizards and demigods and shadowhunters and vampire slayers. I had a regular childhood, as we defined regular in my tiny part of the world. My father worked abroad. My mother stayed at home, but on Tuesdays would help my grandmother run her business. On Sundays I would sing for the church choir.

I am not going to waste any more words for an element of surprise. When I was 14, when I was a skinny sophomore in high school who loved reading and thought she had a regular childhood, an uncle of mine touched my genitals.

It was a Friday, I’m sure of this memory. That night, I had been wearing the girl scout uniform sophomores had to wear in my high school – green culottes that ran up to my knees and a yellow polo shirt with a girl scout logo embroidered on the left chest. I had been on my laptop and did not have to worry about homework until Sunday. There was a lizard on the ceiling and there were tiny bugs circling the white light above.  

I was sitting at a huge mahogany table, on a matching mahogany chair that had been in that house even before I was born. And on the chair to my left was my uncle, all of 37 years, scrolling through his own laptop with his left hand and fingering me with his right hand. He did not use all of his fingers. I do not remember how long he took, moving his fingers through a patch of my skin where hair had just begun to bloom. I just knew that it was an odd feeling, and that eventually he stopped when my mother called out for dinner. 

I did not tell anyone that night, nor the next day, because I don’t think I remembered it happened at all. That same year, my uncle left for Europe to join his wife who had left months prior to work there as a nurse. He eventually found a job as a chef. They have been there for almost a decade now. 

I did not tell anyone until nearly 6 years later, in 2017, when news of Harvey Weinstein’s abuses broke. I was then living in a cold European city – the coldest city, as they call it in that country – and I was lonely.  

I found the Weinstein story gripping, the hashtag #MeToo affecting. That October and the months that followed, so many stories of assault, not just from women who had crossed paths with Weinstein and similar men, but ordinary women leading ordinary lives, surfaced online. The posts invoked questions of power, sex, culture, and psychology. 

Coincidence must have worked hard, with impeccable timing, to dredge up a memory I had buried, because that same month, my uncle sent me a message asking how I was, saying I could always contact them because they were my nearest relatives, and we were in the same continent. It took that message to stir what had been living inside me for years, what had been whispering me too, me too, me too. 

My body responded during those weeks of reckoning with sleep paralysis – that feeling of being conscious yet unable to move in the middle of the night. Spells of sleep paralysis usually involve terrifying monsters. Mine would always be faceless, leaning onto the door jamb, shoulders crossed and long fingers peaking out. I would also get abdominal pain, the memory making me literally sick to my stomach. 

I chose to deal with it, first, by telling 3 of my friends. I cried each time. I did not want to remember that night at our old house, with the mahogany table and the lizard on the ceiling. It was a memory that never served me. I had no reason to even think about my uncle anymore. Every time they’d come home to the Philippines to visit, I'd never make the effort to see them.  Perhaps it was me implicitly distancing myself, like a survival instinct. 

But somehow I knew it had to be told, and it had to be dealt with. 

On September 2018, nearly a year after Weinstein, a woman by the name of Christine Blasey Ford came forward and said a US Supreme Court nominee had assaulted her decades ago, when they were in high school. Her testament before the US Senate remains, to me, one of the most powerful moments of 2018. I followed that hearing religiously and teared up a couple of times while watching from my small rented condo unit in Manila.  

“I am here today not because I want to be. I am terrified,” she said. “I have had to relive my trauma in front of the entire world, and have seen my life picked apart by people on television, in the media, and in this body who have never met me or spoken with me.” Her words were powerful. 

Not long after, in October, news of sexual assault rocked a prominent university in Manila. I was deeply affected by the news. An anonymous post about a predatory professor set off a social media storm, which involved students and alumni – most of them women – taking to Twitter and Facebook to share their stories of sexual harassment at the hands of revered faculty members. There were also whispers about who actively protected the predators and those who stayed silent as harassers continued to do their deeds.

It marked another time of reckoning for me, but this time, I asked myself, what happens to a harasser who is not a moneyed movie producer nor a legendary professor nor a nominee to the Supreme Court? What happens if he’s just a regular, unremarkable man, with a daughter the same age as you? What if he is a good brother who has sacrificed a lot for his younger siblings? What if he is one of your grandmother’s favorite nephews? 

I eventually dealt with it through writing. I had written poetry before, and I thought maybe my experience could afford me to experiment in non-fiction. An earlier version of this blog, this confession of sorts, was published in a literary publication. It was a circuitous piece in which I finally own my trauma, but the ownership comes with a lingering “others have it much worse than you.” But trauma is trauma is trauma, no matter how "small."

The theme for that issue of the publication was fear, and for me, trauma breeds a lot of fear, whether this fear be a fear to speak out, a fear to confront the trauma, or a fear that once your trauma is out it can no longer be yours and yours only. 

Months later, I have learned to share that trauma I have for so long guarded, consciously and unconsciously. I have received messages from people who have read my essay, and their words, often filled with appreciation for my coming forward, have come to mean a lot. Those messages are partly why I have written this blog, to tell you your trauma matters, no matter how insignificant you think it is. 

But part of it is also because, while I've come to reckon with my own experience, many others still live in unsafe spaces. Just this week, another university student from Manila came forward with his own story of sexual harassment at the hands of a faculty member. Again, the flurry of social media confessions came. Many victims – most of them women – still feel vulnerable. 

We need to reckon with even more questions still, chief among them these: Why do victims choose to remain silent? Why do they take to social media? Why don't all victims want to go through formal processes? These are questions that should disturb us. May they keep us up at night until every single person who has ever felt vulnerable be comfortable in his or her own skin. – Rappler.com

Ella Burgos is not the author’s real name. Her family does not know about any of this. She’s not ready for them to know of it yet. The 22-year-old thanks you for reading this, and hopes her words serve you in some way.