There is no official name or diagnostic term to indicate a phobia of elevators. I know this because I inhabit the borderlands of this debilitating fear. It sits on the cusp of claustrophobia — a fear of small, enclosed spaces including windowless rooms, tiny attics, dim-lit basements, among other restrictive confinement; and agoraphobia — an anxiety related to the panic of being trapped and being unable to escape. It is particularly manifested when exposed to public spaces; whether a crowded mall or a simple bus queue.
Every day before I climb up 10 flights of stairs to reach my clinic, I have a moment of well-rehearsed pep talk where I try to psyche myself into entering the elevator. Some days I manage a few floors depending on who else is in the elevator with me and where they alight. On most days, like a wobbly crab, I scram sideways and turn towards the staircase, schlepping through what seems like an eternal ascent. I have a ready playlist and a compulsive awareness of the number of times I need to break between floors before my spine turns into a broken spring. Every day, I battle undercurrents of unease as I shuffle through my regular commute — feeling tenebrous and insufficient as a person and a psychologist.
This is the aftermath of living through intimate partner violence. I toggle between the words victim and survivor depending on how sturdy my coping mechanisms are on that particular day.
Neither feels genuine or proportionate to what I have endured and continue to fight. In the beginning, though, I felt less like a person and more like a collapsed building when the repetition of my triggers met me at different crossroads, like voltages slithering out of a naked wire, awaiting someone’s footsteps in a muddy puddle. My body often took the shape of a trickled trout. When people consider the courage of survival, they applaud the over-arching heroism, but what we lose — almost invisibly — is the small, seemingly quotidian safety of not having to stay up all night in a cold sweat, knowing you can’t possibly climb 24 flights of stairs for next day’s meeting at a new building.
Specialists would refer to this as ‘constriction’.
First, we feel flooded. Then, we start shrinking and folding into ourselves.
Constriction redefines somatic and psychological states including breathing, posture, the lining of blood vessels against the surface of our skin, the metronome of our heartbeat, even the rhythmic functioning of our internal organs. Our extremities get tingly and hyper-sensitive.
When we can’t take it anymore, we shut down with a wish to dissolve into an unreachable eclipse. Think of the sunken place from the movie Get Out. That’s what it feels like.
Kabir Singh and the Equalisation of Passion and Violence
These days, the digital ether is rife with conversations about Kabir Singh, its romanticisation of misogyny and its commercial success. Last year, a similar wave erupted during the #MeToo disclosures on social media. On both occasions, we have been privy to some peculiarly heinous and yet unsurprising equivalence between passion and violence. From a recent interview with the movie’s director’s specious endorsement of hitting someone as an extension of romantic intensity to throngs of delirious fanboys who magically emerge from the woodwork before you can say s-a-p-i-o-s-e-x-u-a-l, just to troll any twitter thread or Facebook post critiquing the film.
Apart from this, I have personally sat through a significant spike in trauma relapses for clinical cases where young women and some men have been breaking down in therapy recalling their own histories of being abused.
Bertolt Brecht had proclaimed— “Art is not a mirror held up to reality but a hammer with which to shape it.”
Films are the most easily accessible of arts. Movies are a medium that aim to deflate hierarchies and present a collective space for shared experiences.
They can go from being a hammer to a magnifying glass to even a kaleidoscope. Their power and meaning are entwined in the ability to invoke a sense of wonder; to institute imagination as a tool for navigating the world.
However, at what point do we reign in the clueless narrativization of trauma and violence in the name of artistic freedom?
Artistic Freedom... at What Expense?
In the last few days, I’ve witnessed women once again digging into archives of personal experiences with domestic and intimate partner violence (DV/IPV), risking ‘retraumatization’ just to remind everyone that being slapped is not an act of affection or worse, ‘possession’.
It got to such a dire state that it partly felt like voyeurism of abuse porn. Stories that screamed that no matter who is hitting whom, the very idea of overt of covert brutality in any relationship is a sign of oppression, not attraction.
It is unbracing to watch anecdote upon anecdote tumble out detailing physical cruelties, periodic gas-lighting and subsequent ostracism as well as lack of support. It is equally important to remember that when someone seems preoccupied with being brutally honest, they are more concerned with brutality than honesty.
Let us consider statistical research— epidemiologic studies indicate that 4 in 10 women in India experience DV/IPV through their lifetime and 3 in 10 report experiencing it in past year. Recent UN studies report that at least 29% of Indian women have experienced some form of sexual/physical/emotional violence in domestic and intimate partner relationships.
This is not including those cases that have gone unreported due to a social stigma combined with a broken law enforcement machinery. There is also an execrable habit of denying the existence of emotional abuse or normalizing it if it is not accompanied by physical harm.
Trauma is not a one-size-fits-all. It is compounded by the intersections of gender, caste, class and race.
Over WhatsAapp messages, S, a 27 years old transplant to Mumbai, punctuates her desperate pleas for help with repeated apologies for disturbing me at midnight. She started therapy three months ago, after being diagnosed with PTSD and related anxiety. In our sessions, she reminisces about growing up in a small town in the mountains and the panacea of waking up to birdsongs. During EMDR —a form of therapeutic intervention that is effective in trauma healing —she refers to parakeets in flight as her stabilizing memory. On the night she messages me, she has suffered a full-blown panic attack. I reach her home to find a trembling mass of blankets in the tiny balcony of her shared flat. It is in the middle of a heatwave engulfing the city. She reveals that her ex-boyfriend has moved to Mumbai and has sent her a barrage of messages. It has taken her 3 years to escape the clutches of his abuse and she is afraid that the cycle will repeat itself.
Trauma-bonding is an ignored aspect of abusive relationships where repeated cycles of abuse end up convincing a victim that the volatile relationship is their only anchor.
It can mimic a form of "belonging" and is akin someone pushing your head underwater, holding it there and then pulling it back up in the nick of time. The mind gets foggy and is unable to compute that the performance of providing relief is to be in control of the abuse.
Trauma and Memory
In his seminal book, Waking the Tiger, Dr Peter Levine details how trauma modifies our memory. Have you wondered if there is a difference between remembering precise details from your 12th birthday versus the autopilot mode of taking a daily bath?
In human beings, there are two types of long-term memories — implicit and explicit.
Explicit memory is specific, asynchronous and accounts for conscious remembrance. Implicit memory is acquired without conscious efforts, automatic and is more generalised. A part of this implicit memory is what we call procedural or ‘body memory’, which is like an algorithm for daily tasks like running, hiking, tweeting, making toast among others. This ‘body memory’ becomes the clay for trauma’s imprint on a survivor.
When we are faced with negative stress or possibilities of threat, damage, loss and potential injury — like a guy holding a knife to you and asking you to undress — the memory of the event or the incident is locked.
Our bodies and minds end up with snapshots of failing to defend ourselves. In a way, traumatic memory gets frozen and encased like a fossil preserved in ice — looks very alive despite being gone for years. When I am unable to get into that elevator, it is my body’s memory kicking in with the fear that comes from being physically threatened in an elevator.
People often ask, why couldn’t you just leave? There is circuitous neuroscience to that too.
Our brains’ ability to process emotions is regulated largely by what we call the limbic system, which consists of the hippocampus and the amygdala. The limbic system plays a key role in organisation, development and storage of memories as well as emotional responses. Amygdala is the seat of emotions and is responsible for what is called an amygdala hijack — immediate response to perceived threat by way of fight-flight-freeze. Trauma can tamper the ability to choose coherently.
When our Twitter timelines are flooded with details about abuse or assault, our limbic system takes over and we go into a trauma loop of depression, panic and dissociation.
A lot of my clients who are survivors of sexual and/or physical abuse reported new nightmares, a spike in insomnia levels or just a general loss of appetite in the wake of #MeToo. There is a form of ‘stuckedness’ to prolonged trauma if there is no scope for catharsis, compassion or community available.
After I somehow managed to find the strength to finally leave my ex, most people asked how did I ‘let’ him hurt me, no one asked him why he did it. If I stayed silent, I was complicit. If I spoke, I was dramatic.
The onus was always on me even when I was the recipient of that violence. Quite like the onus of ‘fixing’ our erstwhile hero’s life is on the pregnant, waiting heroine.
Women are made to walk such tightropes while simultaneously being expected to sublimate and rebirth themselves through these completely avoidable pains. Part of this process, perhaps, should be to reject regressive portrayals of ‘tormented’ masculinity as an acceptable trope to milk whenever convenient.
I often return to this stunning paragraph which quotes Terrence Real in bell hooks’ The Will to Change: Men, Masculinity and Love (2004)
“I have come to believe that violence is boyhood socialization. The way we ‘turn boys into men’ is through injury.”
What kind of injuries are we willing to perpetrate and accept in the name of love? And why?
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