Perceptions of reality and identity are the unifying themes behind the upcoming 2 Isles exhibition at the Y Art Gallery, Woodbrook.
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Raped and abused Sherna reaches out
It is never easy for Sherna Alexander to relate the story of her early childhood, growing up in a home where she was subjected to physical and sexual abuse for ten years. Now, at 40, her scars are not all healed, but she has made giant steps to recovery and her life is being restored through unconditional love and forgiveness. She was only six and a half when a man who was supposed to be one of her guardians raped her and forced her to repeatedly perform sexual acts. Alexander’s father, a nurse at the St Ann’s Hospital and a former officer in the T&T Defence Force, died in 1981, leaving her and her younger brother in the care of a relative and a male friend.
Once the abuse began, Alexander said she endured it almost every day. She vividly remembers the first time she was raped. “He walked with some type of lubricant and told me it will hurt but this will make me feel better. “It was a pain I would never forget…excrutiating. I felt as though my stomach was being ripped apart and it was like I was suffocating with his weight on top of me. I still remember the smell of his breath and his heavy breathing. And him touching my face and licking my chest,” she said. In the following days she felt sick, could not walk properly, and bathing and urinating were, in her own words, “like hell.” But this did not stop the perpetrator. To intimidate her, he would often threaten to beat and kill Alexander. At other times he would say, “I care about you; I love you; I would be a father to you and support you; you are special to me.”
Despite his threats, Alexander still told a teacher at primary school, but nothing was done. And when she subsequently told her guardian—who also physically abused Alexander and her brother—her guardian’s response was: “Talk to Jesus and pray plenty.” As the physical abuse persisted, Alexander’s brother fled the house in St James. But too fearful of running away, she reluctantly stayed. Her role as a sex slave intensified as she grew older. Life for Alexander was constant torture. Many days she cried. She would daydream about dying or having a better life, like her classmates, who always looked so happy and seemed to have loving parents. “I thought something was wrong with me and I was the only child in the world experiencing this. I often wondered why God hated me. I slowly began to have a hatred for anything religious, especially since [her relative] was a Christian and the teacher who taught me religious instruction also molested the girls, touching me as well many times. I wondered how could a caring God allow this to happen.”
With no one coming to her rescue, Alexander tried to find ways to deter her abuser, including not bathing or brushing her teeth for lengthy periods. “I thought if I didn’t do these things and I smelled bad enough, he would leave me alone.” But instead her deliberate poor hygiene led to a severe case of oral thrush. “I remember my mouth being so sore and it was difficult to swallow. They took me to the family doctor and I remember trying to tell him what was happening to me…” The doctor responded by asking her guardians to send her over to his home three times a week, “just to relax and spend time with his family. I guess this was his way of helping,” Alexander said. But even a few hours away from home did not bring relief, as once she returned at nightfall, the torment continued.
Unable to stomach any more, she attempted suicide. A cocktail of pills taken from the medicine chest and a cupful of mouthwash were going to be her ultimate escape. Her plan did not work. She was rushed to the same doctor, and this was followed by a sound beating with a fan belt by her guardian. “I felt like an experiment that each person had to use and take a piece of. I felt worthless, and just wanted to die,” she said. While she was at secondary school Alexander began having sex with older men, while still being sexually abused at home. “I guess I was trying to be an adult, but also wanting to remain a child…not really knowing what a real childhood was or what adulthood should feel like. Part of me felt sex was the only option for helping with hurt and in having sex with other men there would be some type of healing or cleansing. But boy, was I wrong.”
She got pregnant five times and had five abortions. “My first abortion was at a backyard abortionist in Belmont…I remember the line of women waiting to have abortions was so long. I still deal with that horror today,” she said sorrowfully. With her life heading in a downward spiral, at 15 she packed some clothes and ran away in search of her mother. But she ended up back in St James, where she was beaten for lying. Her mother eventually took her in, only after receiving a scolding from Alexander’s half-sister, who was visiting from the USA. Looking back, she said her mother also displayed the classic traits of an abused person, but would never admit it. “When I fully understood what abuse was, I knew that my mother had to have also been a victim. Up to this day my mother cannot embrace me or say, ‘I love.’ As a matter of fact she cannot do it with any of her children.” Despite the turmoil Alexander excelled at school, gaining seven CXC passes. She opted to study law at A-level, with the intention of becoming a criminal lawyer to seek revenge on all child molesters, but changed her mind when she met psychologist Dr Ronald John, who would be instrumental in her healing process.
Not healed, but better
Some things, if not all, happen for a reason, Alexander believes. By 25, she accepted a marriage proposal from a man 20 years older. “I suppose I agreed to marry him as an easy way out,” she said. She remained married to her husband, a preacher, until he died last December, but the marriage was a very rocky one. With all the debris of her past, it was difficult for her to love and often she would become angry and lash out. This led to many physical fights. “I would just become so enraged over the smallest issue. I remember one day he screamed at me, ‘Like I married the devil.’ That is when I broke down and cried out to God. I had felt so lost, useless and out of control for so long.”
The couple sought counselling. “During our counselling sessions, I found out my husband was also a product of abuse...I guess in many ways God used him to save me. “I eventually grew to love him, and being with him gave me the confidence to speak up about the past I so just wanted erased,” Alexander said. Moving forward has not been easy for Alexander. She believes abuse of any kind is difficult to completely overcome, and that healing comes by first forgiving oneself and the perpetrator and by helping others to heal. “Abuse is something you live with for life—even in doing this interview so many emotions arise. But there must be one person who is bold and brave enough to do it to help another,” she said. “Am I completely healed? No way! But I can say with the grace of God, and the continuous love and support from good people, I am 95 per cent better.”