Dear abused woman,
I see you. You do your best to make everything seem OK, to close off the world to your pain. But I see you.
I see the slew of emotions splattered across your face like Pollock’s canvas. Dread. Fear. Shame. Anger. Perhaps confusion. I see the game face you try to mask those feelings with, and I think “that must be exhausting.”
I hear the pretense in your voice, as if letting one word roll off your tongue out of place would offend the recipient so much, they’d verbally slap you with their reply. Just like he does with his fists when you stand up to him. That they’ll tell you you’re worthless – just like he does. That they’ll say “no one cares about your stupid thoughts,” just like he does. That they’ll tell you you’re worthless, just like he does.
He’s likely been asserting his thoughts over yours for quite some time, and society indulges it.
Because let’s face it: if they president can grab women by their nether regions and still be respected, then what hope is there for women like you?
“Boys will be boys.”
Dear abused woman,
You try to hide the bruises. You wrap endless layers of makeup, clothing and denial around yourself, like King Tut in the tomb. But you are not dead to your feelings – you just bury them, deeply. Because if you let the tears bubble up like hot springs in your eyes, if you let the pain out, shoving it all back in will be next to impossible. Like rich men getting into heaven, like the camel fitting through the eye of the needle. You will fall apart; and there will be no stopping it.
Dear abused woman,
You tell yourself that the times when he’s affectionate are the only times you’re safe. But the reality is, even that isn’t sacred. He wants love when and how he wants it, and if you don’t give it to him then you must not love him. Your body is his playground, and you have no say in it. In God’s eyes you feel dirty, used and unloved. This leaves you with many messed up notions about your self worth and true love. You don’t realize that until years later, when you feel safe in the arms of somebody else and wonder why that makes you want to run.
Dear abused woman,
You hide all of this information from your friends, and it kills you. They tell you it’s not normal how much time you spend together. They lament the loss of their friend when you continuously ditch them to be with him, but the reality is he wouldn’t let you leave his sight no matter how hard you tried. You tell yourself they don’t understand. But one night, the night when you’ve finally had enough, they stay up all night with you and hold you while you cry. You don’t tell anybody else about what you’ve been through, because don’t yet know what it all means.
I know how much it hurts. I know how much you love him, how you thought he was the one. I know how kind and loving he was at the beginning, and how elated you were when he let that side show again in the thick of the madness. Despite the stack of cards against him, I know you remained hopeful you could change him, up until it became very clear he couldn’t be changed.
I know all of this because I used to be you. When I was young and vulnerable, I was wooed by an abuser, and I stayed long enough for it to alter my perception of the world. It wasn’t until things got physical that I knew something was wrong. One night, things escalated. He retaliated against me in a public place, and he hurt me. Not severely, but enough to scare me. I didn’t know why I was leaving, I just knew I had to leave. To this day I believe God was protecting me from the worst of the worst, and I’m forever thankful for what he put on my heart that day.
Dear abused woman, life after the breakup is the hardest. His outcries on social media depict your likeness with devil horns attached. He plays the victim to all your friends, ultimately convincing some of them that you’re the problem. He calls you crying, promising change, love, a trip to the moon and back if he thinks it will convince you. Maybe you fall for it, and the cycle continues. To him, he is the only victim here. He alone matters.
But if you resist, that’s when it gets scary. Perhaps he shows up, “coincidentally,” at your home, not saying anything but staring, menacingly. Perhaps you see him when you happen to be out in public, and he says horrible things about you just loud enough for you to hear it. Perhaps he blows up your phone with text, phone calls, messages on social media, bombarding you with the very abuse you fled.
Or, like my abuser, perhaps he threatens your life.
You’ll be getting ready for a football game with your best friend, and the phone rings. Your friend, who knows little about the abuse, answers. He asks to talk to you. He’s crying, but when you cut him off, he loses it. He says he’s nearby, and if he catches you dating someone else, you’ll be sorry. You hang up and cry, knowing you did the right thing. You wear a big coat to the game, hoping he doesn’t see you.
But once you’re free from his clutches, the battle is hardly over. Even if you don’t see him, you have to answer for his actions in every relationship you’ll ever be in. You have to explain why unannounced visits are unsettling. You have to explain why you’re constantly looking behind you when you’re walking alone, why you startle so easily. You have to explain why the faintest touches can reduce you to tears. You have to explain that you have never let another person into your world in any real way, because he taught you that’s how unsuspecting women get burned.
Dear abused woman, about three years ago, I told the story of a woman just like you. I was a journalist, and I’d just uncovered the grave injustice perpetrated against her. She’d been sexually assaulted and stalked by an ex intimate partner, and would stop at nothing until our school and other powers that be were held accountable for not protecting her. She has since filed a lawsuit against our school, and the school itself has since come under fire for several scandals involving sexual assault. It wasn’t until I looked into her eyes and heard her story that I truly saw myself and what I went through.
Before I met her, I didn’t truly know what oppression and anger was, even though I’d fallen victim to it. I didn’t understand how passionate and fearless people could be in the face of opposition. I didn’t understand how a gendered society created abusers with fragile egos, outward entitlement and abusive tendencies. I didn’t understand how the cycle of power and control traps people.
Before I met her, I didn’t hear the words of Gloria Steinem and Angela Davis and Rupi Kaur and Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie. I didn’t understand how women were taught to systematically devalue themselves before they even utter a word. I didn’t understand how it came to be that I had survived physical, verbal and sexual abuse without even realizing it, and how society had silenced me once I uncovered the truth. I didn’t know that the panic attacks and hypervigilance that ravaged my body and mind were symptoms of PTSD, a symptom of the trauma he thrust upon me. I didn’t know life apart from anxiety anymore. I didn’t know I could let go.
Before I met her, my career hadn’t even been born. Dear abused woman, I hope you find a person just like her. I hope she shows you that God has given you everything you need, and he will heal you and make you strong. I hope she shows you there’s hope on the other side. It’s a long road back, but women like us will walk that road with you.
Dear abused woman, it was women like you who inspired me. After my story ran, I changed careers immediately, volunteering for a nonprofit geared toward empowering women. When I was admitted to a graduate program to pursue my Master’s in Social Work, I was over the moon with joy. I was ready to help women empower themselves in any way I could. I was ready to help them start over, just as I had.
Dear abused woman, with time, there comes a better life. Once I understood what happened to me, I began the process of healing. It hasn’t been easy, but every step has been so beautiful and necessary. When I make steps in the right direction, my significant other encourages and supports me. When I’m in a deep hole with no end in sight, he listens and comforts me. He shows me what true love is, and I’m forever thankful. When I meet other women who endured abuse like this, I don’t apologize and run to the bathroom to cry anymore. I beam with pride internally and find solidarity in our strength, and I say,
“Thank you for sharing that with me.”
Dear abused woman, I have dedicated my life to advocating for women and children just like you. I hold a child’s hand as she testifies in court against the man who raped her. I answer crisis calls from women seeking shelter, a restraining order or just someone to vent to. I educate the loved ones of survivors about how they can help. It’s heavy sometimes, yes. But when I get those hugs from my child witnesses, when a woman tells me I gave her hope for the first time, I think,
“God put me on this earth to do this.”
And I cry, just a little, both with joy in their liberation and pain that they’ve had to suffer like me.
Dear abused woman, society doesn’t know how to treat you. Or women, for that matter. They silence you, making you feel like you have to apologize every time you open your mouth, as if the mere sound of your voice is offensive to their sexist ears. They tell you you’re most lovely when you’re weak, unsuspecting and pliable. When you’re making 78 cents to his dollar. When you compromise what you need to appeal to the desires of men.
They call you battered, victim, damaged goods. But what you are is a survivor. What you are is a warrior, a soldier, a David in the face of Goliath. That Goliath is your abuser, your world, our society. And your slingshot will prevail.
Dear abused woman, our president doesn’t care about you. But I do. He wants to defund the grants that allow survivors like me to empower women like you to become survivors as well. Congress could gut our programs like a fish on a line – but mark my words, I will not surrender. I will answer your calls until I no longer have a job, and if that happens I will volunteer anyway. I have protested with thousands of other women, and I will continue to do so until I’m crippled or in handcuffs. I will channel the spirit of the women who came before me, fighting battles we shouldn’t have to fight in 2017. My God teaches me to fight for the oppressed, and I’ve got on his full armor to do so.
They don’t listen, so I will. They’re fighting, so I’ll fight back. They stole your voice, so I’ll crush Ursula’s necklace under my heel and restore your chance to sing.
Dear survivor, I see you. I’ve walked where you’re walking. And I’ll never stop fighting for you.