Textured illustration of an expressionless mermaid stuck inside a dark bottle within a sea-green patterned background
© Aditya Pandya (with credit to Shalini Sekhar)

Blessings — it’s important to acknowledge and remember the blessings that surround us. In these challenging times, in times of forced quarantine and self-isolation, it is important to regard the comfort of a home. Being able to protect ourselves from COVID-19 is a privilege. The precautions required to keep oneself safe are only accessible to the privileged. I count my blessings. I do. I start with the absence of him.

I grew up in a castle of concrete. The journeys I made took place between bedroom and kitchen, where I was to learn how to be a proper woman, to corners where I hid and pretended I was invisible. The windows were barred. The curtains were drawn. My existence was diminished to fit the bounds of house chores, cleaning, and kitchen help. The outside world was a forbidden wonderland into which entry was denied. 

Childhood ebbed into teenage years, and those ended with a flight to a new country. College swept me off my feet in its splendour and violently slammed me into the ground in one fell swoop. Reality hit me in the face and I found myself incredibly inept in social spheres, gatherings and conduct. While I rode this learning curve, I became acutely aware of the degree of freedom open to me. The outside world was no longer barred from access. I could start every morning with the sun in my face and the wind caressing the nape of my neck. 

So I threw open windows and ripped away curtains. I spent hours under moonlit skies and starry horizons, basking, relishing the lack of confines. I scaled buildings and atop rooftops, I nestled. I could smell the trees at sundown and watch the birds settle down, shying away from the dark. Within walls and inside rooms, I left my memories and suppressed grief unpacked. Like a skin I had shed, the past was disposed of and I spared it not a second thought. The open skies beckoned, the pavement called for another walk past midnight, and the air smelled of liberty.

Then the pandemic struck. The COVID-19 virus shut out the whole world in a matter of days. To me, the thought of imprisonment rushed back and with it, the fear crept in. The years of neglect and abuse, assault and mistreatment, bubbled right beneath the surface like a volcano waiting to erupt. The wounds still felt fresh and the scars glowed on my flesh. The outside world was once more out of reach. 

And so as I lock myself up in the house, the past that I had refused to unpack begins to unfurl. The walls around me choke the air out of my lungs and I find myself panicking. Desperation rears its ugly head and I crack open a window to watch the sun dip behind the darkening horizon. The room bathes in golden rays but all I can think of is him, his voice echoing in my mind, his fists pummeling my flesh, the disdain in his eyes every time he looked my way. 

I burrow into a book and I am transported to when I was 6. Books were not a girl’s friend. They would lead you astray. I feel small and the memories of sneaking my brothers’ books to read wash over me. College closes down and I am reminded of the years I was denied an education. Girls were made for bedrooms and kitchens. I shower compulsively in an effort to wash the abuse away, to strip myself of his touch, to be clean, even though miles and miles stretch out between us. I lose sleep lest I wake up to his weight on top of me, pinning me down, soiling my being. 

In the rush of ordinary life, I had stacked my platter tall. Now, with the whole world at a standstill, I seek distractions to make up for the excessive time I have on my hands. My mind wanders and regurgitates suppressed memories that I had forgotten existed. In my self-quarantine, I do not feel safe. My trauma keeps me company and she intends to stay for as long as these walls around me stand. I acknowledge the comfort of a home and yet I despise it.

Then the pandemic struck. The COVID-19 virus shut out the whole world in a matter of days. To me, the thought of imprisonment rushed back and with it, the fear crept in. The years of neglect and abuse, assault and mistreatment, bubbled right beneath the surface like a volcano waiting to erupt. The wounds still felt fresh and the scars glowed on my flesh. The outside world was once more out of reach. 

So I start unpacking in an attempt at closure! Recollections rise to the surface. At the age of 3, I was made acutely aware of the difference between me and my older brothers. I was a girl and my presence was a source of shame. Toys weren’t allowed because a girl’s training for womanhood begins early. Books were denied: a girl only needed piety, obedience, and religion to prosper. Aged 5, I am locked away, out of sight, lest anyone be made aware that I existed — that a girl breathed within these walls. 

I am 9 and my skin bleeds from repeated contact with the belt’s buckle. Why did I leave my room? How dare I be seen? I am 11 and he begins touching me in places I had never touched myself before. I am 12 and school is not for me — a good woman is one whose mind isn’t enlightened by worldly affairs. Marriage is discussed and I am 13. I haven’t hit puberty yet and the sexual abuse prevails. I lived under the same roof but no one noticed that something was amiss. I was invisible!

The scars started forming rapidly and I bled from more places than one. The worry of having to hide bruises never crossed my mind as I festered in the dark, huddled up in my little prison. I hadn’t seen the outside of the house, stepped out on the porch or cracked open a window in years. I am 18 and the abuse still continues. My body no longer feels like it belongs to me. It is a vessel I embody and disassociate from regularly.

I unpack and each day brings back a rush of jarring realities from the past. I have picked up new hobbies — things that are not attached to the years I left behind. I sketch and I paint. I play trivia quizzes, word games, and immerse myself in poetry. I work. I study. I research. I fill my mind with the wonders of knowledge from wherever I can. I seek to eradicate my discomfort with isolation and the bridges it has with my past.

I reclaim myself, my body, and my mind. 

Quarantining can take a heavy toll on people who have experienced some form of trauma in the past. If you are lucky enough to be away from toxicity now, take this time of self-isolation to heal. The world has halted and it is okay if you do, too. Unpack the burdens that weigh you down. Come to terms with yourself! And when this is all over and life resumes, when you walk out of the door and slip into schedule once more, do count your blessings and count freedom first. I know I will once more!


Ghada Ibrahim is a psychology student at Middle East Technical University. Currently a Reviews Editor at Jaggery Lit, she enjoys a good book and will never pass up on the chance to bake.