‘. . . run as far as you can in the direction of your best and happiest dreams across the bridge that was built by your own desire to heal.’ ~Cheryl Strayed, Tiny Beautiful Things: Advice on Love and Life from Dear Sugar
I could be cleaning my house, running the sweeper, mopping the floors, dusting the furniture or balancing my checkbook; I could be in my kitchen putting pie crusts together, baking muffins, biscotti, scones and quiche. I could be doing my morning yoga practice, taking a walk outside in the crisp fall air following a night where a glorious moon beamed its beautiful light. Instead, I’m staring at my computer screen, heart racing, breath shallow, mind jumbled with flashbacks as I read through my Facebook feed; ‘Ray Rice’, ‘Domestic Violence’, Ignorant’, ‘Dumb’, ‘Effing Stupid’, ‘Married for the $40 million’, ‘She hit him first so it’s not abuse’ and the list goes on. And the truth is this: a small part of the reason women stay in bad relationships is because of these very words – used by both abusers and the observers standing along the sidelines – flinging these words with great intensity, but who have never walked this path. Part of the reason battered women stay is because of the shame.
My story isn’t that different from any of the thousands upon thousands of women sharing their own stories since the news broke about Ray Rice and his wife Janay. I come from a family where there was never, ever a time when my father hit or abused my mother – ever; my family is working-class, educated and well-read. But I found myself pregnant and married to a boy I believed with-all-my-17-year-old-heart I loved and I believed with-all-my-17-year-old-heart I could love him enough to erase his own unhappy childhood.
The first beating came one week after we were married; I don’t remember what the fight was about but I do remember the blinding light I saw when he punched me in the face with a closed fist. And I remember my pregnant body being yanked up by one arm and thrown across the room where I hit a brown-paneled wall and slumped to the yellow linoleum-tiled floor. I remember thinking if I fought back – if I hit him back, he would stop; he grabbed a brass lamp and beat me with it instead of his fist. As I wiped the blood from my split lip and now swollen shut black eye, I winced when I cradled my purple arm; he said he was sorry, that it would never happen again. I believed him.
Of course there were more bloodied lips, swollen-shut eyes, broken ribs, stabbings with knives, head-bashing against walls, doors and steering wheels of cars.‘You’re dumb’, ‘You’re stupid’, ‘You’re an effing bitch’, ‘You’re a whore’, ‘You should be thankful I married you because no one else would want you, you worthless piece of shit!’, ‘You shouldn’t have pushed me to my limit’, ‘It’s your own fault you’re getting hit, you say the stupidest things!’ ‘If you ever leave or try to leave me, I’ll hunt you down and I’ll kill you!’ ‘Baby, I’m sorry, it won’t happen again.’
By the time I finally left, I was the mother of two sons under the age of 2 and was being driven from my home in the middle of the night under a sheriff’s escort; the only possesions I took with me were the pajamas my infant sons were wearing, some makeup, disposable diapers and the clothes I was wearing. I never saw him again. I was 19 and a high-school dropout with no way to support myself and my children. At my divorce hearing, I asked the judge for sole custody with no visitation; the judge replied, ‘We know your husband doesn’t like you, but what about your children? I can’t withhold visitation just because he doesn’t like you.’
Women are 75% more likely to be killed when attempting to leave a batterer than if they stay; during one separation, my then-husband physically carried me out of the hospital where I worked while I fought, struggled and pleaded for help. Not one person moved. I went back to my husband because I believed I deserved being hit, I deserved the life I was living and that having a ‘normal’ life was not for women like me. And I still believed if I loved him enough, if I was good enough, smart enough, pretty enough, fill-in-the-blank-enough – he would love me back and the abuse would stop.
The physical and emotional scars are many and run deep; It’s taken years of therapy to uncover a mountain of reasons as to how I ended up married to an abuser. I have some of the answers but not all and on those occasions when I’ve spoken publicly to groups of women in shelters, I see the familiar look – ‘That’s your story but it’s not my story, my story will have a different ending than yours.’ They are correct – this is my story and no one else’s. Some of us die trying to get out. Some of us make it out alive, scarred and changed – some for better, some worse.
I’ve not watched the video – I don’t have to in order to know what’s on that clip. The comments I’ve read on the threads sting and feel as if I’m being punched again; some of you know me personally, some of you know me only via social media and some of you don’t know me at all – but most of you have no idea of my journey because it’s part of a past that I’m not proud of nor do I ever want to tell my story gratuitously, for the shock factor. As my sister-in-law said, ‘Janay Rice’s story is out there because he’s rich; for every story like hers, there must be a million others that never gets talked about.’
Shame is a hostage-taker, shame keeps us silent, shame keeps us in the dark and hidden . . . and shame comes in the form of words: ‘Ignorant’, ‘Dumb’, ‘Effing stupid’, ‘Married for the $40 million’ and so on. I am not a victim, but I am a survivor – and I will not be shamed anymore.
Dometic violence is a very, very complicated issue with no quick fix or easy answers. Choose your words carefully . . . someone in your circle may need you someday and those words you’re using? Those words have real power.