How My Dog Gave Me The Courage To Stand Up Against Sexual Abuse

By Aysha Akhtar, MD, MPH

[CW: Sexual abuse]

“I want to show you something.”

Uncle Talup approached me as soon as I stepped out of the bathroom of our East London row house. I had just spent the afternoon watching a T.V. show about a girl with giant teddy bear companions while my two younger sisters napped and my brother roamed the neighborhood with his Matchbox cars. Uncle Talup often babysat us until my parents came home from work. Although he was a close family friend, by Pakistani standards we called all adults “auntie” or “uncle” as a sign of respect.

I let Uncle Talup lead me by the hand up the dark, narrow stairs. Maybe he had a new game to show me. But we walked past the bedroom where I normally played with my brother and sisters and into my parents’ bedroom. He closed the door and we sat on the edge of the bed. I squinted at the sharp sunrays as they peeked around the edges of the yellow and brown striped curtains and bounced off the floor-length mirror. Often, I stood in front of this mirror and asked the girl looking back at me if the world she lived in was different from mine. This day, though, the mirror wasn’t showing my imaginary friend. Something wasn’t right.

“Here,” Uncle Talup said. I followed his gaze downward to his baggy, white Shalwar Kameez pants. I stared at what was sitting in his lap. He took my right hand. 

I had just turned five years old at the time and my sexual abuse would continue for five more years and across two continents. Talup abused me weekly when he lived near my family’s home in London. After my family moved to the United States, he visited us five times a year for business trips and he went right back into the abuse, as though we had never been apart. His abuse launched a childhood marked by confusion. Although I was too young to articulate my thoughts at the time, I had so many questions—mostly about myself, but also my duty to elders, my self-worth

Despite these questions, I was an obedient girl. I followed the one rule Talup had for me. Keep quiet. This rule wasn’t hard for me to follow. For a year, I actually stopped talking altogether.

As a neurologist today, I have noticed that when people suffer a stroke, language is often the first thing they lose. Language is also one of the last things they recover. The neural circuitry that constructs and coordinates our ability to speak and understand the nuances of human language are more vulnerable to assault than, for example, the neural network that supports our emotional abilities. Because it’s one of the more recently developed traits in humans, language is among our most fragile.

What my childhood and later clinical experience taught me is that you don’t have to suffer physical trauma to your brain to lose language. Psychological trauma can do it just as well. When we face harsh times, whether as children or adults, we often literally find ourselves at a loss for words. It’s hard to describe to another person our grief, anxiety, and fears during such times, in part because we realize that language fails us. Language simply cannot fully convey the experiential. It’s like trying to explain a nightmare to someone the next morning. The dream was frightening to you at the time, but when you describe it to someone, it sounds banal. Words can never describe the mood and atmosphere of your experience. 

Even worse, words can’t be trusted. They can be said carelessly. They can be used to mislead, to pretend, to lie, to hurt. So we often retreat into a more basic and deeper part of our nature—one that cannot be so easily deceived. We hide inside our instincts and emotions. We abandon language. 

Although my speech slowly returned after I was first abused, I lost my voice in another, crucial way. For years, I didn’t tell anyone what was occurring to me—not even my parents or my siblings. But then my voice came through an unexpected source.

A little dog named Sylvester. 

When I was nine years old, my grandparents and another uncle on my mother’s side, Uncle Dave, adopted Sylvester from a litter of unwanted pups. Sylvester was part German Shepard with a velvety face, soft, brown eyes, and a tuft of white fur on his chest.

I had never known an animal before, but I bonded instantly with Sylvester. My grandparents lived in the building next to our apartment duplex in Arlington, Virginia, and I can’t recall a single day when Sylvester and I were not together. We were that girl and her dog. And we were inseparable. Sylvester was my best friend—he listened to my fears, my worries, my deepest secrets. We shared a friendship, a kinship, a love that was strong. My life and Sylvester’s life became so intertwined that if you now tried to remove Sylvester from my story, it would unravel.

Sylvester nourished me in ways that no one else could. What I came to know is that when everything else fails, the support animals provide can help us overcome the hardest moments of our lives. 

There were the long walks when we explored the woods behind our apartment. To me, it was Narnia, a sweeping country that only Sylvester and I were allowed to enter. We visited Mr. and Mrs. Beaver’s home near the tiny, trickling stream. We pranced with the centaurs. We drank tea with Mr. Tumnus. Oftentimes, we disappeared into Narnia for hours and returned home for dinner scratched up, muddied, and mucked up, wearing the evidence of our grand adventures. 

There were the games, like “Vester in the Middle” in which Sylvester would stand between a sister and myself and we would toss a ball back and forth as Sylvester tried to grab it. There was hide and seek in our grandparents’ apartment, except I was the one who always hid and Sylvester was always “it.” A sister would hold Sylvester by the leash and count to 100 as I found ever more ingenious places to hide in the small apartment. She would then release Sylvester, who would race ahead, sniffing unseen trails until he found me. Once he found me, he would bark with such vigor and excitement. We tried having one of my sisters hide instead of me, but it never worked. Sylvester was so perfectly content with me by his side that he showed no interest in finding the others. 

And there were the secret times when I sat on a boulder in the woods with Sylvester and released the tears I hid from everyone else. Nothing ever needed to be said between us. He would just sit with me with more patience than he ever showed at any other time and he would lick my hands and face as he whimpered. Girl and dog, both crying. It’s as though, somehow, he knew. And at the time, just believing that was enough for me. 

After a few months of life with Sylvester, things changed and our cries were no longer just for me, but also for him. One day I walked into my grandparents’ apartment, looking for Sylvester, and I heard my Uncle Dave yelling and Sylvester yelping. What was going on? My heart racing, I found the two of them in one of the bedrooms. Dave was slamming Sylvester against a wall, again and again. Sylvester wasn’t big and it was easy for Dave to throw him far and hard. Sylvester cried out each time his small body hit the wall. Rather than try to run away in between throws, Sylvester tucked his tail between his legs, lowered his head, and shuffled back to Dave as though trying to placate him. When I asked Dave what he was doing, he said he was training Sylvester and that it was normal to train dogs that way. 

God help me, I believed Dave. I loved Sylvester and watching him get hurt grieved me like I never thought possible. But Dave was older than me; he was practically an adult, someone I respected. Surely, he knew what he was doing? 

As the weeks went by, as Dave continued to punch and kick Sylvester, I said not a single word of protest. I was used to staying silent about the things that troubled me. It was comfortable. Safe. Expected. 

But one day, I could no longer rationalize Sylvester’s cries and I added my voice to his. On a Friday afternoon, I walked up to Dave and told him that Sylvester was my dog, too, and if he continued to hurt Sylvester, I would tell on him. 

Dave never hit Sylvester again. 

On some level, I understood how Sylvester’s life mirrored mine. Although his abuse was different from mine, we both suffered at the hands of another. Through Sylvester’s abuse, I came to recognize my own for what it was. 

The next time Uncle Talup walked into my bedroom, I spoke two words that I had never uttered to him before. The same two words that I had whispered to myself every time I saw Dave hurting Sylvester. 

 Stop It.

It’s amazing the power these two little words can have. To me, they said I would no longer doubt my self-worth. No longer obey another’s rules. To Talup, they said I would no longer keep quiet. These two words changed my life.  They were the hardest things I had ever said, but they set me free. 

All forms of abuse share a commonality. They hide behind silence. They unmask through voice. Through empathy, the stark divide between human and animal became blurred and I understood that Sylvester’s fight was my fight. My fight was his. I found my voice for myself by finding my voice for Sylvester. I empowered him, and, by doing so, he empowered me.

Akhtar is double board-certified in both neurology and preventive medicine and has a master’s degree in public health. She is the Deputy Director of the Army’s Traumatic Brain Injury Program. She is the author of ‘Animals and Public Health’ and lives in Maryland. Aysha’s story of hope and study of empathy is featured in her narrative nonfiction book out now: OUR SYMPHONY WITH ANIMALS: On Health, Empathy, and Our Shared Destinies (Pegasus Books; May 2019; $27.95). It’s the first book by a physician to show how deeply the well-being of humans and animals are intertwined. Aysha uses her personal and professional experience, extensive research, and real life case studies to show how empathy for animals could change our physical and mental health, our earth and climate, and our relationships with all humans and wildlife alike.

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