Dear abused woman,

 

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.

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At the Women’s March in Detroit

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.

 

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Smack heard round the world – or maybe just the jungle gym

It was an average day on the playground.

Nine tiny humans, lined up and ready to go outside. I spent an ungodly amount of time zipping hot pink jackets, putting on gloves and general child wrangling. Once I let them all loose in the courtyard, the fun began.

There’s a set of twins in my class, and to put it mildly they’ve put me through the wringer. One is sweet and sensitive, while the other is hyper, has a short attention span and some violent tendencies. This combination has the potential to become explosive quickly, and it often leaves me stressed, frustrated and exhausted.

These two were a part of my group, which combines with another

Some of my girls in their best princess attire.

Some of my girls in their best princess attire.

class on the playground in the late afternoon. So I signed my kids in for the other teaching assistants, said goodbye for the day and started to leave on my merry way.

Yes, it was an average day on the playground — that is, until it wasn’t. It all happened so quickly I almost missed it. But for reasons that soon will become clear, I’m glad I didn’t.

One twin hit the other in the face. This isn’t atypical by any means. Usually we attempt to separate them so we can assess the problem and discipline further.  But this time, the hitter just wasn’t having it and darted across the grass like a Jack Russell chasing a shiny red frisbee.

Before I could even get a “come back!” out of my mouth, the errant child had been tackled to the ground by three other 4-year-olds.

“You were NOT listening to Miss Katie!” one shouted sternly.

“We GOT you!” another declared. They high-fived, gave speechless me a hug and went about their business as usual.

Once I got over the shock of it all, My mind was racing. “My kids just stood up for me. My kids are on my side. MY KIDS AREN’T TRYING TO KILL ME.”

Suddenly, it dawned on me. Although at times they exasperate me to no end, my kids have hearts of gold.

Disclaimer: OBVIOUSLY I teach my class that violence is not the answer, and I explained that while I appreciated their help, it’s not OK to tackle people. But on the inside I was screaming with joy.

We as adults are often quick to lose our patience with kids. We think logically (for the most part), and their growing brains don’t have the cognitive functioning to embody our ideology just yet. I’ll admit, there are times when I lose it. But this was one of those rare moments that helped me realize that with kids, some of the biggest annoyances also can manifest as their most powerful strengths.

Really, it’s true. The typical 4-year-old sees black and white, right and wrong, and nothing in between. While concrete thinking is typical of their age (and at times a major pain in the you-know-what), it can bring blind, unwavering loyalty toward the people they care about. While they didn’t display their loyalty in the most respectable  way, today they showed their loyalty to me. And I’m not one to discount such acts.

As silly and neurotic as it might be, my kids inspired me today. They helped me look past all the times I got annoyed when they took too long to get their snow boots on. I saw beyond the nap time debacles and messy snacks and just saw my kids.

My kids – the kids who made Christmas cards for elderly people in nursing homes because they didn’t want them to feel alone during the holidays. The kids who problem solve on their own when they all want to wear the Princess Elsa dress for the day. The kids who are fiercely independent, loyal, and with the right timing, sensitive and caring.

They’re my kids, and I’m so lucky to have the opportunity to help them learn.  

Should I stay or should I go: navigating the part-time job Sahara

This is me on days when I need to channel my inner Christina Yang. You're welcome.

This is me on days when I need to channel my inner Christina Yang. You’re welcome.

There’s this dream I keep having, night after night. I’m working with a research team in a clinic, performing behavioral assessments on patients for a new study. Everyone’s calling me “Doctor” Abdilla, but not the white coat-wearing variety. They’re coming to me with all their questions, and I have all the answers.

In this dream, I’m wearing bookishly high-fashion glasses, and my cable-knit sweater is J. Crew (hey, scientists can adore fashion too!) I’m the Christina Yang of behavioral science, and I couldn’t be happier with my research.

Fast-forward, and our work has made national news, and by some miracle no reporter has messed it up or misquoted me (har-har, journalist friends). We’re nominated for awards, and other behavioral scientists across the globe know all about it.

…Ok, do me a favor and please pretend that’s not as nerdy as it sounds. Do that, and I’ll pretend it’s not a huge change of pace from my daily work: a teaching assistant at a preschool.

That’s right. At night I’m having these dreams, and during the day it is my sole duty to make sure my bustling four-year olds don’t murder or maim each other. At this point in my life, I’m standing at the crossroads between making the best of the situation or moving on to bigger and better things. Or, perhaps there’s a third option: making my current job bigger and better by finding it in myself to make it a positive experience.

Don’t get me wrong, I love my kids. Really, I do. When they don’t make me want to stab child-size pencils through my eyeballs, which is often, they’re adorable and sweet and fun.

This undertaking of mine – it’s sort of like that one couple everyone knows. They’ve been together forever, even though everyone except them seems to know it just isn’t working anymore. When it’s good it’s great, but when it’s bad, the whole world knows it. Yet they keep trying, hoping for a different outcome.

So instead of doing the same thing over and over, I’m trying to make some changes. And, like it does for many others, to me the challenge often feels like the riddle of the Sphinx. 

For the past few months I’ve searched for methods to make matters more interesting: reading books about cognitive restructuring, researching new methods of conflict resolution and assessing the progress of children with behavioral problems. None of these things are required for the job, but somehow it makes me feel like I’m contributing more than I was previously.

In other words, I’m looking for new ways to be challenged.

On its face the job should be simple, straightforward. But I am not a simple girl. Nor am I overly attached to the education system unless I’m talking about reforming it.

So reform it I shall. Through the eyes of my kids, I will make changes.

Although this blog might provide evidence to the contrary, I don’t think my needs are all that different from every other student my age. I want the stress and craziness of a full day’s work. I want a challenge. More than anything, I want the chance to put my skills to good use and prove myself as a competent, professional human being.

In other words, I want the life I most likely will have to wait until post-graduation to see and experience. At the moment, what I’m struggling with most is the discrepancy between what I want and what I’ve learned in the social work sector thus far.

But this is the career situation I signed up for. This is the delayed gratification I know will come. I knew this when I got into my first grad school. I’ve made my postgrad bed, but do I have to lie in it for so long?

Well for now, I just have to let it lie. But that doesn’t mean I can’t flip the pillows and see my job from a new perspective.

When working with kids, it’s so easy to let the microscopic transgressions overtake you. But instead of getting fed up and giving up, for the time being I’m taking on the challenge in stride and waiting for the next opportunity to learn.