Last night I was able to make a great jazz performance at a local hotel. As it turned out, the jazz performance was for an event celebrating the 35th anniversary of the Monadnock Center for Violence Prevention. Although I only caught the last hour or so of the event, I will never forget how it made me feel.
This entire room was full of survivors of abuse. Abuse comes in many forms – mental, physical, sexual, emotional. It can be as simple as name-calling and as complex as aggravated sexual assault. Each abusive experience is completely unique, but we all share similar experiences and similar feelings about our aggressors and ourselves.
As a result, I found myself completely at home in this room full of volunteers and survivors. I arrived near the end and thus only had the privilege of listening to one survivor story, but I was completely moved. I was moved by the energy in the room. It’s so hard to describe. It wasn’t just that her story was emotional – because it was. It wasn’t just that it made me sad, because it did. It wasn’t just pride on her behalf for her courage, because there was definitely a lot of that.
The first thing that happens when you realize you are in an abusive situation is you vehemently deny it. You don’t want to be that person. I mean, how could you be so stupid? Suddenly you start to realize that it wasn’t just one incident, it was hundreds. And you start to realize that you fell in love with someone like that. Then there is shame. Being able to accept that it happened to you, that’s tough. Don’t we all make decisions about how we live our lives? Didn’t we play a part of this mess? Isn’t some of the blame on us?
So, then we feel guilt. And more shame. We don’t want to talk about it because we don’t want to be pitied, or judged, or treated differently. We want it to just go away. We want to pretend it never happened, but we are permanently different. We don’t want this thing – that can feel like an oily substance that coats our souls – to define us. We want to go back, so far back, to the beginning of it all and do things differently. Sadly, we cannot. And we are victims, we are survivors.
That word – survivor – bothers me. It makes me uncomfortable. What exactly did I survive? My partner didn’t outright hit me. He didn’t rape me. He never did anything that bad, did he? He never threatened to kill me, never stalked me, never locked me in a basement in chains and starved me half to death. And didn’t I just let things get that bad to begin with?
So “survivor” makes me feel like I am just being dramatic. That if I referred to myself as a survivor of abuse, someone might scoff and tell me to just get over it already because it wasn’t that bad anyway. At least he didn’t (blah blah blah).
The problem with that mentality is that it opens a dialogue that any kind of abuse is okay. I mean, yeah, he did tell me once that if I didn’t do x, y, and z that he would put my ass on the floor. But he never actually knocked me down. So how bad is it, really, that he said that to me?
Here’s my new test: if it makes me cringe and feel nauseous, it’s probably pretty bad.
But then there all the things he said to me. I mean, pretty much every negative and derogatory term in the book, I was called it. But didn’t I say those things too sometimes? Don’t couples get mean when they argue? Aren’t those things relatively normal? Well, common and normal are not interchangeable.
So, if I can admit that being called a cunt is abuse, what does that say about the things I said too? Does that mean that since I called him an asshole or a prick (usually with the F word in front of it) I am abusive too? Oh great, now I can’t even really be mad at him because I’m just as bad.
All of a sudden, the shame intensifies and the guilt. It really is my fault. If I had only just done things differently, he wouldn’t have to call me those names.
But, I remember vividly when he said those things to me. They weren’t expressed out of anger. It wasn’t like we were in an argument and he got exasperated and walked out of the room muttering “You’re a fucking bitch sometimes.” Cause let’s be honest, we can all be assholes and bitches. But for someone to look at you, take a pause, level a look, and calculatingly call you a cunt? That’s abuse. That’s not reacting to emotion, that’s just plain meanness. And it’s not okay.
So, back to last night. Here I am nearly a year later since my marriage ended, and I am in a room of people who do not have that look on their face when I talk. That horrified look, that indignant look, that angry look. They don’t look at me with pity, they don’t look at me with sadness. They look at me gravely, which is different from sadness. They understand completely how I feel and how I have felt. It made me cry. I have not, since everything happened, felt like I truly belonged in any group of people.
Every single one of these survivors, victims, whatever you want to call them – they are all torn up inside just like me. They are permanently different. This defines who they are. It is not the only thing that defines them, but we can all sit in a room and just let it go. We can turn off the switch where we have to be careful about letting it out. We can just be in it together. And it was incredible.
I am so frustrated. I could write two thousand more words and I still couldn’t express it correctly. I just felt… bonded to them somehow. Like we are all carbon copies of one another. That we are twins. That we are soul mates. That every single one of us unconditionally loves the other just because we understand one another so completely. Because pain is pain, abuse is abuse. Once you go through it, you learn something about yourself. Most of the things you learn, unfortunately, are pretty unpleasant. And, it takes the luster out of life a little bit. You’ve seen how ugly the world can be, felt it in every fiber of your being, and it’s just not the same after that.
Imagine if you lived in a world where everyone saw in black and white, but no one really knew they couldn’t see color. And then, all of a sudden, this thing happens and you can suddenly see color in high-definition. And you can’t really share it with anyone because you could never accurately describe the way the color blue makes you feel, or green, or the many shades of orange. Lilac, hot pink, pale yellow, and silver. And then someone comes along and they see the colors, too. And you don’t really have to talk about it at all. You don’t talk about what the color red looks like or how it makes you feel, because you can just tell that it makes them feel exactly how you feel. If you want to talk about it, you can, and it’s more validating than any other conversation you could have.
And you look into their eyes and you see yourself reflected back from the inside out. Our souls… they are different now. Who we are… is different. And our souls recognize one another. We have been reaching out and hitting a wall. Of course, nothing replaces the support and love of a family and friends. But talking to another victim… it feels like belonging.
I remember after I left, I was on the verge of tears. I was so completely overwhelmed, like I felt like I was supposed to be a part of a secret club and I just stumbled upon them by accident. This is why people go to support groups and this is why they work. There’s nothing quite like sitting a room of people exactly like you and just looking at them validates everything you have ever felt, ever experienced, and ever feared.
On top of that, a woman I was talking to is on the Board of Directors and mentioned that they are looking for someone to join. Of course I told her immediately I wanted to do it. Meeting one day a month and making decisions about funding and organizing events? I want that. I want to speak at events. I want to speak in a health class to teenage girls and boys. I want to continue writing, and seeking out others. I want to communicate with people about the seriousness of this issue. I want to be a crisis prevention worker when I am ready to go there. Be on call for victims. Facilitate support groups. Get men and women talking about what has happened. I want to cry with them, and hold them, and tell them how strong they are. We give one another strength.
The reality is that it is way more common than anyone ever really thinks about. Just to throw a statistic out there – once every two minutes someone is sexually assaulted. It’s taken me forty-five minutes to write this much. Think about that. In the time that I have been writing this, TWENTY people have been sexually assaulted. Twenty. That’s most of the wait staff at my job, twice as many people in my math class, and my immediate and extended family. Just think about it. It’s horrifying.
But, we are not alone. None of us. We have our amazing support systems, and we have each other. I just… felt like I belonged there. That I was put there for a reason, that I need to take action, that it’s not enough to just belong, I need to extend those feelings out to someone else as well. I need to emotionally embrace them and look upon them the same way that those women looked at me, and cry out of relief.
It’s all very important. So important. It’s this thing attached to who I am, and for a long time I didn’t want it to define me, but after last night I have really believed that it’s okay and a good thing that it defines me. It defines me no more than any other thing. It defines me like the fact that I was in a bus accident at 14 defines me, or that time I fell out of a tree when I was a kid, or that time someone picked on me in middle school. It defines me the way that being born first defines me, the fact that I am left-handed, and that I like Pepsi instead of Coke. It’s just another thing that makes up who I am, but it’s the thing that a lot of people can’t relate to. Or, more sad than that, they have been through it but don’t wish to share it with me. Or, perhaps, they are somewhere else in their journey and do not feel they need it.
Regardless, I don’t feel like a freak anymore. I don’t feel like the damaged girl, nor do I feel like some broken woman. I am a victim of abuse and I am a survivor of abuse. And I welcome you into my heart.