illustration by Christina O'Brien for Varsity

Content note: this article contains detailed discussion of trauma and abuse

I experienced abuse growing up. I was brought up the child of a refugee in a single parent, non-English speaking, working class household. I fled home aged 16, and I am currently estranged from my family. I’d be lying if I said my childhood trauma doesn’t affect me daily.

“My father was devoted, desperate for me to have the bright future he had been denied. He taught me maths daily, and we would play football in the park.”

It could be when catching up with a close friend. When saying goodbye, as she leans over and kisses me on the forehead, I become confused and flinch, anticipating violence. When I’m with someone I really like, as they come close to give me a hug, once again, I flinch. I squeeze my eyelids shut and spin my head away - preparing myself for a punch as I hold my breath. It takes a few seconds to remember that I’m with someone I trust, and that everything’s fine. 

It can be hard to talk about my past experiences. There is certainly a taboo around trauma and childhood trauma, in particular, is very difficult to talk about here at Cambridge. The silence can be heavy and stifling. Many students have grown up loved, cared for and safeguarded by the adults around them. I’m glad most students have loving families, but it can mean that those with abusive or neglectful parents are forgotten. This gap in experience can be tricky to bridge when I discuss my own situation.  

It doesn’t help that Cambridge isn’t very intersectional; It’s uncommon to find minority students who identify with more than one minority group. Belonging to intersecting minority groups means you have even less in common with most other students, and these divisions of identity can make the weight of taboo even stronger.  

Being a minority at Cambridge in many ways led me to preferentially trust other people’s judgements when it comes to what’s best for me. I have always been proud of everything I have achieved and am not ashamed of my circumstances. However, I have often been discouraged from discussing my past by well-meaning people. There seems to be a consensus that it is best kept hidden and despite desiring openness, I followed this advice.

In hindsight, I should have taken a leap and opened up, instead of conceding to Cambridge’s social norms. If I hid every tabooed experience in my life, it would mean hiding away a lot of what makes me who I am. I’d like to break the pattern of taboo and share some of my own experiences. 

The corridor inside the homeless shelter where I took my A-LevelsThinesh Pathmaraja

In my memory, it started one day when I was with my mother, aged about 5. I was a quiet boy, and rarely misbehaved. I must have made a mess in the living room, and my mother was angry. 

My mum isn’t around anymore, but in my early memories she was incredibly affectionate and sweet. When I was about four, and she fell ill, things began to slowly change. Once cheerful and sociable, she grew moody and sulky. Where she used to greet me with a ‘sing-songy “Thiiii—nesh”, she would eventually hardly acknowledge me. When she died, she was a shell of herself. Her brain tumour had eaten away a lot of her personality. 

An awareness of her health has allowed me to colour some of my more difficult memories with a more hopeful view. Had she been well, perhaps things would have been different.

“My mum isn’t around anymore, but in my early memories she was incredibly affectionate and sweet. When I was about four, and she fell ill, things began to slowly change.”

But on that day, I remember how she threw my plastic mug across the room at me. Perhaps she didn’t expect to hit me, but it was thrown with so much force that I could hear it coming through the air. It hit me right between the eyes. I was in shock. She was surprised, but did not understand the significance of what she had done. 

This was one of the first times I began to feel unsafe in my parents’ company. In time, things got worse, but this beginning is unforgettable. Today, I am sickened that anybody could treat a person, a child that way. Perhaps my mother thought she would toughen me up and prepare me for life in a tricky neighbourhood.

Indeed, in my parents’ childhood in Sri Lanka, teachers and parents would commonly use physical punishment. Britain in the same period was not a world apart, but I believe social violence is more endemic and severe in countries with a colonial history. 

In any case, the sight and sound of the cup hitting my nose did not seem to disturb my mother. That yellow plastic cup was once my favourite, from which I would drink soya milk before bed. From that day onwards, I no longer cherished it, or felt protective of it. In fact, it disappears from my memories thereafter. 

Threats and violence like this were integral to the way I was raised. They were used to stop me from doing things, such as throwing tantrums, lying, or ‘misbehaving’ (a term which could be twisted into referring to almost anything at all).

At other times it could be completely unprovoked – regardless of my actions. On one occasion, an episode was triggered by a parent sitting on a table and spilling water. Other times, it would be used as punishment for my resistance, for simply being myself, or for not joining in with the oppression of another family member. 

“When you grow up in an environment of normalised murder and injustice, it is not hard to see how violence could take root in your behaviours. Many young Tamils joined resistance groups, fighting back directly in the name of survival.”

This parenting style was common in our neighbourhood (Edmonton, North London), and therefore normalised to me. It never occurred to me that I could report the abuse, for example, to my school. At a younger age, I failed to realise that the abuse wasn’t in my best interests – I accepted the reasoning that it was disciplining me despite the cost it came at.

Once I became a teenager, I feared the repercussions of reporting such crime: Firstly, the punishments I would receive for ‘betraying’ my family and secondly, the ostracisation from a local community (who may be unaware of the entire situation) for betraying family. 

Where did this parenting approach come from? I believe it has roots in the violence in Sri Lanka’s history, and indeed in its present day. Sri Lanka has been colonised 3 times in the last 500 years – by Portugal, the Netherlands, then Britain. The many genocides in this period were followed by ethnic cleansing of Tamils and other minorities.

My father grew up in this environment, around people being abducted in white vans – not to be seen again. His own brother was one such. He and his surviving brother hid in another city, before fleeing the country, never to see their parents again. 

When you grow up in an environment of normalised murder and injustice, it is not hard to see how violence could take root in your behaviours. Many young Tamils joined resistance groups, fighting back directly in the name of survival. I am impressed that my father was able to move on, and to become a mostly loving parent.

He was devoted, desperate for me to have the bright future he had been denied. He taught me maths daily, and we would play football in the park. Football will always ignite warm memories of playing with him. While neither his English, nor my Tamil, permitted much eloquence of conversation, through football, it was as though we could communicate seamlessly.

Working as a match day restaurant manager at my local football club, aged 16 and homelessThinesh Pathmaraja

Like most children, I believed my parents were the greatest and wisest people alive. I always trusted my dad to know best for me. Now I know that nobody is perfect, and that a history of unresolved trauma can corrupt the best of intentions. 

Eventually, the police became involved with the violence in our household, and I moved out to escape the situation. This was how I eventually found myself in a youth homeless shelter at 17, in the midst of my A Levels. With my mind now significantly less preoccupied with concerns over my physical safety I was able to finally buckle down with school and after just over a year I left to read Medicine at Cambridge. 

“Where did this parenting approach come from? I believe it has roots in the violence in Sri Lanka’s history, and indeed in its present day.”

Talking about my backgrounds at one of our last meetings, my social worker advised, “Other people, particularly the really privileged students, won’t understand and may try and use what they know against you”.  We had been close. I will never forget the way she shed a tear, like proud mother. She had my interests at heart.  

However, looking back, I challenge this advice. ‘Don’t tell anyone until you’re sure you’re ready’ might have been better. I’m glad I didn’t open up prematurely, and nor was I ever teased about my past. But concealing heavy secrets can have disastrous long-term consequences for mental health. 

Opening up is by no means simple, and when I speak about childhood trauma, I am often met with incorrect assumptions. When I confided in one friend that I had not spoken to a parent for 3 years, they suggested “I should patch things up with them and apologise for my wrongdoings because the relationship with such close family is really important. We all make mistakes when we're young.” 

I did not want to get in touch, as cutting contact was a decision which protected my personal safety and mental space. Worst still, the advice to ‘apologise for my wrongdoings’ suggests I hold responsibility for the abuse I received. In reality, I only ever responded to the violence with fear, silence and avoidance. 


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Mountain View

Negotiating silences

If you have a friend who is going through something like this, it can be tough knowing how to support them. Empathising with a survivor of childhood trauma and pretending to know what it’s like are very different things; you shouldn’t need to pretend to understand what it is like to be in their shoes to be supporting. I believe that only by talking about trauma can we break taboos and educate prejudice.

Some of my colleagues have suggested that this article shouldn’t be published, that I'm committing social suicide. Perhaps you think I’m breaking social rules or reducing myself to my traumas. But I want to express myself, and I want to begin a productive conversation about abuse and its inescapable daily reminders. I want to spread understanding, and above all, I want survivors to feel vindicated: to know that it’s okay to speak about trauma.

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