Do Your Domestic Violence Survival Skills Measure Up?

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I sat on the stadium bleachers next to my boyfriend of six months on my birthday in the cool early November afternoon sun.  I had just finished performing the half time show with the color guard and marching band at our college football game. The week prior to my birthday had been amazing, it all started with me walking to my car after class, I opened the door to find a small stuffed story book bear dressed in a princess costume on the seat, along with a bottle of scented hand sanitizer, a skirt, and a note that said: “It is has been said that a birthday should be a week long affair. When you were born, you had a birthday suit on and after 20 years it has seen some wear and tear but it is still very young and beautiful. On your birthday you should receive something new to wear. Plus something to disinfect your hands after you touch me!!! This is the start of a week long birthday.”

Each day after that I had been showered with three gifts and a note, jewelry, clothes, other members of the story book bear collection and even a beautiful crocheted blanket with my name stitched in all my favorite colors.  It had been beautiful.  My boyfriend and I were sitting holding hands, and I expected no other gifts from him that day when all of the sudden his best friend walked up to me, kissed me on the cheek, and handed me a huge colored bouquet of flowers with tickets to Disney on Ice tucked into the leaves and walked away. I was stunned. I had no words; I simply turned to my boyfriend with a goofy grin on my face, kissed him and reveled in the attention of such a spectacle as I thanked him and bounced up and down in my seat.

My boyfriend knew how to make me feel special, there was one time where he woke me with a kiss and a red rose and a sweet note tied to the stem, saying: “The red rose is to compare your beauty to. The rose is a weed compared to your beauty.” He left me in bed and when I opened the door and walked out, there was another rose of a different color with an accompanying note on the floor, I picked it up and read it, and as I walked down the hall, I found another, and then one on each stair as I walked downstairs, each rose a different color with a note relating that color to me.

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I still have those notes in a scrapbook and dozens of other hand written notes my boyfriend, turned husband had given me over the years we had been together. We used to lay in bed together and tell each other our dreams, the kinds of cars we wanted to drive, the kinds of jobs we wanted to have, how our home would look and the toys we would one day own. We became pregnant and prepared for the birth of our baby together, he would rub my feet and rush to fulfill my crazy pregnancy cravings.  He rubbed and talked to my belly and we looked forward to the day our son would be born.

*****One year later******

I pulled my small Ford Escort into the empty, frozen parking lot and slowed to a stop in the stall closest to the door. As I shifted into park, I looked behind me at my one year old son in the back seat. I sighed deeply as I turned off the car, and didn’t allow myself to think as I climbed out into the light snowfall and headed straight for the trunk. I pulled out my only possessions, a diaper bag and a duffel bag stuffed with three days worth of clothes for myself and my son. I slung the bags over my shoulder as I shut the trunk and opened the back door. With the bags not allowing me to fully enter the back seat, I strained to reach the clasps and unbuckle my son and lift him out from the car seat. I successfully got him out of the car seat, shut the door and, careful not to slip, headed toward the building. It was a late Friday evening and Christmas was just three days away, I wasn’t even sure the building would still be open.

I hugged my baby in close to my chest to keep him from the cold and opened the swinging glass door. I shook my head and stomped my feet in the entryway to clear the snow and opened the second set of doors. The building was old and poorly lit. I hardly paid attention to details as I walked up to the front desk. I couldn’t feel my feet touching the floor. My breath was suspended in my chest. My thoughts were frozen in my head. I felt like none of this was real. I felt like time had completely stopped. I couldn’t look the receptionist in the eye as I stammered. ‘I need shelter.’ Tears began pouring out of my eyes. I couldn’t hold them in any longer. I had no control over my sobbing. That’s when everything became a complete blur. I imagine she called for someone and asked me for details. A woman soon appeared to escort me into a locked down elevator with her key card. Four floors later the doors opened into a small reception area and I realized no one knew where I was.

I was all action. No thoughts. No emotions. The intake worker motioned for me to sit. I sat my son on the couch next to me and handed him the small elephant teething ring. I was handed paperwork and the receptionist ran down the rules of the shelter. Even though my thoughts were empty, my head felt full. I didn’t take in the words she was telling me. I just answered questions and signed papers. I had never operated from such a mechanical place before. I ignored my phone and tried my best to focus on what was going on. The receptionist showed me the small playroom, and offered to watch after my son while he played there. I spoke to the director. Answered more questions. I spoke to a male therapist. Filled out more paperwork. The receptionist gave me a tour of the small shelter and showed me my room. I was exhausted by this point. I put my son down in the strange crib, and crawled into the twin bed in my strange room.

And that’s how it started. That’s the story of the first few hours after I left my abuser. So many people ask all the time ‘Why doesn’t she just leave?’ My question for those people is are you willing and ready to walk away from everything in your life? Your home? All of your possessions? Your comfort zone? Your life as you know it? That’s what it takes. Not only do you have to walk away from the things (which of course are replaceable), you have to figure out how you’re going to make it on your own. This is perhaps the biggest reason women don’t leave. Trying to figure out how to afford a place to stay, how you’re going to take care of your children yourself. The divorce process. The courts. The visitation schedule. Trusting a court professional who you have never met and knows nothing about you or your family to make decisions about your life like how often you get to see your own children, what possessions you get to keep, and has the power to order things like custody evaluations and court ordered therapy. To them you are just another number, and just another case. They don’t know you or your life, and yet they make decisions that will affect the rest of it. And there is the abusers family to take into consideration as well.

Often times the abusers family stands behind the abuser. This is hard for a couple of reasons. Often times the abusers family does whatever they can to support and back up the abuser. For me, my ex husband’s family had much more money and social influence than myself or my family. This lead to fear of the unknown, and fear of their influence. It lead to standing up to people I once loved and doing what I felt was the right thing for my son even when they disagreed. I remember one of the first exchanges I had with my ex husband. Emotions were high and we agreed to exchange our son in a neutral location. This meant I had no support system. We met in the parking lot of the local Child Protective Services location. I pulled into the parking lot to find, not only my ex husband, but his father and brother. I found myself confronted by three men who were all much larger and more powerful than me. I kept my composure and exchanged our 13 month old son in the frozen parking lot. And on the other hand, I lost the relationships I had with his entire family. Over the past four years I had gotten to know and built up beautiful relationships with his family, and walking away from my ex, not only did I loose my home, my husband, and my possessions, but I also lost an entire family. Why doesn’t she just leave? The question is ridiculously simple as compared to the complexity of the actual situation.

Leaving is an act of faith.

 

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Hashtags to a Better World

I sat in the conference room with my peer managers. We had just finished discussing our workload and plans for the day and started talking about what was going on in our outside lives. This may seem like a waste of time to some, however it’s a great way to cultivate team building and creativity. Two of my peer managers had recently moved and were sharing similar stories of their moving experience. The old me would have sat in the corner and listened, saying nothing, afterall, my story isn’t just like ‘everyone else’.

When I moved into my home, I had practically nothing. I had a bed for my 10 year old, a dresser for myself, and our clothes. No other furniture, no kitchen supplies, no bed for myself, no couch, no kitchen table and chairs, no TV. All I had was a belief and hope that it would all work out. I posted on Facebook asking for things, and they came, some for free, and others at a cheap price, within a week, I had everything I needed for my house. For a full year after moving in to my home as I would walk around, I would feel an overwhelming gratitude and awe for all the things I now own. I have so much compared to what I had for the first seven years after I had left my abuser.

I spoke up. I shared my story. I shared it from a healed space. I wasn’t asking for pity or compliments. I was matter of fact and the conversation moved on. These are the stories those of us who have experienced abuse need to share. The more we share our stories of survival and perseverance, the more we stand up to stopping abuse.

#whyistayed

That is what is so beautiful about the hashtag movements that are happening in the domestic violence world. #whyistayed began in 2014 and it is still being used in tweets as recent as 3 days ago, #whyistayed is a way for those who have experienced abuse to help answer the most common question asked in the Domestic Violence world.

#metoo

The most recent domestic violence friendly hashtag #metoo has received a lot of attention. It is a simple and quick way for those of us who have experienced sexual abuse to stand together and speak up. It has reached 85 countries with over 1.7 million tweets (cbsnew.com).

#maybehedoesnthityou

This is a fantastic hashtag that brings to light other forms of abuse besides just physical. So many people think that just because they aren’t being hit, that it isn’t abuse. There are dozens of forms of abuse, and this hashtag which started in 2016 opens up the door to talk about it.

#likeagirl

This is a personal favorite of mine that started as an Always campaign in 2014. #likeagirl brings to light that we as a society have spoken down on the ability girls have to complete things, usual physical.  The more we use like a girl negatively, the more we continue to raise our daughters to see it as such. Changing the way we speak about ourselves, changes the way we view ourselves.

The more we speak out about domestic violence, the more light we shed on something that can only thrive so long as it stays hidden. Speak up and speak out. Change our conversations. Let’s end domestic violence together.

 

4 Responses to Fear and How to Overcome Triggers

“I’m not going to smile.” I teased. He just tried even harder.

“I like it when you smile.”

“Why?”

“Cause you’re beautiful when you smile.”

It had become a game now and I was choosing to be stubborn and not give in to letting him see me smile. It was not easy.

“I’m still pretty when I don’t smile.” I responded.

“Fine.” He said, switching tactics. “I didn’t want to see you smile anyway.” He playfully pulled his hand out of mine to illustrate his point. It was a fast and sudden movement.

I flinched. I glanced at him and hunched my shoulders as I looked away trying to hide my flinch.

“Do you flinch?” He asked.

Something in those words. In the fact that it was an obvious movement. I knew he had seen it, even though I had hoped he hadn’t.

“Are you okay?” He immediately inquired. “I’m worried because I have never seen you flinch like that.”

I felt the familiar feeling of anxiety and a panic attack as it began to flood through my body. I began breathing hard and tears rimmed my eyes.

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Fear and triggers. Not falling into the category myself, I don’t quite know for sure, but I would guess most people who say things like ‘Why doesn’t she just leave’ or ‘I would never let someone treat me like that’ have never been in an abusive situation and have no idea what it’s really like. So what it is really like? Why is leaving so hard? What is life like when you do finally leave?

In order to answer all those questions, it would take a lot of time and a lot more than one blog post. I’m just going to focus on two things for this post. Fear and triggers. Fear to explain why she doesn’t leave and triggers to explain what it’s like after.

Fear

Fear generally creates three responses in people, this dates back to cave men days when survival was our livelihood. Fight, flight or freeze. Most of us have heard of fight or flight.

Fight as a response in a domestic violence situation is least likely for a person experiencing abuse to react with, and if it is the reaction, it rarely turns out well. The man is generally the abuser and so generally the stronger of the two. Even then, when you are being physically attacked, fighting back when you are untrained proves to be difficult.

Flight is of course, when you run. Now running in the middle of a domestic violence explosion can be dangerous. It is in that moment that a person experiencing abuse is actually more likely to be killed. That response infuriates the abuser more, who is unwilling to give up his ‘property’.

Freeze is when you do nothing. And it is generally the safest response for the person being abused. The abuser doesn’t feel the threat of being left and doesn’t feel the tug to control the situation even more physically with someone who is fighting back.

Fix. When it comes to domestic violence I would like to add one more response to fear. And that is to fix. When your abuser is having their explosion sometimes doing all in your power to fix the situation is a great option. When an abuser is having their explosion they often are laser focused on whatever issue caused the explosion in the first place. The person who is experiencing abuse thinks if they can fix the situation, then it will diffuse their abuser.

In the middle of experiencing that fear, you’re one thought is survival. That’s all that matters. Present moment. Survival for you. Survival for your kids. The future does not even cross your mind. So often a person experiencing abuse lives from present moment to present moment just to survive.

Triggers

Even after leaving, it’s not an immediate release from your abuser. The memories of what they did can haunt you for years. Even when you do all you can to heal from the abuse. There are a few things to keep in mind when it comes to this healing.

Be patient with yourself. When it comes to healing from domestic violence, there is a lot to heal from. Every single instance of abuse leaves behind a little piece that needs to be healed from. There can be hundreds, there can the thousands. It can take days to heal from each instance, it can take years to heal from each instance. You can heal from several at once, or one a time. Whatever the case is, there is no set formula and no set time frame. Everyone is going to heal at different rates and in different ways. Allow yourself your journey. Don’t compare yourself to others. Be patient with yourself.

Face your trigger. When you’re ready, I challenge you to work through your trigger. I know it’s hard, and I know it’s more scary than anything you have ever done. I also know that you will be faced with it again and again until you work through it. Once you work through it, it will no longer haunt you. There truly is nothing to fear but fear itself. Fear is False Evidence Appearing Real.

Give yourself time. That said – facing your triggers, it’s okay to give yourself time before you face them. It’s okay to find that safe place, to create that safe haven around you, whether it be your own home, a job, a family, whatever that is. Feel that feeling of safe. Bask in safety’s glow. And when you’re ready, you will be granted the opportunities to heal and to be better. Just don’t let that safe haven become an excuse to never move foward. With every person who heals from a hurt, the propensity for others to also heal increases.

Search out tools. There are hundreds of tools out there you can search out and find that will help you to heal. Ask for help. There are free options. There are paid options. Here’s the thing. You can find these tools to either help you cope with situations as they come up, or to even help yourself heal from the situations before they ever pop up as triggers. You don’t always have to go through the discomfort of a trigger if you do the work yourself before hand. You may still have triggers pop up, but they will be fewer and further between.

The biggest message I want to get out there, is to stop asking ‘Why doesn’t she just leave?’ or saying ‘I would never let someone treat me like that.’ and instead ask what you can do to stop the cycle of abuse and say the words people don’t say. Talk about abuse. Talk about domestic violence. Teach each other a happier and healthier way to treat others and be treated.