Updated: May 4, 2019
#IAmASurvivor are stories from women of all walks of life, telling their stories of survival. Everybody is a survivor and all stories deserve to be told. These stories are all in their own words.
Last year I had written a piece for Dana Suchow's #mybodystory series. The post was so cathartic and the responses I received on Instagram were overwhelmingly amazing. So it made sense that I would kick off the first story but also use the same words I did for that post. It still shows my story of survival in many ways and I am proud I have been able to share this. Here is my story.
What story would my body tell? Just typing that first sentence made my hands tremble above the keyboard for about a minute. To share all of this information publicly is daunting, but also a way for anyone who has been through similar situations to know they are not alone. I have come to a place of progress; of working on myself and that I am so much more than what people see and think.
Oh gosh, excuse my rudeness and not introducing myself! My name is Awande. I come from Johannesburg, South Africa. Oh Sunny South Africa! Even though I was privileged enough to live in the suburbs and go to some of the best schools, the shadows of my past and the ordeals my body went through, felt like they blocked out that light I so badly needed.
One of my earliest memories was from the age of four and a half years old. My mother’s, best friend’s husband molested me. I didn’t really comprehend what had happened. We moved house and I kept quiet….for 17 whole years! I knew something wasn’t quite right, because my body said so. I believed I brought the abuse on myself. It’s amazing how the mind of a child works. I managed to block it out for quite some time.
Fast forward to when I was six years old. I needed to get my tonsils removed. I was often referred to as a lollipop, with my big head and tiny body. That changed very quickly after the removal of my tonsils. I developed a real appetite for food. Before then I had to be force-fed because I preferred playing and running around over eating. The strange thing is, even though kids can be cruel, not a friend or classmate ever said a word. No one said anything about my weight. Instead, it was my extended family members who did. Cue a sigh.
My aunts and uncles made fun of me, to this day I still have tense relationships with some of them. I would walk into my grandmother’s house and my uncle would scream, “You’re as fit as a pig!” The laughter roared; almost echoed. They taught their own children to do the same. It boggled my mind that my own peers at school didn’t care but my family did. I would beg not to go to my grandmother’s house, just so I didn’t have to communicate with any family.
This is where I really learnt what “fat” was. That I was fat. That it was acceptable to judge people’s appearances. Even the “skinny” family members were made fun of. You could not be larger but you could also not be too small. I learnt to dislike the image staring so innocently back at me in the mirror. So, I altered my personality. I would be big! I would be bigger, funnier and more dramatic. Even if my family tore me down, I would make sure that out in the world, I could get to others before they could get to me. That meant my tantrums were also big. I needed attention. I needed to be seen for more than what I was bullied for- fat.
I also needed control. As a typical last born, I was a procrastinator of note! But everything I did, I did to perfection and with a touch of flair. I made sure people knew my name. I was in the popular group in primary school even while being “fat” and with quite the underbite. While everyone in my grade obsessed about looks, I would often be told: “But Awande, you are so confident. You don’t have to care about your body. Your personality is amazing.”I thought they were wrong, but looking back, I really didn’t have to care. Although at that age I mostly felt terrible. I felt like a fraud. I wasn’t very confident, but as long as my friends thought I was, I wouldn’t have to deal with the traumas of my past, and I could pretend to be someone who was thriving.
A side note: I will say though, when I went shopping with my mom, and the clothes didn’t fit she never said a word. We would get all the bigger sizes and that was that. She never made me feel bad about my weight. Never restricted me from food. Thank you mom.
When I was in university I fell into bad habits. I treated my body badly. Drinking, partying, sleeping late. I would barely eat, then binge from hunger. This was also when I received my first prescription of antidepressants and anxiety medication. I was in a daze. I would take them, feel better, then stop cold turkey – this became a nine year cycle with medication.I met a guy in university. He played second team rugby for the varsity. He was interested in me but I wasn’t interested in him. One night after the usual partying, he raped me. I was 20 years old. For years, I said “he took advantage of me” but at some point I’ve had to admit the truth.
I spiralled out of control. My body had been abused and hurt another time! It felt like people could do whatever they wanted with MY BODY. So, I went back to the thing that made me happy: food.
I “erased” what happened; started again and entered the hospitality industry. I thought it would be the same as the television shows. The cooking, swearing, shouting, and excitement, but I didn’t think I would continue to be abused in various different ways and that with each job, my clothes only grew in size. Again came the medications to cope. But I still abused my body. If I wasn’t forgetting the past with another man, I was eating my feelings with copious amounts of food. I would exercise and count calories. The rumble in my stomach was satisfying because it meant I was in control.
Then a few months after being given positive reinforcement for my dieting efforts, I was binge eating in secret. I couldn’t handle all the emotional and mental abuse. I couldn’t handle the rape and sexual jokes, or the jokes about my body. The culinary industry is great, but is not for the faint at heart. A culture of speaking about and to people in vulgar and derogatory ways was acceptable in almost every place I worked in.
Eventually I found myself in a psychiatric facility for two weeks after begging my parents for help- I was planning to end my life. I no longer cared enough and basically went mute, devoid of all emotion except depression and anxiety. That was November 2017. In treatment, I no longer felt alone. I had no one abusing my body, making fun of it or my mental illness. I was officially diagnosed with Severe Generalized Anxiety Disorder, Mild Clinical Depressive Disorder and Binge Eating Disorder.
The transition out of the facility was difficult. The world was the same but I wasn’t. I went on a calling spree with the people who hurt me as a child and told them how their actions hurt the self-esteem of an impressionable child. I changed at work too. I stood up for myself; I spoke up and eventually left for my own mental health.
During that time off, I started my Instagram @powerfulbodymind and my blog Powerful Body and Mind. Not just to help others but as a reminder to fight for myself, my body, my mental health and equality. I want others to know that every type of body is acceptable. I may occasionally look at someone and wished I looked like them but I have to remember that it’s okay to have those thoughts in my process of unlearning those ideals that have been hammered into my head. Rome was not built in a day and I’m still learning.
I’m back in the hospitality industry, lecturing and not acting like the other chefs I had come across. The biggest thing I’ve learned is that no matter what abuses my body has been put through by my own doing or at the hands of others; my body is still worthy…worthy of love and compassion. Somehow I managed to go through all of these events and I am still here. My body may not be the same as it used to be, but it is a body still just as worthy as all bodies.
The abuse and assault don’t mean I am damaged. The teasing, bullying and comments don’t make me ugly or unworthy. I still have friends who have been such amazing support and family that only wants the best for me. How else does one make a positive change in their lives without addressing what’s happening in their head and heart? This is what I try to do every day and I strive to spread the knowledge and self love I have learned.