Sometimes, I get involved in conversations that turn into a train wreck before my eyes. Not in the sense of me being neurotic, but having to keep myself on guard that I do not allow my obvious reaction of offense at something ridiculous said to me to turn into discernible indignation. Occasionally, if I am not careful, that indignation might just foster a bit of haughtiness to take over the tone of my voice and coat it with thick, viscous scorn so it sticks to the unwitting listener all the more.
This is not who I am, this is Kevin. And just because he unfortunately still kicks around in my head at times, it doesn’t mean I have to allow his voice out. Of course, the way he would say what I just said would be to “let the indignation cook.” I don’t use that phrase anymore, along with others, because it triggers the attitude I used to have when I was with him. And I find it hard to handle when I have to somehow work my way through others using them. (The joy of triggers, eh?) That attitude feels like one of someone drowning and struggling to pull themselves out of a whirlpool, all the while, a deviant little imp sits atop the rock crop kicking them back in, holding them down and then releasing the pressure on their head just in time, so they aren’t overtaken by blackness. I don’t like feeling his attitude displaying any signs of life at all. When something triggers me and makes me feel desperate, that is the exact image I get in my head of myself, and then I go into a nice, immobilizing panic attack.
I heard him say “poster child” before. Somewhere randomly tucked in between a long line of insults, as if I wouldn’t notice that this, too, was supposed to be an insult. As if I wouldn’t know that he was telling me that I was always going to be that way and doing anything to try to reverse it was a waste of time. That I should give up on ever being worth anything or even remotely better. So imagine when an unwitting soul, who I have to say I believe truly meant no harm by using this thing they just say out of habit, decided to tell me that I could be “like a poster child for domestic violence… or something.” I think I felt every vessel in my head pop at once. In my mind, I could see myself drinking the cocktail Eddie made for Roger Rabbit when the Judge came into the bar and was going to give him “the dip.” Only Eddie had to trick him into drinking it by using reverse psychology, and once Roger drank it, he blew his top, creating enough confusion so they could get away before the Judge and the Weasels composed themselves. Roger’s reaction usually left damage in its wake, and if you need to see the emotional impact it would have on me, these triggers, just picture the physical damage he left in the bar. (Now you know what it’s like for me to have to tolerate my triggers.)
Now imagine knowing you are having that forceful of an emotional reaction to something this person says to you unintentionally, without thinking, because they have no way of knowing that it just presses all your buttons at once, and you have to find a way to maintain your composure. What is your first reaction? What is the first thing out of your mouth? And how to do you keep yourself from releasing the firestorm of angst upon them you so just wish you could, just once, to get it off your chest? Do you tell them off and walk away, perhaps? This is not what I did. Do you put the mother of all guilt trips on them and stand there uncaring as they make no attempt to hide their confusion and hurt feelings? This is not what I did either. These are both Kevin tactics, tried and true, and I have about as much use for his tactics as I did his maltreatment.
No, I went another route. Not so much for their own comfort as it was to desperately try to keep my sanity intact. I belted out laughing so loud I think I blue-screened them. I could see the fatal exception error written all over their forehead as they tried to figure out how I could be laughing at what they said. They were being serious, and I laughed. Pretty much until I saw the attic was again inhabited.
When they came back to life, I looked at them and said, “I am not a poster child, and you couldn’t pay me to play one on TV.” They blinked.
“What’s wrong with what I said?”
Again I repeated, “I am not a poster child, and you couldn’t pay me to play one on TV.”
So then I had to ask them, “What do you think a poster child is?”
“An example for others.”
“What kind of example?”
“A warning, I guess.”
They sat back away from me, arms crossed, head turned away as though they were telling me they were finished. Is it just me or did the communication train veer off-course and smash through the “bridge out” sign, plummeting to the bottom of canyon and explode in a fiery ball of fury? Too vague for me to be satisfied. So, not one to give up, I persisted in my interrogation.
“Okay, how about this. You come off a bus, and you see a poster of a bruised and battered woman. What’s the first thing that comes to mind?”
They looked at me with unconcealed annoyance at my insistence of an explanation. But beware, if you are going to insult me, you need to allow me fair amount of time to establish my point as well. Fair is fair, and we are in Amy-land after all.
“She’s trapped in hell.”
Can’t object to that answer. Can you? Onward go the questions.
“If you had ten seconds to give me an off-the-cuff answer about the probability of her life improving based on that image alone, what would you say?”
“I don’t need ten seconds. She isn’t going to get out. She won’t leave.”
“So you’re saying you see her as forever stuck in that torment she is enduring, because all you know about her are the bruises splashed across her skin like blobs of paint? You can’t ever imagine her getting out? Ever? Tell me why.”
“Her choice. She stays. They always stay.”
At the very least, we survivors of domestic violence are dynamic, constantly changing, adapting, purging, and adapting again. By rule, the immense amounts of upheaval and work we have to do in order to rebuild our lives and find some peace and stability prohibit us as being labeled something so stagnate as “poster child.” The thought that who I am as a person now, even though I USED to be that woman in the PSA poster, can be seen by others as still being a victim, haunts me. Even by the standards of someone who has never been through an abusive relationship, I have completely metamorphosed into a new creature altogether. So how can this be?
I looked at them, silent for a moment. “Okay…. then what do you think of me? What if the woman you saw in the picture getting off the bus was me, who I used to be? Trapped in that hell, feeling like I had no way out but to die.”
“Why? It was me, just about a year ago. Bruised and swollen in places you didn’t know existed. Defeated, emptied, wasted, tired, used up, tread upon. And the most alone and desperate a human being can ever be. So why when you look at that poster can you not see my face?”
“Because, it doesn’t make sense. You just aren’t the type to stay in that.”
“You said yourself: ‘we never leave, we choose to stay.’ So what you mean when you say “poster child” is that no matter where we may be in our lives later on, people will always see us as the victim.”
“Well aren’t you?”
I sat silent and stared at them, waiting for them to connect the dots. Giving them the answers isn’t going to help them reason it out so they retain the lesson. The silence was so deafening that I could hear the gears turning and grinding away, and then the expression of “Eureka!” splashed across their face.
And there they finally got the point. We as survivors aren’t harbingers of some inescapable plight. We are not threats of violence that will descend upon your home. We are not warnings, and we are not trapped. We are walking messages of hope. Evidence that you don’t have to be trapped, that you can overcome the desperate fear of breaking the chains, that you can deafen the threats, that you can be strong, bold, and courageous, and you can get free. We are messages of encouragement and support that will sustain and motivate you through difficult times. We are beams of light leading out of the darkness. We are companions, sisters, daughters, brothers, sons, cousins, aunts, uncles, and friends. We are walking messages of lives rebuilt from utter waste and destruction. Shattered souls being renewed, hearts being healed. We are messages of hope that those who are still trapped, either in abuse or in the aftermath, that you will find your ground, establish yourself, heal, and even smile and laugh, dance and sing, live, hope, dream, and love, We are not freeze-frame images of desolation and suffering. We are not torn, broken, and bruised. We are hope. We are healing. We are love.
Not one to leave loose ends, I asked them for a few more minutes of their time so I can explain exactly who the PSA posters and commercials are truly for. Those PSA posters are not made for us as survivors to see. We don’t need photographic reminders of the shells we once were forced to be. Memories of that hurt and suffering can overflow in our heads for months and years to come. They are made for those of you who fail to see the elephant in the living room. For those who see it and recognize what is happening but still insist on turning away and leaving the one being abused to fend for themselves in an environment they truly are not equipped to handle or control, just merely exist on the most basic levels and languish alone.
They are made in a certain way to put an indelible image in your mind of our suffering, the isolation and entrapment. They are made deliberately to put a human face on the terror we endure every day. They are made for those who suspect abuse and don’t know where to go for help. They are made for those trapped in abuse to let them know they are not alone, and to help them scrape up enough courage, enough daring, enough hope for things to be different, and to have a place in their mind that they can reach out for help when they are lost and have no clue where to go.
They are reminders that as human beings, we all bear responsibility for the treatment and safety of one another. Some become so wrapped up in their own lives and minutia they blow out of proportion that they forget there are those whose lives just may be counting on them being there, taking notice of them, reaching back to that outstretched hand, and helping not because they are family. When it comes to distress of this level, even when the person trapped in this hell is a stranger, we should all have the compassion to drop the blinders and think of them instead as our closest friend and dearest relative, each one, every one, every time. It is your business as much as it is mine.
In this vein, I will never allow anyone (not even myself) think of me as a poster child. I am not a freeze frame of pain. Rather, I am a spokesperson for those who cannot yet speak, for those who are trying to speak but no one will listen. I also speak to my fellow advocates as co-survivors and heirs of the new hope for life we have outside those futile, dark, isolating prison walls with encouragement, love, compassion, kindness to help them keep their motivation to move forward. Even the strongest of us struggle, even the boldest of us can be temporarily overrun with fear and insecurity, self-doubt, and lack of trust. In this way, we continue to light the darkness with the gloriously blinding glare of life. Of hope. Of respectful and appreciative observance of all the lives that have been saved from the despair and in loving, gentle remembrance of those who were unable to be set free before losing their lives to this crime.
We are not poster children. We are light, hope, and love.