As survivors of domestic violence, once we pass the initial hurdle of finding that courage to leave our abuser, there are so many obstacles that we will face over the course of the next several years of our lives. The challenges we must overcome depend on so many factors, including but not limited to the duration, severity, and number of abuse methods employed against us, how each of us responds to stress, previous experience in environments rife with trauma, the amount of emotional damage left in its wake, physical injuries we sustained, and financial losses due to financial abuse. Above and beyond those is the support we do or do not receive once we have left.
Those around us, and really society in general, wrongly expect that because we’ve managed to extricate ourselves from the fetters of the abuser that we are no longer in danger and that, somehow, everything becomes innocent, light, and airy like fluffy kittens and puffy white clouds lazily meandering across a bright blue sky. Whether this ignorance stems from lack of personal experience or deliberate and willful ignorance matters not. What results from this is a hail storm of victim blaming and lack of support that in the first two years is particularly imperative if we are able to find our footing and begin the tedious work of healing. This type of environment is a breeding ground for shame and the shrinking back into silence that keeps many survivors from reaching our and sharing their stories. Because disclosing the abuse and talking about it is the only way we can face what we endured, come to the realization that it was abuse, and embark on a path of healing that wanders through years of our lives.
I find it indescribably sad how many of us wad up the traumas we survived into a tight little ball and force our stories of survival away in the darkest shadows because of shame. I say it’s sad, because instead of being aware of how perfectly we each serve as an example of strength, we recount it as weakness and evidence of worthlessness as human beings. We regard it as being something we need to turn away from as though it didn’t happen, because many of us feel that speaking about the abuse would only serve as evidence of how we failed in our role in the relationship. That need to hide this part of our lives in the deepest abyss possible didn’t just appear one day out of the blue. It was cultivated within us, and the person who first sewed the seed of deadly poison into us was the abuser themselves.
Whether or not we are aware of it, shame is introduced fairly early on. When the abuser uses their words to erode our confidence and self-esteem by constantly attacking a physical characteristic or a talent/ability repeatedly over the course of time, we become self-conscious of each thing the abuser focuses on to the point we obsessively, desperately compare ourselves to others and try to fix it. When we see that we cannot fix it, we try to hide it and apologize for it incessantly. We reason that something must be wrong with us. Over time it turns into a loss of confidence of our own value, but it’s really the poison of shame taking hold. Abusers will sow shame any way they can.
For example, my ex would constantly insult my family and where I came from because he knew it was an inroad to make me feel shame about my standards, values, and beliefs. He would constantly compare me to exes by graphically describing why particular parts of my body were disgusting to him and how they should look according to his previous girlfriends to cultivate shame about my worth as a woman. Things that he would initially claim to like about me would also be later attacked. He would persistently tell me that my knowledge and skills were useless and I shouldn’t brag about them, so over time, I would allow my embarrassment and shame over all the things I didn’t know (and felt that I should have known) keep from pursuing and talking about things that I had once seen as my strengths. In my case, these were things like writing and language, and he went after my writing ability and the Japanese the hardest. To get me to stop talking about them and sharing them, he would imply each time that I was doing both just to show off that I felt I was better than everyone else. Acknowledging accomplishments then, too, became impossible for me as they were linked inextricably to shame.
Later in the abuse, the shame campaign becomes overwhelming. Abusers will do things to us to cause us so much humiliation that we would not dare talk about it to anyone, nor would we feel confident revealing abuse because we would have assurance in our minds the abuser would immediately punish us by using one of these things against us to “prove we are lying” about the abuse. Some abusers force their victims to use drugs or engage in risky, unwanted sexual behaviors with others. Some, like my ex, encourage the victim to use physical punishments on their children that are abusive, cruel, and excessive. In my case, my ex did things to me that would cause great embarrassment as a woman had they been revealed to anyone else. Any protests made on my part always resulted in the same threat to silence me: “If you don’t shut up/If you ever do that again, I will humiliate you so bad in front of others, you’ll be so embarrassed you’ll kill yourself.” And this is why abusers introduce shame into our conditioning in such a relentless way: they know it buys our silence.
Once we leave, we carry that shame with us and in many ways perpetuate it on our own out of habit. Not only do we tend to not address certain issues, we often minimize what we do disclose to others by leaving out the more severe details, attempting to claim some of the blame for what happened, and placing our suffering last by saying what we lived through isn’t as bad as most. Beyond the blaming and shaming we heap on our own shoulders, how others respond to us sharing our stories has huge influence on our ability to shun shame and share our vulnerability with others. We each face victim blaming in contexts where we wouldn’t expect it. For many of us, this comes in the form of friends we had pre-abuse and our own family who exploit their connection with us to excuse horrible things they can say under the guise of “caring.” Time and time again, we are asked why we stayed, asked what we did to make the person react that way, accused of lying or exaggeration, and told to get over it. If the message those around us send is that we’re embellishing or whining or that it is our fault, all that will happen is that the shame we feel grows, and we are pressed into silence. The effect of victim blaming doubly impacts us by serving as “evidence” that our abuser was right. If these people in our lives now echo the same sentiment as the abuser, then why should we believe anything else other than we were the ones who were the problem in the relationship?
It is in this environment that some of us come to see “domestic violence survivor” as a dirty phrase, a title plagued with stigma that is not to be claimed. In some ways in the beginning I had partially subscribed to this, and I first covered it in an early post entitled Getting Personal. As I look back over the past three years of my life post-abuse, I wonder how and why being a survivor of abuse can become so stigmatized that those of us who are survivors of abuse often hesitate to claim it in regards to our own lives. In my own case, it wasn’t so much that I was ashamed that I had survived it but that in those early days I felt like I should have been smart enough to see it coming, that I should have been able to avoid it, and that because I could do neither, it meant that I was unworthy and at fault in some way, even though I recognized I was subjected to it by force. My own shame was a response to my self worth through the eyes of my ex.
What prompted me getting past that wall of shame was one too many instances of victim blaming by a family member whose last question of “How could someone so smart be so blind/stupid to get caught in that?” Emotionally, I was in chaotic place. I was distracted with my own self-blame and negative self-talk while at the same time trying to fight my ex’s evil voice booming and echoing in my head into silence, and then having to navigate those closest to me as they wagged their fingers in my face stuffing me full of those “how could you,” “why didn’t you,” and “how couldn’t you” questions we all detest. And I just had enough. I corrected them and have corrected everyone’s attempts to victim blame ever since. I have no shame, no embarrassment, and no humiliation over the abuse I survived, and as such, I feel I have a responsibility to continue to do so for all those who have not yet reached this point.
Three years ago, I was too overwhelmed trying to get by to believe that I would ever say this today (and mean it), but I am very proud to claim the title of Domestic Violence Survivor. I feel no shame to say I was abused. I feel no stigma to the survivor title, and I am not embarrassed, humiliated, or minimized by sharing my story. Why?
- I have irrefutable proof of my strength. I can look back at the 1,551 days of active physical abuse and see that it was truly something more than “survival mode” that got me through those horrific days, weeks, months, and years as they stretched out behind me. What power my ex brandished and exacted on me in the form of brutal physical punishment and emotional cruelty was no match for my persistence, resilience, and ability to endure despite the grave circumstances I faced. I woke up every morning knowing that day could be my last, and still I faced it. Fear or not. Desperation or not. Loneliness, hopelessness, pain, suffering, humiliation or not. In the face of all those things, I came out alive. I was never the weak one. My ex was.
- Victims, survivors, and outsiders alike can learn from my story. Victims can get proof it is possible to leave and rebuild a life, that it wasn’t their fault, that they didn’t deserve what was done to them, that they are worthy of being loved the way they deserve to be, and that there will be others on the other side of escaping to help them who will believe them and help get safe and start to heal. Survivors can see more examples of how it wasn’t just them, that it wasn’t their fault, and they can get the support they need to continue healing. Once they learn they can share with others who identify with their experiences, that is when the burden of shame begins to lighten. Our voices connecting is the greatest weapon against the devastation and futility of shame. Outsiders, or those who have not experienced abuse, can be alerted to the many signs that exist warning that a person is a potential abuser. They can take what they learn and share it with others while at the same time applying it in their own lives to help someone they care about or even themselves.
- I can acknowledge that to have been abused was to be mistreated against my will, and it wasn’t because of something I did. It wasn’t because the abuser was perpetuating abuse they lived as children, or because they are mentally ill, stressed, or abusing alcohol or drugs. It was because my ex chose to abuse me, and everything from the first word he spoke was a deliberate lie to prime me for the abuse. Not only that, I wasn’t the only one he abused, so my worth or lack of (in his eyes) had nothing to do with it. It was always him. Once I was able to let go of the self-blame, claiming title of survivor was no longer something mired by stigma.
- I have proof that I overcome the worst life has to throw at me. The first two years after leaving were the hardest, most tiring, frustrating, maddening, chaotic years of my life. My path was not littered but blocked entirely by mountainous obstacles, and over time I was able to wear them down into hills to make them passable. My life is far from perfect, but the worst of the damage is behind me, and I overcame that.
- The most important thing that makes me feel proud of being a domestic violence survivor is all the connections I have made to so many others who have found themselves facing similar circumstances. They need to know that much of my ability to move forward and stay encouraged even on days where I would preferred to not even get out of bed would not have been possible without any of them. It was through watching them work through their own damage, trauma, and obstacles that I gained a lot of my strength, and it is my hope that they know how amazing they are – each and every one of them. Their courage in sharing their stories so openly in the face of so much victim blaming and shaming has been an encouragement to me, and I feel honored to be in their circles.
To call myself a domestic violence survivor means to claim my own story and acknowledge that instead of one of weakness, humiliation, and suffering, it is one of strength, vulnerability, compassion, and love. And I think that is something to be proud of.
For those of you who are struggling with vulnerability and shame, I want to share a few talks by Brené Brown that have been integral in helping me work through some of the residual twisted thinking left from my abuse so I could continue to move forward not only on my healing path but to help others on theirs. She does not focus on abuse, but vulnerability and shame are deeply rooted in our experiences as victims and survivors of abuse, so much of what she shares will be helpful to you. On this, my third anniversary of freedom away from abuse, it is my hope that you will soon come to know that being a survivor of domestic violence is nothing to be shamed of. Take ownership of your strength and acknowledge how amazing, strong, and beautiful you are. It’s okay to take pride in surviving the devil. You are worth it, and I will keep telling you even after you believe it.
With love and support,