Trigger warning: This article deals with issues of domestic violence.
After my divorce was finalized last year, I faced my darkest creative block yet. The plot for my first book remained unwritten, though not entirely undeveloped in my mind. Having long healed from the domestic violence that I had experienced during my marriage, I was in need of a new start. I had originally planned a six-month sabbatical in a Buddhist monastery, but a close friend implored me to stop hiding and to seek life. Unsure and unconfident, I flipped a coin and ended up here, at Columbia.
According to the National Coalition Against Domestic Violence, around 10 million individuals in the U.S. are physically abused by an intimate partner annually. Where certain members of groups like the LGBTQ community have managed to reclaim their narratives and introduce a new vocabulary into the mainstream to empower themselves, domestic violence survivors have not.
What are the narratives that enable a harmed person (HP), as I like to call myself, to transition into a boss person? For context, I came up with my own terms because I found the existing terms to be overly negative, leaving me a survivor rather than a surpasser.
The narrative of relationship violence changes the moment the “HP” gets a reality check and their journey to reclaiming their life truly begins.
Most HPs remember the moment at which they began to question their relationship—as a whole, but specifically in terms of the violence they’d experienced. “I love the abuser, hate the abuse,” is something social workers hear a lot. “Love” is the original WMD (want, word, and weapon of mass destruction) that every HP swears by until someone offers a reality check. Mine came from a Catholic priest in whom I had confided. I expected a pat on the back for sticking with my “marriage”—instead his response to me was like a slap in the face.
“Jesus already died for everyone’s sins, it’s not your job to die for your husband’s.”
I was stunned, until I realized—as recovered HPs eventually do—that self-sacrifice is not love. Social workers study and learn how to help others through this. The truth is, there are stages in and phases of relationship violence that survivors go through, and they are not the same for every person. Based on my experience, a HP has different needs at each stage, and there are a few, simple things that can be done to support them.
HPs often stay silent out of fear that they will be accused of lying. Many suffer from vocal paralysis if they have been kept silent long enough, and they feel shame about their relationship violence after the reality check. They may rely on their own resilience or look for support at this point to move on to the next stage.
I taped audio notes with my cellphone, because I knew I would never be able to speak up. I was too afraid of having my claims be dismissed, of being told “everyone says that,” a dismissal that is as hurtful as the abuse, and so I ensured I could back up my allegations.
In addition to other abuse, my abuser threw a vase at me. One man told me he had a coconut thrown at him while his three-year-old watched. Two girlfriends had an ashtray and a book thrown at them; a friend had a baseball trophy flung at his knee. All of us were told that we were worthless, unlovable, that we deserved to die; all of us contemplated suicide.
Actually, HPs often say similar things about their experiences with physical and verbal abuse because they have suffered similar invective and injury from abusers with similar mental health issues. Please don’t trample their hard-won courage with ignorant or insensitive statements, or worse, gossip about it.
And so, when comforting someone who has suffered from relationship violence, it’s also important to walk the line between compassion and pity. If a HP you know emerges from their vocal paralysis, please be mindful of your questions and reactions. Don’t ask, “Why would you stay with them?” Don’t let your body language convey anything but support and openness. Look them in the eyes, and listen to them—they will notice, appreciate that, and heal faster. Learn to walk the fine line between compassion and pity.
If you are dating or pursuing a HP, be gentle. If you are worried they are “damaged,” reckon and recognize: Do they smile, laugh, seem happy, and reciprocate your affection? If so, you’re on a good path. Don’t ask for their story; understand that it’s a process that can only be hastened by gentleness and love. Don’t obsess about their baggage or their past. HPs have boundaries that deserve respect.
If you’re a HP yourself, it’s important to find help. Resources exist in plentitude for you, so grab them. Nowhere else have I witnessed such professional support systems as on our campus. Regardless of your gender, sexual orientation, or preference, our counselors and support groups embrace your story. Your words can also help break someone’s silence and help to end this social evil.
Be boundless, and become a “Boss Person.” Fill that void left behind by the relationship violence with your passions, friendships, and cultural activities, all in abundance at Columbia. Even so-called rebounds can at times transform the HP into a BP. Mine was a social worker who became a close friend in our tiny hamlet. I was a shell of myself and was convinced that I had found my home in him.
The final transition every HP makes before transitioning into a BP is understanding what love really is. (There needs to be a class we can take on this topic because life is an expensive teacher.)
My rebound taught me that love heals, transforms, and empowers. It wasn’t until I received a touching note from him, after we broke up, that I stopped assuming that I could never be loved again because of my past. I was looking for a place to hide while he loved me genuinely. He saw through what I was and forced me to see where—and who—I could be.
Two years later, I moved from hiding behind social work in villages to the front row of fashion weeks as a print magazine editor, to recently live-tweeting a discussion with U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry as part of the Mashable Social Good Summit during the 2016 UN General Assembly week. My rebound was the only person who believed I could do all of this. He only later explained to me that he refused to tie me down to a lesser life.
Like all former HPs, I never imagined that life would go on. But it does, and you find yourself walking ahead and abandoning your baggage at the place you left. I look at Alma Mater and never regret my coin-toss decision to come to Columbia. Having moved on, I feel as if the domestic violence might as well as have been someone else’s past.
My rebound’s poetic note is not in my souvenir collection. As much as I cherished every word, I set fire to it because I am no longer the HP it was addressed to. I leave you with the closing verse that I read on my flight here and now gift you, HP or not:
“Rest afoot my angel, let your wings heal but don’t hesitate thence,
Because for those who can fly, their earth is the sky.”
The author is a social enterprise candidate at the School of Social Work.
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